How do they know I am Jewish?
Anti-Semitism has always been part of the Jewish experience. As familiar as I am with the topic, I have forever had one question on my mind: "How do they know that I am Jewish?" What role does positive or negative stereotyping play in being identified as a member of a particular group?
My last name is Pollard, but the original name was Polazcek. Both of my parents were born in Poland, and my father changed his family name to Pollard when they came to the USA in the late 1930s. Pollard is not recognized as a typical Jewish name. (The only others Pollards I have heard of were Michael J. Pollard, an actor of Polish heritage, and Jonathan Pollard, an intelligence analyst and a spy, who happened to be Jewish.) Except for my children and grandchildren, I have no relatives with the name Pollard. Pollards here in the South are often African-American.
I have several vignettes to recount in which people knew that I was Jewish even though I had never told them so. Four were positive, but one was an uncomfortable experience.
The most memorable episode involved my service in the U.S. Navy as a physician when I came aboard a naval ship during the Vietnam War as a young lieutenant on his way to Vietnam. I reported to the captain and first mate upon entering the ship. The first mate called the senior corpsman to show me to the sick bay (medical quarters) on board. As I walked away from the captain and first mate, I heard the first mate say to the captain, "We are in good shape now, captain, as we have a Jewish doctor on board." I had no idea how he knew I was Jewish because I was hand-carrying my naval record, and it did not state my religion.
After thirteen months overseas, I returned home and took my wife to New York City for her first time. It was Friday night, which is the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbos), and we were walking the streets of Manhattan near 69th and York, where I had spent a summer working at Cornell Medical School. An elderly man waved at me and said, "Kom sa her," which is Yiddish for "come here." He said to me, "Is by chance you are Jewish? Because I think you are." I answered with a resounding yes.
He told me that they had 11 men in their small shule (synagogue), which worked well for a minyan — a quorum of ten men over the age of 13, required for saying Kaddish, a prayer for the dead. Joey had gotten sick. He told me that Abe had taken Joey to the hospital, and now they had only nine. If I could stay for only twenty minutes, Abe would be back, and I could leave after they had said Kaddish. I made the tenth man for a minyan.
He took my wife upstairs to the mechitzah (a partition separating men and women during prayer in an orthodox synagogue). I sat downstairs. Twenty minutes later, Abe returned, and the gentleman told me that I was welcome to leave the shule.
When I first came to Atlanta in 1974, I started a clinic one half-day a week in the Fulton County Health Center. This was a pediatric ophthalmology clinic, where any child in the city could get free eye care by me. The city purchased the ophthalmology equipment, and I provided the exams and care. One day, the chief janitor came up to me and said, "You know, Dr. Pollard, that article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper today by Holocaust-deniers was not correct. I was in the army group that liberated several camps in Germany. I saw firsthand what they had done to your people." I was touched that he had taken the time to recount this experience to me. I had gone to that clinic for one half-day each week for three years. I talked to only the nurse who worked there, and after each clinic, I left. I never had even talked to another person in three years at the clinic except the nurse.
One Christmas Eve, I was operating at one of our hospitals here in Atlanta, and an African-American orderly with whom I had worked for many years brought my last patient down from the floor to the operating room. I wished John a merry Christmas for him and his family. He responded, "And Dr. Pollard, I hope you and your family have a wonderful Chanukah." Totally bewildered, I asked John how he knew I was Jewish. I was not wearing a Kippah or yarmulke (a skullcap worn in public by some observant Jewish men). I was not wearing a tsitzit (a garment with strings attached, also worn by observant Jewish men). I did not have Peyes (sidelocks) hanging over my ears. He told me that he was originally from New York City and not Atlanta, and that people from New York know who is Jewish, Italian, and even Catholic versus Protestant.
The last tale is not a very pretty one. I had just finished a three-month rotation on a cardiology ward as a senior medical student. It was the last day of the rotation, and the chief of cardiology invited me into his office. He told me that I had been one of the best students he had ever had the privilege of teaching, and he proceeded to offer me a residency in internal medicine to be followed by a fellowship in cardiology. I was floored by the offer, but, being upfront, I told him I had wanted all of my life to do something surgical. He looked at me with disdain and said, "All of you Jewish boys just want to make money!"
Being only 24 years old, I did not have the courage or the wherewithal to even answer him.
As a Jew, I have so much to be proud of. Also as a Jew, I am sensitive about stereotyping others, whether it be positive or negative. Over the years, there may have been many who didn't know I was Jewish, but I can only share that some people did. I still don't know how they knew, but they did. The bottom line is that one who is Jewish needs to be proud of being Jewish, because even if he does not admit to being Jewish, the world seems to know.