My valentine to American Jewish men
On Valentine’s Day, I’d like to sing the praises of American Jewish men. I’m aware it’s a rather large group, but that’s the point: The United States is a sea of plenty for Jewish men. Whereas in Britain, where I grew up, there are only about 300,000 Jews. If you remove married men, women and children, you’re left with enough eligible Jewish bachelors to inhabit a synagogue or two.
There are, however, millions of men in the U.K. who look like Benedict Cumberbatch or Hugh Grant. Lovely chaps, all of them, but none embodied the stocky, dark, curly-haired Jewish types I longed for when I was growing up in the 1970s. Think Paul Michael Glaser, the guy who played Starsky. Or Tony Curtis. There were some in my Hebrew school class in London, but few had that sass, that chutzpah I was after. They were aiming to be languid and vaguely ironic, like Jeremy Irons.
My first encounter with a real-life Jewish American boy came when I was 16. I was on a summer Israel tour, that rite of passage, and one night, on the shores of the Kinneret, I met Lance from Michigan. I’d never met a Lance before. Only Jeremys, Howards and Simons. It was thrilling. He was stocky, with a “Jewish nose” and thick hair. We flirted, I fell in love, he left on an Egged bus.
I was left with the confirmation that yes, such beings do exist in real life, and a deep knowledge that one day we would meet again and marry. (That knowledge proved to be illusory, but if anyone knows a Lance from Michigan who went to Israel in 1979, please pass on this story. Maybe our children could marry.)
I’m sure my attraction to American Jewish men was a factor 10 years later when, at 26, I decided to move to New York. I’d like to say it was because I had taken a job at the BBC’s New York bureau. But in fact it was just that I knew I’d be living in a world inhabited by Jewish guys. And so I was. I would walk down the street on the Upper West Side (with a particular viewing point outside Zabar’s) and clutch myself in excitement at the Jewish Adonises around me with their deep, soulful eyes on their expressive faces. Could you be my prince? How about you?
My dating pool suddenly expanded. Jewish men were everywhere: waiters, dentists, squash instructors. It constantly amazed me. I would meet a guy at a bar or a party and their last name would be Rosenbaum or Cohen. Definitely not Clemington-Smythe. My bubbe would have been proud. I was ecstatic.
It’s not like I hadn’t dated — or even been in love with — non-Jewish men in England. But I just found there was a level of comfort and warmth — heimischeness, if you will — with my Jewish tribesmen. And the American Jews also had an exotic assertiveness that thrilled me. They have a confidence in their manliness, in their heritage. They’re descended from the Jews who made it through harsh winters and pogroms in the shtetls. They’re risk takers and life embracers.
While it’s true that British Jewish men are descended from the same stock, more than a century of keeping your head down, fitting in and hoping no one will notice you’re avoiding the ham sandwiches at work doesn’t exactly make you want to stand out in a crowd. British society is wonderfully tolerant of multiculturalism — as long as you don’t make a fuss.
Jewish American men don’t try to assimilate. They don’t seem to rein in their mannerisms. They’re out and proud (at least in New York or Los Angeles). And they have broad shoulders and are, as my mother would say, “shtarkers” — they’re strong.
Of course, there’s the stereotype that Jewish men are nebbishy Woody Allen types — and some are! But what these men may lack in brawn, they make up for with their scintillating smarts. The few Jewish intellectuals in the U.K. stand out because of their rarity (Alain de Botton, Harold Pinter), while here you can find bespectacled Jewish men passionately expressing their views or fluently spinning bewitching tales everywhere in the media. Talk wonkery to me, Ezra Klein! Give me a driveway moment, Ira Glass! Paul Krugman, fill me with your finance talk! (Paul doesn’t wear glasses, but you get my point.)
One day seven years ago, after many years of happily wading through New York’s large Jewish dating pool, I was out for drinks with coworkers when one of the company’s vice presidents admitted to the crowd that he’d once considered becoming a rabbi.
I almost fell off my chair. This would have never happened in London. His name was Steve Holtzman. It was love at last name. The next day I rushed to talk to him. We compared notes on teenage years involved with Orthodox youth groups, and we’ve been together ever since.
Today, Steve shrugs off his Jewishness, but for me it continues to be part of the appeal. His maternal grandfather escaped the czar’s army by walking across Europe when he was 12. His father’s family comes from Pinsk. (I just like saying the word Pinsk). He’s smart, funny and cute. He has a big embrace. And a big heart.
So on this day of pagan/Christian celebration of love, I’d like to take this moment to make a toast to him — and to all American Jewish men. May you all continue to thrill this nice Jewish girl from London. And all Jewish girls, from wherever they are, throughout the decades to come.
(Suzanne Levy is a British-born writer and TV producer now living in Los Angeles.)