The Ham Sandwich
“We’re out of turkey,” said the volunteer selling sandwiches in the cafeteria at the high school.
“Okay. What do you have left?” I asked.
“Ummm...only ham,” she replied, rifling through the rows of wrapped and labeled subs on the table.
“Okay, that’s fine,” I said, shrugging, and handed her a couple crumpled one-dollar bills as she slid a sandwich across the table to me.
I took my lunch and returned to the table with my teammates. As I began eating, my (now former) coach approached me. I nodded at him.
“Is that a ham sandwich?” he demanded suddenly with an odd grin on his face.
I drew a sharp breath in and recoiled, unsure of what he was going to say but dreading it nonetheless.
“Haha, you’re a bad Jew,” he joked.
“Hahaha..haha...ha,” I laughed back. My stomach dropped and I felt incredibly ashamed. Blinking back tears, I excused myself to the bathroom. I felt like my coach had caught me doing something horribly wrong, and I felt like a failure as a Jewish person, and a person in general.
Just a week or two earlier, I had missed school and practice for the High Holidays. Would my teammates now think I was a fake Jewish person for not making all the “right” choices all the time? I worried. Would people think I was betraying my heritage?
Looking back, I now know that the comment about my sandwich choice was an extremely inappropriate thing for a coach to say to a student. It was also just rude. But most of all, it capitalized on my outsider-ness. Being a Jewish student in an almost all–Christian school has been challenging. Having a person who didn’t understand what that was like question my identity was devastating. It made me feel like I didn’t belong in my school or Jewish community.
On that day, I didn’t feel inspired to follow Jewish law more closely. I felt invalid and humiliated. By writing this blog post about the incident, I hope to neutralize my lingering shame, and help others to be more sensitive.
If you’re not Jewish and you have an understanding of Judaism, good for you. But you need to use that knowledge to be a more tolerant and compassionate person. Don’t try to call Jewish people out or embarrass them. First of all, assumptions ignore the diversity of cultural customs and beliefs within Judaism. Moreover, you don’t know other people’s experiences and could make them feel excluded and isolated.
An important part of my identity and my family, Judaism influences how we act, speak, and think. We follow traditions, such as lighting Shabbat candles, celebrating holidays, and attending Jewish events in our community. We talk about our Jewish values, contemporary Jewish issues, and Jewish history. While I have been taught the laws of keeping kosher (kashrut), my family, like many others at our Conservative synagogue, doesn’t always observe all of them. This is how we practice Judaism. No one, Jewish or not, should tell us that our practice is wrong.
As I prepare to attend college next year and my religious observance becomes more of a personal decision than following my parents’ example, I hope to approach my Jewish life with thoughtfulness by trying new customs, learning from others, and maybe changing my views. However, I hope to never again encounter comments from anyone who would make me feel less-than. If I do, I will try to inform the speaker that their comment is inappropriate. Religion is a personal matter between me, my community, and whatever higher power or purpose I believe in. It’s not anyone else’s business to comment on what’s in my heart, my soul, and, yes, my sandwich.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Biskowitz, Sarah. "The Ham Sandwich." 2 November 2016. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 5, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/ham-sandwich>.