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The quintessential introductory question in San Francisco is “where are you from?” One of the biggest shocks of moving back to Louisville was realizing that the ice breaker here is “where did you go to high school?” I didn’t get it at first, but now understand that this question allows the average Louisvillian to find a connection to you using six or fewer social contacts. It’s that kind of town.

Jewish Louisville is even smaller. Here, as often as not, the question is “who are you?” And by “who are you?” they mean, “tell me who your family is so I can place you.” I, for example, have spent most of my life as “Pearl Wolfson’s granddaughter” or “Dave Kahn’s great-niece.”

I hadn’t really thought about the peculiar semantic construction that is “who are you” until very recently, when I have found myself on the asking side of it twice—one instance with happy anticipation and the other with palpable dread.

Happy first: When school began a month ago, I noticed that there was a new girl named Sophia in Simon’s class. The name caught my eye because I at first confused it with another of Simon’s classmates named Sofia. Noticing the different spelling was as far as I got until two nights ago, when I looked over the new school directory and came face to face with her last name, Koloms.

Boy did that sound familiar. Why? Wait a minute, did Bubbie and Zadie have friends by that name?  Well, last night at the KIP open house I at last had my chance to find out. While the other parents in the room introduced each other in the hilarious and sad preschool fashion (“I’m Greta’s dad” ; “I’m Rachel’s mom”), when I got to “Sophia’s Dad” I got down to business.

“I think we have a connection. Who are you?”

[Sophia’s dad knew exactly what I was asking.] “I’m not sure where to start.”

“Let’s start with me. I’m Pearl and Lester Wolfson’s granddaughter. Does that ring any bells?”

A few minutes later, we had arrived at our destination. His grandparents, Bob and Ruth Koloms, were dear friends with my Bubbie and Zadie.

Later, my mom would correct me. “Not dear friends. Best friends. My Dad just loved Bob Koloms, and Ruth was the only person that ever got away with calling your Bubbie “Pearlie”.

So there it is. The great-grandson of Lester and Pearl is in class and becoming friends with their best friends’ great-granddaughter. Someone call the shidduch macher.

Next up, dread: My cousin Michael (Dave Kahn’s grandson-in-law if you want to know “who he is”) was telling Matt about a Louisville klezmer band a week or so ago. I don’t know if the context was Michael playing with them or suggesting that they needed a bass player (and oh dear heaven, I cannot picture anything more hilarious or improbable than Matt playing bass in a klezmer band).

Whichever, it lead Matt to the band’s Facebook page, whereupon he noticed that one of the musicians was Micah Na’aman.*

“Na’aman” is a name that makes my pulse race and my palms sweat. Mrs. Yehuda H. Na’aman was my Hebrew School teacher in sixth grade, and she made my life a living hell that year. The moment I will never forget is the day when I was reading out loud, feeling self-conscious, and stumbling over my words.

“Go on Yocheved!” she shrieked at me. “What’s your problem? Are you stupid?”

And then she grabbed a piece a chalk and threw it at me.

I don’t use the word hate lightly, but I hated that woman and have no remorse about it. She earned every bit of my enmity by making me feel worse about myself at an awkward and vulnerable age, and she’s a large part of the reason that I viscerally hate my Hebrew name.

Meanwhile, Na’aman is not a common name in Louisville. Who was this Micah? Time to call my mom.

“Mom, who is Micah Na’aman. Is he related to that Na’aman?”

“Hang on, I’ll go ask Lawrence.”

That would be her boss (and the father of Simon’s teacher this year; I told you this town was small!), a man who seemingly knows everyone.

“Yes. It’s her son. But before you judge him, let me just tell you that Mrs. Na’aman was an old battle-axe, but everyone loved Mr. Na’aman. He was a dear man. Maybe this guy takes after his father… You know, now that I think about it, Mr. Na’aman must have had very little peace in that house….

Once I picked myself up off the floor, I explained to Matt that he must never, ever meet Micah Na’aman, at least not when I am around. Because when, not if, but when, the inevitable “Who are you?” question pops up, I have yet to frame an answer that I could repeat in polite company.

*Micah Na’aman is not the real name. For politeness’ sake, I had to choose between (barely) disguising the name or back-pedaling how much I hated the miserable old witch. I think we all which way I decided to go.

One Response to “Six (or Two) Degrees of Separation”

  1. Amanda says:

    I hear you. Ms. Keneally (may she rot in hell) my fifth grade teacher, used to lift boys out of their seats by their hair. I was okay because I was a girl, but man, she hated boys, and everyone was scared of her because she was a psycho. Nowadays she’d be sued out the ying yang, but for some reason in the 70s people put up with it. She was a piggy hag, and I hated her guts.

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