How would you describe…

by johnmccreery

someone who said, “What’s a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn like me doing singing a mass in Japanese at the Vatican”? If this were all you knew about him?

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14 Comments to “How would you describe…”

  1. I think the word would be “catholic”, surely 🙂

  2. No. To the best of my knowledge the self-description is perfectly accurate. May be a non-observant Jew but is certainly not Catholic.

  3. Would it make a difference if I rephrased the question and asked you to imagine how this person arrived in this situation?

  4. No, not ‘Catholic’, ‘catholic’, the difference is all-important. Dammit I hate having to explain my puns, I apologise for perpetrating a pun that needed explaining.

  5. “Born in a simple log cabin in the Great American Wilderness of Brooklyn, Our Hero taught himself to read music by the light of the passing tail-lights and learned to sing by listening to the gentle hum of tires on the pavement ‘neath his window….”

  6. Seriously though, singing in Japanese at the Vatican has got to be one of the coolest things anyone I know has ever done.

  7. Jonathan, sorry I missed the lower case “c.” Now I get it .
    Carl, nice shift into a classic bit of American mythology.

    I was, however, albeit in a lighthearted way, wondering how you or your students would treat this if you took it to be a serious historiographical problem. Working on the assumption that every word in the quip is accurate, how would you go about explaining how a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn wound up singing a mass in Japanese at the Vatican? I am curious about the expectations that you,they, or anyone else here would bring to the exercise.

  8. Probably a Japanese Jew who immigrated to Brooklyn and converted to Catholicism. Perhaps a relative of Setsuzo Kotsuji.

  9. Nice try, but no cigar. Let’s see what others come up with.

  10. Jokes jokes jokes. I’ve been among various expatriate communities, here in the U.S., and in Poland, and my observation is that people end up in all kinds of places for all kinds of reasons, romantic ties not the least among them. People rarely live the life that they imagined, and frequently end up doing things that they least expect.

    I once met a drug-dealing English teacher from Oklahoma City at the Cafe Casa Blanca in Warsaw, after announcing at Cafe Casa Blanca that I was in need of some work. He needed a substitute teacher, and I ended up getting paid to tell jokes for a few weeks to two executives of a military electronics manufacturing firm in Warsaw.

  11. Now we are getting there. I don’t know the entire back story for the friend who made the quip with which this thread started. I suspect, however, that it goes something like this. The nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn graduated from Harvard, where he sang in the glee club, and got a job at a bank with offices in Tokyo to which he was posted. There he met and married a Japanese lady and joined the Roppongi Men’s Chorus (6dan) to which we both belong. He will be one of the 109 members of the chorus who, together with a 70-piece symphony orchestra will fly to Italy for performances at the Duomo in Milan and the Vatican next week.

    Reflecting on his and my own experience, I recall the reaction when my wife and I would visit my parents in Virginia and, in the spirit of filial piety, went with them to their Lutheran church on Sunday, where we would be introduced as “Our older son and his wife who live in Japan.” People would politely say, “That’s nice,” but there the conversation stopped. The distance between their experience and ours was too great to be bridged without more serious effort than either side was willing to invest in a casual encounter.

    In a more analytic vein, I observe how even Jacob’s joke involves certain basic assumptions: Japanese Jew, conversion to Catholicism, both are typical of explanations in terms of stereotyped identities. The explanation is constructed of a juxtaposition of ethnic labels followed by a conversion experience. Jonathan’s “catholic” is closer to the facts of the case, especially if used in the sense implicit in such phrases as “a man of catholic tastes,” where the implication is cosmopolitan attitude that does not deny ethnicity, religion, political party, gender or other similar categories but, instead, regards them in a measured and nuanced fashion, as possibilities instead of imperatives.

    My hypothesis is that these attitudes are so alien to the great majority of people that, if not unthinkable, they rarely spring to mind.

  12. [breaks bamboo stick, hurls it across room]

  13. I think you were more right the first time. It’s not that these attitudes are alien to most people, it’s that they’re not worth the investment of effort for most casual encounters. Anthropologists invest their attention and effort in high-density category nuances in the same way others invest them in their jobs. For most people therefore the function of stereotypes is to enable low-density interaction rituals that don’t distract too much from the business at hand, whatever that may be.

  14. On reflection, the not worth the effort for casual encounters thing sounds plausible. It fits nicely with homoeconomicus assumptions that people tend to behave in an instrumentally rational way. Is this, however, the end of the story? A familiar tale from evolutionary psychology suggests that we are predisposed to stereotype by neural mechanisms evolved to facilitate rapid response to threats. Studies of recognition-primed decision making (RPD , http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recognition_primed_decision) illustrate the importance of expertise in providing a richer array of plausible diagnoses and possible courses of action to those who must make quick decisions. Both suggest the hypothesis that without relevant training or experience people are likely to fall back on what seems worth the effort in familiar situations and conversely to find it difficult to imagine alternatives to the first things that come to mind, which themselves are a radically reduced set of what reality has to offer.

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