“Is the cornsnake Jewish?”

This was a tough question to answer. I was visiting with the first-grade class taught by my then-girlfriend, who had introduced me to her students as “Farmer Josh”—and then thrust a large-ish cornsnake into my less-than-willing hands. The little ones crowded around me, and excitedly asked me questions about this miraculous creature, about which I unfortunately knew nothing. It was possible to bluff some expertise regarding the snake’s eating and grooming habits—but on the subject of its Jewishness, I was frankly stymied.

“Cornsnake” certainly sounded like a Jewish name—not so different from “Kornbluth,” really. Perhaps the Corn-snakes and the Kornbluths had even come from adjacent shtetls in the Old Country. And the animal did have an ambivalent air about it (another telltale sign of my people), alternately twisting around my wrist and trying to escape up a shirt-sleeve. But was it descended from Abraham, or merely...

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