It’s a complicated time to be a Jew.* This wasn’t so a year ago. At least, not for me. Spiritually, it was easy. I’m a Buddhist, like many of the Jews I know. The synagogue had given me a parting mitzvah**: Inviting me to guide meditations on Yom Kippur at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue for many years was enough to get the blessing on meditation from Aunt Dorothy, and by extension the rest of the family. Culturally, I’ll always be Jewish. My anxiety a daily reminder, though well worth the rights to the jokes.
Culturally, I’m also White. I’m first generation White***. I’m the first in my family to walk around thinking that I’m White before thinking I’m Jewish. My mother was denied jobs because of her last name. That’s not been my story. And I look Jewish. The other day I described someone to a friend as more Jewish than me, and my friend exclaimed, “More Jewish than you?” I look very Jewish. Yet throughout most of my adult life I’d assumed that people thought of me as White before Jewish. I don’t assume that as much anymore.
Frequently, people are asking for my perspective as a Jew. It’s jarring, because that perspective is imposed upon me, rather than chosen, which happens to people of many racial/ethnic backgrounds. My unconscious mind is imposing that identity, too. In the first months after the election I had recurring Holocaust nightmares for the first time since childhood.
The Jewish conditioning runs deep. I started Sunday school at five, and I had a Jewish mother and grandmother from birth. Mom took Andrew and I to synagogue. Dad was never religiously Jewish—his father was Jewish, mother Episcopalian, and dad attended Unitarian church as a child. He briefly flirted with Catholicism before committing to cynicism. When I was seven and Andrew was five, we went to Disney World, and my memories are of Mickey, It’s a Small World, and dad constantly reminding us that Walt Disney was a Nazi (a charge dad would recount decades later).
There’s something about the resurgence of Nazis in national daily conversation that activates an alarm in me, probably most Jews. Growing up, Nazis were not far from household conversation. As I’ve written about before, my father taught me to believe that Republicans were secretly Nazis. I’d challenge him on that in my college and adult years, and on more than one occasion he’d stare at me with a look of fury, resolve, and contempt, and tell me, “Boy, they’d turn you into glue if they could.” I was raised to be spiritually Jewish, but I imagined myself to be White in the eyes of others. My father was raised spiritually Christian, but he imagined people saw him as a Jew. It was probably always complicated to be a Jew.
It’s historically unusual for the advantages of the mainstream to be offered to Jews, and even more unprecedented for Jews to accept such privileges****. Rejecting assimilation has traditionally been a Jewish thing. Modern connotation of Hannukah may be menorahs, presents, and Aunt Sally's latkes, but the holiday celebrates the Maccabees, a group of Zealots who would forcibly castrate any Jew who wanted to be Greek (the “White” of that age).
I think that after the Holocaust, the White people of that time felt so guilty that they offered many Jews the once-a-generation invitation to the White club, which included better access to education, jobs, and mortgages. I think after the Holocaust, most Jews were not in a position to turn the offer down. It’s important to note that Jews of color are still denied the privileges offered White Jews.
It can be frustrating for me when a White Jew (usually older) clings to the identity of being marginalized, and does not acknowledge the privileges of whiteness. I empathize, too, as comedy great (and likely child molester) Woody Allen***** well-articulated how many Jews imagine Christians view them:
Being marginalized has been central to Jewish identity for thousands of years, even if it is not as prevalent in present moment. It’s unreasonable for me to demand that conditioning to be unwound instantly. Yet it also seems true that the historical social, educational, and financial barriers to the advancement of Jews are largely removed in America, while such barrier still exist for many belonging to marginalized groups. When a Jew claims to be as oppressed as someone who is Black or Latinx, it at once seems inconsistent with reality and inextricable from their sense of self. Other times, Jews want the historic oppression to justify a pass when expressing bigoted views about people belonging to other ethnic/racial groups. The reemergence of Nazis in national conversation has emboldened these claims. I imagine it’s frustrating for them when people like me demand they acknowledge privilege while the deep cultural wounds of oppression are being jabbed.
Yet White Jews cannot renounce the trappings of whiteness, and thus we inherit the karma of whiteness. It’s a messy deal, but I don’t see a way out of it. As someone who wants to dismantle white supremacy, that means using the privilege to call out and redress oppression, including when that oppression is anti-Semitism. Holding the posture of a woke person enlightening the ignorant is likely to further entrench people in opposing positions and serve only the proliferation of contempt and conceit. Empathy is important. The White Jews who did not grow up thinking that they were White went through some shit that I never had to endure. That needs to be part of the conversation. Yet that does not exempt them from responsibility, and I will call upon my Jewish humor, resilience, stubbornness, and veracity to encourage White Jews to acknowledge whiteness, when appropriate. It may be a complicated time to be a Jew, but if that means clearing out more space for complexity in my heart, then it’s probably going to make me a better human being.
*It’s also a complicated time to be anybody
**Thanks to Rachel Ackoff for making that happen
***Term came out of a conversation with my friend Lil. I described the idea and Lil gave it the name.
****Reflection on this point came out of conversation with my friend Max
*****I no longer watch Woody Allen’s movies, because based on the evidence available, I think he’s a child molester, but this is the greatest visual articulation of othering Jews that I’m aware of.