Every Sunday (as long as there is submitted content) I’ll be featuring a post from another cool blogger. Let me know if you’re interested in participating.
Today, our guest blogger talks about the meaning of “whiteness” and how it affects her as a Jewish person.
By: Lea Grover
I often marvel at how I managed to find myself married to such a white man. Not just a generally white man, but practically an Aryan prototype. You see, I’m Jewish, and if you ask just about any practicing Jew out there, Jewish is definitely not “white.”
During the years that built up the momentum of the Civil Rights Movement, this country was a lousy place to be Jewish. Not only were we perceived “Christ Killers,” living in one nation under a purportedly Christian God, we were also part of the international Communist conspiracy. Synagogues were burnt to the ground, Jews beaten in the street, families red-lined out of neighborhoods…When Dr. King talked about a future where people were judged for the content of their character, that spoke to Jews living in the slums of Brooklyn as much as people suffering under Jim Crow.
I grew up listening to stories from my grandpa Stan, who taught at Wilburforce University in Ohio, bringing the first group of African American students on a service-learning trip to the Middle East. They spent the summer working on a Kibbutz in Israel. I grew up hearing stories of my mother’s teachers, forcing children to shun her and ignore her when she was very little, because, “Trina is a Jew, and the Jews killed Jesus.” I was ten years old before I learned that Jews were allowed to be teachers in public school. I had never encountered a Jewish adult in that world before. In college, a Jewish friend took a road trip through the deep south and was asked where her horns were. When I was in my early twenties, I went to a wedding with a white boyfriend. When his grandmother learned that I was Jewish, she LITERALLY turned up her nose at me and walked away.
As you can imagine, my dating white guys was problematic for my parents. As progressive and accepting as they are, and always tried to be, they couldn’t accept that the cultural differences- CULTURAL, not religious- would sabotage any future we might have. But they only felt that way about white Christians. The first time I brought a black man home to meet my parents, a practicing Seventh Day Adventist, my father decided within a weekend that he would bestow his blessing on our future marriage. But when I brought my husband home, this six and a half foot tall Aryan specimen who is now the father of my children, I saw disappointment and grief written all over my parents’ faces.
In recent years, I’ve discovered a curious pattern. My white friends completely disagree with me. They tell me that being Jewish and being white are not mutually exclusive. But my black, Latino, Asian, and first generation immigrant friends have all agreed that being white is a culture, and along with other people of color, Jews are excluded.
And here’s the biggest litmus test for being white: Have you ever gone to meet a group of people, and have them tell you all about every other person they’ve ever met who was LIKE YOU? “Oh, I babysat once for a Jewish family, and they were very nice.” “There’s a professor who lives down the street, and he’s Jewish. Do you know him?” “I had a Jewish dentist. He did a very good job.” “Isn’t John Stewart Jewish?” There is an implicit understanding of other-ness. A sense that you are NOT one of them, regardless of how much they might otherwise seem like you.
Despite my parents’ fears, mixing cultural upbringings hasn’t had much of an impact on my marriage. The only issue we’ve found completely irreconcilable is Christmas. I insist that Christmas is a religious holiday, while my husband insists that it is secular.
Reflect on that for a moment- Christmas is secular. All of his major points are correct on this- the celebration of Christmas across the United States has nothing to do directly with Jesus. It’s all about presents, Santa Claus, and family… unless of course you’re not part of general culture. Then suddenly it’s about having to squeeze in your own holidays around a schedule that ignores them, the public trains blasting pop versions of Christmas carols during your commute, and visiting family during a totally arbitrary week that you all happen to have off at the same time. (Never mind that you never, EVER get Yom Kippur or Passover off from work or school.)
Last year, my mother-in-law asked me over Christmas dinner what my family did for Christmas when I was a kid. Did we all go to the movies and get Chinese food? During a very tense, awkward moment, I had to explain that I didn’t really know what we did for Christmas. Sure, we probably went to the movies and had Chinese food if Christmas was on a Friday or Saturday, because there was nothing better to do, because EVERYTHING ELSE was closed. And for us, it was just another Friday or Saturday night… because we just don’t care about Christmas. Try saying those words over a family Christmas dinner and just see what happens.
Last week the Jewish population of the world celebrated Purim. It’s not a high holy day, and it doesn’t correspond to any Christian holidays, so I find that most Christians have never heard of it. They know the story- it’s right there in the Old Testament: The Book of Esther. What they don’t know is that it’s the biggest party holiday on the Jewish calendar. Truly. Traditional celebration includes wearing costumes, getting as drunk as you can, and making enough noise to erase a certain name, “…from the memory of men.” You’d think that, like the nearby holiday of St. Patrick’s Day, this is the sort of event that everyone would want in on. Drinking? Noisemaking? Wearing skimpy costumes? Plus there are COOKIES? Shouldn’t everyone want to sign up?
But that’s never going to happen. As long as there are Passion Plays, a “secular” Christmas that includes nativity scenes in front of City Halls, and Easter Egg hunts at public schools, Jewish culture and white culture cannot occupy that same mutually exclusive space.
For us, that’s like flying the Confederate Flag over the State Capitol.
My daughters will grow up going to Hebrew school, not for the religious education but for the CULTURAL one. They’ll grow up knowing, like all Jews who grew up remotely in the faith, six thousand years of history that they will consider deeply personal. They’ll know during what centuries and in what continents Jews were allowed to live in peace. They’ll reach adulthood with the knowledge that their family fled the Spanish Inquisition over five hundred years ago, that a thousand years before that they fled the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, that hundreds of years before that they lived in Persia. That their great-great grandparents fled to this country, and all their ancestors who were left behind perished in Treblinka- along with nearly 900,000 thousand other human being with that shared history.
They’ll also grow up having Christmases as Grandma’s house, looking for Easter Eggs in the suburbs, and singing Christmas songs at their public school concerts. But I know that culturally, they’ll be Jews like me. Anyone growing up with an understanding of an imbedded and continuing other-ness can’t help but be not quite white.
We Jews are good at “passing” for white, and it’s a skill we have cultivated desperately. With so much history of persecution and violence, during the last chunk of the 20th century passing for white was one of the safest things we could do. And the latter part of the 20th century was one of the safest places and times for Jews in their 6000 year history.
These days, as with most forms of racism, anti-Semitism is relegated mostly to the older generations of Americans. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, and it doesn’t make at least THIS Jew any less sensitive to racism in all forms. Any time the growing anti-Muslim sentiment that’s been brewing slowly since 9/11 rears up, images vivid as memories of Kristalnacht flash before my eyes. “Never Again” doesn’t refer only to the Holocaust, it’s any violence towards any group, based on idiotic hate and fear.
So every time I have to fill out a form that asks my race, I always say other, or Jewish if I can get the chance. Because “Jewish” is not “white.” If anything, it’s very pale Middle Eastern.
My children will pass for white better than I ever did, thanks to their über-Aryan father. But if the angry hoards come, as we Jews always fear they will again, it won’t matter. Passing isn’t actually being. It just lets you go unnoticed for a while.
A Few Words From the Author
There’s an ancient Chinese curse I once heard, “May you have an interesting life.” It’s possible that instead of simply hearing it, I was actually being smitten. My life has been, in a word, interesting. Once a Renaissance Woman with a pot in every fire, I now try to keep myself content to be merely a mother of twins, a gourmet chef, a master painter, and a fashion designer while finally completing my bachelor’s degree. You can find me filling my few free moments by blogging about such topics as child rearing, cooking, keeping my thumb green, maintaining a dual-religion family life, keeping us all healthy despite unending obstacles, and generally trying to be a modern day Bohemian Donna Reed.