Sunday, April 18, 2010

White / Jewish

I found this great article on [Feministe] yesterday, and it led me to this article at [Racialicious] which then led me on a long journey of Wikipedia, Google, and random soft-drinks, rediscovering my own Jewish identity that has become -- for me, and many young American Jews -- submerged because of our need to assimilate.

In both these articles, the authors make mention of what it's like not to know what it means to be "Jewish".

For me, that was never a problem. I was always aware that I was/am Jewish. Maybe not what it meant, or why it mattered, but I never forgot. Nobody would let me.

Growing up I got picked on at school a lot for being Jewish (among other things). I remember playground taunts about the Holocaust being made-up, or beatings from kids who didn't like "smartass Jews", who'd then take my lunch money because "all Jews have lots of cash".

Even being called a "kike" became a normal part of my existence after a while. At first I didn't know what the name meant, but when I did... I got used to it in the same way that a dog gets used to being kicked, always flinching before the blow so that it lands easier. I'd maneuver ahead of the coming slur and say how I didn't mind, or that it was no big deal. The obvious problem was that I did this to avoid further humiliation or talk of being "Jewish", of being "different".

See, where I grew up, if you were cool with slurs, then you were cool in general. And if you took offense at them, well, then you were a fucking pansy, and over-sensitive.

Even now this still affects me profoundly when it comes to the use of language in bigotry. Racial slurs just don't bother me like they do other people, if only because I've had far worse done to me that name-calling seems almost welcome.

I remember my synagogue being tagged with graffiti, especially swastikas. I remember neo-Nazis at the beach would routinely chase me after an acquaintance who hung out with them let slip I was a Jew. I remember being excluded from Christmas celebrations at school -- and seated at my own "Hanukkah table" by myself to celebrate all alone. (Nobody bothered to notice that it wasn't even Hanukkah at the time.) I remember being admonished by my teachers in high school not to be depressed over break just because I couldn't have a Christmas. (Some even went so far as to give me patronizing extra-credit, for whateverfuckingreason.)

I remember the awkwardness of every Christian's attempt to convert me, to "save me" before my soul was condemned to Hell for rejecting the love of Jesus Christ. I remember Boyscouts, and having to leave eventually because I couldn't take one kid's constant antisemitic remarks about "kikes" and "greedy Jews" and those goddamn Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I remember during my time working with a band in Anaheim, and meeting black people who were members of the NOI (Nation of Islam) and how they'd glare at me, saying Jews are part of the "great white conspiracy" to enslave the black race. They'd quote Louis Farrakhan and tell me I was part of the "devil's people".

I remember so many sad and terrible things that I've pretended to forget, or just ignored as I moved forward in life. I've assimilated and stood out simultaneously. Both proud, and secretly afraid of my heritage, precisely because I know what it feels like to be oppressed... but I also know what it feels like to belong.

See, being white (via skin-color) means I can "pass". I can hide. I can be just another Moe on the block, and nobody would ever suspect if I just keep my head down and let the prejudice pass over me. But really, that's just pathetic; I'm too damn opinionated to assimilate. And besides, no matter how well I conformed, or hid myself, people would always remember, and if you stood out just a little bit I knew what was next: awkwardness and ignorance.

Nowadays I don't really care one way or the other about antisemitism. I've since learned the hard lesson that ignorance will grow in the absence of experience, and that only by living -- as best as I may -- can people see what I mean when I say, "I'm not white; I'm Jewish. I'm not a race; I'm part of a people."

 Those articles are the beginnings of what will be (for me) a reawakening of my own self-identity, both as "the other" and as someone hidden in the "mainstream". They are amazingly similar to many of my own thoughts & experiences, and I suggest ya'll check 'em out for further reading.


2 footnotes:

Anonymous said...

How do you think you would be different if you had grown up in a similar situation (the only Jewish kid) but without the anti-semitism? Im my grade schools people didn't really know or care about each other's religions, and our holiday activities always focused on Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa together.

I'm just wondering if you think it would've been preferable to have your Jewishness be considered "unimportant"--people wouldn't be mean to you for being a Jew, but I don't know if they would be really interested in learning about it from you specifically either. Well actually, I'm not sure--let me think...

Zek J Evets said...

i suppose i'd rather my jewishness was considered unimportant, just because it would have avoided a lot of the bad experiences i went through.

altogether, i think it depends on where/when you grew up as to whether religious, racial, or other categories will be an issue for you. for me, growing up in the 90's of socal, being admittedly jewish was probably both a blessing and a curse, depending on the situation.