Monday, April 18, 2016

Hannah and Allie Talk Jewishness and Whiteness

Guest Blogger Hannah Gomez and Allie Jane Bruce. Thanks Lisa Nowlain for the images!
Allie:  Today we're joined by Hannah Gomez, a librarian, reviewer, WNDBer, blogger, and Deep Thinker.  Hannah, thank you so much for joining us for a conversation on Jewishness and Whiteness and how they intersect (or don’t) here at Reading While White.  We’re all so grateful.  And while this is a me-and-you conversation, I want to name at the outset that Sam is also Jewish--I’m not “the one” Jew on this crew!

I just started reading How Jews Became White Folks & What That Says About Race in America by Karen Brodkin.  I barely finished the Introduction, and already I’m like YES.  On p. 3, she differentiates between “ethnoracial assignment” and “ethnoracial identity”--the difference (if there is one) between how the world sees us, and how we see ourselves.  So here’s my question for you: How do these two concepts manifest in your life?

Hannah: Oh wow! I love new terms like that. I definitely think about that a lot, and how concerned I get when people misuse “race” and “ethnicity” as if they’re interchangeable (like how people seem uncomfortable with the word “sex” and use “gender,” even though those, too, are not the same!). Race is what you are, and it’s the biological* thing that you can’t shake - unless you have a LOT of money, you can’t really alter your appearance significantly enough. Ethnicity, though, is culturally based, and it can be chosen or rejected, held onto or forgotten. So I think Brodkin’s terms are similar.
I was adopted, so I can’t speak to all my family tree, but from what I know, I am not genetically descended from any branch of Jews. That said, I was raised by an Ashkenazi Jew as a Jew, and as such my ethnic and cultural upbringing were tied to American Ashkenazi culture--at least from my mom’s side. That being said, when I spout out the Yiddish terms that are 100% natural things to come out of my mouth, people find that jarring, because while my racial identity is technically biracial (half Black, half White), I am no Nella Larsen. I can’t pass, so what people see when they look at me is not all that I am. So my ethnoracial assignment, I guess, is Black, mixed, or of color - and in the US, I am assumed to be African American, at least by White and Black people. Latinx people, especially if they hear me speak Spanish, ask if I’m Cuban, Dominican, or something else Caribbean. My ethnoracial identity, though, has more pieces to it, and I didn’t grow up a part of a large African American community. I grew up in Tucson, and my father is Chicano, so my social surroundings were definitely more Chicana/o and Jewish than anything else.

I think that’s why I often get, especially from Jewish friends, the “compliment” that “Sometimes I forget you’re Black, because you’re just Hannah to me.”

*I know race is commonly described as not biological at all, and a total construction, but that’s a derailment used to excuse racism. Race is real because society made it so, and when I say here that it’s biological, I mean it’s the thing that, for the most part, manifests in your genes with regard to appearance.

Allie: Yikes.  I’m so sorry.  The density of insults-per-words is ridiculously high there--you’ve got “Being Black is bad,” “I’m going to casually erase a crucial component of your identity,” and “I deserve a medal for having said the previous two things.”

My mom’s side is Jewish (Ashkenazi, reform) too, but it was a much bigger part of her childhood than it ever was mine.  We did Christmas and Chanukah, Easter and Passover, and I remember eating apples and honey on Rosh Hashana, but that was pretty much it.  She definitely brought some cultural elements into the mix, though; she still has a compulsive need to feed people at every moment.  I refused to try lox over and over as a kid, bewildered as to how anything so bright and slimy could possibly taste good.  When I finally tried it as a teenager, something very deep in my gut said “this is RIGHT,” and I’ve been eating lox ever since.

I did a brief volunteer stint in Jackson, Mississippi, at an after-school program, and while I was there I felt a deep homesickness that often expressed itself as a longing for lox, which was not readily available.  Once, I drove half an hour to the one bagel place that advertised itself as having lox.  I was so excited--it was right there on the menu, “lox and bagel.”  I ordered it, repeating myself twice (the girl at the counter had never heard anyone order it before), and waited to savor it… only when it came, it was a bagel with veggie cream cheese, lettuce, tomato, and a piece of lox.  I was so upset.  I traded it in for the right combination: bagel, plain schmear, tomato, onion, and lox (they didn’t have capers), totally aware that I was probably fulfilling a stereotype as I insisted that veggie cream cheese and lettuce simply would not work.

I had a lot of interesting experiences in Mississippi, actually.  I was one of a few White volunteers at an after-school program that was 100% Black kids.  The kids were totally stunned when I revealed I was half Jewish.  When I left, a small group came to me and said “Miss Bruce, are you going back to Egypt?”  That’s a sharp contrast to here in New York, where everyone takes one glance at me and immediately knows I’m Jewish.  In retrospect (and with education) I’ve realized that I had no business being at that program in Mississippi; I would have served the world better by spending those months unpacking my own Whiteness.

Hannah: I refused to eat lox for the longest time, too! And I still won’t go near gefülte fish.

Allie: Me too!  I hate the stuff.  And the maror (bitter herbs) we have to eat on Passover.  I was usually the youngest at Seders, and I always wanted to ask, “Why on this night do I have to eat these damn herbs when I could be eating jellybeans?”

Hannah: Your point about unpacking your privilege only after performing some sort of community service or other “service” to the underprivileged speaks to me, too. I worked with low-income kids in a summer school program when I was done with college (and before, but in different settings) and didn’t realize until after I was done what a disservice I did them by assuming they all had internet access at home, interest in applying to fancy colleges, etc.

In my family, where my dad is Catholic, my mom is the Ashkenazi one but was raised a secular Jew, so we did the Christmas and Hanukkah thing, took off of school and work for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and had a (speedy) Passover seder. In college, I attempted to become more Jewish and even had a fellowship at Hillel and a Birthright trip, and looking back, I realize that it wasn’t really that I wanted to explore religion and theology but just that I was desperate to be accepted as a Real Jew since I couldn’t rely on “looking Jewish.” And I hated that whole year of college where I tried to do that. Now, although I went to Shabbat services with a friend once a month or so (she was converting, and I just wanted to try it out again) last year, I really find that secular Judaism, intellectual Judaism, and cultural Judaism are the only Jewish domains where I actually feel welcome and like my contributions, upbringing, and past experiences are valued without question. I work a few hours a week for our branch of PJ Library/PJ Our Way, and as a college student (prior to Hillel), I interned at our Jewish Federation. Whether I want to try religious Judaism or not, I am generally finding that the stares I get for not looking right, even to other Ashkenazi Jews, makes it not worth the hassle.

Allie: And that’s where we get into all this thorny business of race and Judaism and “looking Jewish.”  It’s so bizarre.  You are more educated in Judaism than I, and you’ve spent much more of your life practicing Judaism than I have.  And yet, I’ll bet if we stood next to each other and asked 10 people “which of us is Jewish?” 9 of them would point to me.  I have the complexion (light but tan skin coupled with dark hair) and especially the (dark, thick, curly) hair of a prototypical Ashkenazi Jewish person.

I’ve lived outside DC, in the midwest, in London, and in Mississippi, and I’ve never felt more Jewish than I do now--living in New York.  Everywhere else, I was another White person.  Here, I’m (often) a Jewish White person.  I’ve never had this experience before--I present as White AND as Jewish.  The one does not cancel the other out.

And here’s an interesting thing we share: The most hurtful experiences I’ve had that relate to my Judaism have come from other Jewish people, and it sounds like that’s true for you too (the ones who stare, or who’ll never really accept you as Jewish because of your Blackness).  For me, it’s the ones who call me a “fake Jew” or a “self-hating Jew” or “the wrong kind of Jew.”  Six days after I moved to New York, I went for a haircut, and the hairdresser (with whom I’d exchanged maybe 2 sentences) ran his fingers through my hair and proclaimed it to be “nice, thick, BEAUTIFUL Jewish hair!”  It’s hard to hear myself called a fake Jew after an experience like that.

Hannah: There are parallels here with skin tone politics and intragroup racism in the Black community too, but that’s a post for another time and another blog…

I guess what I’ll end with is that every time I look at it, I still come to the conclusion that I feel Jewish and am Jewish, and especially that my politics and ethics and intellect are Jewish, so I can’t not be Jewish. But I still haven’t found a way to be a part of a Jewish community (at least IRL; I have found like-minded internet friends and websites) where I don’t feel like I have to either perform or do a lot of catchup work to understand what’s going on. I don’t know that I’ll ever feel any differently given the many different spaces I’ve tried to enter and then left, but I certainly hope I will someday.

Allie: Thanks again for this conversation, Hannah. Let's continue it in the comments section.  Have a wonderful Passover!!

Sarah Hannah Gómez is a former school librarian and currently works as a freelance writer and editor, fitness instructor, and project leader at We Need Diverse Books. She lives in southern Arizona. Find her online at and on twitter @shgmclicious


Gail said...

As a white mom who is raising two children who are black, culturally Jewish, and adopted, this article meant a lot to me. I often wonder how my girls will navigate their numerous identities as they get older. Thanks so much.

Allie Jane Bruce said...

Thank you, Gail, for reading and commenting!

Sam Bloom said...

Allie and Hannah, thanks for letting us "listen in" on this fascinating conversation!

As you said, Allie, I'm a fellow member of the Jew Crew... though many Jews wouldn't see it that way. My dad grew up Jewish, had a bar mitzvah, the whole 9 yards; but my mom grew up Presbyterian. When I was a kid we went to a Unitarian Universalist Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana, but I actually grew up in a small town about a half hour outside of Fort Wayne. Despite its small size, there are (by my count) two Missionary churches in my hometown, so I spent a lot of my childhood being proselytized to. My parents allowed me to do my own thing in terms of church and religion, which I appreciate now, but when I was a kid I was pretty pissed at them; I wanted to fit in with my friends and wished I wasn't different.

Now that I'm married to a Jew I consider myself a *cultural* Jew. Hannah, I loved your comment on your piece for The Establishment (psst... if you're reading this, it's link up above in one of Hannah's sections. Go read it now, it's fabulous!) about your favorite things about Judaism. Looking at my childhood, it's not surprising to me that I chose to "become" a Jew as an adult: because as a Jew, you're not really supposed to proselytize. I was pretty traumatized by the pressure from friends to accept Christ into my heart and all of that, so I think I still get a weird feeling when someone I like and respect tells me they're Christian. (Please don't take offense, Christian friends/readers; I'm sure you're wonderful folks. It's something I'm dealing with and trying not to allow to control me!)

Gail and I found a Humanistic Temple here in Cincinnati that we really like. Just to give you an example, at one service our Rabbi gave a slideshow/talk about a recent trip he'd made to the Creation Museum (yes, that really is a place, and it really is close to us: in northern Kentucky near the airport) with one of his best friends, a local Catholic priest. The services do not include the word "God." It's right up our alley. BUT, we now have two African-American children, and there are no people of color (that I can recall) at Temple, so we've stopped going. As Gail said above, we worry about how the girls will juggle all those identities as they grow.

Thanks again for this discussion; can't wait to hear what other people have to say!

Shoshana said...

Thanks for this! Allie's statement about presenting as Jewish, in particular, got me thinking. I've been told that I "look Jewish" and that I don't (my coloring is a bit lighter than the stereotype)...but having a Hebrew name means that my Jewish heritage comes up in my first encounter with many of the people I meet. Even when people don't immediately recognize it as an indicator that I'm Jewish, they *do* immediately recognize that it's "from somewhere," which brings up the subject. So my Jewish identity (and to some degree, my identity among Jews as someone who can probably read Hebrew) is "on" me, if not quite visually, then the next step after visually. (But, of course, it's something I have a little more control over than I might over appearance.)

Reading While White said...

Thanks Hannah and Allie! And sorry I missed you in the Horn Book office, Hannah, but everyone should listen to her talk with Roger and Sian on The Horn Book Podcast :)
I'm curious about how both of your Jewish identities affected your reading lives as kids. My family (Jewish on both sides; Allie, I'll *see* your hair, and raise you) never attended synagogue, for example, but we have always done a full Seder every year, etc. etc. Growing up I loved those All-of-a-Kind Family girls and those B'nai Bagels, and I saw those books as mirrors... but only kinda-sorta because those Jewish experiences were so very different than mine. (And now that I have my own kids it add another layer...)
-Elissa Gershowitz
(submitted via email and published by RWW on Elissa's behalf)

Allie Jane Bruce said...

Hi Elissa! And totally agree--the podcast is definitely worth listening to, and not just because it includes a lovely shout-out to me :-)

I think, as a kid, I mostly thought of Jewish books as Books About The Holocaust because that's what I was exposed to (Devil's Arithmetic, Number the Stars, Anne Frank). I wish I'd had a wider range of stories. I didn't read Are You There God, It's Me Margaret until I was in college, and All-of-a-Kind Family post-college. Neither of them was really my cup of tea, but Hershel and the Hannukah Goblins by Kimmel and It Could Always Be Worse by Zemach certainly are. I also am a big fan of Twerp and Finding the Worm by Mark Goldblatt. And I'm sure I'm forgetting something else...

Erica S said...

Thanks for this.

The fact that I feel different from many of the other Jews I meet has made it obvious to me that even cultural stereotypes that are 100% true for some members of a group may or may not be even 1% true for other members of the same group. This understanding has been helpful in reminding me that everyone deserves to be seen beyond their surface appearance, beyond other's assumptions about their group/named identity, and beyond even their own assumptions about themselves.

I use our family's Passover seder to teach my children about the mental slavery of bigotry and how all of us are responsible for making the world a place of mutual respect, inclusion, and equity.

K T Horning said...

thanks for this enlightening dialogue, and the conversation that has followed it here.

I have a question for Hannah and Allie -- and for anyone else who identifies as Jewish. Do you feel Jews should be included or excluded from the definition of diversity. Most often, it seems, they are excluded. Why do you think that is, and should they be?

mclicious said...

Hey, thanks, all, for your supportive comments!

Elissa, I replied to your email but also want to reply here: I LOVED All-of-a-Kind Family growing up and read it over and over again, but I think I recognized it as more of a mirror for my mother and thus a beloved heritage object for me (and even for my mom, I think it was more that she knew it represented her own parents' upbringing, not hers) more than an actual mirror.

I realize that I and the Blooms' kids may be part of a *very* small group of black adopted secular Jews, and while the "niche" argument in diversity is generally a fallacy, it's understandable that there might not have been someone to write quite that story yet. So in the same way that I had to sigh and accept that Mildred Taylor and Christopher Paul Curtis were my only non-slavery, non-civil rights options for reading about black kids, I had to be happy with All-of-a-Kind Family (which is not torture) as my Jewish options.

KT - I feel iffy on this, mainly because my participation in the diversity Jedi, SJW, whatever you want to call it world is largely virtual, and my experience in the Jewish sector of that same world has not been all that positive. So on an entirely visceral and personal level, I don't really engage in that, but I recognize it for the petty, UTTERLY PERSONAL problem it is.

BUT. WRT this conversation with Allie in particular, I think the reason Judaism is sometimes excluded is because it tends to be characterized as almost exclusively white, American, Ashkenazi, and conservative. Or it's about the Holocaust. And the former does not feel, at least in my mind, as underrepresented as other marginalized groups, especially when it comes to #ownvoices work.

My mom, a Boomer who grew up with nothing but Sydney Taylor, disagrees, because she didn't even have the array that I had to choose from. And that's valid and important to recognize. I guess it's just that while I don't want to play Oppression Olympics, I think the fact that strides have been made in some areas maybe makes people want to leave it be for a little while in order to focus on some things that are far more behind.

That said, I don't think the DEFINITION should exclude Judaism. It's just that until the Jewish books that do come out recognize that Judaism is more than the characterization I noted above, until we have more books set in Ethiopia, in Israel, in India, in South Africa; until we have more books about interfaith families and Sephardic Jews; until we tell stories of conversos; until we use Jewish mythology and philosophy as underlying structures and systems in fantasy and science fiction (there are fantastic options in STARGLASS and HAMMER OF WITCHES, but then I think we're out of options); we haven't gotten down to what Jewish heritage and identity IS anyway.

So no, Judaism shouldn't be excluded. "Vaguely Christian" or "Christmas Christian" or whatever you may call it is still the same sort of default from which everyone else deviates in the same way the whiteness is. That's unacceptable. I just want Jews and non-Jews alike to recognize that what we've presented as "this is what Jewish is" is largely a single story, and we need to fix that.

Monica Edinger said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Monica Edinger said...

I think daily of the importance of recognizing that there is no single story. Many of my students are multi-racial, multi-ethnic. The other day we were filling out answer grids for standardized tests and some of these students were understandably stymied and frustrated at the optional question regarding race and ethnicity. As for religion, we have students who are mixed with one side being Jewish and the other of another ethnicity and/or race --- some being devote and some not.

I think of Julius Lester who was a prominent black activist during the Civil Rights era, a much-honored children's book writer, and is a very devote converted Jew.

I think of the Ethiopian Jews who immigrated to Israel and the racism they've experienced there. I think of others of color who have embraced aspects of Judaism or even all of it, yet are not necessarily considered Jews by other Jews.

I think (in respond to KT) of how uncomfortable I was with some of the discussion that occurred last year about Jews being part of We Need Diverse Books movement. While my German Jewish parents and relatives did indeed experience virulent anti-semitism in Nazi Germany, that is not something remotely true for white US Jews today. Observing the struggles some of my white Jewish colleagues had with this during a school equity training I wrote the following blog post:

I think of my own singular story as it has also made me who I am today. That while I am ethnically Jewish, I did not grow up in communities of Jews, did not practice any of the religion, nor was raised with the cultural markers that are often generalized as Jewish (e.g. lox:). Indeed, of any ethnicity mine was more German than anything else --- we lived there for several years so we spoke German, my mother cooked bratwurst, and sauerbraten, we celebrated Christmas and Easter, my sister and I wore dirndls that my mother thought were great.

I think of how I hadn't ever heard of Hanukkah until 4th grade when I went to some classes some MSU Jewish grad students gave, after pestering my parents to send me to Sunday school like my best friend (who I think was Presbyterian). There was I vaguely remember possibly one other Jewish kid in my class that year (and I only knew because of my sudden awareness that there was such a thing as religion).

I think of my first visit to a synagogue when I was in 6th grade and we had moved to St. Louis and my dad thought we should see what one was like. And I think of my incredible frustration when we moved to NYC when I was a teenager and was told forcefully by some classmates that as a Jew I was to act, behave, and believe a certain way. (Especially, infuriatingly to teen-me, about Israel.)

I give this all only to show how incredibly varied our stories are, be it Jewish of something else. And as a classroom teacher I see it daily as children response in such singular and varied ways to books. What works for one child of a particular background simply doesn't for another child with a seemly similar one.

Thanks for the conversation.

Allie Jane Bruce said...

Everyone, thank you so much for this conversation. I'll second what Hannah said about the need for more diversity within Jewish representations, and I'll urge everyone to check out the post Monica links to (one of my favorites).

Speaking from my own experience, I will only add that anti-Semitism and racism are very different, and should be talked about as such. Racism underlies the structures and systems on which the United States is built and currently functions; anti-Semitism as it exists today is largely interpersonal. And while Jewish does not necessarily equal White, being Jewish does not PRECLUDE one from being White the way it would have 100 years ago.

It's almost Pesach--have a good one, everyone!

Unknown said...

I've been thinking about what you wrote for a little while now, and I find myself uncomfortable with the idea that white Ashkenazi Jews have made enough progress vis-à-vis representation that we can let that be for a while. I'm a white Ashkenazi Jew, and I'm 40 years old. When I was a kid I *longed* for fictional representation, and all I found was All-of-a-kind Family (which is awesome) and Holocaust books (which were usually really about the good gentile friend of a Jewish kid who helps save him/her anyway). If things have radically changed in the past 25 years, and for all I know they might have, since my area of focus in children's lit is 19th and early 20th century, that's awesome...but it's still quite recent, and doesn't seem secure enough to me to say "OK, we don't need to worry about that anymore." I wouldn't take that progress for granted. Movement doesn't happen in only one direction, and if aren't vigilant, regression is as likely as progress, if not more so.

I'm also concerned about recognition. Holocaust books are *still* about good gentiles who rescue Jews (The Book Thief, for example, which gets rave reviews, but infuriates me as an apologia for German civilian complicity in the Holocaust). The biggest book with Jewish characters this year was The Hired Girl, in which a gentile girl learns that anti-Semitism is bad thanks to an infinitely tolerant Jewish family, and the Jewish character who expresses distrust of Christians is presented as less educated and unreasonable. It won the YA National Jewish Book Award, beating out, among others, Audacity, about Clara Lemlich. That really bothered me.

So of course I agree other groups, including non-Ashkenazi Jews need fierce(r) advocacy but I'm just not comfortable saying that even the most common representation of Jewish characters can now be left for a while.


Unknown said...

I completely agree that anti-Semitism as it exists today in the US (though all I'm familiar with are urban areas, so I don't think I can speak to other places) is largely interpersonal rather than structural; I don't know that I am comfortable that it will always remain that way--I still make mental plans about what to do in the (I know utterly unlikely) event my family and I have to flee. I think that the weight of history also affects many Jews' concept of their whiteness and security, and that matters in terms of how to think about anti-Semitism.


Unknown said...

Two things:

1) I just wanted to say that where I wrote "many Jews' concept," I should have written "the concept of many Jews I know," and I in no way meant to imply that Jews who disagree aren't really Jews, or that the majority of Jews agree with me, or anything like that. Given the above conversations, I thought that was important to say.

2) I can't find a "contact us" link, so I'm just going to put this here: am I the only person who has a really, really hard time commenting here? The site eats my comments, or it only previews them and refuses to publish them, repeatedly. It usually takes me around 3-5 attempts to get it to work for me...just FYI.


Allie Jane Bruce said...

Hi Veronica,

Thanks for commenting. I'll answer your #2 first by referring you to our FAQs, which includes our comments policy, and the rationale behind it, towards the bottom. It is a pain, and I know blogger can make you want to scream; I hope they fix the bugs that make it do that kind of thing, because as administrators, we've done all we can.

About your comment above--I don't want to dismiss the fear that makes you make mental plans to flee, because I don't want to dismiss the very real trauma that exists in Jewish history and psyches. I worry, though, that sometimes we mobilize that trauma in the service of denying the fact that (many of us) have access to white privilege.

The thing is, if someone "remarks" upon my hair (or touches it without my permission), or comes running up to me saying "Allie! Are you really Jewish??", or expresses another form of bigotry, it might hurt my feelings--it might even make me cry--but at the end of the day I go to sleep knowing that the systems at work in the United States to provide education, healthcare, housing, gainful employment, legal aid, and a thousand other things are working for me and not against me. To claim otherwise is to deny the very real experiences of people of color in this nation, experiences confirmed by statistics and stories every day.

At the end of the day, I think I can have a bigger impact on the world if I focus on the ways I oppress, rather than the ways I am oppressed (see my very first post [] on this blog if you want to read more about that rationale, which informs this entire blog). I hope this all makes sense, and thanks again for commenting.

Unknown said...

I think all that you say is correct (at least in my experience--though my experience is almost entirely in NYC, where I think I'm probably less likely to deal with any vestige of institutionalized anti-Semitism than anywhere else in the US), and I would never argue that Ashkenazi Jews in the US don't have white privilege. I just also think the weight of history means that addressing the way Jewish trauma is mobilized means acknowledging the basis of US Jewish residual fears and anxieties (I specify US because I think the very different history of Europe, for example, creates a very different climate)--as well as some current realities (I remember a dude shooting up a Jewish daycare when I was in my early 20s, and the radio talk show commenters who supported him, for example. I have a friend whose brother spent significant time in white-supremacist groups and has now left; he told his brother that while sure, they hated black people, it was really the Jews they loathed most, for another. Look at Mother Gothel in Disney's *Tangled* and tell me that's not an anti-Semitic representation, for a third). Because if we don't, not only does it do a disservice to Jews, but it also means that those who do mobilize it in the service of denying Jewish white privilege seem to be more understanding of Jewish experiences than those of us who wish to acknowledge Jewish white privilege. Because asking Ashkenazi Jews to just trust that, after hundreds and hundreds of years of persecution, dominant Christian cultures and nations can now be relied upon, is pretty much asking too much.

What I'm trying to say is that I think that acknowledging the trauma of anti-Semitism and the possibility of its return is part of understanding how some Jews commit themselves to social justice work as well as how some Jews take on reactionary, regressive political positions, and that due to that history, anti-Semitism is fundamentally different from, say, anti-Italian sentiment. I guess I also think that it's not a choice between focusing on the ways one oppresses and focusing on the ways one is oppressed. I think those things are interrelated, and that a nuanced understanding is the way to go.


Allie Jane Bruce said...

Hi Veronica,

I totally agree that we need a nuanced understanding, and I'll acknowledge that my own thinking is often too either/or rather than both/and. Yes. I think we need nuanced understandings of race, religion, culture, ethnicity, all of the above. Hannah and I were trying to explore where all of those identities intersect in regards to Judaism, but with a particular focus on race and whiteness, because that's what this blog is all about. You definitely make good points about the specific value of unpacking and examining trauma, both for individuals and for society at large. I'll continue to think and mull on those.

Incidentally, and not trying to drag this out, but FYI when I saw Mother Gothel in Tangled, I too immediately went to "what a horrible anti-Semitic stereotype!" in my head, but... in follow up conversations I had with friends, I encountered one person whose reaction was "Gee, why the Italian stereotype?" and one who said "Wait, she's an Indian mother stereotype!" so... maybe our own lenses are paramount in interpreting stereotypes. At any rate, I'm sure we can all agree that she's a horrific, sexist stereotype of motherhood.

Unknown said...

Thanks for your thoughtful responses, Allie! I just want to underscore that I'm very grateful for this blog and all the work you do, and particularly this conversation about Jewishness and race.


Erica S said...

Hello again.

Getting ready for our Passover Seder last week, I was doing some research to answer the question asked by one of my family members (who is African American, and as a child and teen lived in Brooklyn, with Orthodox Jewish landlords who dealt unfairly with his family & friends) about how any white Jews could conceivably claim to descended from slaves in Egypt...and I happened upon this blog that I think some other members might be interested to read:

If I understand correctly, the word for what he (Shais Rashon) writes about is the intersectionality of being Jewish and Black. Many of his blog posts echo what some have said here - except he is Orthodox, whereas it appears that many of the people posting here are (like me) Jewish-ish.

In my liberal, progressive, secular humanist Jewish family, many of us talk about Orthodox Jews with the same distance & lack of familiarity we would talk about right-wing, conservative Christians, or white supremacists. So I read those blog posts with a huge "Oh!" on my face.

Allie Jane Bruce said...

What a wonderful, thought-provoking, intelligent blog, Erica. Thank you so much for posting it here.

Unknown said...

whereas it appears that many of the people posting here are (like me) Jewish-ish.

Beside the point, I suppose, but I rather object to this characterization. I am an atheist, leftist Jew, but that doesn't make me only sort-of Jewish or less Jewish than my Conservative aunt and uncle, or Orthodox Jews. It makes me Jewish in a different way. I like to think of myself as following in the Jewish tradition of Emma Goldman.


Aviva said...

As an Orthodox Jewish public librarian, I've thought a lot about the relationship between my appearance and my life experiences. The town where I work is largely Korean and Turkish, and most of the kids I work with are first-generation Americans. As far as I know, they think of me as white. But when you're Orthodox, you're several steps further removed from "white American culture" (insofar as that is a thing) than most people realize. I view mainstream American culture from a distance, because my lifestyle and background are thoroughly other. I live in the northeast US, in a general area with a high number of Orthodox Jews, so on average people do recognize my name and my clothing for what they are: in other locations, I clearly don't fit it - but people don't necessarily know why.

I never saw myself represented in mainstream literature, because Orthodox Jews aren't present in it. And when they are, I inevitably find glaring inaccuracies, some benign and some harmful. Reading a couple of recent books with Orthodox main characters - but written by non-Jews or completely secular ones - made me really stop and think about the things I think I've "learned" from reading fiction about people from various places and cultures, and wonder how much was really true.

So I speak up when I see discussions of diverse books and serving diverse library populations because the experiences and needs of my community ARE different, regardless of whether or not people are aware of that based on appearances.

Allie Jane Bruce said...

Hi Aviva, thanks for sharing your experience--I love that this discussion is continuing. I am woefully unprepared to talk about anything Orthodox, and Hannah and I stayed pretty clear of that as well--so I'll just reiterate, thanks for sharing your experience.

Above, Erica Siskind references this blog: about the intersection of Orthodox Judaism and Blackness. Really powerful stuff.

I also have been thinking back to this wonderful article a lot lately... not in response to anyone in particular, just because the wheels are turning. There's a great list of books towards the end, too.