|Guest Blogger Hannah Gomez and Allie Jane Bruce. Thanks Lisa Nowlain for the images!
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!!