Thinking about Jews and Race

Published Oct 14, 2010
Chicago protesting SB 1070

In May 2010, I visited Chicago for the weekend and stayed with Jenna Pollock (AVODAH New Orleans 08-09). While there, Jenna invited me to march with her to protest the racist implications and policies of Arizona’s SB 1070. We took the L to a large park and met Wendy Mironov (AVODAH Chicago 08-09). As we stood around waiting for the march to begin, listening to megaphones blaring and eating exotically-flavored popsicles, I realized that we were three ‘white’ women in a sea of Latinos. As we began to march, we were handed signs stating “Nosotros Trabajamos Fuerte Por America (We Work Hard for America)”, and we joined the crowd in chanting “¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!

I was proud to march that day alongside Chicago’s Latino community with two powerful AVODAH alums. As we walked and shouted, though, my skin color was on my mind; I was a visible minority, yet I had the luxury of reflecting on my discomfort thoughtfully, rather than feeling defensive or aggressed. This sensation accompanies me in New Orleans as well, where – at second lines or in various neighborhoods – my skin color announces that I’m an outsider. But this is always a temporary break in normality: almost everywhere that I go, I ‘pass’ or ‘fit in’, whether due to my skin tone, education, socioeconomic background, or a combination thereof. The minority status that I always carry with me – my Jewish identity – is largely invisible.

‘Passing’ makes me uneasy for many different reasons: I am uncomfortable because being seen as ‘white’ somehow nullifies my Jewish ‘otherness’; I am uncomfortable because being seen as part of the white majority may indicate, to some, that my ancestors were their oppressors; I’m uncomfortable because I consciously and unconsciously take advantage of the privileges that my ‘whiteness’ affords me.

My year in AVODAH educated me to critically examine how race and privilege interact with various social and economic systems. (Being educated about race in this fashion was itself a privilege that I merited because I was young, North American, Jewish, and not poor.) As our AVODAH year progressed, my housemates and I became increasingly interested in how American Jews – once considered to be a racial ‘other’, along with Blacks and Irish immigrants – had come to pass as (if not be defined as) ‘white’. We learned that the American Jewish journey to acceptance in the white majority was tumultuous at best, “not only because native-born whites had a particularly difficult time seeing Jews as part of a unified, homogenous white population, but also because whiteness sat uneasily with many central aspects of Jewish identity.”

As a ‘white Jew’ – that is, an Ashkenazi – I have the luxury of being uneasy with my ‘whiteness’ while still taking advantage of the privileges my skin color affords me. As an Ashkenazi, I represent the visible majority within my own faith. Without thinking twice, I use a shamash to light my chanukiah; I daven with a certain nusach; I forswear rice and beans on Pesach but have no problems eating fish and milk together. In my milieu, I can assume that the way Ashkenazi (that is, ‘passing as white’) Jews act are the ways of all Jews. And so I sometimes forget the descendants of Jews in Syria, Morocco, Yemen, or Portugal who don’t have the luxury of passing – those Jews who aren’t subject to the pressure to conform to the dominant racial paradigm because their skin tone prevents them from doing so. Sometimes I forget that, even within Judaism, sentiments of difference and otherness based on race disrupt the status quo.

I have no conclusions to offer here – only a series of observations based around the discomforts of race, religion, and concepts of belonging. In the hopes of continuing this dialogue, I offer the following texts for your consideration:

Eric L. Goldstein’s The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity

Karen Brodkin’s How Jews Became White Folks: And What That Says about Race in America

Loolwa Khazoom’s The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage

Jon Stratton’s Coming Out Jewish

Bryan Cheyette’s Between ‘Race’ and Culture: Representations of ‘the Jew’ in English and American Literature

Young, Jewish and Left (film)

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