My son and I were in San Francisco over the Thanksgiving weekend attending a friend’s son’s bar mitzvah. We gathered together on Thanksgiving night to eat turkey and light the menorah for the second night. While we were sitting down to the table, my friend’s relative got a text from her close friend back home that said, “I know you don’t celebrate it, but happy Thanksgiving anyway.”
The relative text back, “I’m American, so we do celebrate Thanksgiving.”
Here I was with my Jewish friends and their family on the one night since 1888 that Thanksgiving and Hanukkah fall on the same night, and this confluence and the coining of the word Thanksgivukkah has confused people once again about who Jews are and are not. And in the midst of this Jewish awareness, I am knee deep into Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land, a book that tries to explain Zionism (read: a secular movement that became a religious one) and the State of Israel to those of us outside of Israel as well as to the author himself who is seeking to bridge the nuanced histories of his homeland.
Thomas Friedman said of Shavit’s book:
“Zionism’s goal,” writes Shavit, “was to transfer a people from one continent to another, to conquer a country and assemble a nation and build a state and revive a language and give hope to a hopeless people. And against all odds, Zionism succeeded. If a Vesuvius-like volcano were to erupt tonight and end our Pompeii, this is what it would petrify: a living people. People that have come from death and were surrounded by death but who nevertheless put up a spectacular spectacle of life.”
I’m reading this unflinching take at what Israel means to Jews as well as what it means for Jews to be colonizers even when they believe they are reclaiming their birthright land and the only piece of land on this earth where they, as Jews, won’t be oppressed, but in doing so, they have become the oppressor as well as the oppressed.
The book was very much on my mind as I sat down with my friends to eat our Thanksgiving meal – so when the relative mentioned her friend’s text, I wondered to myself why Jews are always thought of as outsiders no matter where we live, even if it is in our biblical homeland. The relative said it was odd because the woman is a close friend and their children play together. She said it reminded her of how some people at her son’s school have asked her, “Is your husband Jewish?” and when she says yes, they reply, “Oh, so you’re both Jewish.” Ahhhh, as if this were some strange occurrence as well.
By now she and I were chatting about Judaism in America, Israel and how all the world is confused about what Jewishness means – is it a race, is it a religion, is it culture – and I’m explaining the Shavit’s book because he’s a secular Jew, when she tells me that another mother at the school had once told her son, “You don’t get any chocolate because you don’t believe in Jesus.”
Seriously? You say this to a child?
I think about growing up Jewish and everything I encountered as a child. The boys who pitched all the pennies on my tray in the school cafeteria and taunted, “Pick it up, Jew” to the guy in Bucktown when I was buying my first house who told me he would sell it to me as long as I wasn’t a Jew or Black (read: he didn’t say Black). Throughout all of it, I came to believe there are people in this world so ignorant that they are capable of doing stupid things yet I did not ever feel that there was something wrong with me. My bond with my family was based in our being Jewish – this was simply who we were, so these boys or that man might as well have said to me, there is something wrong with you because you are five foot eight inches tall and now I’m going to say stupid and mean things to you because you are. Nana nana boo boo.
It made me wonder about kids who grow up with an established identity in their homes who go out in the world and encounter prejudice against who they are – does this make the kid stronger? I don’t remember a period of feeling ashamed of being Jewish, ever in my life, even though I still marvel at how pogroms against European Jews were happening not too long before I was born and how every holiday Jews celebrate tend to commemorate some oppressor trying to annihilate us as well as our underdog, but mighty, force prevailing despite the odds.
There is a post on chabad.org’s site about what anti-Semitism is:
There are two mysteries that have defied explanation for as long as anyone can remember. The first mystery is anti-Semitism, which is a mystery because there are few things in history that have been as consistent, as universal, and as predictable as anti-Semitism. From one country to another, from one culture to another, from one religion to another — although lifestyles, philosophies, and so forth are extremely different, there is one thing all of the peoples of the world had in common: They all, at one point or another, included individuals, and even large segments of their populations, who did not like Jews.
What did these people know about Jews? Sometimes a lot, sometimes very little, sometimes nothing at all. And yet all of them have a discomfort with Jews. Some of the things anti-Semites come up with concerning Jews and Judaism, make us wonder, “What did we do? What could we possibly have done to cause them to suspect such a thing?”
For example, there’s the accusation that Jews are plotting to take over the world. We have our faults, we’re vulnerable to some legitimate criticism sometimes, but, plotting to take over the world? Where did that come from? In order to examine the mystery of anti-Semitism, one needs to have an understanding of its target, which is the Jewish people.
But that’s not so simple, and brings us to the second mystery: What exactly is a Jew? What is Judaism? A religion, a culture, a family, a nation? What? What is it about Jews that everyone hates?
A mystery, it’s not much of a mystery. Because this is status quo, back in 2008, it made me feel things like, whew, glad it’s a woman and a biracial man running for President, not a Jew. I mean, who needs the pressure? I also thought it would be best not to bring up my African American son into this religion because isn’t it enough that he was born brown in our society whose institutions still oppress anyone of dark skin? I mean to give him the double whammy of being Jewish too seems like inviting trouble. But in a conversation I was having with a woman in Israel over email she said:
[A woman wrote an article where she says] … people are caught in chains of blackness to translate it literally. The concept she’s offering explains how people always find ‘the other’ and identify him as ‘lower’ to have the legitimacy for their actions and perception of self. She was talking about the way German Jews were treated by the slavs/other white cultures n Europe who degraded them and how those Jews did the same thing to Polish Jews. Later on those European Jews, German and Polish all together did that while migrating to Israel after the Holocaust (mid 40’s to the late 50’s) to the Sephardi/Mizrachi (who came to Israel from Arabic countries). Later on in Israel, the Mizrachi Jews did that to their fellow old neighbors – Arabs or Palestinians. Later on all the Jews living in Israel for generations treated Russian Jews who migrated to Israel after the fall of the USSR as not Jewish enough, then the Russians did the same thing to African Jews, mostly those coming from Ethiopia. You can even see how at the ‘bottom of the chain,’ the Ethiopian Jews nowadays treat with much hatred the African refugees coming from Sudan and Atria.
So whether my brown child is Jewish or not is unlikely to change the way he experiences the world and the world him. My Israeli friend says she is half Sephardi, which is also my background, and she is referred to in Israel by the European Jews as that “black chick” despite having an olive complexion. I told her while my siblings have that olive complexion she has, I don’t, and yet, according to the Jews here in the U.S., we Sephardis are all the dark-skinned others. So even within our own people, there are distinctions, much as hueism exists in the world of African Americans. Everybody is hellbent on oneupmanship much like the article she quotes.
But does being other make a kid stronger? Is a brown boy who sees from the onset that there is an us and a them, or a Hispanic girl who knows her parents speak differently and experience the world differently than her friends’ parents, or a Jewish girl who is 5% sub Saharan by blood but peaches and cream complexion on the outside grow tougher because they see through layers that the kid from the dominant culture doesn’t?
I’ve met people weakened by years and years of racism that they carry a perpetual sadness within them or I’ve seen the anger/sadness manifest into illness such as heart troubles, diabetes, anxiety or depression. I’ve watched with horror scenes from the Holocaust and Jim Crow, where children are victims of oppression and abuse and hatred and they grow old before their time.
And I still am shocked by ignorance.
What thinking adult would say to a child you cannot have the chocolate because you don’t believe in Jesus? Unfortunately, too many adults don’t think and more adults then I care to count hate. And so it takes strong parenting to instill identity and pride in your child and if you are a transracial family, more work and more education and more vigilance, diligence, and fortitude is needed. I’m still thinking about how my son and Judaism overlap; I think I wished to shelter him from more oppression, but the truth is even while anti-Semitism has been around for ages, people are always inventing new ways to distance themselves from others, so if it’s not this, it’s something else.
I read this interesting post on Kvell where the parent says:
Just by being Jewish, my child will be different. We will have to explain to him why there is hate, intolerance, and anti-Semitism. He will learn the rich history of our people and, like ours, his heart will mourn the mistakes and inhumanities of the past. But would I take away his Jewishnesss to shelter him from this reality? Never. Would I encourage him to hide his heritage in an effort to make life easier on him, or myself? Absolutely not.
The reality is we are raising children in a world that is still racist, anti-semitic, sexist, homophobic, ableist, and so on, and while these dynamics challenge parenting, they also provide us with an arsenal of tools to teach and reinforce in our children how to be in the world, and most importantly, how to be with others.