Whiteness, Class and Yiddishkeit

This is why I love blogging with other people: they write stuff that opens doors in my head. I was fascinated by The Girl Detective’s first post on Jews and whiteness and by the responses it drew at Feministe. Sure, Jews are othered by the surrounding culture, but we’re white. Aren’t we? I suddenly became more aware of a whole raft of my own assumptions and prejudices and discomforts and my own privilege within Judaism as an Ashkenazic Jew.

And then I read her second post on the subject and realized that I’ve been wrestling with many of the same questions, but I hadn’t connected them to whiteness. For me, the image of the JAP and the relationship among Jews of different movements are stories of class.

Most of my neighbors and schoolmates had parents or grandparents who came over from Europe, but all my grandparents and at least three of my great-grandparents were born in the US. My family’s upward mobility took place in the 1920s and 30s; both of my parents grew up upper-middle-class, in the same set of fancy suburbs where I spent my childhood (and where my mother still lives). I’m not first-generation American; I’m third-generation Ivy League. And I was very aware that my family – especially my mother and grandmother – looked down on those neighbors who were closely connected to Yiddishkeit. We didn’t use Yiddish expressions around the house. I was in my mid-20s before I realized that my grandmother spoke Yiddish. If I said “oy vey”, my mother winced. Very few people in our community actually kept kosher, but we were about the only ones who cooked lobster and shrimp and soft-shell crabs, kept sliced deli ham in the house and ate bacon on weekend mornings.

That class difference was linked to observance as well. We belonged to a Reform congregation: short services, very little Hebrew, lots of organ music. No kipot or tallit – they were frowned upon, if not outright prohibited. We did have relatives who were Conservative. My great-aunt was the sister who married a pharmacist, not a doctor. She lived in an apartment, not a house. She had a job, not a volunteer position. And she kept kosher and went to shul instead of temple. We went to visit twice a year, and I remember at about age 10 being surprised to notice that they subscribed to the New York Times, and not the Daily News. I had learned my lessons well.

I see now that this was of course about assimilation and race as well as about class. For my mother, it was also about safety. Looking and sounding too Jewish could make her children targets. She wanted to protect us from what had happened to her. She did not want us to run home from school in a hail of rocks, chased by a gang of boys yelling “kike”. And we didn’t. We also learned neither Yiddish nor Hebrew, had no experience of Shabbat, and weren’t bar or bat mitzvahed (we were confirmed). And we were decidedly not JAPs. I was raised to be quiet and ladylike, not outspoken, and while we had more than enough of everything, we had what my  parents thought was appropriate for us, not what we asked for. We were taught not to ask, not to push, not to haggle, and certainly not to flaunt.

I look back and realize it was a strange sort of middle ground. Not WASP, but not culturally Jewish, either – not really. My home was full of art and music and literature, and I am profoundly grateful for the gifts of my upbringing. I hope I can raise my daughter with all of what I had as well as a stronger connection to Jewish culture and practice.

Tigermom asked me what it was like to incorporate “new” Jewish practice into my life as an adult. It was both joyous and profoundly dislocating. When I learned to leyn Torah, the rabbi said offhandedly “and of course you’ll need a tallit“. I’d started wearing a kipah to services about a year before, but the idea of standing up on the bimah in a prayer shawl seemed impossible. Once I worked through some of my concerns about my own authenticity – who am I to wear a tallit? – I realized that I was also worried about what my mother would think. Would she look at me, robed in my tallit, holding the yad, chanting my aliyah, and think I was too Jewish? Was I betraying my family, my upbringing, my class?

So I did the only sensible thing: I invited my mother to come to the service and offered her the aliyah for the portion I was chanting. To my astonishment, she accepted both, and stood next to me under the prayer shawl as she read the blessing. My mother, who hadn’t set foot in a synagogue since my brother was confirmed 20 years earlier. My mother, who frowns at the Chasids in the jewelry district. My mother sat in the congregation and sang all the melodies, and cried. And when I was done chanting, she hugged me and cried some more, and she kvelled.

Turns out my mother spent her childhood Saturdays walking her elderly grandmother to shul so bubbe could say Kaddish. She had no formal education and there was no more observance in her childhood than there was in mine, but those melodies – the old Orthodox and Conservative ones, not the Reform versions – never left her memory. Bringing Jewish practice and Jewish learning into my life gave my mother license to bring it back into hers.

So now I need to look at all this as a story of race as well as class. We are a liminal people in so many ways, in but not of the surrounding culture. Maybe white; maybe not. Maybe safe; maybe not. And we replay the violence done to us within our own walls, denigrating those who are the Other within the Other. We need to be able to sit at the table together, and each sing our own song.

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8 Responses

  1. excellent. jay, thank you.

  2. Our histories are really similar – I was also in my mid-twenties when I found out my grandmother spoke Yiddish, and my (Gentile) mother’s greatest fear is that I’ll shave my head and don a sheitel, although she was delighted when I dated a Jewish boy in college. The last few years of my life have been a continual realization that I’ve been deeply impacted by events no one in my family talks about.

  3. This is beautiful. I’ve been witness to a painful return to Judaism from a holocaust survivor who, scarred by her experiences and wanting to protect her children, left Judaism. Her grandson, my friend, only recently discovered her history and that he is halachically Jewish, and has become shomer shabbat. It’s been very painful for their family and I know that this piece would really resonate with them.

  4. I’ve been lucky that my mother has been largely happy about my interest in Jewishness. Though this weekend, she was concerned that I might be “obsessed.”

  5. (oh, but also, great post)

  6. This last bit really struck a chord with me:

    We are a liminal people in so many ways, in but not of the surrounding culture. Maybe white; maybe not. Maybe safe; maybe not. And we replay the violence done to us within our own walls, denigrating those who are the Other within the Other. We need to be able to sit at the table together, and each sing our own song.

    As much of a challenge as this facet of Jewish identity can be, I also find it nurturing and encouraging. As a diasporic people, I think that this sense of transience and liminality is really central to how, as a people, we’ve related to much of the rest of the world. It can, no doubt, be destabilizing to lack solid roots, but I think it also opens up a number of really great opportunities for growth and change, to be never quite there means there are always undiscovered open avenues and paths. New ways of knowing and understanding ourselves, and the world around us.

  7. your post brought tears to my eyes. while i am a convert, and my fiance and i would be best described as followers of humanistic judaism, your post described my fiance’s childhood and family to a T. he is only recently really embracing his jewish heritage. thank you for sharing this common thread.

  8. Having been an adult convert, naturally, I don’t have a lot of common ground here with regards to heritage, but I guess it depends on the reaction of parents and family members a little?

    Anyway, it actually turns out my pretty strictly non-religious father was and has been rather supportive of the whole thing, in his own way. I think I was lucky that way, and my mom used to want to convert with me but since she’s more firmly attached to the whole family it wasn’t allowed.

    Anyway, I also really liked this post! The fear that so many Jews have to embrace our heritage is one of the enduring tragedies of our history.

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