“How are you Jewish?”
Last week, this post about Tyler Samuels’s experiences set me going about inclusion and what kinds of remarks defeat efforts to welcome people. Here’s my post about it.
Today, I circle back to the post by Mr. Samuels about racism in American Judaism. He confronts the comments he hears, asking about his Jewish background. He writes:
This experience is not just a Black Jewish experience. For many Jews that face this ostracization by other Jews, it is the norm. You might claim “a Jew is a Jew,” intending to solidify my belonging to the Jewish community but that phrase does more harm than good. When I hear that term, it is an invalidation.
To me, “A Jew is a Jew” sounds like “All lives matter.”
“A Jew is a Jew” is an obvious statement that means nothing. It is not saying “you are welcome as a Jew.” If “A Jew is a Jew,” why are you asking about Mr. Samuels’ Jewish background? He says he’s a Jew: that is good enough for white people who walk into the shul.
“All lives matter” is a similar obvious statement that means nothing. Yes, all lives do matter. However, White lives matter more in the American culture and economy since European colonization in the 1600’s. Black lives (and BIPOC lives) have mattered less and this is the focus of the slogan “Black lives matter.”
Where are you from?
Being asked about your Jewish background is like being asked “Where are you from?” This background check is all-too-common in Jewish communities. People with non-Ashkenazi names or faces hear questions about their Jewish affiliations. People like me, with a typical Ashkenazi face and name, rarely, if ever, get asked to explain how I came to be Jewish.
People from the Far East – who could have had ancestors in America since the 1850’s – get asked where they are from. The question “Where are you from?” shows a prejudice that white Europeans are American as soon as they become citizens and lose their accents, but people of Asian or African descent are not.really.ever.fully.American. It hurts and it should stop. This video is a comedy routine on this topic.
When someone like Tyler Samuels says that they feel excluded by having their Jewish background checked, they should have their experiences validated. Here are some menschlich –moral, kind – responses:
OK: “I didn’t mean to appear like I was questioning your right to be here. I was merely curious… Thank you for indulging me.”
Better: “I didn’t mean to appear like I was questioning your right to be here. I was merely curious… Thank you for indulging me… I won’t do that again, when I meet a new person in our community.”
Best: “I didn’t mean to appear like I was questioning your right to be here. It didn’t occur to me that someone could take it that way. I am sorry. Lesson learned. I won’t do that again, when I meet a new person in our community.”
WRONG: What Mr. Samuels heard:
“I’m not racist. A Jew is a Jew.”
“How is that discriminatory, to ask a Black Jew how they’re Jewish? Asking questions is a good thing.”
“You’re a Jewish educator, there’s nothing wrong with being asked how you’re Jewish.”
The wrong replies are replies that gloss right past the point of contention; Mr. Samuels was uncomfortable with being asked how he is Jewish. Disregarding the affect of the statements is gaslighting. There is no recognition that he felt singled out for questions because he doesn’t “look Jewish.” He writes:
Just because you don’t see or encounter these microaggressions, or your friend that “should” experience them doesn’t, is no indication that they don’t exist. I have often seen many in our community use the useless tool of playing devil’s advocate to disparage the victim, rather than be empathetic and learn why they were hurt.
If someone was truly curious about Mr. Samuel’s teaching credentials, that would be different. The question would be, “Where did you study to prepare to teach here?” That is very different than “How did you become Jewish?”
“How did you become Jewish” assumes that they were not born Jewish. White people who were not born Jewish don’t usually have to answer that question. It stings to be spoken to as if people of Asian or African descent are not.really.ever.fully.Jewish. The person saying it is making an assumption that excludes. The receiver of the comment hears that they are not perceived as a full member of the Jewish community.
If your comments hurt someone, and they point it out to you, the right thing to do is to look at your assumptions and learn something. If your chit-chat sounds as if it comes from an outdated assumption of who is a Jew, the right thing to do is to look at your assumptions.
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