To grow up as anything other than White Protestant in the US is necessarily to live always in a threshold, with one foot solidly planted in the majority culture and the other in whatever cultural community one is a part of. Although I have been a baptized Christian for over 30 years, the habits of thought that were formed in me by my Jewish upbringing continue to inform my understanding of who I am. As a person who is culturally and ethnically Jewish and also passionately and confessionally Christian, I am always in a liminal state.
In the current crisis over the ongoing horrors of systematic racism, it often seems to me that I am being forced to deny the identity that I carried well into adulthood, subsuming my Jewishness into a bland, all-encompassing Whiteness. In the liberal, well-meaning community in which I live, that Whiteness is often described in a narrative that sounds something like, “I grew up in the South (or maybe the Mid-Atlantic, or maybe just a small town) surrounded by racism… As a White teenager (or at some other time in the distant past), I came to see that racism was wrong…. I worked against both individual and systemic racism in a number of ways over the years…. And today I continue to wrestle with what it means to be a White person, a person of privilege in a country that blatantly oppresses all people of color, especially those who are Black.”
Whenever I hear a version of this story, and the affirming choruses of those who recognize in it a variant of their own, I feel a cold chill, as if I don’t belong here. It’s not that there is anything wrong with this story. Everyone has a story, as my father used to say, and everyone’s story is as valid and important as anyone else’s. Stories, after all, are how we make sense of our lives. And stories like these help me to honor the struggle of all who were expected to be blatant racists, and still grew up to work for a decent, inclusive world.
The problem with this kind of story for me is that hearing the stories of White people being amplified and affirmed by other White people remind me that my story doesn’t fit the easy classification in which one is either White or Black, or maybe an indigenous Native American or a person of color. I feel that chill of not belonging because no matter how many years I worship as a Christian, no matter how many years I do my best to follow Jesus, no matter what my academic credentials and honors in the academy, if the White supremacists have their way, they will be coming after me and my Jewish family, right along with all the others who aren’t White. But because I, like most Jews in this country look White, because we have largely been economically successful, because many Jews are in visible places of power, my story and the story of my people is too often erased from the conversation in which one can only be a privileged White person or an oppressed Person of Color.
I was taught to blend in, to keep quiet, to not call attention to my differentness, to only discuss certain things within the community in which I grew up, to “pass.” The result is that an important part of my identity has become an invisible burden that I often do not feel the right to mention. The reality is that even though I have light skin and blue eyes, even though I have what Cornell West and others term “white skin privilege,” I carry the invisible burden of being not quite White.
In a March 2020 article in the Atlantic called “Is It Still Safe to be a Jew in America”, Gary Rosenblatt writes,
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) began tracking anti-Semitic hate crimes four decades ago. This past year brought the third-highest spike on record. Jews make up less than 3 percent of the American population, but the majority of reported religiously based hate crimes target Jewish people or institutions. In a new study by the American Jewish Committee, 35 percent of American Jews said they had experienced anti-Semitism in the past five years, and one-third reported concealing outward indications of their being Jewish. [https:// www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/anti-semitism-new-normal-america/608017/]
When the Unite the Right rally stormed through Charlottesville in 2017, chanting “Blood and soil,” “White lives matter” and “Jews will not replace us,” I heard it as an existential threat to me and my family.
When I hear of a shooting at a Jewish place of worship, or see news photos of swastikas painted on the fences of Jewish cemeteries, or notice thinly (or not-so-thinly)-veiled anti-Semitic slurs in political advertising, I feel personally threatened.
The Jewish community has a long memory. In my Jewish childhood, I was taught to connect the dots from the Pharaoh who didn’t know Joseph, through the Babylonian exile in the 7th century BCE and the Roman emperor who destroyed Jerusalem and dispersed the people into exile again in 70 CE, to the forced conversions and burnings at the hands of Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century. And all this connects with my grandmother’s stories of hiding in the cellar when the Easter blood-libel stories sent drunken Christians rampaging through Jewish neighborhoods every spring in her hometown of Lodz, Poland.
Against this background, the Holocaust hovers like a ghost, ever-ready to jump out and terrify me. The situation in the US right now is eerily reminiscent of how things were in Germany in the 1930s, when Jews who had believed themselves safe, respected and accepted members of an open, educated society, suddenly found themselves the object of Nazi hatred and violence. My mother’s relatives were unable to leave Poland, which was occupied by the Nazis in 1939. All but two of her cousins, aunts, and uncles died in the war, mostly in Auschwitz or one of the other death camps. When I was in my thirties, I worked as a designer for one of those two surviving cousins, by then a man in his sixties with a successful business in the Los Angeles garment district. One day over lunch he showed me the numbers tattooed on his arm, and told me a how he and his brother had managed to survive when so many others did not. That is not a story that most of my White friends hear from their relatives.
So when my Black friends tell me that they feel it personally when yet another Black man is killed in police custody; when yet another Black child is unfairly disciplined for behavior that doesn’t even make anyone blink if a White child does it; or when Black teenagers are followed in stores as if they were criminals, it makes perfect sense to me. Even though my Christian faith makes it impossible for me to participate in the Jewish community, the Jews are still my people. Being Jewish is not matter of how one worships, but a matter of peoplehood, of cultural identity. And when bad things happen to one of my people for no reason other than their Jewish identity, I feel it as if it were happening to me, personally.
Recently, when one of my adult children asked me where we could go if White supremacist influence continues to grow, I lightly said that we could all move in with a family member in another country. I hoped that would put an end to the conversation. It didn’t. It was a serious question, fueled by what is a not unreasonable fear that attacks against Jewish people will increase if right-wing extremists continue to hold onto power. The voice I’ve been hearing in my head for the past four years is getting louder, keeping me awake at night as it repeats, “This is how it happened in Germany. This is how Hitler took over a civilized, progressive country. It absolutely can happen here. Maybe it is time to leave.”
But then I started to think about how long Black and indigenous people have been suffering in this country, about all the people who cannot leave no matter how bad it gets, and how privileged my day-to-day life still is. As a Jew, I was taught to work for the end of all oppression because my people were once slaves in Egypt. As a Christian, I am called to keep trying to make things better here, rather than to use my economic and White-skin privilege to go somewhere else. As one who is always standing in the threshold, it is my job to hold the door open to new possibilities, to hope, and to love.