June 13th: The Jewish Whiteness Question

I took a Southwest flight for the first time this past week. I experienced the fierce battle that is finding an aisle seat with a priority spot in the B section, and waited, while the rest of the plane filled up around me. Finally, a man and his 10-year-old daughter sat down in the two seats next to me with a smile and a head nod, and everything seemed to be going just fine.

As we began to taxi toward take-off, I took off my Cubs hat and put it on my knee. As I did, I noticed the man’s face next to me change as he discovered the kippah on my head. The man didn’t get upset, he didn’t get angry, he didn’t get aggressive. But he was most definitely uncomfortable. What he had thought was a perfectly normal traveling companion had turned out to be an “other,” someone different than what he expected. He remained quite polite, still treated me just fine, but the look on his face told me that my ability to pass as a white person had disappeared in the flash of a moment.

In recent weeks, there has been a resurgence into the evaluation of the whiteness of Jews, perhaps inspired by Wonder Woman (played by an Israeli woman), or perhaps simply because it’s about that time of year again.

It is impossible to ignore the fact that, unlike other minority groups, a large percentage of Jews are light-skinned. This allows many Jews to “pass” as white, fitting into the majority without any outward signs of their ‘otherness’. This means that, if they so choose, many Jews are able to pick and choose when they identify themselves as Jewish, and when they get to fit in with the rest of society.

Yet, at the same time, we are only 75 years removed from a time when it didn’t matter what color your skin was. Jews were murdered for their identity, regardless of their outward looks. Sure, a small percentage of Jews were able to hide their beliefs in favor of fitting in with the rest of the German people, but that didn’t stop the extermination of 6 million Jews, having nothing to do with the color of their skin. We can discuss and debate and argue all we want about our whiteness, and someone else can snatch it away in an instant.

The vital piece here is that it doesn’t matter what the outside expressions are: the moment one’s Judaism is exposed, their ability to pass disappears, just as mine did on the airplane last week. Sometimes that comes with questions, sometimes it comes with distrust or anti-semitism, and sometimes it is simply cataloged away as fact. Jews are only able to enjoy the privilege of whiteness so long as their “true identity” remains hidden, which, in turn, means that it isn’t true whiteness.

The truth, though, is that Jews shouldn’t be debating about their whiteness. Our ability to pass is seen by many as the opportunity to fade into the background, to be able to turn on and turn off our role in either community. I posit, rather, that we, as white Jews, have an obligation to maintain our membership status in both the “white” and “minority” communities, in order to create a better world for those around us who don’t have the same privilege. Our Jewish tradition teaches us that we are supposed to be lights unto the nations, that we are supposed to protect the stranger because we too have been strangers. We need to use our outward appearances to bring other white members of the majority into a willingness to listen, to understand, to embrace the diversity of other members of our communities. If I am using my whiteness to hide, I am fundamentally misunderstanding my privilege AND my faith. As a white Jew, my privilege is that I have the tools to force the door open and make the world a more inclusive place for others who don’t have the same foot in the door.

One of the greatest challenges of this conversation is that, by confronting the notion of whether or not Jews are white, it actually is forcing the issue of putting people into boxes. When we force a label on a group of people, we are asking them to bend their identities to match your understanding. Instead, we need to embrace the indeterminacy. We need to stop trying to identify whether or not someone IS a particular category and need to start embracing individuals. We need to stop treating all Jews as the same, all whites as the same, all blacks as the same, all of any group as experiencing the same issues. A Jew of color knows that their experience is very different from my own. When I meet a Jew of color, I don’t want to assume things about them, I want to learn about their experience and their identity. I hope that, even as a white Jew, I can be given the same opportunity.

It is always difficult to write something like this, knowing that I open myself up to the immediate disregard by someone saying “well, you have white privilege, you don’t get it.” I certainly don’t claim to know what it is like to be anyone else, or to have struggled like anyone else. All I am pursuing is a deeper understanding of identity than simply the demographic groups we fall into. If we really want to get to a point where we are creating spaces of inclusion and welcoming, we need to be doing so with the understanding that we human beings are complicated jumbles of identity, and that, in some cases, we need to be willing to understand that we are not always going to understand. When we don’t understand, we have the obligation to ask, and the opportunity to learn.

May 24th: A Pain We Must Endure

I was listening to NPR today, and heard a report discussing the aftermath of the terror attack in Manchester. While comparing the incident to other examples of mass destruction in recent European history, the reporter mentioned that he was noticing less devastating grief, and more resigned sadness, as if the people of England have become desensitized to the terrible things of the world.

In that one instant, my heart broke. In discussing the death of dozens of young people at a concert, we are no longer shocked, horrified, or surprised. These kinds of incidents have become part of what it means to be a citizen of the world, as if terror is something that is natural and normal. Simply put, it isn’t, and we need to be reminded of that.

It is actually an incredibly human thing to desensitize ourselves to the horrors of the world. We wouldn’t be able to live with ourselves if we fell into devastation every time something bad happens in the world. Over time, we come to terms with the kind of things that we know are part of life. It’s why we ask “was he old?” when told of someone’s. Does it matter that he was old? Does that make it hurt less to a loved one? In a way, yes. We have programmed ourselves that the death of the old should be less sad than the death of a young person. It isn’t necessarily true; each individual gets to determine how they feel. But, in our subconscious, we insulate ourselves from losing ourselves in our grief.

Devastation and grief isn’t necessarily preferable. But the important thing we need to remind ourselves is that this isn’t how life is supposed to be. This isn’t normal, it isn’t natural, it isn’t something we need to learn to live with. A human being reached out and tore the life away from dozens of people, cutting their lives off entirely, and devastating the lives of countless others. Hate like that can never be made normal. Violence like that can never be allowed to become expected.

It is a terrible feeling to see the world falling apart and not know what to do about it. To get constant text messages and updates with acts of violence and not know how to help, how to make it better. But we need to live with that desperation, that passionate need for the world to be better than this. Because the other option is that the world continue as it is, and that simply isn’t acceptable. We have to be inspired to find a way to stop this hatred and this terror, and we aren’t going to be able to do that if we numb ourselves to the pain. The only way to make it hurt less is for us to figure out a way to happen less.

May 21st: The Year in Israel – A Year Later

One year ago today, I got on a plane and returned home after my first year of rabbinical school in Israel. At the time, I remember the feeling as though I had just experiencing something too big for words, too profound to be understood in a day or a week or a month. I knew, as I sat on that plane a year ago, that I was going to do a lot of growing as I came to terms with who and what I had become after the experience of leaving everything I had known about my life and moving to the other side of the world.

Now, a year later, I think about the processing I have done. Truth be told, rabbinical school leaves surprisingly little time and space for reflection, throwing one experience at us after another. Almost as soon as we finish a phase of the process, we move on to the next with little more than a debrief.

What I have had the chance to do is to better understand who I’m becoming, and how I grapple with the challenges I face. I spent a large part of my time in Israel counting down the days: days til breaks from school, days I spent away from my fiáncé, days left before I got to go home. WIth this focus on arriving at certain benchmarked days, I lost sight of the experience I was having, instead looking too far out in front to truly embrace where I was.

Looking back, I engaged with my year in Israel as an observer, more like an anthropologist than a resident or citizen. I wanted to learn as much as I could, and I treated that learning as something I did for the purpose of furthering my understanding, not necessarily participating in what I was finding. This is neither a bad thing nor a good one. It simply was how I experience the year. It allowed me to see what the world was doing, how things operated, while also maintaining my tether to who and what I was, something that not all students abroad are able to do.

Of course, at the root of the Hebrew Union College requirement to study in Israel is the hope of building a connection with the state of Israel itself. In the 365 days since I left the country, my relationship with it has changed every time I’ve examined it: at times, I have been angry with what I see, at others deeply and profoundly connected to the nation of my heritage. One of the lessons I’m walking away with most clearly is the comfort with the knowledge that I will never have just one stance on Israel. Israel is a vital part of who I am and what it means to me to be Jewish, and that is going to change as the world around me does. While I went to Israel expecting to concretize my understanding, and even came home thinking I would have, I am now more comfortable than ever to be at peace with my fluctuating and maturing love for the Jewish homeland.

Before going to Israel, I was terrified of leaving my home and everything I loved in America. I built up my departure so large that I was consumed by my anxiety associated with it. When I came home, I was convinced that I was never going to worry about anything again; I had conquered my greatest fear, and had no reason to stress to that extent ever again. Reality has shown me that I am not going to simply stop stressing or worrying overnight, that they are a part of how I process my relationship with the future. Yet, what I have been able to learn from my experience in Israel was the constant need to remind myself of the context, to constantly be putting things into perspective for myself, so as not to lose sight of the opportunities I am afforded, even when I am anxious about what the future may hold.

My experience in Israel a year ago was not one that I was going to understand when I completed it, and I am even more confident that I am still not finished with internalizing and growing from it, even a year later. My time in Israel and my time in rabbinical school as a whole are deeply interwoven, and will build upon one another the further I go into my experience.

I am grateful that I had the privilege of going to HUC in Israel, of getting the chance to experience first-hand the incredible world we live in and the richness of Judaism in the Jewish homeland. I am also extremely grateful to be home, living my life with the people I love and the pieces of society that are part of my way of life. And I am grateful that I have had the chance to continue to explore what life has to offer beyond the one experience in Israel, because it gives me the hope and excitement for what is to come.

May 16th: How our Tech Companies Rule Our Lives, and Why We Let Them

Apple logoIn a New York Times article last week, Farhad Manjoo posed the question: which of the five biggest tech companies do we depend on most?

We all can agree that technology plays a significant role in our day-to-day lives. But, as Manjoo points out, five companies have a stranglehold on the market for personal computing and information access. Apple, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft each hold a massive slice of the pie, and while others may fit particular niches, those five are responsible for the bulk of our digital experience.

amazon logoIn a fantasy land, constructed by Majoo, a dictator forces you to relinquish all connection to one of those power-five companies at a time. Which ones would you give up first? What order would they fall, leaving you with only one that absolutely can’t live without?

When I first took the “quiz,” I thought Apple would be the one that I couldn’t live without. Apple is responsible for the hardware that I use: I have an iPhone, Macbook, and iPad, so my access to information is wrapped up entirely in the Apple world. Yet, the further I thought about it, nearly all services I use on those devices related back to Google: Google docs, Gmail, Chrome, etc.

FB logoThe answers may differ for each individual, based on the hardware and services used by any of these companies. But the greater value of the article was the subsequent conversation: how can we better understand the influence of these five specific companies on our lives, and how do we better acknowledge how they influence our decisions, both our behavior and our purchases.

What makes these five companies particularly powerful and fascinating is exactly the convergence that I struggled with. We use our Apple phones to buy Amazon products, sending confirmation emails to our Gmail accounts. We post reviews of those products on Facebook, and interact with other users. Maybe we use our Windows computer to accomplish all of this instead.

Microsoft logoTwo-day shipping has become an expectation, not a luxury. The fact that I can send a text on my phone and have it appear also on my computer isn’t magic, it’s synchronization. We expect everyone to be on Facebook, and learn a great deal about the people around us without ever having to meet. We trust Google more than anyone else in our lives.

All of this is said with a morally neutral stance. There is plenty of good and plenty of bad about all five companies: we use them as tools to make our lives easier, and they also own us in ways that can damage our relationship with the “real” world. The more important thing is that we have to be aware of the influence they have on our lives, and to understand what they contribute to our ability to live our lives, and how we can take ownership of our experience of their products to make sure that we are thoughtful, knowledgeable consumers.


May 4th: An Incomplete Circle

CircleSeveral months ago, I read a book, The Circle, by Dave Eggers. In it, a young woman begins to work for a social media technology company, and she begins to see the extent to which our devices and our profiles can take over our lives. While I didn’t particularly like the book, I appreciated the fact that it asked a pair of essential questions that my generation is going to have to confront: when do our connections on social media cross the line from beneficial to dangerous and when does transparency on social media become a violation of privacy?

A cinematic adaptation of the book recently came out, and I saw it this evening. Without spoiling anything, the ending in the movie is dramatically different from the one in the book. Unfortunately, the world of movies is far less comfortable with indeterminacy, something that literature has come to terms with far more maturely. While the book ended without answering the questions posed about society, the book does even worse: it gives the kind of resolution that rounds out a happy ending, without actually getting to the answers that the central theme demands.

CircThe Circle is an attempt to answer the questions that we are going to have to engage with if we are going to continue to learn how to develop relationships via the internet. They can be uncomfortable questions, and they can force us to find the answers that might be right, but we may not like. Ironically, neither the book nor the movie did enough to come to any kind of conclusion. But, it was the inspiration to start the conversation, and hopefully readers and viewers will take the opportunity to talk offline to discuss how we can ensure that we remain in control of our social media, rather than consumed by it.

April 5th: Pay Equality Day is a Goal, Not an Accomplishment

Yesterday was Equal Pay Day. No, that doesn’t mean it is the day we’ve reached equal pay, but a day to remind us that we have work left to do. On average, the American woman makes 80 cents for every dollar a man makes, and women of color have it even worse.

What jumps out at me is that nothing is going to change on this matter until we, as individuals, change it. There isn’t necessarily a piece of legislation that will make this gap go away any better than legislation already tries to do. And businesses aren’t in the business of giving away money without it being demanded. Which means that the only way to precipitate a change is to walk into a boss’s office and stand up for one’s self and ask to be paid appropriately.

In order to see change, women are going to have to seize power. For men, it is up to us to be good fathers, brothers, and husbands and encourage the women in our lives to reach out and take what they deserve. And men who are bosses must be willing to understand that women who are paid as they should be are an asset and an opportunity to lead by example.

There are hundreds of women every day who demand fair pay and work hard to earn it. Pay Equality Day is our reminder that the work isn’t finished, and that all Americans, of every gender, have an obligation to stand up for one another. Because everyone wants to live in a society where we are paid based on our hard work and dedication. We want to live in a world where our success is based on our merit, not the results of the genetic lottery. Pay Equality Day is our reminder that the work isn’t done, and we have to be the ones to do it.

March 27th: Wearing Your Politics on Your Shirt

Last week, I was working out at the Jewish Community Center, as I do most nights. The JCC in Cincinnati, like many gyms, got really busy in January with resolution setters, but has been able to maintain the high attendance since. I’m used to getting to the gym and seeing people of all shapes, sizes, and demographics. While the JCC is clearly a Jewish space, it is filled with a great many people who aren’t Jewish, sharing the resources.

One individual jumped out at me this time. A white man, likely in his early to mid 40s, was lifting weights, wearing a shirt that caught my attention. The shirt was a white tank top, with an American flag at the top, and the words “No illegals” below.

I grew angry seeing that shirt, especially in a Jewish environment. I understand that people come to their political opinions for a multitude of reasons. But, to me, I felt like this shirt was an outward attack on a group of people, in an overly simple way that a t-shirt shouldn’t be.

“Illegals” are people, people who almost certainly came to this country for a reason. While I understand that we shouldn’t be encouraging people to break the law to enter this country, a line on a t-shirt undermines the humanity of those who are looking for a better life in America.

I also detest the use of the American flag as a sign of patriotism for those who want to shut the borders. The political right has commandeered the American flag, making it a symbol for selfish politics, for those who will defend “true Americans.” Can I not have pride in my flag and also want to help those fleeing oppression? Can I not love my country while also wanting to allow others the ability to love it as well?

The thing that made me most uncomfortable was the fact that this man was in a Jewish community wearing a shirt that seemingly undermined the humanity of others. We know that similar sentiments were used against the Jews in the 1930s and 40s. We know that the Jews have spent centuries fleeing from one place that didn’t want us to another. It is incredibly un-Jewish to see someone as “an illegal,” rather than as a human being. Jews have an obligation to do better for others than what was done for us, and to ensure that nobody has to experience what we experienced not so long ago.

We live in a society where anyone is allowed to wear a shirt stating their own political opinions. And I’m sure there are many in this country who would be made uncomfortable by t-shirts that I would see and not bat an eyelash. In many ways, I’m still grappling with why it bothered me so much to see a man wearing a shirt.

There is a time and place for policy discussions. There are appropriate avenues for discussing why someone believes what they believe. It’s pretty safe to say, though, that a slogan on a shirt at the gym isn’t the space and isn’t the way to have a meaningful conversation. And, in a Jewish space, this behavior so profoundly doesn’t match a community that must constantly remember that we are built on a foundation of values.