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 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.

April 12th: It Isn’t What Sean Spicer Said, It’s What He Meant…and That’s Just As Scary

When Sean Spicer says something ridiculous, I’m usually fine to chock it up to an ignorant loudmouth who just can’t seem to help himself. This week, though, he officially crossed over into new territory, and not only profoundly messed up, but blundered every opportunity to fix it.

In a press conference earlier in the week, Spicer was discussing America’s use of force against Syria. He was talking about the atrocities committed by Bashar al-Assad, and attempting to justify why America needed to get involved. To accomplish this, he made the statement that even Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons on his people. To which, of course, all American Jews said “of course he did, you epic moron.”

Now, it would have been one thing if he said that while he was swept up in the moment. But, one journalist gave him a chance to redeem himself, asking him to clarify what he meant. Spicer, realizing he had gotten himself into hot water, attempted to walk back his statements. In a later press release, he made the comment that Hitler had never used chemical weapons on HIS OWN people, but the atrocities of Hitler shouldn’t be undervalued, and it wasn’t what he meant. To make matters worse, he referred to concentration camps as “Holocaust Centers,” which sounds more like guest services at a tourist attraction than death camps where millions of Jews and other marginalized people were murdered en mass.

At first, his blunder could have been swept away as having been caught up in the moment and saying something foolish. That could have been forgotten, if not forgiven. When he had plenty of time to craft a response, clarify his point, and do what he could to mitigate the problem, he instead decided to say that Hitler hadn’t ever attacked his own people, implying that German Jews weren’t really Germans, and dehumanizing them in much the same way that Hitler had. Not only was Spicer dumb enough to use Hitler as his example, but in some ways he literally bought into the deranged and horrifying thinking of the Nazis.

The defense of Spicer will be that of course that wasn’t what he meant, and that we are all just being too sensitive. But, the reality is, Spicer WAS trying to insinuate that Assad’s actions were worse than Hitler’s. He was attempting to say that America did the right thing, because if we didn’t, it would get to THAT level of bad. By saying this, Spicer so entirely undervalues and disrespects the experience of the Holocaust, and directly attacks the Jewish community (and others) across the world who know all-too-well what “worse” looks like.

American Judaism has been under attack for months. We have been threatened, defaced, belittled, and marginalized. To this point, the White House hasn’t done nearly enough to protect or defend the rights of the Jewish community, and has demonstrated zero interest in making sure that the kind of anti-semitism of the the first half of the 20th century.

Now, the man who speaks with the voice of the White House has the audacity to belittle the Jewish experience during the Holocaust. In February, Trump failed to mention the Jews at all in connection to the Holocaust. Now, Spicer states directly that the Jews weren’t real Germans, so Hitler wasn’t killing “his own people.” We have now crossed a line from the blunders and goofs that we have come to expect from the Trump White House, and crossed into the kind of underhanded attacks that should never be taken out against a group of Americans in this country.

Hitler treated us like we weren’t real Germans. But Jews damn well are real Americans, and it’s about time that the office of the president treated us as such. Sean Spicer’s comments were ignorant, were stupid, were insensitive, and were wrong. And he must be dealt with appropriately. If he is not, than that is a not-so-subtle reflection of agreement from the President, something that cannot be ignored or overlooked.

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.

March 12th: Purim Shows Us the Beauty of Standing Up Together

The following is a transcript of the sermon delivered by Austin Zoot at Temple B’nei Israel in Kokomo, IN.

Purim is a rabbi’s dream holiday for giving in a sermon. It seems like every year, the values of Shushan can be applied to the world around us. This year is no exception.

The story of Purim starts with a man, Haman, who, as advisor to the king, wishes that every man bow before him. When a Jew, Mordechai, refuses to do so, Haman becomes furious. Rather than taking his anger out on the individual, though, Haman decides that it should be all Jews who are killed. He plans to destroy all Jews, because of his qualms with one he didn’t like.

When Hama approaches the king to tell him of his plan to destroy the Jews, he doesn’t identify the Jews by name. Instead, he tells the king that there is “a people” living in the kingdom who are different, who have their own customs and rules. He claims that they are responsible for the ills of the kingdom, that they are the problem that keeps the country from greatness. The King, knowing little about the “enemy” tells Haman to do as he sees fit, giving him keys to do as he wishes. This is a classic case of scapegoating. We see it in Shushan, we see it in Medieval Spain, we see it in Holocaust Germany. In every case, it was the Jews who were blamed for the problems of the entire country.

Well, that faceless enemy receives a face when the king discovers that Mordechai the Jew had once saved his life. Through an interaction that showed the honor and bravery of the Jews, the king was able to have an example to offset all the stereotypes, to have experience that would later call into question the detail-deficient claims of hatred that Haman levied against them.

Well, the one thing Haman hadn’t counted on was a Jew who had found some power. Esther, the queen, who had used her beauty and her bravery to gain some standing in the court of the king, was able to stand up for herself and for her people. She revealed her identity to the king in order to show that the faceless people Haman hoped to destroy. She was willing to stand up and risk her own safety, her own ability to pass, in exchange for standing up for those who didn’t have the same opportunity.

Listening to the story of Purim this year, it rings true in the political landscape of America. We live in an America where a leader attempts to convince us that it is because of “others” that things are bad. Immigrants from Mexico and Muslim countries are the problem, and that without them, our lives would be so much better. Well, the truth is, if we got rid of Mexicans and Muslims, the problems would still be here. Instead of trying to find solutions, we have found ourselves finding scapegoats.

In our country, we are more siloed than ever. Social media certainly doesn’t help. We spend so much of our lives talking to people who look like us, sound like us, act like us. We lose sight of the diversity in the world because we are so able to find communities that match our own identity. This leads us to have far less contact with the “others” that we are sold to believe are the cause for the problems we face. Yet, we know what it feels like to meet someone of another identity and learn that they don’t fit into the boxes we’ve established for them. We meet an individual who doesn’t match the stereotype, and we are forced to confront the fact that maybe we don’t fully understand this other, that maybe there is more to other people than their religion or their culture of origin.

Having been in this position time and time again, Jews have a moral obligation to stand up for scapegoats, both those we know and those we don’t. Many (not all, but many) Jews have the ability to “pass” as white, to choose whether or not to display our identity. We have an obligation to ensure that America does not become Shushan, that we do not allow the “other” to become a scapegoat for the problems that we are too lazy or too distracted to actually confront head on.

In that regard, we have three role models in the Purim story.

We must be like Esther, who used her little bit of power to stand up for others. She refused to sit idly by and watch as her people were destroyed. She used her voice to defend those who had no voice of their own.

We must be like Mordechai, and be good emissaries to the rest of the world. Mordechai was able to represent the best of Judaism, and serve as an example, showing the rest of the world the good things that Jews can do. By living ethical, moral lives, we can become examples of what it means for Jews to be productive and cherished members of society.

And, most underrated in the Purim story, sometimes we need to embody King Achashverosh. You see, when the king discovered the plot that had been created behind his back, he was able to learn, to broaden his understanding of those living around him, and to allow the space for the society to expand to include others. It would have been simple for the king to ignore what was going on, to hide behind the bureaucratic process. But instead, he acknowledged he didn’t know something before, and demonstrated a willingness to change his behavior when he had learned more. We have the same chance. As we continue to learn more about the people around us, we have the chance to adapt, and to expand the way we think.

Everyone’s favorite fun-fact about Purim is that God’s name doesn’t appear anywhere in the Megillah, the story of Purim. The entire story happens without any divine intervention or involvement. The symbolism is quite beautiful. It would be easy to sit back and wait for God to swoop in and fix the world, to take the ownership away from us. But that isn’t how it works. Instead, it is on us to make sure that we are preventing the kind of scapegoating and blame that threatens our society. If we wait until someone else will save us, someone else will stand up for others, it may never happen.

May we stand up for others like Queen Esther. May we be good representations of our own people like Mordechai. And may we continue to change and grow as we learn more and know more like King Achashverosh.

Chag Purim Sameach. Happy Purim.