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.

June 2nd: Waiting for the Cubs to Find Their Identity

Baseball, as Kyle Schwarber will tell you, is a fickle sport. One week ago, the Cubs were coming off a 7-2 homestand, including a sweep of the Reds and a strong three-game winning streak.

Cubs 3Well, it has been a week since the Cubs won a ballgame, and the past six games have been the worst we’ve seen in the Joe Maddon era. A sweep at the hands of the Dodgers would be hard to swallow, but being swept by the lowly Padres was beyond anything Cubs fans could have expected. No one thing is wrong with the Cubs, and it isn’t simply waiting for one or two players to perform at their expected level. There are 20 players on the Cubs who aren’t living up to expectations, and until they do, this is going to be a sub-.500 team.

Going into the 2017 season, Cubs fans were dreaming of what it would feel like to be a modern-day baseball dynasty, following in the footsteps of the late ‘90s Yankees. We had a young, controllable core, a manager who seems to know all the right buttons to push, and a fanbase that had tasted victory and wanted more.

2017 has proven to be less than kind, and Cubs fans are finally getting frustrated. For the first two months of the season, Cubs leadership has claimed that everyone is calm, that things will change, that we will snap out of it any day now. Some Cubs have made the ridiculous claim that it has never been this bad before, forgetting the 108 years of losing that had come before. As a 24 year old, I’ve seen a lot of bad baseball in Chicago, and this hasn’t even broken the surface of how bad it could be.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at San Diego PadresYet, the Cubs have to realize that the struggle here is in the dissonance between how good we SHOULD be and how bad we HAVE been. A team that was supposed to be the greatest offense in the league, maybe in history, is now struggling to hit minor-league caliber pitching. Starters haven’t been able to hold a lead, and the offense hasn’t been able to give them one. The bullpen went through two or three rough weeks to start the year, then got good just in time for there to be no need to be; games were lost far before we got to the 7th inning.

The Cubs roster is too good to stay this bad for long. There will be a moment for the team to click, and for everything to get back into the swing of things. Last year, the Cubs had a similarly awful streak in late June and early July. The All-Star break gave everyone the chance to relax a bit, and then they took off with the division and never looked back. There is a strong chance that is what will happen this year, although the Cubs can’t afford to wait until the mid-July to turn things around. The rest of the NL-Central has been waiting for the Cubs, with both the Brewers and Cardinals losing in bunches as well. The division is ripe for the taking, but the Cubs aren’t in any position to do that until they figure out how to hit again.

The season is young, and there is still plenty of baseball left to be played. But the Cubs have some soul searching to do to figure out what kind of baseball team they can be and how to make that happen. For now, as a Cubs fan, it isn’t fun to watch this team play, and every day comes with the desperate plea that maybe, just maybe, today will be the day that the Cubs remember who they are.

June 1st: Losing Our Heads Over Things

Comedy only works when it is funny. This week, Kathy Griffin was not funny when she posted a photo of herself holding a prop that looked like Donald Trump’s severed head. It was over the top, it was crude, and it wasn’t the kind of thing we should be joking about in a country that has an evil streak of violence that we can’t seem to overcome.

She was swiftly fired by CNN, she apologized profusely, and she will, no doubt, go through a period of banishment from the spotlight. She is not the first person to do something stupid and wind up with a scandal, and she most certainly won’t be the last.

Kathy Griffin was wrong. She was thoughtless, she was over the top, and she did something that should have been comedy but instead was uncomfortable and offensive. The response by Donald Trump, though, was what caught my attention.

In a tweet to the public, as he likes to do, Trump said “Kathy Griffin should be ashamed of herself. My children, especially my 11 year old son, Barron, are having a hard time with this. Sick!”

Now, he’s absolutely right. Kathy Griffin should be, and seems to be ashamed. And he’s also right: No child should be made fearful of their father’s safety and well-being in a terrible joke. But here’s where we run into a problem. Donald Trump attempted to spur up compassion for him and his family by claiming to be a victim, a poor soul who hasn’t done anything to deserve this.

Let’s shift that thinking for a moment. How does the President think an 11 year old with a parent with a pre-existing condition feel when Trump ensures that they will not be covered by insurance? How does the President think a transgender 11 year old feels when told that they have no place to use the bathroom in their school? How does the President think an 11 year old feels when the government puts forth legislation that makes it easier for people to get guns to bring to school, rather than harder for people to get guns? How does the President think an 11 year old child of immigrants feels knowing that their president considers them to be the enemy?

The argument that we should do anything with consideration for how this may affect those around Trump is no longer on the table. It is no longer viable to ask for compassion from the general public when it has been made perfectly clear that no compassion will be returned in exchange. If anything, Trump is now getting the chance to experience the kinds of questions and nightmares that parents all across the country have to quell every day. And not all problems are as easy to explain away as a comedian with an ill-considered joke.

Kathy Griffin did something that was disrespectful and inappropriate. She is being punished for it, and things will soon return to normal. But, we need to remind the President that while he absolutely shouldn’t be experiencing these kinds of things as a human being, he cannot cry unfair play simply because he now has to explain away the actions of an ignorant person who made the world seem scary. American parents have been having to do that for months already. Welcome to the Trump America, Mr. President.

May 25th: Balancing Our Mentality With Our Budget

In a satirical column in USA Today, I learned that Kentucky is the state that most depends on Federal assistance to run their operations. I also knew, based on this election and every one that came before it, that Kentucky tends to be one of the most Republican-friendly states on voting day.

This comes as a bit of a shock. How is it that a state that depends so much on the help from the national government can so regularly support the political party that wants a small central power, with the real strength being given to the states? If that was the case, Kentucky would be dooming itself by biting the hand that feeds it, in favor of being left to its own (rather poor) devices.

This kind of political dissonance is baffling to me, and begs to question: what is it that Republican voters like about their Republican candidates that they would be willing to sacrifice themselves in that way? We know there are pet projects that the Republican party supports that are hot-button issues in places like Kentucky: guns, abortion, same-sex marriage, and others. But, on the larger scale, these are small issues when confronted by the fact that, if all goes according to the Republicans’ plan, states like Kentucky will be left out to dry.

It makes very little sense that a state so dependent on the national government for support would be willing to so consistently vote for the party that seeks to make government “small enough to drown in the bathtub.” And it should be for even greater concern when we consider what would happen if the people of Kentucky actually got what they have been asking for.

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.