I’ve been quiet the past few days due to overwhelm and very big feelings, and am still struggling to gather thoughts.
I know there are things that white people need to be doing and talking about right now, and I am trying to do those things. And what is also true in my body is that when I see Nazis marching, it doesn’t make me feel my whiteness so much as it makes me feel my Jewishness. I’m overwhelmed with Jewish feelings right now.
I find it very hard to talk about the intersection of white privilege and Jewishness that I inhabit and that lives inside of me as a white-skinned Jew. I actually understand this complexity pretty well inside of myself but to try to discuss it with anyone who is not a white-skinned Jew like me makes me feel frightened and hopeless and, in the end, sleepy. I end up talking about white privilege a lot more than I do about the complex and layered thing that it is to be a white-skinned Jew. I’m not ashamed of the things that I say when I am talking about whiteness and what I am saying is true in my heart, but it is only part of what is true about my life and my history. By telling only part of the truth I end up feeling so invisible and so lonely, even though I am helping to invisibilize myself.
I was exposed to the idea and the experience of white privilege very early in my life, but even so, it continues to take years and years and years to unfold for me, all the ways that I’m treated with forgiveness and second chances and softness and the benefit of the doubt, and a general default of respect for my body and my sovereignty. One time I lost my wallet inside of my own car and I was able to withdraw funds from my bank account, with just a library card and a utility bill and facts about my own life as my only forms of identification. That is whiteness! It is hard to see those things that have always been present in your life, which you may not know are absent in the lives of others, so as I said, the awareness slowly unfurls over the course of years. I am not denying any of this when I talk about what it is like to be both a white person and a Jew. Everything I am saying about white privilege is true, and everything I’m about to say about being a Jew is also true.
Every oppression is special and unique and one of anti-Semitism’s key qualities is its rhythm. It is not relentless; it is cyclical. During the good times everyone but us starts to forget anti-Semitism and starts to think it is a thing of the past. During those times, the Jews who can — the ones who look white in the US, or the ones who could pass for German, or Spanish, or whoever were the people in power in the place where we were — would assimilate and accrue some degree of wealth and power and privilege. But then something goes wrong in that place — the economy crashes, unemployment rises, the wheels begin to fall off — and the active phase of anti-Semitism begins. We’re to blame for everything. We’re the secret conspiracy behind everything that has gone wrong. We’re not German anymore; we’re not Spanish anymore; we’re Jews. We’re the poison that everyone can agree on, the thing that everyone can hate.
What I’m trying to say here is that the privilege that accrues during the good times is very much real, and I am not denying or hiding that. It is also true that the privilege is provisional, and can be revoked, and becomes the very thing that is used against us when the shoe finally drops.
It overwhelms me trying to explain this history and how both of these things live inside my body: the very real privilege but also the very real and repeated experiences of expulsion, scapegoating, genocide, and terror. I talk about the part that is easier, but then I end up feeling very alone.
When I was younger and people would ask if I was Jewish I would say, “My grandparents are Jewish,” as if it is something we had grown out of after a few generations in this country. My last name — my Jewish, Jewish name — was something that I always hated, and in high school I wanted so badly to change it. I once saw the name “Pruitt” on a gravestone and thought that it was the most beautiful thing. Now I am so thankful to my name, and to my hair and even to my face, which have always marked me as a Jew and kept me tethered to myself. Sometimes I’m so astonished and grateful to my ancestors who stayed Jewish, generation after generation, when it was not strategic or safe to do so. Now I’ve grown into my name and I will be a Jew until there is nothing else left.
When I read that the synagogue in Charlottesville was surrounded by armed Nazis and that the people smuggled the Torah scrolls out of the building to hide them, I wept. I want you to know what a Torah scroll is because I want you to understand. We are a people of the book and that is Our Book; we are a people of memory and that is our memory. It is written on sheep skin and it is handwritten, every letter. A Torah scroll is difficult to make and because of that there are not very many of them. It is not a book that you buy in a store. In some ways it has the status of a human being. It wears a breastplate like the priests did in the ancient Temple. When it passes by we touch it with our prayer shawl and then we put the shawl to our lips, a way to kiss it without touching, and a scroll may stand in for a human person in reaching a minyan (the quorum required to recite certain prayers). It is written without vowels, without punctuation, without the markings that tell you how to sing it, yet there is a way to sing every single word of it; one thing you may not know about me is that I know how to do this. When you read from it you don’t touch it with your own finger, but you use a pointer which is itself shaped like a finger. It is our past and our future and so it is treated like the most respected elder and also the most precious child. It has a home: inside the ark, with the ner tamid (“the light, always”), in the sanctuary. I want you to understand this because I want you to know how important it is to protect a Torah scroll and what it means to be separate from it. I want you to understand how much pain and how much fear a Jewish community is in when they take the scrolls from their proper home and hide them in someone’s basement. I want you to understand why, when I read that, I felt so heartbroken and so afraid.
This intersection of privilege and terror that is being a white-skinned Jew is very complicated. I am struggling with it from the inside. I want people who care for me and for other Jews to struggle with it from the outside. I want you to try to understand us. I want you to know that we’re not just like regular white people, only louder and with more movement of hands. We’re a complicated and layered thing. To understand us you have to go both backward and forward in time. You have to understand that Jewish time is like geologic time, that 150 or 500 years between expulsions is not that long; it’s not long enough to forget, or to rest. Please fight to understand us, in all of our complexity.
I also want you to try to love us. It has always felt true to me that we are not liked. Many people like me as an individual person, but I have always felt that my truest Jewish self is not a loved and welcomed thing, and that as a collective whole, we are not wanted. I have felt over the past few years that my constant work of being smart and funny and helpful, my efforts to feed everyone and be of use are not just something I came up with personally but are Jewish in origin. It’s not that I’m trying to set myself apart from other Jews by being good good good, but I am trying to offset the inherent deficit of being at my core an unlikeable Jew. I would love so much to not feel this way. I would love to feel like my whole Jewish self is a beloved and valued thing.
We are all working hard to survive and thrive, to love and resist in these times. Thank you for reading this and for everything that you are doing to fight for yourself and others.