Leading with chutzpah: On being Jewish and “white.”
I am white.
I am blue-eyed and freckled and my fair skin is the first thing people see when they meet me. My unruly, auburn curls are typically the next item to register. More often than I can count, strangers have classified me as Irish.
My first name does not provide further evidence of my race. “Rachel” remains a popular enough option and its biblical origins reveal little about my ethnicity.
My last name is my tell. As if my maiden name on its own wasn’t enough of a giveaway, when I married my husband I added a hyphen and his last name to create the most ethnically Jewish name of all time: Leventhal-Weiner.
And so if you meet me, you might be confused. I might look like just another white girl, but the thing is: I don’t feel white. Often, I don’t even understand what it means to be white. And when I feel misunderstood, I rarely consider my race as the source of my discomfort.
For a long time, I didn’t even realize that I was white. I grew up in the kind of town where you couldn’t drive from one side to the other without passing three synagogues. My religious and ethnic identity was solidified early on when I attended a Jewish day school until third grade. Our public schools were closed on the major Jewish holidays and I never had to explain what a Bat Mitzvah was to my public school friends.
In my hometown, I was Jewish first. And last. Only Jewish. My whiteness was never something I considered or thought about.
When I left home to go to college, I left my bubble. I went to the state university and I was thrown into a huge pool of people. There were still plenty of Jews on campus, but now I was white first and Jewish second.
And though I did not intentionally seek out Jewish friends, I felt at home in a room where I knew many people were Jewish. There are just unspoken experiences we shared — Hebrew school or youth group or sometimes feeling like an outsider — that brought many of us together. That feeling of ease and comfort I developed at home became part of how I read a room.
After I graduated from college, staying in the northeast seemed like the obvious choice. I once tried to explain to a colleague why I never really left, having moved from the New Jersey side of Philadelphia an hour north and then eventually to New York City. When my boss asked whether I would consider living in the midwest or the south, I simply smiled, laughed and replied, “I could never live there because there just aren’t any Jews there.”
I know there are Jews outside of the New York metro area. I am well aware that Jewish enclaves exist in nearly every city in the country. But even in 2016 (or 2003 when the conversation took place), having grown up in a largely Jewish hometown and lived in New York City my perception of the world was slightly skewed.
I am acutely aware, wherever I go, of my Jewishness. A colleague of Mexican descent listened to me describe how I perceive a safe or comfortable space and after listening to me babble, he replied, “You describe being around other Jews the way I have heard black people describe being in the company of other black people.”
That’s just it. Being Jewish first and white second means I am constantly reconciling two identities, one more comfortable than the other. Being Jewish first and white second means that I weave in Yiddish-isms in my everyday speech as though everyone will understand me.
Being Jewish first and white second means everyday life is the same thing as gentile life, and some stuff makes no sense. Being Jewish first and white second means I still get a thrill from trimming a Christmas tree and I’m completely unaware of lesser Christian holidays like Ash Wednesday or Good Friday (which I realize are not lesser holidays at all).
All of this is to say that when I feel misunderstood, when I cannot connect with another person, I go immediately to the differences between Jews and goyim (non-Jews) and race has little to do with why I feel outside of mainstream American life sometimes.
But because others see me as white first and Jewish second, I get lumped into a category I don’t particularly identify with. And this privilege I have makes me uneasy, knowing that less than a century ago my own ancestors were not considered white. Their Jewishness made them outcasts and I have benefited from their persecution. In an earlier era, I might never have lived to experience American Jewish life in all of its contradictions.
But I don’t live in another era. I live in an era where the majority of American Jews are white people, and the current generation of American Jewry knows little of the anti-Semitism their parents and grandparents faced.
Though American Jews face less anti-Semitism now, racism is as strong as ever. Even if I don’t identify with whatever whiteness is, I am still outwardly white. This white skin is the first signal to others about who I am. It protects me from discrimination, from violence, and from injustice. Whether I identify as Jewish first or not, my skin color affords me countless privileges that earlier generations of my family never knew or understood. That means I have an ever greater responsibility to use the privileges I have to work for equity for other people.
When I meet you, I’ll put myself in context by first pronouncing and spelling my awkwardly ethnic, hyphenated name. If necessary, I’ll offer a definition for the Yiddish-ism I just used that prompted the blank stares. And, in the end, I’ll hope that I make a good impression so as to be a righteous representative of my “chosen” people.
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