Privilege

Robin Margolis, an activist for children of interfaith marriage in the Jewish community who has written for us at IFF, has been posting about the issues adult children of intermarriage face in the community on Jewcy.com. In her latest piece, Why Many Jewish Outreach Workers Ignore Half-Jewish People, she creates a list of all the ways and all the reasons the Jewish community doesn’t offer explicit welcome or programming to adult children of intermarriage.

The list is comprehensive, but I think it misses the point. Most outreach workers are ignoring adult children of interfaith marriage because they don’t think adult children of interfaith marriage have a problem being accepted into the Jewish community. They really just don’t know, and when individuals try to explain, they think these individuals are exceptional. It’s the ignorance of privilege and it’s more intractable than active hostility.

I’m speaking for myself now, here, too. I remember the first time I met a Jewish woman of color, in college. She was an amazingly cool person and I had not known she was Jewish. I was very excited to learn we had Jewishness in common. She explained that because her mom was Jewish and her dad was African-American, Ashkenazi Jewish kids where she grew up told her she couldn’t be Jewish.

“But that’s not right,” I said, and went off into a pedantic explanation of the Jewish law, blah blah blah, to cover my distress. I wanted us to be connected by this identity that was important to me, and she had been pushed away from it. (We were still friends anyway, though she was considerably cooler than I. When I finish writing this I’m going to look her up on Facebook.) It was years before I saw that her experience was not an unusual one.

It’s not that committed Jews, whether we have one Jewish parent or two, don’t like people with complicated Jewish identities. We’ve seen all kinds of complication. It’s that we can’t accept our community could be rejecting. We think we’re good at accepting, and we aren’t. We have to wake up and realize our personal experiences of being Jewish aren’t the only ones.

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6 thoughts on “Privilege

  1. That’s an interesting perspective – that Jewish outreach workers don’t know what children of intermarriage face due to the blindness of privilege – ? Could be, but what if the Jewish outreach worker in question says, “You’re not Jewish,” or “Your family is not Jewish. Our services are for Jewish families” – ? It’s quite possible that outreach workers wouldn’t know how often a rabbi or a member of a congregation tells someone they’re not Jewish, not Jewish enough, or wants to know “How do you know you’re Jewish?” (The same way you do, buddy.) But when the outreach workers themselves are openly dismissive – ? Hmmm. We “halfies” often encounter rejection and/or disbelief, which is then followed and compounded by denial. We’re not being rejected – we’re just imagining it? Yeah.

    As human beings, everyone has blind spots. We can’t be otherwise, as we can’t live every possible perspective. One key to effective communication is to believe someone when they share their experience – even if it is difficult to hear – rather than tell them it’s all in their minds. I wonder about this issue a lot, actually. It is crazy-making to bump up against obvious prejudice and then have the person or group claim they’re “welcoming” when they clearly are not. Even if they refrain from making overtly derogatory, dismissive, patronizing, belittling, or rejecting statements, real attitudes come out in body language (physical recoiling), facial expressions (rolling eyes), tone of voice (loud and slow.) I do appreciate it when someone wants me to think they think I’m okay, even if they don’t, but I’d prefer to be accepted than bolster someone’s attempt to think of themselves as generous. Know what I mean?

    Although I have a great deal of respect for Robin Margolis, and admire her courage, I can’t see myself agitating for change which may never occur. For me personally, it’s healthier to find my own way to be Jewish, possibly including creating a new arena. There are so many study resources publicly available. While it would be nice to bond with a rabbi, a shul, or a community, it is not essential. I’m at a place where it’s okay with me if Jewish institutions don’t like us halfies. If our money isn’t good enough for them, that’s their loss.

    For what it’s worth, I deeply appreciate the way IFF has made space for us on the message board.

  2. Of course I don’t mean to dismiss the examples of outreach workers who are themselves not accepting! At this point, I can believe anything. It just seems to me that a key issue is the one you describe, people dismissing the experiences of individuals because they know there are [i]rules[/i] against those things, they aren’t [i]supposed[/i] to happen, and so on and so forth.

    The Jewish community has cultural ideals and then we have enacted realities. Our ideals include things like warm, supportive families, a complete lack of domestic violence, a low rate of alcoholism, an opposition to racism. Our realities include Jewish families with the same problems as everyone else’s families, the same rates of substance abuse and d.v.–and I’ve certainly witnessed a tolerance for expressions of racial bias. We believe we are as good as we’re supposed to be on issues of class and financial aid. We believe we’re as good as the rules tell us to be on a variety of issues. But we aren’t, and that’s not what cultural ideals are for anyway–they’re here to tell us who to try to be, not who we already are.

  3. I didn’t mean to sound as if I think you are being dismissive. Not at all. As far as I am concerned, you are pretty amazing, and I think the work you guys do here at IFF is great stuff. I wish there were more like you.

    But yes, I completely agree about ideals vs. “enacted realities.” By Jewish law, I’m Jewish, for example, and some will pay lip service to that, but they don’t mean it – they don’t think it or believe it. And yes, there is enormous class snobbery, and there is racism, and other forms of bigotry, and no doubt domestic violence and alcoholism and every other affliction known to society, like, oh – embezzlement, fraud, pedophilia, and dealing in black market organ harvesting. We don’t have to be perfect – nobody can be. I’m just not sure where the dividing line is between hypocrisy and falling short of ideals, but I suspect it is a matter of intention and values. Messing up is different from a lack of willingness.

    Another aspect of communicating on this thorny topic is that we are bound by our personal paradigms, which I think is what you’re saying. The definition of a prejudice or a bias is that it is something we don’t, ourselves, see.

  4. I find myself feeling very conflicted about this topic.  One the one hand, I certainly think that having a Jewish identity is an extremely important part of “being Jewish”.  Simply having a Jewish parent or relative, having not been raised Jewish and without any sense of Jewish identity … that just doesn’t seem enough.  I don’t want my synagogue to be recruiting anyone who has had one or two Jewish parents.  This extends to Jews by birth who are completely uninvolved and unaffiliated, who were not raised with any Jewish connection, who actively participate in secular Christmas and Easter fun. 

    I even find myself a little disturbed by the whole label “Half Jewish”.  My son and daughter are not half-Jewish.  They are Jewish.  The child of a US citizen is a US citizen – whether or not the other parent is. I don’t want them being singled out as “half Jewish”.  They are Jewish, period.  I don’t want my children to ever suffer discrimination in their own community, and yet, I’d be very sad to hear them describe themselves as “half Jewish” – what made them think they only half belong?

    I certainly understand your point and the point of author of the original article.  We have a lot of work to do to be fully inclusive.  If we don’t accept interfaith couples, patrilineal descent and Jewish children of interfaith parentage, we’re in big trouble – not to mention the wrongness of not doing so!

    But how far are we willing to go to boost our numbers?  We have a unique culture, heritage, and belief system.  You don’t have to reject a parent or reject a family tradition, but you do have to feel “I am Jewish” and I recognize what isn’t.  At what point does “anything goes” erode what makes Judaism and Jewish identity unique?  Can you live your whole life without any Jewish connection or identity and then just decide one day, “I’ve decided to be Jewish.” and not be expected to go through any “becoming” rituals?  Suffice it to say that this is a complicated issue. 

  5. I don’t think this is as thorny an issue as you do, Karen. It only requires that Jewish communities think about what it means for someone who has a Jewish parent and wasn’t raised Jewish to try to return to the Jewish community. We have programs for interfaith families and for Jews by choice, and we should be thinking in advance about the needs of people in this situation, and not stand there looking at them with dismay because we haven’t considered what we would do if they showed up. It’s just not the way to go about it.

    Of course “becoming rituals”–conversion or “affirmation”–are valuable procedures for reintegrating people. The problem, I think, isn’t the who is a Jew question. It’s how you approach people who are trying to make that return.  We recognize that we shouldn’t push away people with two Jewish parents who don’t have much Jewish education, or people with no Jewish parents who want to be in our community. Why act like a person with one Jewish parent is a big problem? If you have a ritual for them, why not also a mode of being welcoming?

    The fact that people still do call themselves half-Jewish bothers me, too. I don’t think people of mixed heritage are half one thing and half another thing. You aren’t half your mom’s kid and half your dad’s kid. That this seemed like the most intelligible name for the group is a measure of members’ experience of discrimination.

  6. Exactly what Ruth said. Exactly.

    I don’t think anyone just wakes up and “decides” to be Jewish, but that it might be a long process, spanning several years, of coming to terms with family secrets or divisions, and societal ones as well. Certainly, the learning process itself takes time.

    From what I’ve seen, many people not raised as Jews, but with a Jewish parent or grandparent, feel a great deal of longing to reconnect with Judaism – as well as to sort through a complex set of circumstances. It would be nice to have the support of people dealing with the same issues, and for such a group to be sponsored by a synagogue. It is hard to build something from nothing, to educate ourselves, to find resources for Jewish learning without the advice of an experienced person who knows what they are doing. Because we are not always welcome, it is not just a matter of signing up for a class, or “converting” or going through a learning process. Who wants to be in a place where they are not wanted?

    Due to a long discussion following an article on Jewcy, I have come to understand, or to have at least developed some working theories as to why the term “Half-Jewish” is so upsetting to people established in Jewish communities. If it is that explosive, I am not really surprised they do not welcome us.

    What is frustrating, however, is that people seem far less willing to understand what the term means to [b]us[/b], or to attempt to wrap their brains around the fact that we are entering Jewish life with a different paradigm or set of assumptions. It doesn’t make us right or anyone in a Jewish community wrong – and I hope it doesn’t have to make us enemies. It might mean we need a different vocabulary or conceptual framework to communicate with each other effectively. And of course, people in the Jewish community have to want that.

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