Sunday, September 29, 2019

Dear Diversity: Are Jews allowed?

Dear Diversity:

I’m mad at you and I’m mad at me.

I’m mad at you because you’ve slammed the door in my face. On my face: my white, white face. Because Europe was so kind to my people, right? You say privilege like it means something. But believe me, the only gift Europe ever gave us was our lovely pale skin. But for you, diversity, that seems to be enough, because that’s all you see when you look at me.

But wait, there’s more, because somehow, you’ve decided that not only are me and my people not diverse (you try spotting people who look like me or my kids in a picture book – I dare you!), but we’re actually overrepresented. Because I’m a white Jewish woman, you assume you already know me. Not only that, but that you know enough about me to know you’re not interested in hearing more. Been there, done that.

So why am I mad at myself? Because you’ve made me doubt myself. You’ve actually convinced me that my diversity doesn’t matter and part of me can’t believe I’m such a sucker that I fell for it. Convinced me that Jewish people aren’t at all the same as people of colour, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and others who yearn to be heard.

Maybe the problem is that my diversity comes off as easily as the scarf on my head. If I wanted, I could “pass” and for you, Diversity, that seems to be enough.

I could whip off this headscarf, asd if that was all that marked me as different. I could whip it off, dig into a plate of shrimp, drive on Shabbos instead of lighting candles, staying home, and marking the time from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday as set-aside and holy, swaying as I whisper Hebrew prayers, and instead of all that, I could be just like everybody else.

But why? Those things are some of what I love most about myself and my identity. I adore my identity. I don’t want or need to pass, despite the disadvantages of life as an observant Jew, a serious Jew, a crazy-in-love-with-Judaism Jew… because there is nothing I would rather be in the world than who I am. I am unashamed of those Hebrew prayers, echoing through the generations since before our civilization existed. And I want my children to unashamedly see our lives reflected in children’s books. I want to see myself as a child.

image

(Spot the Jew!  One of the few images I’ve found lately of a Jew in a kids’ book – a stereotypical male Jew so far removed from my kids’ experience that he may as well not be there, but kudos to Oliver Jeffers for trying…)

But hey, if passing is going to be our criteria for whether or not someone is diverse, well, so could tons of other people. Take your LGBTQ person, your person of colour, your immigrant, your person with a disability or a non-cis-gendered identity. So many of them, too, could shed it, if perhaps only for a few minutes, and pass for the “default,” for “normal,” rather than being seen through the lens of their diversity. Pass for a person with perfect hearing, light skin, straight.

I’m not asking them to do that. We don’t, as a society, ask them to do that—because to do so would be a betrayal of their identity. It would be remaining silent when the world needs us all to speak up and announce our intersectionality, sharing the view through our own unique window panes.

I know you think you know me, but silence isn’t enough for me, Diversity.

I’m not buying it. My diversity is deeper than a headscarf and it’s deeper than white skin. It’s as deep as anyone else’s, which is deeper than the ocean and wider than the solar system, built into the fabric of nature whether you choose to see it and recognize it or not. And as with others’ diversities, I believe that silence is deadly.

That’s why, Diversity, I’m knocking at the door, but I’m not asking… I’m demanding that you open up your little club. Let me in. I’m mad at you for assuming I have nothing to say for myself, or that others have already said it for me. And I’m mad at myself for going along and staying silent much too long.

In a day and age when other diverse groups are stepping up and claiming their identity with pride, Jews remain silent and silenced—often ashamed, often knowing little about their own faith, beaten into ignorance and apathy by generations of struggle, torment, immigration, and assimilation. That’s why I’m stepping up, Diversity. It’s time someone did.

My skin may be white, my people may be from Europe, but no less than anyone else’s, my children deserve to see themselves in kids’ books, in the lineup of diverse kids in wheelchairs, with dark skin, light skin, freckled skin, frizzy hair, straight hair, blonde hair, cochlear implants, glasses, braces, seeing-eye dogs, hijabs, turbans and yes, yarmulkes, long dresses, tzitzit fringes flying, long or short peyos in front of their ears, Jewish stars worn with pride. Or better yet, mix it up. Jewish kids in wheelchairs, Jews dealing with dyslexia (like some Asians, we’re kind of sick of being seen as all bookish). Show us a star of David on a brown-skinned boy, a South Asian teen, a blonde girl with freckles. Because we’re as diverse as anyone.

Like us or lump us, Diversity. We Jews are here for you – so you’d better be here for us, too.

Love,

Tzivia

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Just a brief explanation, if you’ve made it this far and were wondering what had inspired this kind of rant.  At SCBWI LA in 2018, I was at a talk on diversity in which the marvellous Andrea Davis Pinkney challenged everyone in the audience to write “a letter to diversity.” 

Well.  After having already sat through three days of chats, discussions, panels, lectures, and more in which diversity was featured prominently but Jews and Judaism was nowhere to be seen – including a panel on which the token Jew was more prepared to talk about feeling like an outsider because she was homeschooled than about being Jewish – I was ready.

More than ready.

I had already encountered the idea during my Master’s degree studies that Jews don’t truly constitute a legitimate minority, that we are “mainstream” rather than truly diverse.  For example, Mordecai Richler, one of Canada’s best-known Jewish writers, was often dismissed by academics – in his lifetime and beyond – as not truly representing an “ethnic” voice (Singer, 2010).

And I didn’t like that idea one bit, whether it cropped up in an academic paper or in a talk by an author or illustrator, agent or editor.  Because the Jewish experience is so far from mainstream as to be a different experience altogether.

A diverse experience, as I’ve already said enough times above.

Please share your views in the Comments, whether they’re the same as my views or not.  I really want to hear what you have to say on this important subject.


Singer, Melina Baum. “Is Richler Canadian Content?: Jewishness, Race, and Diaspora.” Canadian Literature 207 (2010): 11-24. Canadian Literary Centre. Web. 4 June 2016.

Child’s drawing in title image © “my daughter Teresa” via Wikimedia)

Tzivia / צִיבְיָה

13 comments:

  1. *applause*
    Beautifully written, first of all. Second - yes. Yes! I'm still trying to figure out why our light skin and European features are a sign of privilege when they're more likely a sign of whose ancestors were raped in pogroms (yes, I'm sure that some people intermarried, converted, etc. Please allow me this overgeneralized hyperbolic statement anyhow.)
    The notion that diversity has to do with what you see and not what the person has experienced is ridiculous. 95% of the time I'm not visible as a Jew. Spoiler alert: I'm still Jewish all the way through.

    *sigh*. Did you ask for an essay or a comment? I can't remember. Shana Tova.

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    1. I love both -- essays or comments! This "essay"/screed started as a quick scrawl in a notebook as she was speaking (fantastic talk, btw) but grew and grew and grew until I realized just how passionate I felt about this subject.

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  2. I truly appreciate your rant. And I must add that this is also just as true for Jews who aren't particularly observant or don't show outward signs of their Judaism. Passing as a white Christian comes with enormous cost, ignoring or accepting Jewish microagressions on a dialy basis is soul-sucking, and coming out in your work place, etc.--not just by identifying as a Jew-- but calling out the ways you are being dismissed, othered, or ignored comes at a high price. It is so important for our children to see themselves represented AND also acknowledged and welcomed by non-Jews.

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    1. Bonni, I absolutely agree. Thank you so much!

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  3. If you are on Twitter, consider pitching your Jewish manuscript during #dvpit. Last time, I asked if Jewish was considered diverse and the moderator said yes. So if you are on Twitter, here are the upcoming dates:
    Oct 28: #DVPit - children’s/YA lit
    Oct 29: #DVPit - adult lit
    Nov 20: #FaithPitch

    Good luck!

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    1. I am on Twitter -- been too scared to jump in the deep end during these Twitter pitch events, but maybe this gives me a reason to try it... thanks! :-)

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  4. Thank you so very much for this.

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    1. Gae, I really appreciate your support. Gmar chatimah tovah! :-)

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  5. Thank you for writing this article. Been screaming about this very issue for years. It's about time they take notice.

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    1. Jonathan, much appreciated. Keep on screaming! :-)

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  6. I agree with almost everything you said, and I've felt the same. My few quibbles:
    1. Almost all Jews are ultimately Middle Eastern (specifically Levantine), with some degree of admixture from the lands where their ancestors spent the diaspora. As someone else pointed out, part of that admixture may be voluntary, part may have been forced on us. But we were persecuted in Europe precisely because we were NOT European, so allowing those who deny our diversity to score that point is not helpful. Our Jewish culture is not European, either - it is a Middle Eastern culture, with influences from Europe (for Ashkenazim).
    2. Don't leave out Mizrachim, Sephardim, Bene Menashe, Beta Yisrael, etc. And even the darker-skinned Ashkenazim. A large percentage of Jews cannot pass as white, even if they remove all their religious and cultural markers.

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    1. Absolutely, on both counts! I live in one of the more diverse parts of Israel, where we are actually surrounded by Beta Yisrael, many Bnei Menashe along with a huge Teymani, Morokai, and "other Mizrachi" population.
      Thanks for letting me know! :-)

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