I was wandering around Greenwich Village when a young guy with an Israeli accent jumped in front of me, asked if I was enjoying the summer day, and gave me a free sample of hand cream. I should have thanked him and sped off, because I could feel a certain intensity, a sense that if I got started with him, tension would follow. But I accepted his offer for a sample of moisturizer too, figuring it might be fun to play with the two different creams and compare them. When he asked me if I wanted to buy anything, I could scram at that point, just like always.
Before handing over the moisturizer, he waved me towards a shop that sold Orogold cosmetics and rushed inside ahead of me. I should have lost him right then and headed onward, but I have a super-polite streak, so I followed him in. “I thought you were just going to hand it to me outside. I don’t have time for this. I have to go.” I could feel my energy tighten and escalate. Though I had no particular appointment right then, I wanted to savor those precious hours in New York in the best possible way. Wasting time in this Orogold place seemed emblematic of my entire life slipping towards the end, with days and hours stuffed into the dustbin of crushed potential.
“Just let me demonstrate the moisturizer. It will only take a minute. Let me see your arm.” Before I could run away, he was touching my hand and readying the cream.
“No, I really, really need to go.” I spoke super-fast and was probably jerking around like I do when mild hysteria sets in.
A young woman called in Israeli-accented English: “Are you Jewish?”
I felt a quick shock, but she was Israeli, after all. Maybe she had some kind of radar that told her I was precisely that kind of frantic, short, dark-haired human. “Actually, I am.”
“Well, stop being Jewish. Calm down.”
I laughed; this made me oddly happy. The dude applied the moisturizer and asked me to touch both of my arms. “You see how much softer this arm is than the other one? Amazing, no?” I supposed the moisturized arm was softer, but not $125 softer, and there was no way I was going to buy anything in that store. I’m the sort of person who needs to meditate in peace and silence for at least fifteen minutes before making any sort of purchase, and this place was the absolute opposite of tranquility.
“Because you’re my blood, I’ll give you $40 off the moisturizer, just for today. Offer won’t stand if you come back tomorrow.” I didn’t get quite as much of a kick out of that: I don’t really buy things other than food and necessities, blood-based discount or not. So I slipped out at that point, feeling pleased that I had stayed just long enough to squeeze out some intriguing moments without allowing these Orogold people to squander much of my time or score any money at all from me.
Shortly after this episode, a few Jewish women I know became upset because of an article that discussed racism yet seemed anti-Semitic, in an online publication: Electric Literature. The author was at a writing workshop, eating dinner with her roommate, who had told her she was Jewish, and another woman who she thought was Jewish, mainly because she looked affluent and had a daughter named Rachel. One of the women (not sure whether it was the definite Jew or the probable Jew; it’s unclear in the article) dismissed a colleague at the program: an African American man who had shared a heartfelt piece which she found uninteresting because the family problems he discussed were only relevant to “them”: fellow African Americans.
In a fascinating twist, the article seems to have changed since the first time I read it. Soon after it came out, I noticed some complaints about unacceptable stereotyping in the comments section, and now I can find no linkage between Jews and wealth, and no daughters named Rachel… though the author’s first example of racism still clearly discusses the perpetrator’s possible Jewishness: which in itself strikes me as odd at best and skin-crawling at worst. She suggests that it’s relevant because the perpetrator might have experienced anti-Semitism because she might be Jewish: a tenuous reason to mention Jewishness at all.
I just asked myself: Does this article’s author turn me off, based on the evidence I have? My answer came immediately: yes. I’m uncomfortable with her linkage of Jews, wealth, and devaluing of African American concerns.
So, then, why was I not upset by the Israeli woman who told me to stop being Jewish and calm down, linking Jewishness with anxiety and suggesting that my mental health would improve if I gave up my ethnic identity? The answer seems clear: because she was Jewish too. If she had come from any other background, I would have been unnerved, and possibly horrified, depending on context and tone. But why?
One fascinating aspect of the original version of the Electric Literature article: it was open and honest, in a way we don’t typically see in public writing. Think about private conversations you have with close friends and family members. Would you want most of the content published? Do you ever say things about other people or groups that you wouldn’t exactly share throughout your social media networks? Have you ever expressed, I don’t know, fear because certain demographics seemed to predominate when you got lost walking around your city and you couldn’t figure out how to get back to familiar ground? Or nervousness because certain other demographics seemed extremely prevalent at an academic program, creating self-doubt about your ability to succeed? Or unhappiness because you were in the stark minority racially or ethnically, and you didn’t relate to the prevailing codes and conversations, which you then proceeded to mock?
Call me awful, but I have done all of these things, in private, during intimate conversations. What if this article’s author were sitting at her kitchen table with her best friend and her mother, recounting the story of the writing workshop, saying: “You know, I’m almost positive the woman who made that remark was Jewish. She just seemed to have a certain style — she wore particular kinds of expensive clothes that many Jews I know seem to favor”? It still gives me the willies, just a bit, but do I have the right to feel that way, given my own behavior? And is there anything wrong with sharing your true, unadulterated impressions of other people with those closest to you? If not, then why is it a problem in a public article?
In a way, the current article feels less open, a bleached out version of something that used to be livelier, and more real. I still don’t like what she said and implied about Jews in the original version, but part of me — most of me, in fact — is glad I saw it. I got a glimpse into her thought process, a real one, and how common is that in our super-careful, composed intellectual world?
Can I be completely honest with you? I’ll probably get myself into deep hot trouble here, but I have a sense for what the author meant when she looked at the woman and thought she was probably Jewish because of a certain style of dress and self-presentation that included suggestion of affluence. Do you? Seriously, do you? If you hail from one of many metropolitan areas that have large Jewish communities, I have a hunch that you just might.
I’ll tell you a bit about me, as a child and teenager. I grew up in a town called Mountainside, in NJ. From what I could tell, the people ranged from middle class to upper middle class. I saw little if any poverty and true wealth seemed rare, though I suspect more families than I might have expected had some measure of it but didn’t flaunt it.
I don’t remember much economic competition among the kids during my childhood. Of course some houses were bigger than others, and some families shopped at Bloomingdale’s while others preferred Sears, but I don’t remember much discussion about any of this, or much judgment surrounding it. We all had houses and wore clothes, and of course some kids were more socially successful than others, but wealth seemed only a small factor here. My extremely unscientific measures suggest that my grade was maybe 10% Jewish — far from insignificant, but relatively small compared to many of the surrounding towns.
Unlike most of the other Mountainside kids, I went to camp in the summer: day camp when I was younger, sleepaway later on. Fascinatingly, the Jewish kids were far more likely than others to attend camp… and this trend seemed to hold at the camps themselves. I enjoyed my earliest camps quite a bit, but, the summer after 6th grade, I chose a new camp, which, probably because it was more expensive and upscale, attracted a different population from my previous camps. It seemed to draw primarily from the affluent suburbs of Westchester County in New York: Scarsdale and Larchmont were common addresses.
OK, I’ll just out with it. I hated that camp, and the reason was clear: the most common demographic turned me off. Unsophisticated and non-visually-oriented, even I was able to pick something out, something impossible to pin down definitively but as real as the keyboard I’m typing on: Those girls had a certain style, and it suggested wealth in a certain kind of way — a way that was unmistakably Jewish in tone. I’d seen it among some of my parents’ friends and their kids (their friends at that point tended to be affluent Jews).
I can’t tell you brands or give specific descriptions: it was a long time ago, and I don’t have a good eye for the specifics of fashion. Just trust me on this; the big picture was overwhelmingly obvious. I wouldn’t have minded one bit if the kids hadn’t also been snobbish and cliquish, shunning the clumsy character with clothes from the boys department and a tendency to make weird comments.
A sad thought began brewing in my mind: that I didn’t really like Jewish kids, for the most part. They struck me as unpleasant and materialistic, and I greatly preferred the people from my town. Was I an appalling bigot? Perhaps, but I’m not going to hide it. I am all about the honest moment. My closest elementary school friend was Jewish, so I certainly didn’t dislike all Jews. But negative feelings were beginning to fester.
An intriguing tidbit: I assumed the ritzy camp had a much higher percentage of Jews than my previous ones, but I just spoke with my mother and discovered that wasn’t the case: they were all predominantly Jewish, and one place I particularly enjoyed was run by a Jewish organization. Somehow, the wealthier camp seemed more Jewish to me; that particular form of glitziness felt like a Jewish trait. A window into the makings of prejudice and stereotyping? Perhaps.
Years later, I decided to attend a private high school in Livingston, NJ; it had a much higher percentage of Jews than my town. I made this choice for academic reasons: I’d spent 9th grade at my public high school and found it sorely lacking for my quirky intellectual needs. It’s probably a good thing I’d gone to that camp — it prepared me for the prevailing demographic at my new school. It seemed to me that most of the Jewish kids were, you know, that type. The glitzy camp type. The affluent Jew in that particular way sort of type.
Again, I found myself missing the kids from my town. I stayed at my new school — that really wasn’t a question since the public school was such a poor academic fit for me. But, one evening, I told my mother that, after spending time at a heavily Jewish school, I understood why some people were anti-Semitic. The fancy cars in the parking lot (it was pretty easy to guess which cars belonged to students and which to teachers: a clear case of power to the kids), the upscale clothes with the prominent brand markers, the amazing vacations during almost every break… it was a world filled with luxury and, more essentially, expressive luxury. People wanted you to know what they had, to see it on their bodies and in their possessions. And (am I going to get slammed into the ground?) my classmates who didn’t carry this particular value were very disproportionately not Jewish.
Thankfully, the next step on my educational journey — my college years — introduced me to Jews who were quite different from the stereotypes I had experienced. Many of them were affluent, too, but most lacked the particular showy quality that had always turned me off. I developed a deep friendship with a Jewish guy from Massachusetts, and we often joked about Jewish issues. It felt healing to have such a close Jewish friend after years of feeling like predominant Jewish values were at odds with my innermost self.
Today, I have many Jewish friends from all kinds of economic backgrounds, and have even gotten over much of my distaste for the “showy” type. I figure a bit of ostentation is no worse than many other traits I overlook all the time. Most of my current Jewish friends are super-casual: nothing like the people I remember from camp or high school. I live in Cambridge, MA, home of the grungy academic, Jews included.
So there you go: my own flirtation with anti-Semitic sentiment. I’m a bit worried about publishing this, but not terrified, because I’m Jewish. It kind of reminds me of a revelation I had when I was a child: at the camp I attended the summer before the horrible one. A friend kept going on about how much she hated her mother. Finally, I said something like: “Wow, your mother sounds terrible.” Then she was furious with me. She could criticize her mother, but I couldn’t. One of those simple, profound lessons that has helped me get along with people ever since.
It makes perfect sense. You can judge your own family all you want, but, when an outsider joins in, danger lurks, especially if outsiders have hounded your family for centuries, partly for reasons related to the comments in question. Still, I like to know what people are thinking. If I don’t know, we can’t help each other grow, and transcend our small-minded notions.
After exploring all of this, I’m asking myself again how I feel about the non-Jewish author of the article that sparked these ruminations. She still isn’t someone I’d go out of my way to meet, but if you were totally forthright with me about all the nuances of your impressions of various cultures, would I want to meet you? Maybe not. And maybe that’s something I should get over, if I’m interested in the true nature of group dynamics and the intricacies of each unique human mind.
***Image Credit: “Money Girl” by Tax Credits. July 12, 2012. flickr.com