Last Sunday, sitting on the steps next to my container garden outside my Long Beach apartment, I heard a group of people singing in the next building. I thought of the seder I’d had a couple of nights before; my friends and I had sung the Ma Nishtana, which I only learned a few years ago and forget every year. Only two of the guests remembered the melody at first, but it only took a line or two for it to come back to the rest of us. I wondered if the neighbors could hear us. I’ve never had an anti-Semitic incident in this neighborhood, so I thought it’d be kind of cool if on the other side of our open windows, people were listening to us sing.
I watched families walking in and out of apartments, carrying children, greeting relatives. I smiled as I listened to the singing. Then I realized it wasn’t a hymn or some other Easter song – they were all singing a pop song. Blink 182 or something.
Oh. Well, it was still nice to hear singing. Yellow jackets buzzed around my bacopas. My bean seedlings were just starting to twine around the railing, and my lavender was blooming like the world was going to end.
According to the Slingshot Collective, “the modern world is the ugliest, saddest, dirtiest, and most stressful and dangerous place humans have ever created.” I don’t know if it’s the ugliest, the saddest, or the est of any of those other things, but many parts of it certainly are ugly and sad. I was thinking about that quote, along with various discussions I’ve witnessed about the “lack” of white American culture – whiteness as negative space – and white Americans’ need to appropriate more exotic cultures, when I tested a theory out on my husband: that the United States has one of the shallowest national cultures on the planet. Even as I said it, I knew that it was reductive, a gross exaggeration. I knew the situation isn’t even historically or globally anomalous. But it was the only way I could articulate my thoughts on white kids with kanji tattoos, white kids faking accents at renaissance fairs, white kids fetishizing dream catchers and kokopellis. I thought, for example, of the history lessons I remember from elementary school: the (heavily romanticized) Native Americans, the pilgrims, the colonists, the Founding Fathers. Even then, I think I had a vague awareness that none of my ancestors were involved in any of that. Most branches of my family didn’t arrive until the 1920s. But we didn’t study that in school. The closest we got was lessons like this one: a video about a young Middle Eastern girl who, required to make a pilgrim doll for a Thanksgiving diorama, fashions a tiny headscarf. Get it? Her family made a pilgrimage to America, too. In a way, the video winked, aren’t we all pilgrims to this very holy place?
I was thinking, also, of the graduation ceremony at Henry Ford’s Ford English School in the early 1900s, in which immigrants, dressed in culturally specific clothes, walked into a huge pot and emerged wearing business suits and waving American flags. Becoming American, according to white popular mythology, necessitates shedding and forgetting. Becoming American is learning to enact an identity that has no source. Ethnic groups have been forced to do it because of discrimination and violence (including Jews, despite the anti-Semitic myth that we sneakily worked the system to satisfy our raging hunger for wealth), but of course there was a carrot along with the stick. How many of us have had relatives with a strong distaste for all that “old” stuff? The stuff associated with poverty and coarseness and humiliation?
My point is that so many of us spend our childhoods learning about someone else’s history, someone else’s identity. I’m sure there were descendants of the original colonists in my classroom – good for them. But the rest of us learned not that our own histories didn’t matter, but that our histories didn’t even exist. The story of the nation-state in which we happened to live trumped the stories of us, its peoples.
Okay, this is old news. But there’s a connection between the distortions we’re fed by nationalism and white people’s longing for something more authentic – a genuine longing which so often expresses itself in careless appropriation, even obsession. In college, I dated a textbook Japanophile – anime, manga, language classes, exchange programs, the works. There were long stretches of time when he refused to speak English. His family’s house was filled with Japanese and Chinese brush paintings and books on pop Taoism (The Tao of Pooh, The Tao of Physics, The Tao of Meow). He claimed he’d been a Samurai in a past life. He also claimed that he didn’t care what he did for a living – even a convenience store clerk would be fine – as long as it was in Japan. (The classism of such a claim was lost on me at the time.) Eventually, he did indeed move to Japan and marry a Japanese woman; I can only hope (and doubt) he sees her as a full human being.
That was an extreme case, but it was an example of something that all of us, to a certain extent, were doing. Even if you learn to look for culture outside of racist appropriation and consumerism, it’s hard not to feel the pull towards the exotic. But why is “exotic” so often seen as synonymous with “authentic?”
Last week, my mother made reservations for Easter brunch at a fancy restaurant in Anaheim. That’s what you do on Easter in Orange County: you put on your heels and go eat prime rib. Or you go to the gospel show at Downtown Disney. Or you attend a televised mass at the Crystal Cathedral.
I spent eighteen years of my life waiting to escape Orange County. I’ll be frank: when Slingshot talks about the ugliness of the modern world, they’re partly talking about places like Yorba Linda, Anaheim, and Irvine (in addition, of course, to places more ravaged by globalization). Strip malls and fast food. Neighborhoods in which you can’t name a single neighbor. Boulevards without sidewalks, roads as wide as rivers, more gated communities than accessible parks. You do not sing: you are sung to. You do not cook: you open a package. You do not make: you buy. White Orange County isn’t just conservative Christian; it’s hyper-conservative, hyper-evangelical, hyper-fundamentalist. If you look un-Christian in white Orange County, you walk around with the understanding that you may be stopped on the street and reprimanded. The warnings of hellfire and damnation and et cetera are so pervasive that, after a few years of them, you develop a constant, nagging doubt: What if I’m wrong? What if it’s real? What if my perception of logic and morality is useless? The rich exegesis of Christianity, all those texts and myths and symbols, is absent there; a two-thousand-year-old religion has been collapsed into scary pamphlets and anti-choice bumper stickers.
The guy I dated had grown up in the sprawl of Memphis. We exchanged stories of megachurches and militant prayer groups. Interesting, that none of the things Memphis is famous for seemed to be part of his life.
Why do white people so often reject the cultures surrounding them? Fuck, why wouldn’t they? When so many of us come from cultures so paranoid and mean?
And how do we heal ourselves?
I’ve been trying, for a long time, to reconcile my Jewish half with my Northern European half, but damn if it isn’t tough. At the restaurant I was reminded of everything I hated about where I grew up. My mom and my husband and I sat at a booth surrounded by people we’d never seen before and would probably never see again – “community” is basically a meaningless concept in places like this. I stood in line for my food with the type of people among whom I’d grown up, but with whom I’d never felt comfortable. Try as I might, I’ve never been able to dredge up any actual traditions from my NE half, aside from some very basic ones (Christmas tree in winter, Easter eggs in spring, corned beef and cabbage when Uncle Butch visited from New York). We never did anything specific to where we were living.
(“I don’t think that’s true everywhere,” my husband said. “I think it was probably really different for you in Orange County.”
“You’re probably right,” I said, and hated Orange County even more. My husband had grown up in Berkeley.)
Lately, he and I have been discussing the possibility of having a baby – not making decisions, but tossing around ideas for when it might happen. The problem, though, is that it feels almost impossible to have a child in our circumstances, considering health care, child care, income, job security, and community support. When you don’t know your neighbors, exchanging child care is basically out. When you teach community college, you never know when you’ll lose your job, and you don’t have real health insurance anyway. When you and other members of your race and class have been taught that children are nothing but expensive time-sucks – when you’ve been taught that having a child means you’ve given up on your career, and believe me, people will talk, whether they’re friends or employers – then wanting a family becomes a source of shame, something to be kept secret. Without community, having a child seems almost impossible.
I want to eat fresh, healthy food, but that’s almost impossible. I want to unyoke my writing from hierarchies and careerism, but that’s almost impossible. I want to create culture with the people around me, not by spending money but by making and cooking and singing – but mainstream culture makes it almost impossible. It seems like anything that could conceivably be good for a person is almost impossible to obtain.
And I know that there are many white American cultures, and most of them are perfectly authentic, thanks very much. But then I think of my Japanophile ex-boyfriend, the way my hometown makes my skin crawl. Gospel at Downtown Disney? Really? From the faux Tuscan villas in Newport Beach to the burbling brooks in the malls to the Matterhorn in Anaheim, everything in white Orange County is an imitation of something else.
I often wonder how extensively Orange County molded me when I was growing up. I don’t think I’d be a different person if we’d lived somewhere else – but I do think I’d be a stronger one.
In the car, my mom asked how my seder went, and then asked why my father didn’t come. “Then you’d actually have a Jew there,” she said.
Why in the world would she assume that none of the guests were Jewish? My husband and I rushed to correct her. Actually, we said, almost everyone was Jewish. My husband was the only goy (his words) there.
My mom laughed. “Well, I hate to say it,” she started, even though she was clearly loving it. And then I understood what she’d been leading up to. “Julie isn’t really Jewish,” she said. “I mean, let’s face it.”
Let’s face it. It: the truth I’d supposedly been avoiding. The secret at the core of this game I’d been playing. Actually, it’s a game she likes to play – tell me, when I’m a kid, that I’m a Jew, but then reverse herself when I get older. Give me a Jewish calendar and then ask if I’m going to shave my head. Tell me I’m Jewish because my father’s Jewish, then tell me I’m not because she’s not.
In The Colors of Jews, Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz writes about the anxiety, in Jewish communities, about who counts as a “real” Jew. “The theme of Jewish authenticity or visibility resonates from every corner of the room,” she says, describing a Jewish multicultural event in New York City. “Who is Jewish enough? Who is more Jewish? Even white Reform Jews with two Jewish parents wonder about their authenticity. For Jews of color, Jews who don’t look Ashkenazi, the pressure is much greater.” At a shabbes dinner I attended a couple of weeks ago, I overheard a conversation about who makes the cut. “My mom converted,” one guy said. “I’m not the real deal.”
“Why not?” a non-Jew asked.
“You’re only a real Jew if you’re ethnically Jewish,” he explained.
Except that I, an ethnic Ashknenazi, am not “real” either, because I’m ethnic on the wrong side. I would only “really” be Jewish, I’ve been told, if I converted.
Except that if I converted (into something I already am – how exactly is that a conversion?), I suspect I still wouldn’t be Jewish enough. People would still find a way to lord it over me. Like the ex-boyfriend, for instance – he was half-Jewish himself, but on the “correct” side, and was always searching for ways to remind me that I wasn’t pure enough to do Jewishness with him. When I say “people would lord it over me,” what I mean is “people like him.” Because the criteria for Jewishness switch wildly and arbitrarily, depending on who needs to be let in, who needs to be kept out. Half-Jews, secular Jews, non-Orthodox Jews, converts, Jews of color, non-Ashkenazi Jews, queer Jews, Jews who have intermarried, trans Jews, and women are just a few of the types of Jews that have excluded from various forms of Jewishness. Once we finish all the purging, who in the world is left?
I entered the discussion. “You know,” I said, “if only ethnic Jews were real Jews, then none of us would be white.” A few people laughed appreciatively. I felt proud.
(In another Kaye/Kantrowitz book, The Issue is Power: a reminder that many Ashkenazi Jews acquired European features through the rape of Jewish women, coupled with the desirability of women with prettier – ie, more European – features. Jews tend to look like the gentiles around them, in any part of the world. The law of matrilineal descent is based on very dubious readings of ambiguous Torah verses. What’s the real rationale behind it?)
My mother is a good person, but even good people screw up. The point of her comment, whether she realized it or not, was to hurt, invalidate, and control. No matter what my response was, she would win. If I told her she shouldn’t have said it, then I would be defensive, oversensitive. If I was defiant or brushed it off, I would be delusional. Either way, she knew how to play into one of my deepest fears: that my identification with my Yiddish side really is a game, as false as the kids with kanji tattoos.
Why do I fear this? Because a) I’ve been trained to dismiss all “marked” aspects of my family, melting pot style; b) if you pass for plain white Christian, then plain white Christian is the correct, most natural identity for you, and anything else cannot possibly feel natural; and c) growing up, I learned that everything is an imitation of something else, and no matter how much white Americans imitate other things, they will always be, at their core, unmarked white Americans.
Even if they’re something else.
I kind of wanted some prime rib, but by the time I got to the heat lamp with the hunk of meat under it, I’d already loaded my plate with cheaper foods. “That’s how they get you,” my mom said. The phrase is something I’ll no doubt repeat to my kids. An American idiom. Part of the reason, I think, why I connect with my Jewish side and not my NE side is that no one in my mom’s family knows much about their ancestry, save for names and dates. (I also think part of the reason my mom doesn’t like my Jewishness is because of the divorce, but that’s another issue.) And yet – one thing my mom remembers from her childhood is an aunt who would say “go to bed” in Swedish whenever my mom walked into the room. After decades, the phrase had decayed into “galignu.” I met a Swedish guy in Europe and told him about it; the sounds had strayed so far from the actual Swedish that he had to start with the English and translate it back before he could figure out what words it actually consisted of. Spelled phonetically, it’s something like “Go-ach-leg-deh-nu.” But I’m sure it’s already decaying again.
A few days ago, appalled that my Yiddish class spent eight weeks on the alef-beys (we only meet once a week – but hey, we got some vocab, too), my dad taught me how to count in Yiddish. “Eyn, tsvey, dray, fir, finf, zeks, zibn, akht, nayn, tsen,” he said, then sat back, a little surprised. “I haven’t said that out loud in fifty years.”
His tsvey rhymed with dray. My father speaks the Poylish dialect, although he didn’t know it.
I’ll tell my kids the “galignu” story. And I like that I was able to add a chapter to it.
Writing this essay, it struck me that even bemoaning white Americans’ sense of exceptionalism was, in a way, reinforcing white American exceptionalism – as in, white Americans are the only ones who think we’re exceptional. That realization was followed by an even more disconcerting one – that those of us who rebel against the mainstream cultures in which we grew up most likely have a hand in creating them. If a large part of white America’s mythology revolves around individuality (SWPL‘s tagline “the unique taste of millions” comes to mind), then searching for “authentic” identities is just playing into the system. And to do so, we need an unmarked state against which we can mark ourselves. But now I’m just playing into those fears of inauthenticity again. Even after rejecting the melting pot mentality, I feel like I have no right to my own family history.
While I was sitting on the steps next to my garden, a family arrived at an apartment next door with a toddler. I watched her navigate the steps. She grabbed a rosemary branch to steady herself, and then paused to remark on the event of a kitty going bye-bye.
I’m excited about having a child, whenever it happens. I think about teachable moments. “This is rosemary,” I’ll say. “This is called the shamash – I didn’t learn that word until after college, but you get to learn it now. Here’s how you dye an Easter egg. Look, this is called yeast – smell it, it smells like bread. See those stringy things in the dough? That’s the gluten. We’re going to a march – do you remember what a march is? Yup, it’s about justice.”
Indeed. Really, at the core, it’s all about justice. I can’t go to a march and then celebrate holidays by buying things. That’s not justice – not for all the people these systems oppress, not for all the people whose histories are erased. But sometimes working for justice is like to trying to push the ocean away from the beach. Everyone around you, it seems, is pushing back. It gets so tiring. Same with making culture – in that same passage in The Colors of Jews, Korean-Ashkenazi rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl (half Jewish on the wrong side, like me, but with the added weight of being a woman of color) says that “in response to Jews who denied her Jewishness, [I] once cried to [my] mother, ‘I want to stop being Jewish.'” Damn, did that hit home. Sometimes you get so exhausted you just want to quit. Put away the Yiddish worksheets, order take-out, and watch TV. Turn half of yourself off and just keep passing. After all, passing enables passivity, and passivity demands passing.
It’s about justice. But then you eat Easter brunch in Orange County and listen to people tell you what a fake you are. You want a child but your culture forbids it. Doing good things feels like pushing against the ocean. You just get so tired.
(Cross-posted at Modern Mitzvot.)