We Contain Multitudes: Ashkenazi Spaces and Multiethnic Identity

 Cross-posted to Racialicious

I recently attended a Yiddish culture conference where participants were required to wear nametags printed with their full names. Thus displayed, my conspicuously Puerto Rican name provoked endless fascination and scrutiny. One day I was asked to identify my ethnicity five times -- before the end of breakfast.

For those who are not regularly asked by strangers to explain "How are you possible?", here's a sample of questions I fielded over the course of a day by well-meaning, completely unself-conscious folks -- during class, in the restroom, in the hallway, in the buffet line, on the dance floor...

  1. "You must have a lot of drummers in your family," said the woman sitting next to me in drum class. (This happens to be true -- though what would she say to Yehuda Menuhin?)
  2. "What a crazy coincidence! I was just humming ‘Feliz Navidad!'" said a woman I walked past by in the restroom. (Impressive that she could get the ringing of clarinets out of her ears.)
  3. "Viva la Boricua!" a woman shouted enthusiastically. (I replied with a polite, "Yo, a sheynem dank.")
  4. "I don't understand why you're studying Yiddish instead of Ladino." (My biggest FAQ, and a twist on the also-loaded question "why are you studying Yiddish?" most students of this language receive.)
  5. "My, the intermarriage rate has really gone up in the last 25 years," one woman pointedly commented. (My parents are Jewish.)
  6. "Wait a minute. That's possible? You're gonna have to explain," demanded a boisterous girl -- who then quickly professed her great love of salsa.

I am repeating these comments to suggest their cumulative effect. Fresh in my memory are the times a teacher took me out of class to ask if I am "really Hispanic"... or the time an astonished woman blurted out, upon hearing my full name, "But -- you're so smart!"... or the woman at an Orthodox shul who grouped me with the ‘shabbos goy' cleaning up after the kiddush. All of these are variations on the question no one dares to ask outright: How are you really Jewish? So here is a question I would like to ask White-identified Jews: Why is it that in so many Jewish surroundings --(even) in leftist, queer-positive ones -- Jews of multiethnic or non-Ashkenazi heritage remain objects of such unabashed fascination?

The way to free individuals from endlessly "explaining" (read: justifying) themselves is by making multicultural education a serious, central, and communal responsibility. Although resources and scholarship have increased in recent years, the American Jewish mainstream still primarily encounters their "proximate others" in the context of upbeat, de-politicized celebrations of Jewish diversity. This does nothing to decentralize European Jewish identity or cultivate the voices of non-Ashkenazim. So while I'm up for a good heart-to-heart about New Diasporist theory as much the next goles yid, the underlying activist message is simple: nobody should be made to feel less of a Jew because of her ethnicity. I hope that American Jews will no longer discuss klal yisrael -- the idea that Jews are a unified community transcending national and ethnic boundaries -- without acknowledging how racial difference actually plays out within Jewish communities.

Perhaps someday I will muster a gracious response when strangers stare at my face from multiple angles, trying to discern my race. For the time being, I wrestle with the remarkably generous words of Rabbi Capers C. Funnye, a prominent African American rabbi from Chicago: "I believe that people cannot know you unless you make yourself known. The only way to do that is to step outside and not fear rejection... I'm going to reach out until you reach back."

In memoriam Mildred Loving, 1940-2008


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Microaggressions are those crazy little interactions Jews of Color have in a world that refuses to accept multiracial, multiethnic and multi-anything identities. I'm a Latina (Dominican) American Jew writing a book about living with a multicultural identity after converting to Judaism. I loved this blog. It spoke to me and so many of the Jews of Color that I know fight the good fight in the sometimes racist (Jew and non-Jewish) and narrow-minded worlds. I have linked this blog to my own blog reflection of a JCC Talk I attended about Jewish of color: http://www.alizahausman.net/20...

Dear readers,

please also check out the comments on this post at the blog Racialicious!

Thanks for painting such a vivid picture of what it is like to be on the receiving end of the white Ashkenazi unawareness. Speaking as a white Ashkenazi woman, I know I often need to have these things spelled out for me. We Ashkenazi Jews have been inundated with messages that tell us we are the "real" Jews.

I believe this Ashkenazi frame of reference is partly a result of internalizing centuries of anti-Semitism. (Not that Ashkenazi Jews are the only Jews who have experienced anti-Semitism, but right now I am trying to talk about this from an Ashkenazi point of view.) In defending ourselves against anti-Semitism, we've learned to separate ourselves from the dominant culture. In many ways separation has been necessary to protect our precious heritage, religion, and values (and sometimes our lives) from attacks and assimilation. However, there are problems with having inherited a mental framework that tells us that our survival depends on being separate. We can easily fall into the habit of seeing those who have a Ì¢‰âÒdifferentÌ¢‰âÂå history, culture, or race as not one of us. We separate ourselves from our Jewish brothers and sisters who have different backgrounds than us.

This habit, of course, affects not only relationships between Jews, but with groups of non-Jews who we want to establish closer connections with. Perhaps addressing our (Ashkenazi) racism and cultural unawareness towards non-white and non-Ashkenazi Jews, will not only enrich our lives, but will also provide us with a foundation for addressing racism towards people of color who are not Jewish.

You sound very patient and charitable. I would very quickly tire of implications that my race was less intelligent and of demands to justify my intellectual pursuits in light of my race.

I've noticed that people become inquisitive when I wear interesting clothing. (See my yarmulke essay, "Hat," in the anthology Nobody Passes.) But, of course, if I tire of hearing unfiltered comments, I can always "dress down" in T-shirt and jeans so that I look like any other white Jewish English-speaking American and then people who fit roughly in the same category stop analyzing me out loud. Clothes are easier than skin color, language and names, in that respect. With clothes, you can at least temporarily "give in" to social pressure if you need a rest break from standing your ground.

Multicultural education is definitely the way to go. In this secular age, it seems to me that a common motivation of white Jews who enter Jewish space is simply to be around people of a similar ethnic background. This perhaps unconscious attitude or assumption proves incorrect and unfair, because, of course, not all Jews share a similar ethnic background. I certainly hope you would never perceive a need to change your name or else stay home from shul just so you could have a relaxing Shabbos! It is everyone's responsibility to build "klal yisrael" by realizing that "Jewish" does not just mean "people who also have grandparents in Brooklyn." This awareness can be built, and when it is, we and our Judaism will be richer for it.

How to cite this page

Anna. "We Contain Multitudes: Ashkenazi Spaces and Multiethnic Identity ." 8 May 2008. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on November 17, 2019) <https://qa.jwa.org/blog/multi-jew>.

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