On Passing and Whiteness: Jewish Poets Speak Out

Rosebud Ben-Oni
July 1, 2016
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In late 2014, I asked six different poets of various ages and backgrounds questions about Jewish identity and poetry. I had answered some question about poetry and faith on The Best American Poetry Blog, writing about how I no longer belong to a synagogue, pray in solitude, and connect to my faith through poetry. That’s what prompted me to start this conversation first at ZEEK with Jewish poets Erika Meitner, Eduardo Gabrieloff, Hila Ratzabi, Jason Schneiderman and Emily Jaeger; we each asked a question for others to answer concerning the ideas of Topography & Landscape in Poetry, Humor as Survival, and Authenticity.

The conversation among the six of us continues here, in a two-part post on Jewish identity as poets. Kicking off the conversation is poet Hila Ratzabi, who addresses the issues of whiteness and passing.

 

Hila Ratzabi: In the U.S., Jews have assimilated to the point that we are often considered “white.” While we know that not all Jews are “white,” there is still a stigma associated with non-white Jews, as light-skinned Ashkenzi Jews are often seen as the norm. Beyond skin color, there is also the level of privilege that comes with being considered white, with passing. In what ways do you (or do you not) pass on the page? Do you grapple with privilege (or lack thereof) in your writing? Have you ever taken on white (or other) guises in your writing, in terms of subject matter, tone, or style?

Eduardo Gabrieloff: As a Sephardic/Bhukarian/Mizrahi Jew who grew up outside of Sephardic/Bhukarian/Mizrahi communities, finding other Jews was both a joy and a reminder that I was different. We ate differently. Prayed differently. Came from different parts of the world, spoke different languages. Our relatives spoke different languages; my grandmother and her sister speaking loudly to each other in Arabic while playing May I means everything, in terms of a Jewish youth. And, beautiful schnozes aside, we looked different. Add to this a mother who converted. I always feel on the defense about actually being Jewish. I’ve had so many people tell me I’m not Jewish, and for so many different reasons. It took a lot of time and struggle to get to a point where I just know I’m Jewish. I am past the point where I listen to anyone who wants to qualify my life and experience. I don’t think I’ve taken on a white guise in my poems. If I have, it is certainly not intentional. I still let myself wonder if what I write about or the way I write is “too white,” but that is an urge I squashed out of myself enough that it doesn’t come around much. Again, my poems cannot be stripped from my background. I write for the 17 year old who felt so lost and alone and turned to poetry, only to struggle to find people like me. So, 17 year old Colombian Syrian Uzbek Jews in Colorado, I’ve got you covered.

 

Jason Schneiderman: “Whiteness” (as it operates in America) is a conglomeration of privilege. I have white privilege, so I understand myself to be white in the United States. When I was in Russia, I was Jewish, and not white—but that’s a different discursive regime. I think about privilege all the time—my students are mostly non-white, I live in a neighborhood that’s largely non-white, many of colleagues and friends are not white. Privilege is very hard to think about, because it’s systemic—the structure of American society erases the knowledge of privilege from the privileged, so one has to listen and pay close attention to find out how the experience of others is different.

I’m often annoyed by how simplistic the discourse on race in America becomes. We’re often taught that the key to understanding difference is to imagine how we would feel in a particular situation, which is quite often terrible advice. Imaging what it would feel like to be an astronaut is terrible training for outer space, even if it makes for a great movie starring Sandra Bullock. I’ve talked about issues of inequality and whiteness in my poems and essays—often with the result that people are uncomfortable, though I have yet to be condemned. I try to avoid simply imagining what it’s like to be non-white because 1) I’ve had the experience outside of the U.S., and 2) there are plenty of voices that will tell you if you listen. Saidiya Hartman’s work has shaped much of my thinking about the ways that imagination and identification often erase the very subjectivity that imagination is supposed to make visible.

 

Rosebud Ben-Oni: I am half Mexican and have the lightest skin in my family. This has always been, at times affectionately, at times not, been pointed out by my Latino relatives. I attended a secular high school of nearly three thousand students in San Antonio, and I was one of three Jews; the rest of the Jewish kids who attended my temple lived on the North side of the city. I was not seen as “authentically” (there is that word again) white. I remember going on a trip with a friend, not knowing that it was with her church group, and she suddenly asking me why I just could not accept Christ and didn’t I know I was going to hell. I remember my friend saying this very calmly, and grasping my own hands very tightly as if there was nothing else to hold on to.

I also remember some days in Hebrew school when my classmates asked me how to pronounce my mother’s name, and giggling at the “foreignness” of it. Some days the girls asked why I didn’t have a nice car, why I didn’t have better clothes. I was never invited to parties outside Hebrew School, and in all candor, did not feel part of a Jewish community in San Antonio. Perhaps that was teenagers being teenagers, in a different time, but I remember one class in Hebrew school we had a teacher, who had a reputation for being “liberal,” ask us that very question: Are Jews white? And all the students got very defense and said yes, of course they are. And they told him they didn’t want to talk about that, how stupid it was. And I remember sitting in the corner without saying anything, as if my having a Mexican mother disqualified me, as if I wasn’t allowed to speak in “we.” As if I could not speak of the prejudice I dealt with at my secular high school where Jews were not regarded as white at all, where I’d experienced these prejudices alone, far from other young Jews with whom I now sat silent. The collective continues to trouble me, in its various forms of what it means to belong, and again, years later, I can only write from my own experiences, these experiences, and the experiences that will come from interactions I’ve had.

Emily Jaeger: As a queer Jew living in a relatively traditional Catholic community in rural Paraguay, I was often passing as “white” and vaguely Christian in my daily life for professional and security purposes. I found that the best way to share my true identity without labels was by sharing the Jewish love for questioning as well as hearing and preserving dissenting opinions. My role as a gentle questioner and listener inspired my neighbors to share their stories. In one memorable conversation, my host mom told me, “I’m telling you this because you are not from here, maybe you will bring this story with you over there.”

As I worked through these stories and experiences in my poems, sometimes I needed to write about my female neighbors using the first person. On the one had, adopting this guise helped me step further into my neighbors’ stories. I discovered that their herstory was poignant beyond the Paraguayan context because of what it taught me about being a woman. On the other hand, I am extremely uncomfortable with this guise. Who am I to help share their stories, to be the scribe, when my privilege, my mobility in the world is so different? For now, I attempt to balance monologues inspired by my neighbors with poems acknowledging my questions as scribe.

Erika Meitner: I am white, but my family is multi-racial—my youngest son is African-American, and I am raising both my sons as Jews. I am hyper-aware that I move through the world with white privilege, while my youngest son does not have the same privileges and protection. I know that there are some Jewish environments in which he will never feel comfortable—and likewise, I don’t feel comfortable in many Jewish environments as a woman. But I would argue that in the last ten years, in progressive Jewish communities, there’s much more awareness around the fact that Judaism is a multi-racial religion, which has been helped along by groups like Be’chol Lashon. Even in our tiny, rural, lay-led Jewish community center, my son is not nearly the only person of color. Which is to say that I resist the lumping together of Jewish communities in this question—those where my family would be stigmatized are no longer my communities. Which is also to say that race is very much on my mind these days.

My poems have taken on race in various ways in the past, and will, I suspect, continue to do so. In my first book, Inventory at the All-night Drugstore, I talk about race in the context of being a conspicuously white teacher in a public middle school where my students were all African-American or Latino, and the tricky cultural dynamics present in our interactions.  And certainly most (or all?) of my Jewish poems reflect a very particular (white) Ashkenazi Jewish-American experience and world-view shaped by bungalow colonies, summer camps, Hebrew school, Israel, Holocaust survivor family baggage, Yiddish, and the overwhelmingly Jewish (though predominately Sephardic) suburb of Long Island where I grew up.  But Judaism in poems feels ethnic and outsider-ish to me still, as America is predominately Christian and getting more so by the minute (see: Hobby Lobby).  Jewish poetry still feels like an ‘other’ thing—a minority thing, a thing many readers won’t identify with or can’t access (due to inaccessible language, or unfamiliar cultural or historical or textual references).

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