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Disorganized Reflections on Reading “Being Jewish”

I was pointed at this entry about being Jewish in 2016 in the US, and the ways in which it means always being an outsider in ways that are frequently erased, and I was once again reminded of the ways I react to things that were informed by my having grown up where I did, which is in the Philadelphia suburbs.

Part of this meant that I grew up in an area with active Jewish congregations, though all Reform - I am reasonably certain I never met a practicing Orthodox Jew until college (and there only as an invited speaker for my "Intro to Judaism" class) and I'm pretty sure I didn't meet a practicing Conservative until college either. (My high school Jewish friends tended to be of the "my family attends a Reform synagogue occasionally, but mostly I'm atheist" variety) The area was sufficiently Jewish that my public school had two in-service days each year a few weeks after the school year started for no officially explained reason, but that always happened to line up with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

I did however grow up in an area where religions other than mainline or evangelical Christianity were quite common, and that affects things. For example, it still creeps me out that large internet companies (specifically Google and Facebook) will just go and do things like this without very explicitly asking first:



See, I've still got this voice in the back of my head that flags "birthday" as one of those potentially-religiously-touchy subjects, and it's saying "but celebrating birthdays might be against their religion!" (either against the religion of the person having a birthday or against the religion of the person you're presenting this message to). Because where I grew up, this was a thing. Not a majority thing by any means, but a thing you had to be aware of and prepared to deal with. There were some kids who couldn't have birthday cupcakes if someone brought them in for the class to share, and you didn't hassle them about it.

Another odd thing is that I grew up neighbors (well, with one house inbetween, so... second-degree neighbors, maybe?) with a family whose religion is possibly one that some Jews would find offensive for its very existence. But, yes, there exist people who will study Hebrew for religious reasons, who light a menorah in December, and who attend services that feel like a stereotypical African-American tent revival, including invoking the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues. And this is why a few months ago my Facebook feed had pictures of a young (black) man at his Bar Mitzvah in a building with visible cross imagery. I don't know how old I was when I discovered that in most of the US it's not the norm, but instead unusual for a black girl to wear a Star of David on a chain around her neck. (after all, they were the only black family on the block, so that affected my view of normal)

(There's also the odd side point here that my religious background and upbringing - mainline Protestant, specifically Episcopalian - is the norm assumed in any US-origin material older than about 50 years, but is not generally the norm assumed by people who self-identify with the label "Christian" today. For example, my expectations of what "Christian" means and what "church" means were rather different from those of the people I met in IVCF in college. If a service involves smoke, it's supposed to come from a censer burning incense and being swung on a chain, not an industrial fog machine spewing aerosolized glycol.)

So I tend to think of myself as pretty religiously aware, and yet it's very clear that my Jewish friends have a much more finely tuned sensitivity towards ignorant attacks on non-Christian religions or towards default-religious-sensibilities assumptions that assume Christianity as the norm. Even given that, the reaction in that essay to "church" being automatically a word primarily associated with personal attacks or mob violence surprised me. I mean, it makes sense that that's part of the author's reaction; I certainly wouldn't be surprised with that reaction the the term "The Church", but her having the same reaction to little-c "church" made me pause. As an Episcopalian in this day and age I am well aware that my religious tradition has a History, and not a glowing one at that - part of being an Episcopalian is being part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and part of that is owning the history of British colonialism and acknowledging things like "we broke Africa" (or at least big parts of it). So I'm used to discussions of "The Church" meaning the historical context of Christendom being full of atrocities of one sort or another, (*) but I guess I had held that separate from my concept of little-c "church", which is a contemporary group that in my conception is centered more around the people (mostly women) doing the prep work in the guild hall for the food kitchen or NA meeting or spring picnic or other non-worship activities of the parish than anything else.

The author conflates the two concepts, and though I personally found it jarring I think she's right to do so. First off, there's no reason she should have ever initially separated "Church" and "church" in her head as I happened to in mine. But beyond that, the word "church" doesn't bring to her mind historical mob violence only, but ongoing anti-Semitism. I suppose one could say that isn't a completely fair association - the most virulent religious anti-Semites these days are explicit about their intent to be non-Christian - but those of us with this much historical blood on our hands don't get to complain about lingering associations. (Also, as much as both I and the "World Church of the Creator" would like to believe that that group isn't Christian, the second word in their name is "church", so when playing word associations it still fits)

As the post and the comments on it make clear, there is serious ongoing anti-Semitism in America. Even in my fairly well-off Philadelphia suburb in the 90s there was a neighboring school district that had to deal with three kids who had snuck an anti-Semitic phrase past the editors into their yearbook quotes. (They very unbelievably denied it when caught; and yes, it was likely motivated more by whatever it is that motivates teenagers to transgress rules than by violent intent, but they transgressed by saying something anti-Semitic rather than the more traditional game of getting smut past the editors) Within the past month, there was the furor over the "coincidence detector" Chrome extension and although I know from experience that it is possible to develop a useful complicated Chrome extension as a single developer, that wasn't the product of some random anonymous lone troll toiling away on their own. It played into a pre-existing meme well established in a subset of Twitter, that itself came from a large audience racist podcast. So, yes, they're out there. (And attending Trump rallies, though even at Trump rallies they're thankfully still a minority)

I find the author's take on the phrase "Judeo-Christian" interesting. I hadn't ever thought of it as an attempt to erase Jewishness, but rather as a way to advocate for Christian-motivated policies in a climate where doing so directly would result in accusations of anti-Semitism. Which might be a matter of "rose by any other name". Though I don't believe the phrase has specifically anti-Islamic origins, (I think it predates the religious right's fascination with Islam as a boogeyman) I do agree that it is frequently used today in an explicitly anti-Islamic fashion.

Interesting sidenote on that phrase: once at Google I was hearing someone explain an interviewing puzzle over lunch that involved as part of the setup enough rain to flood an area that then drained away. I made the side joke "so it rained for 40 days and nights", and the (Indian-American) guy telling me the problem looked at me with a puzzled look, said "whatever, it rained enough" and went on with the description of the puzzle. (The other person at the table, who was Jewish, smiled and nodded, clearly getting the joke) Later I was recounting the story of how {Indian-American guy} didn't get the joke whereas {Jewish guy} did to a colleague who was Christian of the "non-denominational megachurch" variety and he said "well, yeah, it's part of that whole Judeo-Christian heritage" at which point a Muslim colleague said "hey, I get it too" and I said "yeah, clearly a common middle-Eastern religion thing". This seemed to make the other Christian guy uncomfortable, and I'm not entirely sure why.

Comments

I thought that whole discussion was very interesting as well, though as someone who didn't grow up with any Jewish people near me (that I was aware of) my realization that anti-Semitism is alive and well is fairly recent.

This seemed to make the other Christian guy uncomfortable, and I'm not entirely sure why.

I could take a guess, but of course I may or may not be correct. In my upbringing, Judeo-Christian has always been more of a "these two religions are related" thing (though as you say I can see the author's point about its use and my upbringing is probably just naivete on my part back then). But Islam was never connected that way for me until I personally went out and educated myself about it (long ago). I can see a lot of Christian people: a) not realizing how connected they are historically and b) buying into all this othering of Muslim people that is going on. To have the religions explicitly connected could totally make someone uncomfortable. Or even the description of Christianity as a Middle Eastern Religion could! I mean those middle easterners are BAD amirite? (Even if said coworker doesn't believe that there's a lot of subconscious things that settle in without your knowing it. I would hope he taook his discomfort and actually thought about it)

As for FB birthdays &c you can totally make that private and not show up in the feed. I had that off until last year I think. I never even told google mine, I think. Or maybe I did eventually idk (you could look; it's coming up).
lizard

June 2016

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