My experience of being a Jew is experiencing a lot of things and not having the slightest clue how to make sense of them in the context of history and contemporary life.
Like that one time I went to Oklahoma. I was walking a few miles on Shabbat and wearing my yarmulke. A car pulls up beside me and starts honking, pulls down their window, shouts “WE SUPPORT ISRAEL!” and moves on. What do I do with that?
Here’s something that happened in camp last summer. A bunch of kids were eating pizza. The pizza was not kosher, so I did not eat it. I was hanging out in a classroom where some kids were eating, including B.
“Did you eat pizza?” B asks.
“Nah,” I say.
“Because it’s not kosher pizza, and I only ever eat kosher food or pizza from kosher places.”
(Which is not a good explanation, but it’s sort of complicated and not every kid wants a whole long thing.)
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“I grew up outside of Chicago and live in NY.”
This was followed by a longish, kind of awkward pause.
“But where are your parents from?”
“Boston and Philadelphia.” No nod of satisfaction from B. “Is that what you were asking?”
“I mean ethnically, where are you from?”
“So…I’m Jewish, but Jews come from all over the place.”
“Oh ok. So you’re from…”
“Mostly Russia. But, yeah, mostly like Boston.”
“…where is your family from?” I asked.
“Philippines. Do you think we can get seconds?”
So, what was that? Is there something wrong with that interaction? Clearly he is puzzled by my whole deal. And, he’s a kid. There’s nothing wrong with curiosity, and he asked questions in good faith. I was happy to have the conversation, even though it underlined my differences.
And what about the time, when I was new to my school, that a friendly conversation with the maintenance guy turned to, like, a list of all the stuff he knew about Jews? And I wasn’t exactly sure what he was saying about the Jews and JFK, but he was saying it in a friendly way? So while I got weird vibes it was probably meant well?
I have a mental list of weird interactions with people in my adult life that I honestly am confounded by. Like that person at the grocery store a few weeks ago. It was Thursday night at our local place. She was, like, “you people shop late!” And I said, “what?” She leaned in a whispered: “There’s a lot of Jews here.” And I said “It’s because tomorrow is Shabbat.” And she was like “I think it’s because you work so hard.” But then she talked about how much we had in common because we both had tyrants: El Jefe and Hitler. So that was a nice conversation!
So I don’t know how to make sense of all this stuff. I see some frum Jews write about anti-Semitism online, but mostly it’s from (in my opinion) mistake assumption that anti-Semitism is exactly like contemporary racism in its nature and effects. The fact that white supremacists hate both Jews and Black people doesn’t mean that our experiences are identical or ought to be written about in identical ways. Some Jewish writers come from a place of angst that anti-Semitism isn’t treated like racism.
I can’t describe my Jewish experience with anything but confusion. I think the weirdness of it is an essential part of walking around with a yarmulke, but also of Jewish life in general. It’s just very hard to know what matters and how much. So when a person is shot in a synagogue and it doesn’t dominate the news…is that appropriate? Proportionate? And does it matter? I have no way to think about this, except that it’s confusing and it probably should be.