Speak Now by Columnist Maddie Raymond: We all have rich histories and cultures

Published: 2/15/2022 6:03:36 AM
Modified: 2/15/2022 6:01:42 AM

A couple of days ago, somebody drew a swastika in the second floor boys’ bathroom at my school. They locked down every bathroom on the floor, and I complained to my friend from Jewish preschool (Gan Keshet, for the locals) that it was more antisemitic that I as a Jewish girl couldn’t have a convenient place to pee. I then proceeded to vacillate between comfort in my Jewish identity and wild guilt that I had somehow (and once again) betrayed my already tortured people. It brought to the forefront that I often don’t feel Jewish enough.

In another life, I would speak Hebrew. I started off like all the other Jewish kids in Northampton, but after preschool I didn’t go on to the private elementary school across the street. I went to my local elementary school out in the hills of Chesterfield, and most of them didn’t hear much from me for another decade. When I came to Northampton High School as a transferring sophomore, most of the kids I grew up with didn’t even remember me. They’d all had their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, all gone to Hebrew school, all spent their whole lives together — without me. It was hard to feel Jewish in their presence.

I often center my identity in my writing work. In every piece, I always make sure to put in somewhere that I’m white-privileged-middle-class-cisgender-etc. But I’m also Jewish. I usually omit that because I’m not totally sure where that leaves me. On one hand, I’m the living proof that one of the world’s most traditionally marginalized groups has not died out. On the other, I’m a high school kid who can pass as Christian and forgets where she came from except for when Hanukkah rolls around.

Since that day, I’ve been wondering if I have internalized antisemitism. It’s rife on both sides of the spectrum when it comes to social justice issues, from the stories of defaced graves from the right to the denouncement of Jews as an extension of the denouncement of Israel from the left. But for me, it’s not just that. I’ve often fallen back on resenting other Jewish kids I see getting their Mitzvahs, speaking Hebrew, and growing up immersed within their culture. Growing up not having to doubt if they really belong in the community they were born into.

These bewildering past couple of days have exposed a gap in my social justice work. It’s a gap lots of leftist movements have, as many operate under the assumption that all Jews are white. While I’m personally white, and the Ashkenazi group of Jews traditionally is, there are many denominations of Jews that are not, such as the Mizrahi or Ethiopian groups from Africa. There are also many nonwhite Jews in every sector of Judaism. Additionally, Jews as a whole were not considered part of whiteness until very recently. This is to say, antisemitism cannot be excused because Jewishness is equated with whiteness.

Now, I’m not here to talk about Israel. Like I said earlier, I’m insecure in my Judaism and as a result I don’t feel comfortable enough to deliver a concrete opinion. But I can say this: the actions of the Israeli government do not excuse any sort of violence against Jewish people. The horrors committed against the Palestinian people are inexcusable, but they do not mean all Jewish people worldwide are at fault and therefore must be punished. Us Jews are in a tight spot as both the oppressed and the oppressor, and while there must be accountability for Israel’s actions, they are not an excuse to fall back into old patterns of abusing Jewish people.

In the coming months of this new year, I ask you all to look inward and see how your own identity has influenced how you see the world. While white supremacy has taken great pains to coalesce all white people into a monolith, this is not true. All of us have rich histories and cultures; it just may take some effort to rediscover them. I am telling you now that I am going to look inward this year and see how my Jewishness influences how I think about the world. How I can reconnect with my community, and feel empowered to speak on Jewish issues. How I can stop resenting people I feel are “better” Jews than me because they were able to take part in Jewish culture since childhood. I have learned that many of my practices, such as mutual aid, are actually integral to Ashkenazi Jewish culture. So much of what I thought was new to me is actually just a return to my Jewish roots.

I am committing myself to unlearning the antisemitism I have internalized, and I invite you all to do some work on that as well. We are surrounded in western Massachusetts by a rich Jewish community, and we owe it to our Jewish neighbors to reexamine our social justice work to better include Jews. Keep the actions of the Israeli government away from your opinion of Jewish people, and actively include Jewish people in the groups that you stand with. This year, I am going to stop forgetting I am Jewish in my work. You should remember Jews too.

Maddie Raymond, who lives in the hilltowns, writes a monthly column.


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