Tikkun Magazine, March/April 1995
Crossing the Ethnic Divide: A Meditation on Anti-Semitism
By Nan Fink
A few weeks after converting to Judaism, I stopped by my neighborhood fish market. I told the man behind the counter that I needed supplies to make gefilte fish for Passover.
"You?" he asked. "You're Jewish?"
"Yes, of course," I answered, sounding more sure of myself than I felt.
"That can't be," he laughed. "You don't have the right kind of nose." With a flourish, he cupped his hand over his nose to make it larger.
By this time I was used to Jews questioning whether I was Jewish, but no non-Jew had done it before. And this comment about noses? I was horrified.
"You can't identify Jews that way," I said coldly. "That's an anti-Semitic stereotype."
"Don't be offended," he replied, piling fish on the scale. His tone did not sound at all remorseful.
"Lots of us have noses that are small," I continued. When he didn't answer, I let the subject drop.
As I left the store, the man waved to me. Clearly he was not bothered by our interchange, but I was shaken. This was my first direct brush with anti-Semitism as a Jew, and it brought to the surface my feeling of insecurity in this new identity.
Afterward, I began to question myself. Why hadn't I stormed out of the store? I could have made more of a scene, but I was bound by long-standing, internalized rules of politeness. What did this say about my Jewish commitment?
More confusing, this man easily could have been my cousin. He had the solid Protestant look of many members of my family. He must have assumed that I came from his side of the ethnic line, and thus he took the liberty of making the comment about noses - one Christian talking to another, an insider's joke. Had I transmitted uncertainty about my Jewish identity, thereby giving him permission?
I was outraged, but it was easier to criticize myself for catalyzing this man's comments than to stay with my feeling of anger. In those early days after my conversion, I did not want to think about anti-Semitism. My overriding concern was finding acceptance within the Jewish community, not monitoring the actions of the people I had left behind.
As I submerged myself in my new Jewish life, I hardly remembered the man in the fish store. When I did, I explained his behavior away as an isolated example of anti-Semitism. The guy was a jerk, period. One incident didn't mean that anti-Semitism was a major problem. After all, this was the United States, a good place for Jews.
But my initial interpretation of this incident stemmed from denial, not lack of knowledge. I knew a great deal about the subject of anti-Semitism, yet it was too much for me to grasp that I, a converted Jew, was now its potential target. My WASP privilege would no longer count. Instead of realizing how vulnerable this made me feel, and how ashamed I was of this reaction, I tried to convince myself that anti-Semitism was not a serious matter.
While still in a state of denial, I had a terrifying experience of anti-Semitism. In the summer of 1987, TIKKUN magazine organized a demonstration against Pope John Paul II during his visit to the United States. As TIKKUN's publisher, I was involved in this much-publicized protest. During this time, when we arrived at the TIKKUN office in the morning, we'd listen to a spate of poisonous curses and death threats left on the answering machine. "You dirty kikes," an anonymous caller (always male, in my memory) would say in a cold voice, "You're going to die." The threats were horrifying, but what could we do? We notified the police, we were watchful, and our work continued. Finally, the callers stopped harassing us.
We had been the victims of anti-Semitism, but it was hard for me to absorb this fact. As time went by, the experience seemed increasingly unreal. When people voiced their concern about anti-Semitism, I'd want to reassure them that there was little to worry about. It was obvious that the callers at the time of the demonstration had been just a bunch of right-wing crazies.
Up to this point I had been able to minimize the existence of anti-Semitism, but I soon confronted it in a way that forced me to see how deeply embedded it is in our culture. One afternoon, when I was taping the oral history of my favorite aunt, she unexpectedly stopped the interview. "Why did you become a Jew?" she asked, her voice sharp. I answered her, but she hardly listened. Describing the "money-grubbing," "unsavory," and "clannish" Jews she had met in her lifetime, she mouthed one stereotype after another.
Anti-Semitism in my family? This was hard to take. I had heard a lot of racist talk as I grew up, but no one had spoken poorly about Jews. Somehow I had not recognized my family's anti-Semitism. But there it was, brought to the surface by my conversion, I couldn't pass it off as the irrational behavior of a group of crazy people.
I began to see the prejudice in my mother. She could hardly bear that I had converted, and she freely expressed her negative opinion of Jews. Once I allowed myself to see her anti-Semitism, I began to recognize that it can exist even in the hearts of fundamentally well-intentioned people.
My mother's attitude toward Jews has hardly changed over the last decade, despite my efforts to educate her about Judaism and share my experience with her. The anger I have about this, and her anger toward me for becoming a Jew, have created a measure of distance between us. Yet she is now in her last years, and it pains me that a breach like this exists.
Through this experience, and others, I've come to acknowledge anti-Semitism more fully. When I first converted, I wasn't sure who "we" and "they" were, regarding the question of anti-Semitism. As the offspring of a non-Jewish family, I continued to carry a feeling of responsibility. Now, however, I am firmly rooted in a Jewish "we," so that "they" are non-Jews, even if "they" are my family. As the recipient of anti-Semitism, I no longer feel responsible for it.
The issue of anti-Semitism points out my weakest link to Judaism. Through the generations, no one in my family was hurt, or killed, or discriminated against because of anti-Semitism. Quite the opposite, my original family exists on the other side. They are part of the system, part of the web of discrimination, and as their child, I have had a different life experience from other Jews. It is this that separates me, even more than blood.
Yet now that I am a Jew, I am also the object of anti-Semitism. The fact that I'm a convert doesn't matter. I've passed over the ethnic divide in the eyes of non-Jews. Some, like the man in the fish store, might momentarily assume that I am a Christian, but as soon as they know I am Jewish, I do not get special treatment.
The only people who question my Jewishness are those Jews who have difficulty accepting that I am "really" Jewish. They fear that I cut it both ways, taking the best from Judaism and enjoying the privilege of the Gentile world at the same time. But such a thing is impossible. Even if non-Jews continue to see me as one of them, dwelling in both worlds would make me schizophrenic.
Ten years after conversion, I sometimes find myself looking at all non-Jews with suspicion, searching their faces and analyzing their words for hidden meaning. I experience the cynicism and disregard for "the goyim" that many other Jews carry. Yet this is tempered by my desire to remain open. After all, not everyone in my non-Jewish family is anti-Semitic; I think especially of my children, who are very supportive of my becoming Jewish.
I remind myself that if I take every glance, every remark of uneasiness by non-Jews and label it as anti-Semitic, I am slipping into paranoia. Rather than naming trouble, I am searching for it. By doing this, I ignore the possibility that I might be wrong in my perception, and I close the door to deeper understanding.
As I look back across the ethnic divide, I recount the geography of the non-Jewish world. From my experience, I know that many non-Jews in America are ignorant about Judaism. They assume that it is just another American religious denomination, not quite Christian, but one that is along the same continuum.
These are the people who wonder why Jews don't feel comfortable in their churches, or why Jews like to associate with each other, or why Jews don't want to celebrate Christmas. They think of Jews as being pretty much like themselves, and are surprised when we are different. Because of their lack of familiarity with Jewish culture and history, they often feel rejected when we don't respond to them in the way they expect.
Comments from these people might be antagonistic, but they are often based in misunderstanding or hurt feelings, rather than maliciousness. But other non-Jews, who are more hostile, agree with the ugly stereotypes of Jews that exist in the larger culture. They are the ones who, like my aunt, make assumptions about our motives and think of us as inferior. At the far edge of this group are those who threaten and physically abuse us, the ones who write on buildings and destroy graves.
Finally, there are the non-Jews who are sister-fellow travelers. I used to be one of them: people who are attracted to and make an effort to understand Jewish culture. Fueled by a love and respect for the Jewish people, they are our allies and defenders, and a bridge to the non-Jewish world.
I do not intend here to make an exhaustive survey of non-Jews' attitudes toward Jews. Rather, I want to make the point that non-Jews differ from each other, as do Jews. An anti-Semitic-sounding remark coming from one person might be the result of ignorance, while the same remark from another might mean danger. The question, of course, is how to tell them apart. The only way I know is to see what happens when these remarks are confronted. The anti-Semitic man in the fish store, with his jeering attitude, did not seem to learn anything, or even care, when I disputed him, but another non-Jew might well apologize.
In a better world, non-Jews would take it upon themselves to eradicate anti-Semitism. Putting pressure on each other to change, they would lead the way to a shift in anti-Semitic attitudes and behavior. But we recognize that this is not happening, or at least it is happening in too small a measure to make a difference. Anti-Semitic incidences have increased worldwide, and in this country the far Right - often though not exclusively the source of anti-Semitic words and acts - has become more powerful. It is up to us as Jews to be vigilant about anti-Semitism.
In the end, like every other Jew, I am faced with a destructive, frightening force that seems to go away at times, only to resurface in other shapes, other permutations. It strikes at unlikely moments, and happens so fast that it leaves me dislocated, intimidated, and horrified. Afterward the anger remains, but also an overwhelming feeling of impotence and the desire to draw in for protection.
Like others, I try to balance this with my desire to be receptive to non-Jews. I find myself walking the fine line of relating to them, and loving some of them, but fighting anti-Semitism at the same time. This is not easy, especially for me as a convert: The conflict in loyalties never subsides. Yet what is the choice? Rather than denying anti-Semitism, or finding it everywhere, I choose this more complicated course.
Nan Fink, founding publisher of TIKKUN, is working on books on conversion and Jewish spirituality. She currently is the director of the Jewish spiritual leadership program at Chochmat Ha Lev in Berkeley, CA.
Fink, Nan. 1995. Crossing the Ethnic Divide: A Meditation on Anti-Semitism. Tikkun 10(2): 41.