Monday, September 1, 2014

Growing up, I saw a lot of black in my community. Everywhere you turned, plenty of them-black hats, suit jackets, and velvet kippot- but rarely did I ever interact with someone of another race or sexual orientation during my daily to-do.

A product of my environment, my definition of ethnicity was restricted only to the Semitic Sphere. Meaning, I felt fully content and even quite pleased knowing Spheradim, Tamanim, and Yerushalmis.

One of the biggest shocks came during Freshman registration while talking with my Arts and Humanities advisor about English careers. My advisor was responding to a question I had about the core curriculum, but her answer barley registered. My ears were turned inwardly to some internal shock: a startling realization that I had never actually spent more than 10 minutes, let alone a half hour, talking with a black person. As my third eye rolled back into reality and we broke into conversation about studying habits and keys to successful time management, I sensed a prick, and took mental note. Later I would recall this moment as the first crack in my "Jewish Bubble."

With the commencement of Sophomore year conveniently falling out during the month of Elul, I find it appropriate to assess the state of my bubble. Has it been obliterated, leaving a free-spirited spongy core, or in fact responding to change like those fancy bike locks that fortify when one tries to break the chain? 

A few nights ago, the topic of race spontaneously came up between myself, my roommate, and her friend. They spoke of their hatred for all applications that make an applicant conform to a particular race. My roommate is the product of multiple roots with black, white, and Hispanic ancestry. A bit darker, her friend was black with Caucasian roots as well. She spoke uncensored about the acute stigma of lighter blacks within the black community; yet she affirmed that she felt unashamed of her pallor.

 "During slavery, I would have been the one working in the house," she said, "the lighter blacks got to stay in the kitchens instead of doing fieldwork." Even though their labor was reduced, because slave owners didn't consider whiter blacks their legitimate offspring, they lived a limbo existence, resented by darker slaves yet abhorred as bastardy by whites. And I thought deciding between "Caucasian" and "Jewish" on the application was rough. 

Blessed and plagued by the desire to engage and question others, I schmoozed with a girl waiting at a busstop for the city Metra. I was on my way to my job at a local Jewish newspaper. She was headed home for a Nigerian convention in a North Carolina Baptist church. She told me about "her country," and the slow-moving political response of Nigerian officials to Boko Haram's mass kidnapped of 200+ Nigerian schoolgirls.
We sat, we chatted, and we departed. 

Last night, my roommate's friend asked a question with the preface, "Can I ask you something I don't understand?" (I said of course, yet all too-often I get questions that I myself do not understand, and cannot answer. Instead of leaving them with a rocky cliffhanger and hopefully not, yet probably so,  misshapen understanding of Judaism, I answer with my general understanding and tell them I will need to research further and get back to them.)

Her question: Do Jewish people identify themselves as a race, nationality, or ethnicity? 

I said I didn't know. While on the one hand I want to say Judaism is a religion, how can I account for Jewish traditions like the Horah or Mazah Ball soup that are not deistic? A step further, what about atheists who still consider themselves Jewish- Humanistic Judaism- who follow religious construct hollow of any supernatural Force? So I'm stuck, and when one is stuck, I usually reach for a dictionary.

Race:  a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same stock; a class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits, or characteristics

Nationality:  a group of people who share the same history, traditions, and language, and who usually live together in a particular country

Ethnicity of or relating to races or large groups of people who have the same customs, religion, origin, etc. ; associated with or belonging to a particular race or group of people who have a culture that is different from the main culture of a country

Religion:  an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods

I am left even more baffled- but again- Rome wasn't built in a day and neither will this answer be. But during this coming Elul, I challenge you to a duel! Yes, I am metaphorically slapping you with an old western glove and saying "wake up and access your bubble!" As important as it is to engage in the world around you,  it is just as (if not more important) reflect on your own Jewish identity. Just as one prepares for an interview by considering the questions his boss may pose, ask yourself questions about your own identity and see if you can answer them. Who knows, you might learn something new. 

The year is beginning, and I for one could use a refresher course. 

Sincerely,
failed yet again by Merriam-Webster


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