12 December 2007

"You're Different! (And We're Better!)"

Aren’t Jewish People Supposed To Be Rich?
Growing up, I was poor. Not food-stamps poor or charity donations poor. I was the kind of poor that was embarrassed by the noise the muffler made on my parents’ blue Ford station wagon when my mother dropped me off at school, because it wasn’t the shiny new Eddie Bauer space shuttle minivans that dropped off all the other kids. I grew up in a small upper-middle-class predominantly white town, and most of my classmates were products of small-town wealthy upbringings. In school I can remember teachers presenting units on segregation, and how we should never ever discriminate against people because racism is bad. What set me apart was not the color of my own skin, for I have pale skin. When my classmates saw my mother, they would see her darker complexion and black frizzy hair and ask me if she was Mulatto or Puerto Rican. My mother is half Arab/half Scottish, which makes me one-quarter Arab, though I don’t look it. It wouldn’t have been okay for the other kids to make fun of me for being part-Arab, but it was okay for them to tease me for wearing the same shoes every day. I had much fewer clothes than my classmates. Their parents were doctors, lawyers, dentists, college professors. My father was a postal worker and my mother was a stay-at-home-mom. My clothes were always clean and presentable, but were not recognizable name-brands. My wardrobe cycled on a much tighter schedule than the wardrobes of my classmates. I grew up in a household that didn’t value showing off, and moreover, couldn’t afford to.

So I was considered to be poor, and that set me apart. Then, my classmates found out that I was Jewish. They started asking me all sorts of Jewish-related questions: “What does _______ mean?” (Fill in the blank with: Jewish, Kosher, Passover, Torah, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, Yamaka, and etcetera!) Or: “Why can’t Jews Eat Bacon?”, or the most cutting: “Aren’t Jewish People supposed to be rich?” My father worked hard for the money he earned, and we never went without anything we needed (name-brand clothing was not a need). My skin has always been pale, and perhaps this made their inquisition and ostracism of me easier for them because they were not being racist. They were not bigots when they treated me differently, because my skin was as light as theirs was. Does being of Jewish descent make me racially different than my peers? Yes, because I was treated differently. Racism is one group pointing their finger at another group shouting “You’re Different! (And We’re Better!)”

Because I was raised observing Jewish traditions, and since I am a quarter Arab, I have to question what it is to be considered White. White means privileged safety in numbers, and I definitely didn’t have that. This, in tandem with being a quarter Arab makes me question my Whiteness. I pass for white, regardless of whether I question my own Whiteness. Since race only exists socially I have to wonder if the question “Am I white?” even matters. It doesn’t, because race is a social construction. I also have to ask what it really means to be Jewish, because I didn’t go to Temple. I didn’t have a Bat Mitzvah, and I didn’t learn Hebrew or the Torah.

Since the age of five, I attended a Unitarian Universalist Church. At my church, we were encouraged to grow spiritually by learning about and sharing each other’s beliefs. The term for the synthesis of Judaism and Unitarian Universalism is Jewnitarian Jewniversalism. The Unitarian Universalist community was alive with spiritual sharing and acceptance. Diverse beliefs interwove to form a rich and multicolored tapestry that grew with every voice that was added.

At home, my family (my mother, my father, and I) observed the High Holy Days. The dusty bible would come off the shelf, and on Rosh Hashanah we would dip apples in honey for good luck in the (Jewish) New Year. A week later we’d be fasting for atonement on Yom Kippur, so that God would write our names down in a book somewhere up in heaven. Like Santa with his “naughty and nice” lists, only more meaningful, and hopefully less fictitious. God did not give presents, but instead dished out heaping portions of guilt, along with more tradition. There was guilt in not passing along Jewish tradition to the children of Jews, and so we would fast. Then we would feast, usually on pizza. When we invited multi-denominational friends to our lively Passover Seders, Mother took out the good crystal glasses and the white tablecloth would speckle with purple patches of Manishevitz wine. Everyone would talk and laugh and eat and eat. Jewish tradition is big on eating when it’s not time to be fasting. In December, my parents would put out the Menorah that my father had sculpted by hand. We also had a Christmas tree (boy were my nerdy bookish friends jealous). It’s these traditions that make up my ethnicity. Ethnicity comes from inside a group of people, and denotes the sharing of customs. Ethnicity is food and music and tradition. Ethnicity is cultural. Ethnicity is something that is done, not something that one is born with. Ethnically, I am a mutt.

Coming to terms with whether or not I was certifiably Jewish was difficult. My upbringing was rooted in the Jewish traditions upheld by my parents, and this set me apart from my classmates. However, my non-Jewishness set me apart from Temple-going Jews. Why did we have a Christmas tree? It was a part of my mother’s mother’s tradition (she had converted to Judaism in order to marry my grandfather and missed having a tree). Why was my mother dark-skinned? She was adopted. People like simple answers, not ambiguity, or even worse: long indefinite answers. Since I was of Jewish descent and observed Jewish holidays, my classmates expected me to be a walking encyclopedia everything Jewish (probably because they had never seen a Jewish person before!). When I wasn’t, I was again flawed because I wasn’t Jewish enough!

From Working-Class To Taking Classes
I have never enjoyed categorizing myself, because people like simple answers, even though people themselves are so complex. I come from a diverse background, and like most other twenty-somethings, my identity has undergone many changes. I went from picked-on bookworm to high-school hippie, to bleach-blond theatre major, to college dropout. I needed to “find myself”. Also, I wasn’t eligible for the financial aid I needed, because the Estimated Family Contribution was too high. Despite living on my own since the age of eighteen, my parents’ income still mattered on paper. I tried to keep my intellect whittled to a sharp point by reading a lot, but it’s not the same as being in school. There’s no engaging banter, no red pen marks on papers, no rewards for a job well done. I would make projects for myself, but I wouldn’t follow through with them because they were too demanding. I would write lists. ( Example: To do this week: Rushdie, Marquez, E.E. Cummings, Bronte, research Feminist Theory, do laundry, write the Great American Novel…) I lacked direction, and I needed to be in school.

Most recently, my identity underwent a dramatic shift when I was finally eligible to receive the financial aid that I needed. I went from working-class to taking classes. Not only did the way I see myself change, but the way I was received by others changed as well. I worked for three years at an on-campus coffee shop. Many people got to know my face, but few people got to know me as a person, and even fewer thought that I would care to be in school. Why would they wonder? I existed to serve, and so I slowly and sadly began to doubt my abilities. Because I was not a part of the academic institution, my voice was not heard. My mind was not challenged--I had no deadlines, no feedback. Day in, day out, it was always and only making coffee. Those who haven’t experienced what it is to be working-class don’t know the discrimination we face on a daily basis. During the day, when I was wearing my uniform (the ever-fashionable royal blue polo shirt and matching visor combo), I would have to be serving a person coffee in order for them to be nice to me, and that was because they directly benefitted from the function I performed. If I had to leave the confines of the coffee shop, people wouldn’t be as nice, maybe because I wasn’t smiling the smile of customer service while handing them a Moccachino. Of course this wasn’t always the case, there were nice people and I did make some friends, but the majority of people only saw the blue visor. People wouldn’t hold doors like they do now. I felt invisible. On the weekends, my friends and I would be at one of the bars downtown, and a stranger would stumble up to me and say, “Hey! You’re that girl who makes me the coffee!” Why yes. I was disappointed, because it seemed that they were allowed to not talk about school when they weren’t in school, but they expected me to want to discuss coffee. I wanted to talk about books and music, but how? I was that girl who made the coffee. I felt marginalized.

Now that I’m in school, I don’t know how many people I run into who say: “I barely recognize you without your visor!” Yesterday, I was on the fourth floor of the library, when a custodian said to me, “Isn’t this a little high-up for you? I thought you were only allowed on the ground floor.” Ha ha. (This actually happened!) It saddens me that the majority of people are stuck on the “ground floor” of the working class economy, never able to transcend their situations and work at a job they look forward to. It is even more depressing that this majority of lower-middle-class people is discriminated against by those with higher economic standing, as well as by each other. People assume, and people build hierarchies, and this is how hierarchies work. Deep down, I’m terrified of not making it, but I am surer of myself than I have ever been. I am climbing up! I have this chance to better my future by doing well in school. I am on the top floor looking down at where I’ve been, at shiny espresso machines and blinders shaped like blue visors, fences shaped like counters and cash registers, and never-ending lines of customers. I am looking out the window across the street at the Skyscraper of Desirable Careers, hoping that school will teach me how to fly (and soon!), or that I can learn to shoot webs out of my hands like Spiderman and swing across the gaping chasm. Hopefully being the best student I can be will facilitate a Rags-To-Riches fairytale ending to the working-class chapter in my life.

I am a double major in English and Women’s studies. I am a Feminist. I love language and thinking. I love talking and listening and sharing ideas. In the future, I want to find a way to synthesize creative writing and Women’s Studies. I want to help people in some way I want to help women live lives governed by self-determination instead of fear and limitation. I choose to lead by example.

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