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She Doesn’t Look Jewish…

Like spirituality, it is easier for me to write about white privilege and racism than talk about it. Last month, my book club chose to read Caste by Isabel Wilkerson. It was a painful, enlightening and brilliant read that inspired me to look deep, shake things up and listen for the small voice inside my soul. Although it was difficult, I offer a deep bow of gratitude for this book selection. Wilkerson describes a dark study of violence and power in the context of social divisions in American society. As I read, I felt the author inviting me to examine my own racial assumptions. Some of which, I discovered, are gut wrenching.

When I finished reading, I thought about suggesting the book club sit in silence at our gathering because what words could we possibly say that could begin to express the shameful history of our country. For me, there is also shame around my ignorance of this history. As many years as I sat in Hebrew School learning about my heritage, including the horrors of the Holocaust, I am embarrassed to admit I had no idea the Nazis actually studied our American legal caste system, our Jim Crow-era laws and American writing on eugenics to devise their brutal systems of horror. Stunning.

I recently listened to a Yom Kippur sermon by Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, from Manhattan Central Synagogue in New York City. She talked about what author Isabel Wilkerson talks about, from a Jewish perspective. One thing she said that grabbed my attention; there is no Jewish gene. She said Jews are a peoplehood, not a race, even though we have strong feelings about our “immutable hereditary identity” that Wilkerson eloquently writes about. Pride in ancestry is different from race.

Some of you may know, the vision for my memoir, Keep Calm, It’s Just a Brain Tumor, was to express, out loud and publicly, a big THANK YOU to HaShem and my beloved neurodocs for giving me a second chance at life. The written feedback on the book that I received from my neuro-oncologist, brought me to tears (again!)

I was out of the office last week only to return to a copy of your lovely book. I am so excited to read it this weekend. I skimmed it and found some lines that I will hold in my heart for always. Thank you so much for trusting me on this journey with you. Baruch Hashem."

Baruch Hashem is a well-known Jewish expression that translates to Thank G-d! The Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, described thanking God or saying Baruch Hashem as paying dues to the Divine, with the understanding that God is a constant presence in our lives, our aliveness, and the least we can do is reciprocate with expressions of gratitude.

My initial response was, “Is she Jewish?” Next, I bombarded my partner Cameron with questions, showing my own and stereotyping and prejudices. “Do you think she is Jewish? Why would she say Baruch Hashem?” Knowing she is in a two-physician household, I said, “Maybe she is married to a Jewish doctor.” Oy vey!

After reading Caste, learning how race is manipulated to create hierarchies of human value and hearing Rabbi Buchdahl’s sermon, I now understand those “is she Jewish?” musings are, wait for it…..racist! Yup. Straight up. And, it’s quite possibly anti-Semitic racism towards my own community. Rabbi Buchdahl, is a Jew of color with a beautiful Asian face. She has experienced this very same racism from the Jewish community. Because of her physical appearance, many of her fellow Jews assume she could not be Jewish.

All I really know about my neuro-oncologist is that she is a kind, compassionate, empathetic and beautiful black woman who is obviously extremely smart and skilled in her work. And, because of her physical appearance, I assumed she would not be Jewish.

I don’t know if she is or isn’t a Jew of color. I do know that we are of the same tribe.

1 Comment

Jun 21, 2022

Thank for for this piece. It puts me in mind of comments about names. Sometimes, when a new, Jewish person is introduced in a conversation amongst Jews, I have heard someone say, "Your surname doesn't sound Jewish," or words to that effect. That is a micro-aggression. Although, I'm not sure 'micro' is quite the right prefix, as the impact can be paralysing for the person who has been spoken to in this way. What is in the mind of the speaker? That the person must be a convert, or descended from a convert (who isn't? think about it ...)? So what? Is the person somehow less Jewish than a Jew who has a name the speaker thinks is Jewish? I…

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