Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Overheard on the 6 train

This morning, as I was riding to work, there were two Sephardic Jews, one Israeli, one from Brooklyn, flirting. It was interesting to see them talk about their shared culture. She didn't know the name of his hometown (just north of Haifa), but she knew she could drop the name of her father's hometown and he'd understand immediately. And she kept mentioning food, confident he'd understand what she meant when she simply said that Brooklyn has good food. Hummus and falafel, rather than latkes and kugel. In other words, they shared an ethnic identification. (There are other ways, probably more significant, in which Jewish cultures differ from the dominant, white culture of the US, but don't we always start with food and geography?) Many of us, without much interaction with the organized Jewish community, may find it easy to forget what that means. But Jews are not, as too often portrayed, simply white (or sometimes, whiter than white). The understanding that Jews are white needs to be problematized.

I'm white, but I don't know that either of them could be appropriately said to be. And if they are, there are other Jews -see Y Love; Rebel Sun; or Sammy Davis, Jr; but also consider the Ethiopian Jews, Beta Israel; or the Chinese Kaifeng Jews; or Jews of India (here's some Indian Jews in Brooklyn). Yet we all (even me) share pieces of a broader Jewish identity that is different from the dominant culture of the US that is understood as defining whiteness. The guy who spoke up to say that his mother's family was also Sephardic, from Syria and Egypt -though he looked more like me- him, too.

Of course, such diversity within Jewish society produces conflict. We're not necessarily less racist than other groups (why would anyone expect otherwise?), and it's a shame to see "anti-Zionists" exploit that to tar all Jews/Zionists/Israeli Jews for the racism of some Jews. Yet she noted that in Brooklyn, there's respect for the diversity of styles of worship among Jews. And he noted that in Israel, his generation is leaving behind the racial divide between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews.

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