Thursday, August 18, 2011

Raisins and Almonds

The unexpected result of giving birth to Esther is that I have newly intense insight into how Jewish folks engage with the world.

You see, although Esther may one day choose to be a Christian, she is already Jewish. Some denominations recognize patrilineal descent in addition to the fact that she will practice the religion with her father and I, while also being surrounded by other Jewish folks who will treat her as Jewish. Birth, practice and culture are the three legs of the Jewish identity stool.

This was brought home to me when Jacob and I went to see The Last Act of Lilka Kadison at the Lookingglass Theater last weekend. The play was lovely and powerful, illustrating the universal human need to give life meaning through telling our stories by following a dying woman and her care giver as she struggles to re-member the love affair of her youth in Poland that was ended by the beginning of WWII. As an aside,  I appreciate that our society has reached a point where the art that grows out the Holocaust no longer needs to include graphic retellings of the horrors of the camps (like Night) or to focus on the most tragic stories (like Sophie's Choice). Even simple stories of teenage romance disrupted before it could fully develop are important when never forgetting.

I had to keep myself from sobbing through much of the second half and although the play was well-written and elegantly staged, I wondered if something else was happening than just catharsis.

It turns out that I gave birth to a Jewish daughter and this affected my engagement with Jewish art.

These stories are my daughter's stories.

She belongs to the continuous line of people who have lived these experiences.

I am not like the guy on Seinfeld that converted in order to tell better jokes; I am not claiming the stories and experiences as my own. But a mother's love for her daughter is an entangling thing.

I am now entangled with the Jewish experience in a much more intense way that I was simply by marrying a Jewish man and practicing religiously with him.

A few days ago, I had a conversation with someone I love dearly about his insistence on using racial and ethnic slurs ironically and casually in conversation. His argument has always been that words themselves have no power to hurt and since his motivation is not hateful, people should back off.

He loves this clip from Louis CK (as do I) and I'll be honest, I am moved by a similar argument made by David Foster Wallace in his essay, "Authority and American Usage":
I should note here that a couple of the students I’ve said this stuff to were offended – one lodged an Official Complaint – and that I have had more than one colleague profess to find my spiel [regarding Standard Black and White English] “racially insensitive.” Perhaps you do, too. This reviewer’s own humble opinion is that some of the cultural and political realities of American life are themselves racially insensitive and elitist and offensive and unfair, and that pussyfooting around these realities with euphemistic doublespeak is not only hypocritical but toxic to the project of ever really changing them.
Since I do agree in theory with these folks, I'll tell you right out that my friend used the word, "kike," jokingly, trusting that I knew he's not actually bigoted in his choice.  And while normally I would just give him a disapproving look and move on, instead I got really upset.  When we came back to the conversation later, he made the points made above and I had two responses.

First, although I know he's not bigoted, he made the joke amongst a group of people for whom that could not be said quite so securely.  They don't actually know many (any?) Jewish folks besides Jacob and a few of them have said distressing things in the past.  Since my friend is a charismatic and influential guy, part of my upset reaction was that he was giving tacit permission to the rest of the group to also use that word.

Second, he made the joke in front of Esther.  She's tiny now but she'll get bigger and no one really knows when verbal perception begins.  Plus, it will be a long time before she really understands sarcasm and every other time she hears that word, it will be from people who don't like Jews simply because they are Jews or in the context of discussing those people.

I never want her to wonder - not even for an instant - whether this man that she loves dislikes her because she is Jewish.

On the other side of the coin, I know that we tend to believe our loved one's opinions about our identities and I don't want her to believe - not even with a tiny sliver of her mind - that being Jewish is a bad thing.

To his credit, my friend acknowledged my arguments and agreed not to use historically degrading words around my daughter.  I know this gives the words continued power in the larger culture but I want to limit the amount that I sacrifice my children's well-being for the sake of the larger culture war.  This is a battle I choose to back down from.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

Did you seriously just reference Louis CK and David Foster Wallace in the same blog post??! LOVE!