“No dogs, radios, bicycles or picnics.”
This enigmatic list posted on a series of wrought iron fences made clear — though without explanation — what items were once barred from the “Backs” in Cambridge, England. Honoring this proscription was the small cost of using the private meadows owned by the colleges next to the river Cam.
The strange collection of ways that you might be permitted or barred entry feel to me like the ways that you might gain entry to Jewishness. Ethnicity, peoplehood, nationality, religion and heritage are a few of our prescriptions for entry. Which is why, when I’m completing the census, I always check “other.”
I understand that, in a government by the people for the people, census and demographic information should be used for the benefit of the least advantaged in society. And let’s just pretend for a moment that that is, in fact, the case. Let’s pretend that whenever we are asked to identify our group identity on a government form, it is to focus on and help the systematically disenfranchised African Americans, the politically stigmatized Hispanics and the economically disadvantaged white working classes.
Even so, is it worth the perpetuation of these divisive and long-discredited distinctions? Yes, the distinctions are — as a result of centuries of bigotry and oppression — socially evident. But the distinctions are those of racists and hatemongers. I look at the list and expect to see Octoroon and Colored on it.
The category distinctions on the official U.S. Census show the confusion. Distinctions are provided on the basis of geographical provenance (Filipino), linguistic preference (Hispanic) and racial essentialism (African American) masquerading as geographical provenance.
American Jews growing up in the late 20th century enjoyed a contingent whiteness and a general economic and social privilege. That context and its backlash are unfolding in front of our eyes as one of the most bigoted, racist administrations sets up with a fabulously wealthy Jewish developer near the apex of the white, Christian supremacists.
One of the great delights and great troubles of Jewish history and Jewish identity is that no matter the dominant social paradigm there’s always a way to single us out. If society is theocratic we are shunned for our different beliefs; if it’s racial we are shunned for our supposedly differently shaped skulls; if linguistic we talk funny; if nationalistic we are global. Despite the fervent shuddering of our own fundamentalists, the Jewish people has thrived on its set of “family resemblances.” Wittgenstein used the term to refer to a set of characteristics that the larger group, the “family,” would be linked, though any two members might have none in common.
So we have a series of languages: Yiddish, Ladino, Yevanic, Hebrew. We have various sets of beliefs and ethnic groupings centered on traditional and progressive Sephardic, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi heritages. We have a single, small, embattled nation state. We have gloriously creative foodways and literatures, and vibrant musical traditions. Two Jews might not have in common a language, a culture, a genetic heritage, a geographical location — any of those sad, tired markers of oppressive division — and yet they might still identify, justifiably, as Jewish.
And that’s what I’d check. Jewish. A proudly non-essentialist identity that is color-blind, country-blind, belief-blind. A minority almost everywhere, almost everywhen. An identity that, while demanding decency and support from the surrounding majority, centrally undermines the essentialist borders of them and us that are the prerequisites of hate.
Until then, I’m Octoroon or Other.
White? Jewish? Why I Always Check the ‘Other’ Box.
Dan Friedman is the director of content and communications at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. Formerly the executive editor and whisky correspondent of the Forward, he is the author of an illuminating (and excellent value) book about Tears for Fears, the 80s emo rock band.