Better than that

Last weekend I went to Boomie’s and came home with a bunch of books. Among them was a novel with an unmistakeably Jewish-themed title, a magical-realist epic that starts in the shtetl and ends up in contemporary Nova Scotia. In other words, just the kind of book I would normally reject out of hand.

Judaism and I are a little estranged. I’m not sure what all the estranging factors are, but among them I would include my lack of indoctrination from a suitably young age (my family didn’t belong to a synagogue until I was ten); a deep ambivalence about the trappings of my suburban middle-class past, such as JCC camp and things all Jewish children know; and Israel. Still, I’m trying to become an anti-racist person, and people I respect have advised me that a white ally must make peace with her own identity before she can be effective, so I bought the book.

It was racist!

In four places, it used the words “schwartze” or “colored” to describe black people. You could say these terms came filtered through the perceptions of the main characters, but it felt like more than that. There was other stuff, too. I counted eleven passages involving people of color that offended me. Now this book was published by a reputable house. It had blurbs on the back cover from major elite-media outlets, and there were pages of praise—not all from Jewish publications—in the front. I mean, what the fracking frack?

I was thinking over how to write a blog entry on this and how uneasy I felt about calling another author’s work racist on the internet (which is why I’ve disguised the book. I will say it’s not The Tsaddik of the Seven Wonders, though). “Why does it hurt more when it’s Jews?” I asked myself. And right away I answered myself, “It’s because I expect more of them.”

Turns out I am actually, despite the ambivalence I’m so happy to expound at the drop of a hat, an extreme Jewish chauvinist. I expect more of Jews because I was taught in those Saturday morning religious-school classes that Jews were better than that. When I later learned about Goodman and Schwerner (you can bet your boots they didn’t teach that at Temple Emanuel), it seemed no accident to me that they were Jewish. When I learned that Jews were prominent unionizers and Socialists in the early twentieth century, that didn’t seem like an accident. And when I wanted to become more involved in racial justice, my being Jewish didn’t seem like an accident to me either. Somehow, at home with my relatively secular parents and at temple with those relatively conservative and definitely Zionist teachers and rabbis, I gathered that Jews were called to the fight for justice. And I believed it.

I wonder how I can get back to that belief and make it mine again.