Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Hebrew Letters in Berkeley

I have a t-shirt which says "Carleton College" in (transliterated) Hebrew letters. I put it on today, for no particular reason other than it rising to the top of the t-shirt drawer, before heading off to the post office for an errand.

While there, the post office clerk asked what my shirt said. I responded "Carleton College". "Oh, that's cool. Is it in Arabic?" "No, Hebrew." "Oh, that's cool." Both "that's cools" were said with enthusiasm and a warm smile.

And the tension in my gut dissipated, and I relaxed.

I got nervous when asked about my shirt. I got nervous because I knew the answer would reveal myself as Jewish -- and Jewish-identified. These I think are different, for the casual anti-Semite -- the difference between "being gay in private" and "throwing it in my face." I feel like people who have negative feelings about Jews have particularly negative feelings about Jews who consciously identify as Jewish, such that they wear a "Jewish shirt" out in public.

Now, I should say that I did not feel nervous because I predicted any sort of imminent physical threat -- "going postal" jokes notwithstanding, I didn't expect anything truly bad to happen at the post office. But I got nervous, because I didn't know what it would mean to "out" myself as Jewish. Not everyone, after all, thinks that "that's cool." Some people, and more people than there used to be, think it isn't cool it all.

This is quite saddening, less because I feel any serious risk of being violently attacked, and more because I used to be very excited when the topic of my Jewish identity became salient. At Carleton, where there weren't a lot of Jews, I generally thought of my Jewishness as an "interesting fact about myself," something I was happy to talk about and explain to other curious souls. This isn't to say there was never any awkward moments -- ask me about the time my Freshman-year floormates got me Schindler's List for my birthday -- but I felt happy at the opportunity to share about my Jewishness.

The recent set of journalistic projects wherein people walk through European streets (Malmo, Sweden; Paris, France) while identifiably Jewish make salient the reality of this worry. That is not to say it happens everywhere, or every time, and there will always be those who cry "fraud" (Rania Khalek would no doubt rather focus on "Jewish privilege"). But the point is that it is always there, in the back of my mind. I cannot just "be Jewish" in the world, I have to make continual conscious decisions about when and how I present my Jewishness in the world and when and how I hide it. That's a feeling that I didn't have, or didn't have to the same extent, even a few years ago. And it is a sad feeling.

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