[Image description: The photograph shows the author, a light-skinned woman with graying brown shoulder-length hair and glasses. She is wearing a navy-blue hooded sweatshirt, and her right hand is resting against the side of her face. She is looking into the camera and smiling. Behind her is a curtain in a mandala design.]
I recently decided to purchase a genetics test from 23andme.com. I’ve been doing genealogical work for over a decade, and I thought it would be interesting to find new relatives and to learn exactly where my ancestors originated.
The results were not surprising: As Jews, most of my ancestors began in the Middle East and migrated into Europe over the course of many centuries. What delighted me, though, is that the test distinguished between “Ashkenazi” (Jews residing in central and eastern Europe) and “broadly European” (non-Jews residing throughout Europe). The vast majority of my DNA is Ashkenazi, rather than European. I am 97.2% Ashkenazi and only 2.6% European, with .2% of my DNA being East Asian and/or Native American.
The results of the test illuminated for me a central contradiction of my life: the society in which I live codes me as white, but I do not identify as white. Put a different way: my external identification is white, while my internal identification is Jewish.
For many centuries, Jews were not considered white or European at all. We were not considered Russian, or Polish, or Lithuanian, despite the fact that we resided in Russia, and Poland, and Lithuania. We were considered Other. We were racialized as Jews. The low percentage of “broadly European” in my DNA results means that there was very little intermarriage with non-Jews among my ancestors — which makes sense, given that anti-Semitism dictated that Jews were largely confined to ghettos, to the Pale of Settlement, and to other such isolated places. It also means that there was less rape of my ancestral mothers than I would have expected, because rape was a weapon used against Jews in many places over many centuries. In fact, the whole notion of matrilineal descent – that having a Jewish mother makes you Jewish – seems to have grown up around the understanding that oppressed women would be raped as a way to try to destroy communities. So the children of those rapes were knit into the communities as Jews, regardless of who their fathers were.
There is no way to resolve the contradiction between my internal and external identities. My external identification gives me white privilege. It has opened many, many doors that remain closed to many, many people. And yes, I’m disabled. And no, I have no family. And yes, I’m a trauma survivor. And no, none of that erases the advantages I get by virtue of how the world looks at me. I pass as though I’m of white European descent, and I get all that my society gives people who pass in this way. That won’t change unless I work to change it.
But I have never felt any particular attachment to what most people think of as white European culture – and I say that as someone with two degrees in English literature. I have those two degrees because I love language and because, living in the US, my native language is English. But the entire time I was working toward both degrees, I kept wondering, “Why am I studying the work of white Christian men of European descent? They have nothing to do with the history of my people, with the language of my people, or with the culture I come out of. I feel as though I’m speaking a second language when I engage this work.”
There is a certain sensibility to being Jewish, as there is in any ethnic group – a certain way of looking at the world, a certain way of engaging the world – that is different from a white, Christian, European sensibility. Our religious paradigm is entirely different. Our views of the body and the soul are entirely different. Ours is a communal culture, not an individualistic one. Ours is a multivocal culture, not a culture that relies upon choosing one perspective over another. We have our own language, our own humor, our own history, our own verbal cadences, our own observances, our own rituals, our own way of marking time and seasons and life cycles. Ours is a culture that fought to survive against millenia of white, Christian, European oppression.
But white Jews who live in America now benefit through an external identification with those who have historically oppressed us. As an American, light-skinned Jew, I am now in the position of benefiting from the oppression of black and brown people who are treated similarly in the US to the ways in which Jews were treated in Europe. All I can do in the face of this reality is to fight against the forces that can place people on one side of a line or another so easily, so arbitrarily, and with such virulence.
My Jewish culture, which teaches us to create justice as love in action, dictates that I fight white supremacy and all the ways in which it benefits me. Fighting for someone else does not mean that I lose. It means that I win, because they do, too.
[Headline image: The photograph shows a Chanuka menorah with a Jewish star in the center and nine candles burning. The candles are red, orange, and yellow, and the menorah is standing on tin foil in front of a light background. Photograph by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg.]