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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Passing

In my last post I made a sarcastic reference to my parent's place in Westport as 'the family compound'... as if we were Kennedy's or something.

The fact is, growing up in Connecticut one learns all the signaling behaviors required to be accepted.  To explain this let me quote my friend Ben Chorin:

"... signaling behavior [is when] members of the community do apparently costly and useless things simply to signal to each other that they are reliable colleagues. One wears just the right sort of hat and frock (or jeans and earring), eats the approved foods, and so on. The more tight-knit and insular the community, the more costly and bizarre the signals and hence the more exclusionary."

Now, in the quote above, Ben was describing the way members of Haredi communities act to ensure inner identification,  In WASP enclaves like New England, there are also behaviors one learns, and signals one adopts in order to gain acceptance (or at least to not stand out). 

Like light skinned blacks who attend the 'right schools' and learn to speak with academic accents in an attempt to 'pass',  many Jews in the U.S. go to great sartorial, linguistic and culinary lengths to gain admission to non-Jewish society and mingle freely in the rarefied social strata of the 'goyim'.

I loved being a New Englander and embraced pretty much all of the requisite signs and behaviors required to fit in.  I can still tie the leather laces on my docksiders just so and favor LL Bean over just about any other brand.  And even after becoming religious (an act which required setting myself apart in many ways), I retained my taste for WASPy fashion. 

Heck, even though I had to swear off lobster tail and bacon when I embraced Jewish culture, the taste of summer blueberries and sweet corn still brings canoes full of youthful memories flooding back.

I noted that on the first couple of days that we were here in Westport, when I wore a ball cap around town, I moved effortlessly among the neighbors and shopkeepers.  But today when I went out wearing a kippah, a polite but impenetrable barrier sprung up around me and people greeted me with the cool cordiality normally reserved for foreigners who take care of the yard work.

Driving down the Merritt Parkway in my parent's BMW, I looked at the drivers around me and knew that to them, I appear to be just another local on the way to the tennis club or to play a round of golf.  But despite our common taste in cars and clothes (and sports)... these people are as strange and different from me as the people I encounter in India or Sri Lanka. 

The point is that while the people of Sri Lanka and India (and American Blacks, for that matter) have rich and valuable cultures of their own, and tastes and traditions that are every bit as substantial and valid as the ones I grew up with... it would be as silly for me to try to 'pass' in one of those cultures as it would be for me to continue to try to 'pass' as a WASP.

The U.S. has been wonderful to the Jews, and continues to offer nearly unparalleled opportunities to my people to excel in any field they choose.  I say 'nearly', because there is one other country where Jews can excel at anything they choose... and do so while never feeling the slightest need to 'pass'. 

I don't really have to mention it by name, do I?

Posted by David Bogner on August 11, 2010 | Permalink

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I believe it was Chaim Potok who (rather derisively) coined the term WASH (White Anglo-Saxon Hebrew) to describe assimilated American Jews (and, indirectly, Americanized Israeli culture). He meant it negatively, but I personally like it.

As a New England WASP (who is on the way to being a MOT), I can relate to your stories about New England shibboleths. My friends and I have the "wicked" test: real New Englanders use "wicked" as an adverb ("wicked cool"], while faux New Englanders use "wicked" as an adjective, in the British way ("that ride was wicked"). However, my hometown has virtually no Jews at all, so we never really noticed them trying very hard to fit in, since we just accepted them as parts of the town. (In fact, one Jewish family had Gentile ancestors who came on the Mayflower, which made them significantly more "legitimate" than the rest of us, whom were mainly Irish and Italian immigrants from the late 1800s.)

Oh, and LL Bean is somewhat less amazing now: they changed their "lifetime guarantee" into a "satisfaction guarantee." Now I can't turn in totally destroyed slippers and get brand new ones back. Tragic, really.

Posted by: Bryan | Aug 11, 2010 9:13:56 PM

Given that in Israel, there's more similarity, but still, don't you stick out with your kipah in the company of the chiloni coworkers? And, similarly, in the company of chareidi friends/coworkers - if you have any?

Posted by: greg_t | Aug 11, 2010 9:14:45 PM

I think it is more a question of where we allow ourselves to fit in than what others think. Sure, we can make the case that there are barriers that sometimes prevent this, but overall much of it comes from us. I have gone through periods of time where I wore a kipah daily.

It was always obvious to me how long I had been doing it by how aware I was of it. The first day or two always felt strange but after that I never noticed that there was anything different from myself and those around me.

Posted by: Jack | Aug 11, 2010 9:24:05 PM

Bryan... WASH. I'll have to remember that one. Perfect.

greg_t... That's the fantastic thing. There is endless stratification and labeling in Israel. But my Jewishness is accepted in Israel unlike anywhere else in the world. My chiloni coworkers make bar mitzvas for their kids... celebrate the same holidays as I do, sit shiva when (G-d forbid) a close relative dies, etc.. There is far more that unites us than what divides us.

Jack... It doesn't matter how much you notice. This is all about how much others notice. You may be 100% at home in your kipah. But try to fit in with the goyim and you will always be 'the Jew'.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Aug 11, 2010 9:34:06 PM

You know that passing and fitting in is a much more complex issue in Israel if you are Sephardic or Ethiopian. Your point is taken, but only so far.

Posted by: Jordan Hirsch | Aug 11, 2010 10:15:52 PM

Oh, and wicked cool is not an adverb, I think it is an intensifier.

Posted by: Jordan Hirsch | Aug 11, 2010 10:16:24 PM

Most intensifiers are adverbs, and "wicked" in this context is an adverb--a word that describes an adjective or verb--but point taken. I could have been more clear.

For example, in the phrase "awfully bad," "awfully" is an intensifier, since it augments the badness of "bad," but it is more generally an adverb, because it is describing an adjective.

Posted by: Bryan | Aug 11, 2010 10:41:19 PM

Canada?

Posted by: a | Aug 12, 2010 12:00:20 AM

Your thesis is correct, I'm sure, but do the more modern srugim types in Israel sometimes make an effort to appear more hip, cool and enlightened to their chiloni neighbors and friends? Just curious.

Posted by: Ari | Aug 12, 2010 6:00:05 AM

I'm sure Westportians (?) are equal opportunity elitists; don't take it too personally. There are no class differences and social strata tensions in Israel? :>)

Posted by: Ari | Aug 12, 2010 6:10:00 AM

"I say 'nearly', because there is one other country where Jews can excel at anything they choose... and do so while never feeling the slightest need to 'pass'. "


Well, um, unless you are a Reform Rabbi. You know. Just sayin'.

Posted by: Leah | Aug 12, 2010 6:13:32 AM

I used to hang around some pretty WASPy gatherings in the US. Me with a kippa, of course. I never got a whiff of anti-Semitism- quite the opposite, in fact- although every now and then something would slip indicating that you weren't quite one of the crowd- that you were the Jew.

And one thing I learned: Jews can't pass. Even the most assimilated ones. Oh, they may think they do, and the non-Jews will be too polite to point it out, but you can always tell a Jew. Often it's something physical, but not always.

Posted by: Nachum | Aug 12, 2010 1:02:26 PM

good post, sharp comments. about wicked cool- i believe that's of fairly recent origin in new england, (past 20 years or less) and anything of recent origin in new england is suspect for "real" new englanders. after my sister moved to maine 15 years ago or so- dad lives there too now- she slowly started saying "wicked cool" more and more until it just got ridiculous. she was trying to fit in, you see, and being of "recent origin" herself in maine (we grew up in west virginia) she had to be "holier than the pope". i don't think she fooled anyone, but fwiw she totally sees herself as a mainer now. which she is, technically, as i am technically an israeli. but i don't see any point in forgetting our roots.

Posted by: jonathan becker | Aug 12, 2010 1:03:00 PM

With reference to "trying to pass", I`m reminded of an experience I had - I lived in this same area as a pretty-much completely assimilated Jew, never feeling different. It was just another identifier: Irish, Italian, Macedonian, Jew. Then I (who looks fairly Jewish) went to a fundraising party that was invitation-only at a yacht club in Greenwich, CT, with a friend who looked obviously Jewish. Despite having an invitation, the "welcoming committee" - every one of them, blonde, blue-eyed, preppy (and every woman was in an identical LBD) - claimed we weren't on their list and therefore, they couldn't let us in.

That was the first - and thankfully, only - time I ever experienced something (prior to becoming religious, and walking around isolated areas with a headcovering!) directly related to my Jewishness. Was not fun. My friend and I went out to a nice bar, had a great time, and made our donations to some Jewish organization, instead.

Posted by: Alissa | Aug 12, 2010 2:36:24 PM

(this is not meant to imply, btw, that every blonde, blue-eyed, preppy member of a yacht club has a problem with Jews.)

Posted by: Alissa | Aug 12, 2010 2:37:45 PM

i have no idea how reflective srugim really is of israeli DL culture (or at least the slice of which it porports to represent), but i definately got a sense that some of the characters were self-conscious about their place in larger israeli society and the way in which they are percieved as different.

Posted by: Lion of Zion | Aug 12, 2010 6:19:44 PM

Being from Stamford, I couldn't pass in neighboring Westport or Greenwich anyway. ;-) So the kippah didn't matter.

Posted by: Mordechai Y. Scher | Aug 12, 2010 9:14:14 PM

Having lived in Maine this summer, and not widely bandied about that I was Jewish, I certainly know how this one feels...
- R

Posted by: Rob | Aug 13, 2010 4:53:07 AM

Though (sorry for the double post) they're making ships in Bath that are far, far more AWESOME than anything coming out of IAI in Be'er Sheva. (Sorry, just had to point that out. 600' LWL, 80.7' B, 15 kT displacement, and the armaments required to take out a battleship, traveling at speeds "in excess of 35 kts." [For what that's worth...] All packaged in a shell with the radar signature of a fishing boat and the sonar signature of a 688I submarine. It's just pretty darn impressive.)
- R

Posted by: Rob | Aug 13, 2010 4:59:08 AM

The Zumwalts are still torpedo bait, Rob. :)

ET1(SS), USN (Ret.)

Posted by: Karl Newman | Aug 13, 2010 8:49:53 AM

I went away to school in the Boston area in the 1966-1972 and never heard "wicked" used as an adverb, not even by my mother's local relatives who were native Bostonians. So this use of the word looks pretty recent.

Posted by: Anon1 | Aug 19, 2010 8:55:49 PM

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