Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A Very Special Episode of Yarmulke Tales

I've included a lot of obscenities in this post, because that's how it happened.

The subway doors opened at 42nd Street and in walks this guy with a Department of Environmental Conservation t-shirt and lots of chains, lots of keys rattling around his pants. I'm sitting, he ends up standing right in front of me, but only for a second. He takes a look down at me and starts pushing people out of his way.

"Excuse me," he says, "I don't want to stand next to a Jew."

At this point I'm thinking, hey, that right there is some extra-ordinarily polite Jew hating.

Our t-shirt man clarifies: "I hate Jews. They fucking crucified God. Christ killers! Christ killers, I do not stand next to a Jew. No. Fuck you, fuck Jews. Heil Hitler! See you in Heaven, yeah, fuck you Jew. See you in Hell. I'll stick a cross up your ass. You're not a minority, you're the majority."

I mean dude's pointing at me while he's shouting at me from half-way across the car. I start chuckling which in retrospect isn't the best way to assure that crosses and my ass keep their distance.

"I should cut your heart out. I should fucking cut your heart out. I won't, I won't because I'm a Christian. I hope the Arabs kill you. Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler! etc."

When I changed jobs this school year I also changed commutes. I went from walking to work through the lovely Jewish/Dominican ghettos in which I reside to riding the subway for an hour everyday. And by my count this is like the fourth, or maybe fifth time that something like this has happened on the subway this year. There was the guy who threw a penny at me. There was that guy who just started yelling "Shalom" at me. And the lady who screamed "HE'S A JEW! HE'S A JEW! HE'S GOING TO KILL YOU!" while I was riding the C. (I was not.)

You might be thinking, hey, I didn't know that anti-Semitism is a problem in America. There's a good reason why this sort of thing isn't on your radar: it's really, really great to be a Jew in America.


Being a Jew in this country is a remarkably sweet deal, basically because we get to be well-educated white people. We weren't white when we got here, of course. It took a while to get things going, a story you can read about in "How Did Jews Become White Folks?"
As with most chicken-and-egg problems, it is hard to know which came first. Did Jews and other Euro-ethnics become white because they became middle-class? That is, did money whiten? Or did being incorporated into an expanded version of whiteness open up the economic doors to middle-class status? Clearly, both tendencies were at work.
These days, in this country, Jew is just another sort of white, and anti-Semitism has receded because you don't mess with white folks. After crazy dude got off the subway the lady sitting next to me reassured me that the guy was just some whack-job. But what makes him crazy, instead of hateful, evil? What makes him nuts is going after me, an upstanding member of the dominant class.

Jews are safe, rich even. Anti-Semitism is not part of the regular life of a Jew in this country, you don't have to gird yourself against it the way you do if you're black or brown...

...unless you go around wearing a yarmulke. Because then? Then all the whack-jobs come out. People stop you in the streets start telling you about their churches. They shout at you, threaten you bodily. They call you names, and who cares if they're crazy because crazy stabs just the same.

I mention all of this not to reinforce the notion of Jews as victims, because we're not worth your concern in America.* But I hope I'm not flattering myself in thinking that my experiences are instructive. I mean, for one you've got the sheer power of whiteness to admire. There are Jews walking around New York really everywhere, and they basically experience none of this stuff because they don't wear a yarmulke and can just slip in and disappear from view. There's all this hate out there for Jewish folks, but whiteness guards you against it in this country pretty much all the time. That's potent stuff.

* OK, one quick plug for anti-Semitism. Jews were knocked around Europe for a couple millenia, and the Holocaust was like a year ago. You think it just went away? Come on.

But the yarmulke reveals all truths, and it's a reminder that hate or prejudice doesn't have to be visible to exist. Check out Bonilla-Silva who showed that white students know how to express racially appropriate opinions on surveys, but revealed their prejudices more fully during subsequent interviews. And I expect that it's the same with Jews and other groups. Circumstance might drive expressions of prejudice away from public view, but it doesn't take much to reveal them.*

* As long as I've got your attention: "Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They're Anti-White." Food for thought.

This is only somewhat related, but a third grade student was singing a song in class today, and I asked him what he was singing. "I learned it in church," he said. He smiled. "You wouldn't know it because you don't go to church because you're..." and he runs up to me and actually starts rubbing me yarmulke with his palm.

I don't know how to wrap this up, but anyway it's besides the point. I've got to get moving, there's cleaning to be done, Passover starts on Monday and I've got to get ready.

20 comments:

  1. Dear MIchael, thank you for sharing this story. What a hideous attack. I have been attacked a few times (in my life) for being a dyke (nothing like every month or two). Warmly, Sue

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  2. As a middle-class, Christian, heterosexual, white guy, I rarely experience much in the way of racism, sexism, or any discrimination, really. So, I never feel qualified to talk about it on any level.

    I'll admit that when I saw you wearing your yarmulke, my opinion of you changed a little. I don't think in any bad way, but it told me that you were into your faith enough to wear it around for others to see. It made me stop and think to myself a second whether I would do that, but of course I would. People wear crosses as fashion statements and most meaning there is lost. So, like burkas or turbins or whatever other outward expressions of faith people wear, I think it gave me a deeper respect for you in that way. I guess that's prejudicial of me because we've never actually talked about faith and I got all this from a piece of clothing you had on. I don't know.

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    1. As a middle-class, Jewish, heterosexual, white guy, I rarely experience much in the way of discrimination either!

      This wasn't discrimination. This was hate, sure, but any discrimination worth talking about is going to leave a stain, and this simply doesn't.

      Without the protection of whiteness and middle-classness, this hate (ever-present) gets a chance to do some damage. This testifies to the power of race in our country, and also to the possibility that in other countries, where race matters less, being Jewish might matter more.

      Regarding the yarmulke: thanks for sharing your impressions. I don't think of it as a symbol of my faith, though, I think of it as an obligation.

      No, that's not quite right either. Hmm...I think of it as a nose? Yeah! I think of it like my Jewish nose. I've always had a Jewish nose. Pretty much everyone in my family, neighborhood, camps and schools had a Jewish nose. I have a Jewish nose also, and it's always with me.

      Or something? Help me out, folks?

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    2. Yeah, but your nose you're stuck with. This is something you actively put on, right? I mean, your faith is enough for you to believe it is an obligation, right? You could be one of the other Jews who blend in with all the other white people out there. Maybe it's more "tradition" than "faith" or I don't know how you think of it, but it says to me that it's something you believe in enough to wear as an outward sign of that belief. Or maybe it's a habit, like my putting on a watch every day even though I never even look at it and hardly think of it until it's time to take it off at the end of the day. But if people pointed fingers at me and yelled stuff at me for my watch, I'd think twice about putting it on and maybe just start leaving it at home.

      Maybe it speaks more to the New Yorker in you than anything else, but if a "crazy guy" starts outwardly hating me, it's something I find scary. I mean, the "crazy" part just adds to the possibility he'll turn violent or something.

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    3. "New Yorker"? Oh God, the transformation, it is happening...

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    4. Your watch analogy definitely comes closer to me, maybe with the added twist that you and your community are the only group in the world that wear watches.

      But I think the focus should really be on what this whole thing tells us about the nature of latent hate and the way that racism, sexism and other oppressive forces operate and can remain latent.

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    5. Right on. I wonder if it would be similar to the Asian stereotype(s). Those generally seem to be favorable (smart, hard-working, etc.), but there is also an underlying resentment there, too.

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  3. Michael,

    Like I mentioned on Twitter, thank you for posting this. Being a member of society with similar credentials to CalcDave, I can't say that I've ever experienced this, so it's good to know that "crazy" things like this do happen. Even if it's an outlier, it happened. All the racism/hate we really hear about is people of color, which is certainly not true.

    Back in the 40s, my grandfather immigrated from Macedonia, beginning his life with nothing more than a 5th grade education. He never made more than $10 per hour as a cook because he didn't have a piece of paper saying that he had finished high school/college/trade school, yet his work ethic and cooking ability exceeded expectations. He, as well as my grandmother, got ridiculed constantly for his ethnicity, but it had nothing to do with the color of his skin.

    If nothing else, I hope that this post brings to light that the scope of racism/hate is far wider than what we currently believe.

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    1. Thanks for the thoughts, and it's great to hear the story of your Macedonian heritage. If you have a moment, you might check out the piece that I linked to about how Jews (and other white-ethnicities) became fully "white" in American society.

      I think it's fair to say that the scope of hate is far wider than we currently believe.

      I don't think it's fair, though, to say that my story is a story about racism. In fact, I think what's important about this story is the remarkable non-racism of it!

      Consider: there is this hate for Jews in society, and yet check out our stats -- we are given access to just about everything in American society.

      I posted this story here because (1) I had to write about it and (2) because it's a great example of the difference between hate and racism. Hate is what I experienced. Racism is (e.g.) income inequality between black people and white people.

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    2. Even in the Wiemar Republic, Jews were similarly over-represented in positions of power.

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  4. What a painful post to read. I've lived my entire life in the northeast and never experienced anything even remotely like what you have described (Disclaimer: I wear a yarmulke only in shul); but the reminder that the hatred is there is bracing.
    Chag Sameach Michael.

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  5. I am reminded of my description of you in a recent post:

    " Pershan is Jewish, I think, although he never mentions it on the site (I remember his wedding announcement vaguely), and I mention this only because when I read this twitter mess my first thought was “he’s Jewish, he went to Harvard, he lives in New York City, and he didn’t see this coming?” But I think he’s a particularly observant Jew (not like noticing things, like observing Jewish custom), and until recently taught at a Jewish boys’ high school, so perhaps he doesn’t get out much."

    It looks like you're getting out more!

    Anyway, forgive me but I thought this was an observant and wryly amusing post. If it was meant to be horrific I apologize for missing the message.

    The guy was crazy (as you say), and crazy people pick all sorts of weird things to fixate on. Yes, undoubtedly Jews are one of them, and a popular one at that.

    I have stuff like that happen to me all the time. Different trigger, of course.

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    1. It was definitely not meant to be horrific, and if I hit "observant and wryly amusing" then 2 points for Michael!

      Really what this was for me was a chance to think through the difference between this episode and more important, systematic oppression in society.

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  6. Being a Jew in this country is a remarkably sweet deal, basically because we get to be well-educated white people. We weren't white when we got here, of course. It took a while to get things going, a story you can read about in "How Did Jews Become White Folks?"


    As with most chicken-and-egg problems, it is hard to know which came first. Did Jews and other Euro-ethnics become white because they became middle-class? That is, did money whiten? Or did being incorporated into an expanded version of whiteness open up the economic doors to middle-class status? Clearly, both tendencies were at work.


    These days, in this country, Jew is just another sort of white, and anti-Semitism has receded because you don't mess with white folks. After crazy dude got off the subway the lady sitting next to me reassured me that the guy was just some whack-job. But what makes him crazy, instead of hateful, evil? What makes him nuts is going after me, an upstanding member of the dominant class.


    Legally, Jews were always regarded as White, there was never any attempt to challenge this. A few people tried to redefine "White" to equal "Nordic," but it was never very popular. Jews are, on average, far more accomplished than the typical White person. It should be obvious that Jews became middle class because they were Jews, they were always disproportionately represented in middle class fields going back to their time in Europe. Asians are not considered White and they entered middle class status rather easily.

    I think that, were a person to say that about an African American, the response from other White people would also be "he's nuts." Sure, White people run society, but these are liberal white people.

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    1. Legally, Jews were always regarded as White, there was never any attempt to challenge this. A few people tried to redefine "White" to equal "Nordic," but it was never very popular.

      I'm interested in the specific history of "white" as a racial marker, but for the purposes of this post I can adopt a weaker claim: that elites used racial categories to distinguish between themselves and Jews.

      The article that I linked to sends us to Kenneth Roberts, Madison Grant, Davenport, Robert Yerkes, etc, all of whom used racial terminology to distinguish between themselves and Jews.

      This isn't the sort of thing that we can just debate -- there's either evidence for my position, or there's evidence for your's. Could you point us to some sources that support your position?

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    2. I'm interested in the specific history of "white" as a racial marker, but for the purposes of this post I can adopt a weaker claim: that elites used racial categories to distinguish between themselves and Jews.

      Yes they used "racial" categories to distinguish themselves from the Jews, back then it was common to speak of the "French race" or the "Polish race" or the "Jewish race," and they clearly saw that the Jews were not Northwestern European Protestants. But there was never really serious dispute as to whether Jews were White. Across the South under Jim Crow there would be one line for White people, one line for "Colored" people, guess which line Jews in that time period stood in?

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    3. Evidence?

      I mean, I'm happy to believe you and (like I said) I'm also happy to weaken my claim, but evidence, sir, the evidence is what's going to convince me.

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    4. Here's a relevant bit from "The Jew's Body":

      "...their necks exposed, the color of a black." (1780)
      "...choleric and melancholic temperaments, so they have in general a shade of complexion somewhat darker than that of the English people." (1808)
      "The African character of the Jew, his muzzle-shaped mouth and face removing him from certain other races..."
      "[He] took every light-colored mulatto for a Jew..." (1850s)

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    5. I'm not sure what evidence you are asking for because I'm not sure what, in my comment, you are disputing. My point about the legal status of the Jews as Whites is easily verifiable. Wikipedia has a page on it:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Definitions_of_whiteness_in_the_United_States#Central_and_West_Asian_Americans

      You can see that there were no legal challenges to the White status of the Jews. You did of course, have antisemitism and people like Madison Grant, but in that same time period you also had people like Supreme court Justice Louis Brandeis, rich bankers like Jacob Schiff, ect. What you had was Jews, who mostly arrived as poor refugees, quickly recovering their status of being, on average, richer and more educated that the gentile population. And there was never any serious effort by the gentile population to prevent their advancement or deprive them of their status as Whites. Compare that to what was done to the Asians to prevent their advancement.

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    6. Do you have any evidence of the general population's perception of the White status of Jews? It seems like common sense to me that, if the general population didn't see Jews as White they wouldn't have been allowed to drink out of the White fountain. People wrote antisemitic things but people do the same thing today, I read that Stormfront has over 200,000 members and I'm sure they don't regard Jews as White.

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