The other day I had what is probably the closest I’ve ever come to a true anti-Semitic incident. It happened at a Starbucks on Montana and 7th which is one of the toniest parts of Santa Monica. This is an area choking in upscale restaurants, multimillion dollar homes, and designer boutiques that are so exclusive their entire display area might consist of a single pair of insanely expensive shoes sitting on a pristine block of maple wood. It is also a neighborhood that has an extremely high Jewish population.
I was meeting with a woman who runs a Jewish Elementary School in Orange County. I actually met her through my blog. Eve was a colleague of my old high school friend Julie Rotter Shumski who died last March. Julie was the former president of Eve’s school and they were close friends. After I wrote that post about Julie's untimely death we started talking about Julie and the ways my company might be able to work with the teachers at her progressive school. Eve was coming up to L.A. for the day so we decided to meet. We were sitting outside with our lattes when a young, blond, clean-cut guy sat down at the table next to us. After a few minutes the man mumbled something and Eve and I both looked up. Was he talking to us? He looked over but didn’t say anything so we continued our conversation. This happened a few more times until finally the man moved closer to our table and blurted out in a loud voice, “So, are you two from Palestine?” What? Why was he asking us that? Anyone who was eavesdropping could hear that we were native-born Americans, me with my strong Chicago accent and Eve with traces of an east coast cadence. Palestine? Did he think we were Arabs living in the Palestinian territories? Israeli soldiers stationed in Gaza? “No, we’re from here,” we said haltingly, and then shifted our bodies away from this guy so we could continue our discussion of the innovative programs at Eve’s school. “So, I guess since you guys are from Palestine,” the man called over, now almost shouting, “you support the terrorism that’s happening there? Your fascist government going in and destroying whole Arab neighborhoods?” That’s a slight paraphrase, I think there were some obscenities laced in but I can’t recall the exact words. “Look,” Eve said, adopting the authoritative tone she must need as head of a school, “we’re really not interested in talking about that right now, we’re in the middle of a meeting here.” The man waved his newspaper at us and inched still closer. He clearly wanted to engage us in his diatribe and continued to list the atrocities that “our people” were committing over there. Eve and I tried to ignore him but it wasn’t possible so we grabbed our coffee and moved to a table inside the store.
As I talked to Eve with one eye trained on the door to see if this unstable man was going to burst in with a gun, I realized that my first thought when this happened had been “How did he know we were Jewish?” Nappy40 had a fascinating post today about African Americans who try to “pass” for white. She links to a great article by Vershawn Ashanti Young that talks about the “burden of racial performance,” the demands that many blacks feel to prove what kind of black person they are. Nappy40's post reminded me of the times in my youth when I’d try to suppress my natural “oys” for fear that someone would “spot” me as a Jew. (Is that why I’m a never-ending “oy” machine today? Has that become the rallying cry at my internal Jew Pride parade: “I Say Oy, I’m Not a Goy, Get Over It!”) Even in the predominantly Jewish world of my childhood I had a strong sense that I was still part of “the other” and I longed to be accepted into the mainstream. It makes me cringe when I remember discussions from years ago about who looked Jewish and who didn't, the “didn't” being the coveted, sought-after spot. Not all that different from the plight of light-skinned blacks who attempted to pass as white or the classification in our culture of beautiful black women as those who have physical features that are more traditionally Caucasian (e.g., the lightest skin, straightest hair, thinnest nose, even in some cases the bluest eyes)—if you don’t believe me, take a look at the African American women who have won national beauty contests. I remember hearing Lena Horne rail about the indignities she suffered in the MGM make-up room as they constantly tried to lighten her up for certain roles. Max Factor developed a special foundation for her called "Light Egyptian" which made her scream, “I’m not Egyptian!” (I guess Egypt was exotic enough to 1940s makeup artists to make them forget that it was still part of Africa!)
Just like the variations of skin tone and features that exist in the African-American community, Jews in the Diaspora obviously have an endless range of physical characteristics, from people who look very Middle Eastern to those who could pass for Swedish immigrants. Even though I am personally attracted to what is often seen as the typical “look” of the American Jew (i.e., those whose descendents came from eastern Europe and whose appearance was caricaturized by the Nazis), I have to be honest and admit that the question “Does he/she look Jewish?” still carries with it some of that baggage from childhood. When my daughter was born, was I a little too happy when I saw her light blue eyes? It works both ways—some of Leah’s French relatives, who are Sephardic Jews from North Africa did, in fact, openly rejoice about Leah’s eyes, relieved that the recessive gene residing in her brown-eyed mom somehow pulled through and produced this blue-eyed light-complexioned baby as if that somehow gave Leah a leg up in this world. Even as recently as last week when I heard someone make a silly comment about all Jews being dark, I burst in a bit too defensively with a litany of my blond, blue-eyed family members who were 100% Jewish. God, this stuff is hard to shake!
I also read an interesting post today called “Jewish People Are So Smart” by Citizen of the Month. He describes the experience of his friend, an African American teacher in a mostly white liberal private school. "My friend always has amusing stories about how even the most liberal of liberal parents sometimes can’t get over the color of his skin. If anything, he is treated nicer because of his color, just so parents can tell themselves that they have no problem with him being black…When the school decided to do a special assembly program on Martin Luther King, all eyes turned to my friend, waiting for his approval and opinion, as if he had some purer psychic connection to Dr. King than the several older white teachers who had actually marched during the 60’s. My friend tried to remind them that during the 60’s, he was mostly a kid watching 'The Brady Bunch' on TV.” Neil goes on to say that while this kid-gloves approach is certainly better than old-time discrimination, the “over-politeness” can still be very awkward and that most members of minority groups do not want to be considered as spokespersons for “their people!” Every time I veered from my Jewish ghetto growing up, such as the year I went to college in France, I frequently heard odd comments when people found out I was Jewish. These ranged from non sequitirs about loving “Fiddler on the Roof” to more insidious comments about how their Jewish accountant/lawyer/doctor/tax man was so nice and VERY good with money. (I wish I were, I’d think to myself. Why the hell didn’t I get the Jew "good with money" gene?)
It would be easy to dismiss this putz at Starbucks as a crazy person but I think it goes deeper than that. He looked like a college student to me. Is it true that on many college campuses these days it has become politically incorrect to support the state of Israel in any way? In other situations I am only too happy to discuss my feelings about Israel. How I am able to deeply love the country and its ideals while vehemently opposing some of the policies of its government (exactly the same way I feel about my love of the United States and my disgust at many of the actions of the current administration). But this man was not interested in political discourse. And what’s with the designation of all of greater Israel as Palestine? Whatever their feelings are about the occupied territories, are young people today starting to dismiss even the original 1948 boundaries and reject Israel’s right to exist at all? Even Yassir Arafat got beyond that! Part of me wanted to train this guy in how to be a better anti-Semite. First, I’d tell him to choose his audience more carefully. “Look around, buddy,” I’d say. “One more outburst about Palestine and this entire crowd may start speed dialing the Anti-Defamation League on their Blackberries as they pummel you with their venti half-caf nonfat no-whip mocha valencias!”
I know my short-lived Starbucks episode is not even a blip compared to the real oppression and threat that Jews, blacks, gay people, and countless other groups still experience all over the world. But even that microscopic whiff of being targeted in some way and possibly in peril because of who I am made me think long and hard about the discrimination, subtle and otherwise, that so many people have to live through on a daily basis. I never expected to get such a lesson on one of the most chichi streets of Santa Monica, but it is one that was well worth the inflated price of my vanilla latte.