This evening I’ve been thinking about Jen. I met her when we were both 17, as part of a Roots program – a summer trip to Israel for US-based Jewish kids, cross-sponsored by their parents and some Jewish agency or other. I liked Jen, though we weren’t close; she was a smiling, friendly girl, petite and pretty, and the kind of hairless, fair skinned white-blonde you rarely see in Israel. Through the haze of decades, I only have one clear memory of talking to her. We were discussing how everyone had got on the program, and Jen told us that her stepdad is Jewish, and because he raised her and she loved him, she considered herself Jewish too, hence the desire to connect to her ‘roots’. I remember thinking – and I wouldn’t be surprised if I said it, too, I wasn’t the most tactful teenager – that this is obviously wrong. You have to be born Jewish or convert to Judaism, you can’t just be Jewish-by-association. It’s not a family club membership! But I didn’t resent her for it or anything, like I say she was a very nice person and we all sort of shrugged our shoulders and accepted her strange desire to be associated with something that to us spoke most strongly of war, conflict, struggle, even genocide. But you know, different strokes, right? These Americans drove to the synagogue on Shabbat anyway, they were all a bit weird as far as we were concerned.
We had a kind of collective Bat Mitzvah ceremony one weekend. We all went to (I think a Reform) synagogue in Jerusalem, dressed appropriately in long skirts and modest t-shirts (it was the Indian fringed skirt era, if anyone remembers that – we all looked as if we were wearing a strange hippy uniform) and did ‘aliya laTorah’ – basically a reading from the synagogue’s big Torah scroll. Actually I think I may have gotten out of that one on the grounds of being an atheist, but again, it was all sort of taken in stride and we had a nice day. For some of the girls it was quite emotional and meaningful, and so again, we didn’t judge them for it.
I suppose in retrospect, it could have been that Jen’s presence on the program was problematic. What if another kid, maybe from a less affluent Jewish family, missed out on their place on the program because she got to go? What if some more religiously minded people were really troubled by her participation in intimately Jewish ceremonies, felt perhaps that her inclusion was disrespectful, or even desecratory? But that at the time none of this troubled me; I sort of filed it away in my head as “not really Jewish but if she wants to be called Jewish and do Jewish things, it’s no skin off my nose”. She obviously had some life experiences, and family circumstances, that made her really attracted to this tradition and culture, and meeting that emotional need seemed perfectly fair enough to me. I myself had never ‘felt Jewish’ or had any concept of what it would be to be Jewish outside of a shared history and family ties, so how different was Jen to me, anyway? And if she did ‘feel’ Jewish in some way, or insisted she had a Jewish soul, neshomah in Yiddish, well, I didn’t care – nobody has a soul anyway, so she’s not that much more wrong than anyone else making that claim.
I have two political identities that are ‘marked’, or non-neutral (the default, unmarked identity being that of the white male): a racialised one and a gendered one. And in respect of my gendered social identity I never felt any different than in respect of my racial one: I don’t ‘feel like’ a woman, I don’t have a female brain or a female soul or female intuition. I am treated by others as women in my society are treated – I get doors opened for me, I’ve been sexually harassed at work, I am referred to as ‘she’ when I’m not in the room. I look more or less as a woman in my society is expected to look, and have many of the interests that women in my society are expected to have, not because of some deep female essence, but because a mixture of peer interests and overt pressure has slowly streamed me into those avenues. I also have the kind of humour that Jews are expected to have, and many of the interests Jews in my society have, not because of some inherited predisposition, but simply because that is what I heard and saw around me all my life.
In terms of people who choose, for whatever reasons to do with their family background, personal experiences, personality or circumstances, to identify themselves with the same gendered identity I’ve been slotted into, I feel much the same as I did towards Jen: I might not really understand it, but it’s no skin off my nose. Why should I care what anyone wears, or how anyone wants to be referred to? Seems easy enough to just be kind and polite, really.
I can’t fully understand why the reaction to the revelation that Rachel Dolezal was not born Black is so much less indifferent than mine was to Jen. I have some intuitions, to do with the exploitation of Black people in slavery and the enormous historical wound that is, to do with the appropriation and repackaging of Black culture for white consumption, to do with the persistent racism and inequality that dog and mar the lives of African Americans. To do, in the final analysis, with trust, community cohesion and honesty in public life. I don’t fully understand it, but I get it.
So I’m not here to say: hey Black people, it’s no skin off your noses. Because it is. It’s a big, big deal when a marginalised group discovers that someone belonging to its oppressor class had potentially infiltrated their ranks under false pretenses, especially if that person is in a position of power.
What I am here to say is: spare a thought for women who feel just as strongly about the fact that the ‘highest paid woman CEO’ in the US was not born a woman. That the person on the cover of Vanity Fair this month was not born a woman. They became women and all power to them – whatever it was in their past, their upbringing, their experiences, that made them feel that they need to make that huge change in their lives, I don’t know it and I don’t judge it. But it is hard for members of a marginalised group to see people belonging to its oppressor class rise to positions of power within its ranks. Whoever that group happens to be.
I know that people reading this are shaking their heads right now, saying “but it’s not the same thing at all! Can’t you see how different it is?!” No. I can’t. Like I said I have two marked identities, and the only way I can form opinions about this is by introspecting about both of them. Mostly because nobody will say or write anything about why it’s so different. People assert that it is, with great vehemence, but nobody will say why. Well, I’m left to make up my own mind then, and in my own mind, there is no why. There are clear similarities and analogies between different people reacting to their own lives by changing or transforming their social and political identities. And that doesn’t make Rachel Dolezal suddenly a saint, or Caitlyn Jenner suddenly a sinner: but it does call for perhaps a continuation, rather than a suppression, of this conversation that I’ve been having with myself this evening.
I wonder what became of Jen. She really was a nice person.