I went to a retreat sponsored by Ayecha in the mountains of New Jersey, where the leaves were bright red and yellow. The theme was to build a community for Jewish leaders of Color. “Of Color,” I think in this context is best understood to mean non-Ashkenazi, or not “purely” so. The facilitators were perhaps one of the best anyone could dream of having at a community-building retreat like this. It was good and educational for me to see Jews of all colors, creeds, and backgrounds…to talk, sing, laugh, share time and space and have Shabbat with all of them…to confirm that I am not the only one that “(funny…) you don’t look Jewish.”
At the same time, I noticed how many “non-Jewish looking” Jewish friends I have had over the years and really, how secure and comfortable I was in my Jewish identity, quite in contrast to my Japanese identity.
Having grown up in Japan where my isolation was mostly felt around not being “purely” Japanese, my isolation for not being the “usual”-looking (American) Jew hardly entered the picture. For one thing, the only Jews I saw on a regular basis were members of my family, one of them my sister who shares the same combinations of genes as me.
Hence, when I crossed over to the west, and some guy told me in France to my face that “You are not (=cannot be) Jewish” (that was when I was 18) or some kid I met at college also flipped out at the disclosure that I was Jewish, exclaiming, “But you can’t be!!” (that was when I was 19) it didn’t really faze me. Instead, I thought, “well, how strange people they are. What’s wrong with them? Of course, I’m Jewish.”
I attribute part of my resilience to really not being so bothered about people commenting on my appearance as “non-traditional” for an American Jew to my isolation from normative American Jewish expectations for the vast majority of my early childhood and adolescence.
While I noticed at some point that I had become the “token” Asian (and non-Ashkenazi) Jew in the community when in college, I stepped up at most occasions to speak of my experience as a non-Ashkenazi (not accurate, but that’s OK) Jew. I am not sure that I could’ve done the same for a Japanese organization.
The university environment sometimes became stifling. As the years went by, the more I felt like I was being exotified, but also shut out in some strange ways from the community that I was supposedly a part of and a leader of. I think there was a level of insularity going on there which thankfully, I think I was not privy to yet.
But, I also had the community outside of the university environment, where, as a whole, people were more mature and not fazed, in fact, I would say quite used to people like me. People got it: look, I was Jewish and Japanese. Some of them even had lived in Japan and knew my home shul—that was an added bonus. I was really lucky. I also did not have to deal with Jews who believed that Jews were all “white” or Ashkenazi and knew this not only in theory, but in forms of hard facts.
I still live in somewhat of a bubble, but that’s changing. I have been shocked at the lack of education on non-Ashkenazi Jews in certain corners of Jewish learning, the lack of awareness among some communities and people about non-Ashkenazi Jews (who practically run the area I live in now), the lack of self-awareness of who and how Ashkenazi Jews might have become “white.”
I was a little shocked at this and tried to do something about it, but have found it difficult, especially alongside my real job. I was starting to run out of steam a little. I started thinking that maybe, just maybe I am the only one concerned and trying to do something. Maybe there isn’t a critical mass of people who are interested. Maybe, again, I am just going to be told that I am an “exception to the rule” and should just be grateful for I have. Maybe….
The retreat refreshed me. For one thing, I saw many people concerned about similar issues as me, already working on some of these issues (if the retreat itself is not an excellent example), trying to get other things off the ground. The momentum was there and the support was there. It was great. And so again, I feel like plugging away again. Working on what I can on the issues that are close to my heart.