Wednesday, April 20, 2011


OK, so a lot of bus-stop-waiting later, and I've listened to more of Jason Solomons's "Sounds Jewish" than any podcast ought to be consumed in one go.

A common factor in these is the question of cringe. British Jews, everyone on the show seems to agree, are in a constant state of cringe-readiness, prepared to cringe every time Jews are mentioned in the newspaper, every time the words "Jew" or "Israel" are brought up. This is what the show's title plays on, but rather than declaring that it's time to get past that archaic attitude, the show kind of embraces it, or takes it as a given that British Jews don't want to ruffle feathers, not by supporting Israel - nothing so outrageous! - but merely by identifying openly as Jewish. There's a lot of nervous laughter about such concepts as the existence of American Jewish women who don't apologize for their existence (and, the "yentas'" accent is Boston/Massachusetts, not "Jewish," whatever a Brit might think - not like we can tell their accents apart, either), the fact that, tee-hee, the host married a non-Jewish woman... oy! Gefilte fish! Woody Allen! Singles' events where the best-looking women are non-Jews, hehe. Can male Jews be masculine? Can they?

Each time I hear the word "cringe," I feel inclined to cringe, but I guess I'm of a generation or two past the one in the States when people would whisper "Jewish" as though it were a secret or a disease. It would not occur to me to cringe when something Jewish is mentioned, or at the fact that I'm going around with what at least some identify as a Jewish last name, and what anyone with the slightest experience in such matters would identify as an Ashkenazi Jewish appearance. When I hear of, for example, Madoff, or something idiotic happening in Israel, I don't cringe. I think of the impact it may have on Jews, yes, but cringe? Not a word that comes to mind. But I feel, when I listen to this podcast, like cringing at the cringing of the participants. Relax!, I want to tell them. The cringier you are, the more of a big deal in a bad way it will be to the others whose opinion you care about so much that you're (shh) Jewish. Read some Dreyfus-era literature. Trust me on this.

What surprises me about all this is that I'd always learned that there's on the one hand the French-universalist model, in which you must be French/human before all else (and not going to get into where that causes issues, but for starters, how can a national identity be anything but particular?), and on the other, the so-called "Anglo-Saxon" model, which allows for multiculturalism, hyphenated identities, and so forth. After chatting with Australians recently, my sense of Australia from what they described - replacing, I realize, no preconceived sense of Australia - was that it's more "French." Canada, which I know a bit better (but obviously, when it comes to Canada and multiculturalism, not as well as do some Friends of WWPD), strikes me as kinda-sorta "French." Now, several podcasts in, and Britain, well, Sounds French. The way they wistfully discuss how, sure, in America it's possible to be openly Jewish, makes me wonder to what extent this "Anglo-Saxon" way exists, or whether it does but Jews are, for whatever reason, the exception. Meanwhile I have no sense at all that French Jews these days (19th C's another story) cringe when things juif-related come up.


rshams said...

If you have the time, and you haven't already read it, I recommend "The Finkler Question," by Harold Jacobson. Very good portraits of different sorts of British Jews, including the "cringing" phenomenon.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Started it on the plane coming here, then got distracted with the French-Jewish reading extravaganza. Plan to finish it on the flight back. But, interestingly enough, Jacobson is interviewed, more than once I think, on this show. I might have to return to it sooner...

Britta said...

My husband is Australian, and we used to have arguments around "hyphenated identities" all the time. He considers himself Australian, and nothing else. When I point out he is Anglo-Australian, he gets annoyed and says that is a meaningless term, and that he has no connection culturally to the UK (even though his dad and sister are dual citizens.) The problem with a "just Australian" identity is that it of course presumes Anglo-Saxonness as the basis of Australianness. He also would make fun of me for considering myself Scandinavian-American, but now after 5 years he's conceded that being Scandinavian is a meaningful cultural category for my family.

In terms of practical experience, I found Australians to be probably the most blatant and unapologetic racists I've ever encountered. I had to renew my visa in Australia, and the guy at the immigration bureau (white dude in his mid 20s?) made jokes to ME about how I couldn't be a terrorist, unless maybe I left my turban at home, wink wink, and then complained to me about how all THOSE people (gesturing to the waiting room full of brown people and Asians) came in on a Friday afternoon, and why couldn't they go to the pub, like real Australians, and what a drag it was to have to deal with them. Of course, during all this he was ostentatiously friendly and flirty with me, and expected me to I guess agree with him that brown people were ruining Australia. It was kind of horrifying to think that this guy worked in the immigration and visa office.

Another time, flying to Australia via Hong Kong, I was the only non-Asian on the flight. Going through customs, customs agents walked around and grilled various passengers about their intentions in Australia in a non too friendly manner. When the guy got to me, he smiled and said, "welcome back to Australia!" When I told him I was an American, he was like, "oh, how do you like our country?" No: what's the address of where you're staying? How long will you be here? that everyone else got.
(This is on top of all the sexism, e.g. being called "doll" or "honey" by airport security).
Australians pride themselves on their friendliness, but I would prefer American rudeness applied equally, than blatantly racist friendliness.

PG said...

Yeah, I'm not sure where the Anglo-Saxon would come from. In Australia, they discouraged non-British white people from immigrating until after WWII -- despite the fact that it was so difficult to get immigrants to want to come to Australia (more expensive and greater distance than the U.S./Canada) that they were desperately trying to get non-convict Brits to be willing to come.

In the U.S., hyphenated identity has always made sense because we are a nation of immigrants and the only people who could be haughty about being the "real" Americans mostly got wiped out. Even to the extent "American" signifies "white Protestant" (due partly to the eras of barring non-white immigration and weighing against Catholic white immigration) there has been English/Scots/German/etc.-American identities that have been retained, partly due to regional differentiation in where various peoples settled, such as Scots ancestry being significant in modern-day Virginia and West Virginia.

To take a random example, I know "German American" was used as an identifier by both the people themselves and other observers as far back as the 1850s. While the desire to retain ethnic identity was not always easy -- even before WWI, German-Americans who wanted their children to go to schools that would teach them partly in German were criticized and eventually legally prohibited from doing so (though the Supreme Court overturned such laws) -- it always seems to have been there.

I'm a little surprised Canada isn't more on the American model. They were a British colony much longer, of course, but the inherent division between French and English would seem to weigh in favor of at least linguistically-hyphenated identity (that will then likely track differences of religion, ethnic origin, etc.). I freely admit that most of what I know about pre-20th century Canada comes from L.M. Montgomery, but her family and her characters tend to be quite proud and emphatic about their Scotch ancestry (clinging to artifacts of loyalty to Bonnie Prince Charlie, for example). They certainly always specify that so-and-so is French Canadian, and that the Catholic church in an area is the French-Canadian church.

X.Trapnel said...

Perhaps JTL will chime in here, but re: Canada--

1. I feel like the idea of a multinational state is much more a part of Canada's self-understanding than even in the US, but,
2. That doesn't necesarily stop people from drawing "so far, but no farther" lines--Anglos, French, First Nations, sure, but that's it!
3. One might think also of Switzerland. On the surface of things, the European state that's the most explicitly multicultural/national--hell, the state's *official name* is in Latin, precisely not to prejudice any of the languages!--and yet they're the ones with them Minarett-Verbot.

So, I guess: it's complicated, and past performance does not necessarily promise future results.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

A few things getting at PG, Britta, and X. Trapnel's comments...

I think a really good argument for PC in day-to-day life comes from spending some time in or with people from places other than the US, who, though perhaps no more racist than your average American, are far more willing to express their thoughts on The Blacks, The Asians, etc., and to assume that, if you yourself are not black, Asian, you won't be offended. Americans, in my experience, tend to be a lot more wary of openly launching into such things than do their socioeconomic equivalents from just about anywhere else in the West. America has a way to go on de-racist-ifying itself in general, but what we lack (for the best, arguably) in un-PC-speech regulation and de facto equality, we make up for in having pretty strict limits on what can and can't be said in polite society. Sure, one might look at this as, 'but what lurks beneath the surface?', but I've had enough experiences of people telling me what they think about minorities - the one I am, as well as ones I'm not - that I've come to appreciate it when people just zip it on such matters.

Next, re: hyphenated identity, and Britta's comment re: identifying as Anglo-hyphen, Scandinavian-hyphen, etc. This is actually kind of complicated, because on the one hand (and I get that this is where you, Britta, are coming from), it's important to show that we're all Others, that there's no such thing as a Universal identity, reserved of course for whichever subset of whites. However! In my experience of people who are not Britta, multigeneration Americans who identify as Northern European-hyphen frequently - not always, but often - do so not for the noble reason of affirming shared Otherness, or even to say anything particular about Nordic traditions they grew up with, but because they view having the right kind of hyphenation as proof of extra-Americanness. As in, the Real Americans have this or that ancestry, so any hyphenation that adds on something from the right part of the world merely affirms American identity.

X. Trapnel,

What you say re: Switzerland makes me think of the last "Sounds Jewish" podcast I listened to, in which some participant was saying how delightfully multiethnic Israel is. When it's like, yes, that's true, but the diversity being referenced was all the different kinds of Jews who live in Israel. While I think this is a legitimate argument about Jewish Israeliness being about religion and, if "blood," not "race" in the usual sense, there's a parallel with Switzerland insofar as internal diversity doesn't necessarily go along with a broader anything-goes attitude.

Britta said...

Right Phoebe, the whole hyphen thing gets complicated. On the one hand, (IMO) people should be allowed to have a hyphenated identity if they so want, e.g, Muslim-American, or Korean-American (or Algerian-French). On the other, people should be allowed to be fully "American," or "French," or whatever, if they want, without having to identify some part of them as "other." It's hard because there are racist positions on both sides which can make a racist arguments for one position or the other. (e.g. Nicolas "any quasi-atheist ham eating person can be French" Sarkozy vs. Jean Marie "brown people will never be French" Le Pen. Apparently in the 80s, SOS Racisme ran a campaign in France "la droit de la difference" which was then picked up by Le Pen to show that immigrants were unwilling to become French, so they changed it to "le droit de la similitude" to show that immigrants can assimilate into French culture.)Plus, in the US, not everyone has some sort of old-world ethnic identity, or has many different ones, so a hyphenated identity either is implausible or not really meaningful.

Also, I do know the sorts of people you are talking about re. "Scandinavian-American" identity, who basically take pride in being "Aryan-American" (not that that's how they'd usually phrase it, but that's what they mean), and broadcast to whomever is around that they have the "right" kind of ancestry. Unfortunately, I meet a fair number of people like that, who are like that, and whose only connection to Northern Europe was having blonde hair as a child, or everyone in their family having blue eyes, or something creepy like that. These people might as well identify as Racist-American, which is probably a more meaningful identity for them than any specific European cultural identity. (I've actually had strangers on the street come up to me to let me know they are "100% German." Besides being creepy and racist, I've always been like, what do they want from me? Congratulations? An Iron Cross?)
For that reason, I refuse to let people know about my ethnic background if they just ask out of the blue, or if I think the other person is some sort of racist, and only mention it if it is relevant to the specific conversation (e.g. if people ask where my name is from, or something).

Anonymous said...

I get a different type of creepy question about my ethnicity than Britta. I have an Anglo/Scandinavian name, curly dark hair, a largeish nose, and an olive complexion. Sometimes, I get questions from people who feel there is a disconnect between my name and my appearance and want to place me in the appropriate ethnic bucket. If I'm pressed for an answer and actually give one (usually, I try to say something vague and switch topics), the news that I'm of mixed Northern European heritage often doesn't end the matter. The next step is to suggest that my appearance must be the result of some affair or unknown black ancestory (I make a point of cheerfully admitting that's a possibility).

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Agreed that best-case is, you can be hyphenated if you'd like, or unhyphenated if that's what you'd prefer. And I think that's how we should operate. What I find interesting, I suppose, is that we tend to think of hyphenation as being about asserting a right to difference without sacrificing national belonging. That is, we think of it as a good, progressive thing. When, in reality, it has some more sinister applications. There's Nordic-as-"Aryan," but another I'm thinking of is when Jews refer to their background as, for example, "Polish-American," when their ancestors who left the Pale in the early 1900s or whatever were not - not to themselves, not to anyone else - Poles. It's a way Jews have traditionally asserted whiteness, but it continues to this day.