Thursday, May 08, 2014

YPIS 8.0

After obsessing about YPIS since forever, I finally had a chance to bring YPIS 2.0 (more like 8.0, I suppose) to an audience. I'd been wanting to write such a piece for so long that it was getting to be a bit like, in grad school, when I had this project going about a really neurotic 1840s half-Jewish anti-Semite, but it didn't quite fit with what ended up being my dissertation topic. But that earlier project kept fascinating me, so I presented it at a conference as more of a stand-alone, and was pleased to have done something with it, even if it didn't end up being quite as extensive as I'd imagined. So, too, with YPIS - no 10,000 word manifesto (not this week, at least), but something I'm pleased with. I'd been searching for the best angle, and then a privilege controversy fell into my metaphorical lap.

And, in case anyone was losing sleep over this, why didn't I bring up the Jews-and-white-privilege angle, which is a topic I've obviously given a good bit of thought? I left that out because nothing in Tal Fortgang's essay really addressed this. He wasn't saying that being Jewish makes him any less white in America today. He wasn't making any claims about Princeton being a place where, unless you're Mayflower stock, even to this day you're considered lesser-than. He discussed the Holocaust, yes, but put it into a kind of generic struggling-white-immigrant narrative.

And I guess the best I could come up with would be that you can't have it both ways. Either you feel that being Jewish is a form of marginalization, in which case the "white privilege" charge is inappropriate (or less appropriate than it would be for someone white and non-Jewish), or you think (white) Jews are just generic white people these days, in which case your objections to the expression "white privilege" have nothing to do with your family's past encounters with anti-Semitism.


Flavia said...

Maybe the best thing I've seen written in this (though, I admit, I've been avoiding much of the commentary as unlikely to match the years of thought put into the official WWPD analysis of the phenomenon).

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Thanks Flavia!

caryatis said...

I haven't got around to reading your article yet but Fortgang says, “I am sure there are some really racist white supremacists who point to me as a hero on the college campus.”

Really? Actual white supremacists at Princeton? They'd be lynched! He's probably referring to those marginally less PC than he is.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

What, you mean you didn't drop everything and read it? I kid.

But yes - it's unlikely that out-and-out white supremacists attend Princeton. Or that, if any do, they'd be all that moved by a defense of whiteness by someone white supremacists wouldn't consider white.

Britta said...

I suppose it depends on the definition of white supremacy. I doubt there are Klansmen at Princeton (although with legacies, you never know. Princeton is the "southern Ivy" after all). I am sure there are plenty of racists there who have enough social and cultural capital to know mask their racism in the 'right' sort of ways. Think John Derbyshire instead of David Duke.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Even at UChicago I encountered let's just say those ideas. And in my experience, this contingent didn't think Jews were white, at least not in the same way that they thought of themselves as being white.

Moebius Stripper said...

“I am sure there are some really racist white supremacists who point to me as a hero on the college campus.”

What's...funny? ironic? sad? entirely unsurprising? that Fortgang lacks the level of self-awareness to realize that many of his own words - from his Twitter account, before he deleted it, not on his privilege op-ed - are nigh-indistinguishable from what bona fide white supremacists say:

eg - 1, and 2, the latter of which is essentially "Sure, Hitler was bad, BUT", and suggests that he's invoking his family's history more than a little opportunistically.

Stendhal said...

Besides those you addressed, I see another Jewish angle in this imbroglio. Would like to hear your thoughts:

More than a few of Fortgang's detractors went after him for using the term "Weltanschauung" in his essay, using it as evidence of his out of touch, privileged upbringing: A clueless Princeton WASP (WASJ?) trying to use big words to bully his audience.

The thing is, while Weltanschauung scans as rather pedantic German to the average American reader, it is also (like so many German words) proper Yiddish. And in the latter context, it is a familiar term of art to almost any Ashkenazi Orthodox Jew who (like me) studied Talmud growing up.

The self-appointed privilege checkers (almost universally) claim that the point of "checking our privilege" is to encourage us to assume a stance of empathy--by continually questioning our social/cultural situatedness and its attendant presuppositions, we can more easily identify with the other.

And in that respect, blithely using a linguistic artifact of Fortgang's (literal) ghetto heritage as evidence that he is incapable of relating to the contemporary ghetto of underclass America seems like something of a failure.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Gross, but also weird, yet not weird. I mean, George Zimmerman himself, given his appearance and background, is an odd hero for pro-white racists, and yet that's what's happened. So maybe what we're witnessing is a deeper expansion of who counts as white. Maybe, as absurd as it to someone even my age that a Jew could be so proudly white, these days, in the States at least, it's not.


Interesting take. Despite being 110% Ashkenazi myself, and from a family where Yiddish was spoken not that long ago, that's a word I probably only encountered in grad school. The question really hinges on whether we have reason to think Fortgang studied the Talmud. Nothing in the (minimal) Googling I did of him would indicate this. I'd sooner guess 'freshman using unnecessarily long word' than 'unconscious Yiddishism,' but anything's possible.

Stendhal said...

His byline lists him as from New Rochelle, NY, and the article says he went to "Jewish day school" (a/k/a Talmud and Tzitzis, Inc.).

But you're right, there is a difference between social Yiddish ("Oy, this verkackte tsimmes with my neighbor, it's got me all verschimmelt. That goyische gonif had the chutzpah to just walk into our kitchen and steal my cholent. The next time I see him, I'll potch that little pisher.") and yeshiva Yiddish (a Weltanschauung in which "Weltanschauung" is unavoidable).

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I stand corrected! And guilty of having no idea at which level of Jewish observance serious Talmud knowledge would begin. I mean, someone could say of me, that I'm a Jew from New York who went to Hebrew school and did a vaguely Jewish Studies PhD, so surely, Talmud! And yet, no Talmud.

I might agree with your broader point, then - the rest of the essay, though wrong in countless ways, wasn't especially pretentious.

Stendhal said...

Reform/Conservative Jews go to "Hebrew school" for a few hours a day twice a week and learn Hebrew, Jewish history/culture, and some Torah (some of my best friends, as they say, are Reform, and I've taught at a Reconstructionist Hebrew School).

Orthodox Jews go to "day school" or "yeshiva" (the two terms are nearly synonymous) where, in addition to secular subjects, a bearded dude comes in and smacks them with gemara folios from a relatively early age :)

That's part of why Orthodox (even us "modern" ones) are so insular and bitchy about secular Jews -- it's not just a different religious practice, it is in many ways an entirely different culture.

(Also, for the record, I have a few friends in the Princeton Orthodox community -- I am told that Tal does at least attend services)