I grew up a minority in my old Chicago neighborhood in East Rogers Park. “White girl” was a term that I heard often, and not in a friendly way. Being Jewish made me even more of a minority, although most of my friends looked at my Judaism as a funny quirk – kind of like a female, teenaged, Woody Allen (I wasn’t voted “Funniest Girl” in 8th grade for nothing!).
6th grade was the year I experienced the worst racism. I was in a class where I was one of the youngest students, because most of the other kids were repeating the year, in some cases for the third time. One kid turned 15 and quite a few more turned 13 and 14 that year. I was 11 going on 12. My hair was a constant subject of fascination and scrutiny, some of the girls coming up and petting my thick brown mane like a longed for puppy and others calling me “greasy” and lifting locks of my hair with their fingers in mock disgust.
“I’m gonna beat your ass after school today, white girl!”
“You better run on home as soon as the bell rings, greasy, or you’re gonna get whooped!”
Those were taunts I often heard that year, and I got clocked from behind more than once hurrying home in the snow, never looking behind me to see who my attackers were. If it weren’t for my friend and protector, Tanya, a statuesque and kind hearted African American classmate, I probably wouldn’t have made it through that year in one piece.
Being smart was not an asset in 6th grade. Being street smart and tough was. I was neither of those things. I started throwing tests and doing the bare minimum required for projects and homework. My grades plummeted. I specifically remember being in the classroom spelling bee, and waiting for a word to come around that I didn’t know. As each student misspelled their words and sat down, I was left standing with one other very short Assyrian boy who was also teased mercilessly that year. I purposely threw the competition by misspelling a word that I knew, because I couldn’t bear to be the focus of attention or go on to the school wide spelling bee in the auditorium in front of the entire student body. Losing didn’t win me any friends, but at least winning didn’t gain me any new enemies.
Starting to go through puberty by the middle of that year didn’t help matters. Suddenly, sexual harassment entered the picture, when male classmates a few years older than me began openly comparing notes on my stages of development. I often had to deal with being groped and grabbed as I precariously wound my way through the desk aisles to answer a question on the blackboard or throw something into the garbage can. I was followed into the girls bathroom and spit on after I refused to admit to a crush on a male classmate. My new found attention drew the ire of the other girls even more, who felt that a white girl had no business vying for the attentions of the African American and Latino guys. All I wanted to do was disappear, but the more I tried to hide myself, the more attention I seemed to attract.
At the end of that horrific year, I had gone from a straight A student to a C and D student, but I was still no cooler to the rest of my multiracial classmates than before. On one of the last days of school, my teacher announced that there was going to be an award presented to the student who achieved the highest scores on the school wide Iowa Test of Basic Skills (a standardized test given to Chicago Public School students in the 1980s). She proudly announced that one of the winners was in our class. As per usual, I kept my eyes on my desk and didn’t make eye contact with anyone. I expected she would call the name of the smart little Assyrian boy, and felt sorry for him. I hoped he wouldn’t be punished too badly for his achievement after school that day.
To my horror, the teacher called my name! I looked up and stayed glued to my seat as she held up a small gold cup with my name on it. I had scored a 10th grade level on the exam, higher than anyone else in the school. How could this have happened? I had tried so hard not to stand out! Everyone urged me to get up and take my award. I remember making my way through the narrow aisle of desks, red faced and expecting to be tripped on my way to the front. To my surprise, no one tripped me, and they were clapping. I took my award, mumbling thanks, and quickly made my way back to my seat, stuffing the trophy in my book bag.
A few days later, my mom got a call from a teacher in the school that ran a gifted program, called Options, for 7th and 8th graders. She wanted me to be a part of the program. I wanted a way out of my current class, and knew that I would be in for more of the same bullying if I didn’t join the Options program, and so I accepted the invitation. In my new class, I was no longer a minority, in fact, the few Jews who were in my school all seemed to be in the Options program with me. The bullying stopped, and from that point on through high school, I was placed in special programs based on academic achievement. Although I was still a minority in my neighborhood, my school peers were a much more diverse crowd. Jewishly, I would remain a minority, but growing up secular, my religion did not play that large of a role in my life, except insofar as parental dating restrictions in high school.
Many years later, during and after college, I joined the Jewish orthodox community, and my world could no longer be described as diverse. In fact, especially in light of a recent conversation with a cousin, my social interactions today are homogenously restricted to white Ashkenazic Jews. In the beginning, this was refreshing, as I was so used to being a minority myself, that I got a kick out of finally meeting people who shared my own background and generally looked like me. Now that the newness has worn off, I see that there is something sad about not retaining the diversity I once had in my friendships.
I always saw myself as someone comfortable moving in many multicultural circles. I think the bullying I experienced in school was based more on socioeconomic differences than racial differences, because through it all, I always had friends of other races and ethnicities. To further this conclusion, I had many African American and Latino friends, especially in high school, who were in the same honors and magnet programs as me, and were ostracized by their counterparts in the regular level school. Somehow, my friends were seen as selling out and betraying their race by being in academic accelerated programs and associating with white students and teachers. I had discussions with a few about their predicament, and this rejection was confusing and difficult for them.
I haven’t thought about this part of my life for a long time, but my experience came rushing back when I saw this article by an African American Jewish Chassidic man, calling himself Zein Shver, who took a picture with the word “Schvartze” scrawled in black ink across his forehead. In the article, he says,
“Shvartze isn’t Yiddish for Black. Shvartze is Yiddish for N-word”
Zein Shver says that in his Crown Heights neighborhood, there is always an undercurrent of racism.
“I’ve heard the word flow like blessings. It drips out of the mouths of young and old alike. It can be stunning sometimes. You’ll be moving along just fine and then the “S-bomb” will come along and just ruin your day, or at the very least your hour and minute. It’s never nice when it’s said. No one ever says “I had a man do my taxes. He’s shvartze.” Nor do they say “my son is playing with the boys next door, they’re shvartze.” It’s always “a shvartze stole my bike;” or “if the shvartzes welfare why shouldn’t we.” So, this common excuse that shvartze merely means black doesn’t play well with me.”
Schvartze, many Jews argue, just means black, so what’s the big deal? I grew up hearing this word used commonly and casually among older family members. Although it isn’t a commonly used word in my own vocabulary, it never inspired righteous indignation when I heard others use it. Reading the experience of this Jewish man makes me see things in a different way. When I joined the Jewish community, I finally felt at home. These were my people and for once I was part of a majority – I fit in. However, if I was born with a darker skin color, would I still be accepted? What is the price of admission into the frum world – Judaism or Judaism and white skin?
PopChassid explains why his skin color means he will never truly feel like he belongs, being a Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jewish mix with decidedly Middle Eastern features. Growing up, he was teasingly called a terrorist by his fellow light skinned Jewish classmates. He was told that he wasn’t white, and even his very Judaism was called into question because of his darker skin shade. He was made to feel he had more in common with Muslims than with Jews. All because of the pigment of his complexion.
In Israel, a country supposedly proud of having Jews of every race and ethnicity as citizens, Ethiopian Jews are commonly called, “kushi” (a derogatory Hebrew term for black people). One Ethiopian boy was once even kicked out of a Bnei Brak mikvah by a mikvah employee –
“The worker verbally attacked him, saying “don’t come in, you stink, you’re a stinking kushi”. When the teen refused to back down, the man took hold of him and punched him in the face.”
In another recent incident, an Israeli blood bank refused to accept the blood of MK Pnina Tamano-Shata, along with other Israelis who were born in Ethiopia. Israel has a blanket policy not to accept blood donations from Ethiopian Jews. Malynnda Littky writes,
“In 1996, there were public demonstrations in reaction to the revelation that Magen David Adom was destroying blood donated by Israelis who were born, or who had lived for a significant period, in Ethiopia. A commission, headed by former Israeli President Yitzhak Navon, reviewed the procedures that were then in place. That commission recommended that the MDA stop dumping blood based on ethnic criteria and proposed instead strict guidelines for careful, pint-by-pint screening of blood donations from Ethiopian Jews and other high-risk groups.”
To me, the legacy of the creation of the State of Israel after the Holocaust is that every Jew will have a safe refuge and homeland. Every Jew, no matter what their skin color or country of origin, will belong. I’d like to be able to say that even in America, every Jewish community is a welcoming haven that includes and accepts Jews of every stripe and color into the fold. Is this welcome reserved only for Ashkenazic Jews with Aryan features? Is this the legacy we’ve fought for?
As someone who has experienced discrimination, I am ashamed if I have participated in this type of subcultural racism. Upon awareness, I hope to do better in the future.