On Tuesday afternoon, I saw Dr. Helen Kim address a room full of Jews and Peace Corps staff about her experience with the phrase, “Funny, you don’t look Jewish.” Since attending Episcopalian school in the Bay Area, Dr. Kim (who prefers to be called “Helen”), was often “other-ized” by her peers. She strived to fit in by assimilating to the majority culture. But Helen was never fully accepted, she explained, because she looked different from her white peers. Helen also struggled to fit in at home where she was raised by Korean immigrant parents. To encourage her quick assimilation, her parents refused to teach Helen Korean culture, which they stopped practicing altogether, or language, which they still spoke to one another. Helen felt like an outsider at home and at school. She described this experience as, “I don’t fit in here, and I don’t fit in there. Holy crap, where the hell do I fit!?”
Helen continued to struggle with these issues as she grew up and attended college. In graduate school Helen met and later married a Jewish man and decided to live a Jewish life. Together, they have two children, Ari and Talia, whom they are raising Jewish. Helen, already a member of a minority ethnicity, has chosen to join another minority group. Despite these personal and intentional decisions and commitments, her physical appearance leads people to question her identity, this time as a Jew, and “other-ize” her. For Helen, the phrase, “Funny, you don’t look Jewish” isn’t funny at all.
Does this sound familiar to anyone else as they try to navigate their own Jewish identity today? How do you keep trying to engage if you’re getting messages from everyone around you that you just don’t fit in, or you only “half” fit in? And then what do you do?
I left this event, hosted by Open Doors Fellow Tiffany Harris, thinking to myself, so what DOES Jewish look like? Why, in a world of such diversity, multiculturalism, and global exposure, is the Jewish community failing to recognize and embrace our diversity? My gut says it’s because we are not frequently enough in situations where we can have meaningful encounters with Jews (or non-Jews for that matter) who look different from ourselves. And often, when we do encounter difference, we dismiss the otherness, stay in our own comfortable Jewish mental paradigms, and move on.
Fortunately, Helen’s academic research, and her experience raising her own family, offer hope for what it might mean to “look Jewish” in the future. Helen encourages Jews to make connections and find commonalities in all of our Jewish stories, whatever they may be. So many of us feel “half” or “partial”, whether it’s Jewishly or in other parts of our lives. How can we, on a daily basis, allow and encourage people and Jews of all races and backgrounds, to bring their entire selves to the table?
In addition to the work we can all do more of on a daily basis, I am excited to learn about, and now share, other initiatives and people, both national and local, that are working to create more inclusive Jewish environments for Jews of color and other ethnicities and backgrounds. Please see below for more info, and as always, reach out to Rachel or Jackie at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested in learning more, OR if you have ideas about how to create these inclusive spaces here in our own community:
- Here is a recent NPR Article about Dr. Helen Kim and her work.
- Learn about Rabbi Angela Buchdal, the first woman to be ordained as both a cantor and a rabbi, who is also believed to be the first Asian-American to obtain either post.
- Two of our own Open Doors Fellows, Tiffany Harris and Georgia Mu, are each creating a unique project to highlight the amazing diversity of Jews in the DC area with their Capstone Projects – FunnyYouDon’tLookJewish.com and #MyJewishDC, respectively. More info on both of these projects will be posted on Gatherthejews.com in the coming weeks. If you want to be part of the videos or website s associated with these initiatives please email email@example.com.
- Find out about B’Chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), an organization in the Bay Area trying to literally change the face of Judaism.
- Participate in The Race Card Project by Michele Norris on NPR, by submitting your own six word essay.
This week we read the Torah portion Naso, which details the headcount of the Children of Israel in the Sinai Desert. Those who are counted will be the ones to build and then carry the tabernacle (or mishkan) that contains God’s holy presence. In our lives today, may we remember to count all Jews, all of the Israel’s children, even those who might not all look the same, but who still possess and carry God’s holy presence and make us a stronger people because of our beautiful differences.
Shabbat Shalom to all.