Friday, June 01, 2007

The Jewish cab test

Shortly after Tiger Woods became the first black to win the Masters Tournament, he insisted that he was not black but "Cablinasian," a word he coined to describe the different groups in his ancestry: Caucasian, Black, Indian, and Asian. Sarcastic African-American columnist Gregory Kane retorted that Woods should be given "the cab test": "Stand him on a street corner in any large American city and have him hail a cab. If he gets one, he's Cablinasian. If he doesn't, he's definitely black" (The Baltimore Sun, Apr. 27, 1997, pg. 1B).

I wonder if a similar test could be applied to Jews. Arguably, the Holocaust was a grotesque version of this test, as Jews who abandoned their heritage and became atheists or Christians discovered that they were just as likely to be gassed as the bearded shtetl Jew. Hitler justified this innovation to classical anti-Semitism by arguing that Jews who assimilated took Jewish ideas with them. I can't say he was totally wrong.

These examples highlight one of the most basic questions about ethnic identity: is it defined by members of the group themselves, or by outsiders? For us Jews, this dilemma is even more perplexing, because we haven't even settled the "Who is a Jew?" question amongst ourselves. Why should we expect others to fare any better?

The traditional definition of a Jew is one whose mother is Jewish, or one who converts. (Computer scientists would call that a recursive definition.) But Orthodox Jews do not accept conversions done by Conservative or Reform rabbis, and Reform Judaism has expanded the definition to include those born to a Jewish father. Depending on one's perspective, individuals in many U.S. synagogues may not be Jewish.

No matter how strongly Orthodox Jews insist that their definition is the only legitimate one, non-Jews cannot be bothered to take sides on this in-the-family dispute. They have enough trouble dealing with a group that even by their standards defies all normal classifications. I have seen confused people on message boards write "Is Judaism a race or a religion?" as if it must be one or the other. In recent times, the trend has been to think of Jews as purely a religion and not to recognize their ethnic character. I increasingly see articles that describe celebrities as having been "born to Jewish parents." Some younger stars like Natalie Portman openly identify as Jewish, but there's a sense that it would be rude to describe someone as Jewish without their permission.

To people with this outlook, a phrase like "Jewish atheist" sounds as oxymoronic as "Catholic atheist," even though many older Jews identify as one. And what about that quaint phrase "the Jewish nation" which shows up in our prayerbooks? How can Jews be a nation? Doesn't that require a country? Of course, now Jews have a country, but those who never set foot there are still Jews.

Our unconventional classification arises from our long and complex history over 4,000 years. Few groups in the world have retained a sense of shared identity for that long, and so no matter how much we attempt to adapt to current norms, there lurks in our existence an element of the ancient that relatively modern categories like "race," "ethnic group," "religion," and "nation" can never quite capture.

The ancient Israelites could possibly be called a "tribe," though that term is rarely used, reserved instead for the twelve tribes within ancient Israel. Eventually, Israel did constitute a true nation. But after the Jews were exiled, they continued to think of themselves as Jews. In this respect, they were unusual. Most religions that spread outward from a single land retained religious but not national or ethnic identity. Partly this was because religions like Catholicism and Islam had a prosyletizing mission which Judaism lacked. Thus the people of Turkey, Pakistan, and Iran are Muslims but not Arabs. Because Jewish conversions never happened on a large scale (with possible exceptions like the Khazars), the converts became part of the Jewish people, losing their previous cultural identity. I have heard rabbis compare Jews to a family, where the converts are like adopted children. It's not a perfect analogy (since adopted children do not choose their parents), but it does give a sense of how Jews can think of themselves as having blood ties even while accepting converts.

The problem is that Gentiles would not be expected to pay any attention to how Jews defined themselves. What ultimately bound Jews together mirrored what bound blacks together: namely, persecution. It is worth asking whether there would be a concept such as "black" today if racism had never existed. It is similarly worth asking if Jews would have outlasted their ancient Middle-Eastern origins if anti-Semitism had never existed. Nowadays, many secular Jews admit that their Jewish identity is often driven by a desire to stick it to the anti-Semites. As Ilya Ehrenburg said, "so long as there is a single anti-Semite in the world, I shall declare with pride that I am a Jew" (qtd. in Alan Dershowitz's book Chutzpah, p. 14). Likewise, as anti-Semitism declines, or at least fades into the background, the concept of a secular Jew becomes harder to maintain.

Of course, if you define a Jew as anyone who may be a victim of anti-Semitism, then the definition becomes as arbitrary as bigotry is senseless. Plessy v. Ferguson sanctioned discrimination against a man who was black on the basis of one great-grandparent; many people with more African ancestry have passed for white. In a similar way, Barry Goldwater was subject to anti-Semitism even though he was a practicing Episcopalian with a Gentile mother; he probably would have been safe if his name had been Anderson. The cab test may be a sad reality for blacks, but for Jews it is something we must actively resist if we are to make sense of our lives.

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