It was what William Safran once called “a sort of Jewishness of defiance” that put me on that chair on Rosh Hashana evening, a yarmulke pinned to my head, surrounded by strangers in the closest synagogue I could find.
Before then, the only kind of Jewishness I’d known was one of performance. Kindergarten to high school, I was always one of, if not the only, Jew in my Southern California class, which made me special. When a kid wished me a Merry Christmas in second grade, I informed him, with a smile like a candied apple, that I didn’t celebrate it. When my friends struggled to pronounce tzedakah, I was happy to teach them. And when we learned about Hanukkah in class, I recited the blessing for the wine like it was my inaugural address.
But then I came to New York. It’s not special to be Jewish in New York, so it didn’t matter whether or not I went to services. I missed them all, even the High Holy Days.
And then came the election, and the vandalized Jewish graveyards, and the men who returned with ugly signs in front of the Columbia gates. All of a sudden it felt revolutionary to be Jewish. And that’s how I ended up here—on Rosh Hashana evening, dressed in my yarmulke and tallis, hoping everyone would notice how proud I was to be a Jew. How defiant.
I recognized some of the songs. Others were unfamiliar. When it came to a prayer I had memorized, I chanted loudly, but not too loudly, because the synagogue—a mix and match of suited businessmen, college kids with stress pimples, and white-haired veterans who probably only saw each other on the High Holy Days—was timid. I love Jewish prayer, I really do. But I wished I was back home in the bougie, church-like synagogue I used to drive to on Sundays, where I knew more of the melodies. And I wished everyone here weren’t so damn quiet.
Up went the rabbi in her long prayer shawl. Her sermon was about the shofar, the ceremonial ram’s horn we blow on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, to ring in the new year. The horn is blown in short bursts at first, and then for as long as the blower can hold it (it took me back to my bougie synagogue, where we were so certain Sarah had cheated and taken a little breath). “In the Book of Joshua,” she reminded us, “the shofar is a call to war.”
The socialist in me was building a barricade before she had finished her sentence. Now here was a metaphor I could get behind—the blowing of the shofar as a call to battle against worldwide anti-Semitism. The signal to rally the troops against the four great walls of Jericho: fascism, racism, exploitation, and injustice. But my imagination had run away from me. Instead of advocating the Molotov and the riot on Capitol Hill, our rabbi took a sharp turn into familiar territory. She talked about the value of kindness. She told us to smile at strangers and see what changes. I can’t remember whether or not she quoted that Talmud line, the one about saving one life and thus the entire world, but it certainly would have fit.
I felt disappointed. I felt like the old miser in A Christmas Carol (or the Jewish version, which is a real book, called Hanukkah, Shmanukkah). I’d never been grumpier to be told that compassion is the answer. Sure, compassion is nice, but is my compassion going to stop the destruction of graves? Will it fix the health care system, send the Palestinians home, empty Russian jails of political prisoners? If I smile at the man with the “Jews Control America” and “Zionists Building Trump’s Wall” signs, will he finally look at me and realize that the villain is elsewhere, that I am not whatever insidious money-grubbing secret overlord he believes I am?
Thinking about the violence of that man’s gaze made me wonder at the gazes of the people around me. Was it such a defiant act, after all, to wear my tallis in a little basement synagogue where everyone knew I was a Jew already? The girl next to me had no trouble pronouncing tzedakah. It is strange to be looked at so rightly.
The second sermon happened a few weeks later. Late in the morning, a friend texted to tell me they were doing the Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, on the steps of Low Library. I jumped out of bed and raced to Columbia, but I arrived too late to hear the singing. So I sat at one of the fountains next to the huge tarp they’d laid out over the steps—men kneeling in the front, women in the back—and listened to the sermon. The speaker, an NYU graduate student named Asad Dandia, has given me permission to use his eloquent words in this essay.
He spoke of redemption in the Qur’an—Muslims whose transgressions against God were met by the Prophet with teaching and forgiveness, allowing them to fit into the community. He asked his listeners to consider what makes a unified people. But the part of the sermon that struck me most deeply was this: “Are we still defining ourselves exclusively in reaction, in response, and in a defensive way to the powers that be? Or have we developed the internal cohesion, the spiritual audacity, the institutional potential to define ourselves with a positive vision, one that does not require a defense of what it is?”
I loved the way he put that: The spiritual audacity. A positive vision. In a defensive way to the powers that be. I thought of William Safran’s “Jewishness of defiance,” and suddenly felt as cheap and gilded as a streetside souvenir. I felt like the electron from Bohr’s observer effect, activated and illuminated by the same light. Was I Jewish all the time, or only when I was being looked at?
Watching them, I felt like a terrible voyeur, a white-coated anthropologist squatting in the trees. At the first sermon, in that brightly-lit, closed synagogue where everyone sang in harmony, no one had to look too closely to know who his neighbor was. Nobody but me worried about performing his identity, and once I realized it, neither did I. But Dandia’s sermon was not in a basement synagogue: it was outside on the steps of Low Library, with a microphone and curious little Jewish girls perched on fountains, listening in. For the first congregation, the outside gaze was nonexistent, and for this one it could not be ignored.
Were they hearing Asad’s words about positive vision, or were they thinking about the people on the fountains? What danger did I pose to them by looking? What unconscious violence of gaze?
Once again I thought of the man outside the gates with the anti-Semitic signs. It is strange to be looked at rightly, but it is much, much more frightening to be looked at wrongly.
That October saw the crux of my crisis of seeing, and of being seen. Never before had I really considered the gaze of people close to me: my parents, my friends, and my first significant other. I mumbled over relationships like remembered prayers. I was afraid to look—literally to look—into their eyes, because I would see them looking back at me. How could I expect them to see me for who I was, and everything I was, when even I couldn’t define myself in any terms more complex than “Jewish” and “American”?
Tuesday evening found me sitting through a class discussion on Islamic literature so long it could be described as a third sermon, the kind of class that does exactly what the Core threatens: plunges you deep, deep into the lives and minds of others. I was so distracted by my emotional turmoil that I hardly noticed the conversation shift.
One second we were discussing Bahr al-Favaid’s Sea of Precious Virtues, and the next, our professor had entered into a debate with a student over whether there was a difference between war and genocide—one genocide in particular. It was a sensitive topic, and the atmosphere got heated fast. Finally, the professor called on me.
“I think it’s a difference in intention,” I said cautiously. “War always happens for a lot of reasons—land acquisition, wealth, but genocide is for the specific purpose of exterminating a particular group of people.”
I had hardly gotten the words out when the professor’s challenger slapped me with a “That’s historically inaccurate. Hitler had a lot of reasons. He wanted to expand Germany’s borders—”
I was unable to respond, because the classroom had exploded into noise. Someone wrangled the floor and started speaking, but I couldn’t understand anything she was saying. I was roiling in a sudden mass of rage and shame and confusion. I wished I had yelled over the crowd. I wished I had the voice to stand up and shout in his face: my great-grandparents weren’t killed because of fucking land. They were killed because they were Jewish.
But I didn’t—because the professor had already ended the conversation, and because the murdered ghosts of my ancestors are not and never will be a trump card to use in a classroom debate. I sat and took some more notes. When I couldn’t stay in that classroom any longer, I left to have a short cry in the ladies’ bathroom. By the time I came back class was over.
The kid who spoke in class was not an anti-Semite, and he hadn’t meant to offend me. The reason I was so affected was that I had seen my Jewishness, and the narrative of exceptional victimhood that follows it because of the Holocaust, as an untouchable truth, and he had contested that. He could do so because Jewishness is a social identity and a political construct. It does not belong to the individual. I relied on it to define myself, and when it was redefined implicitly, so was I. And more than ever, I could not understand myself.
I could not, and cannot, survive in a world where to be seen as something is to exist as it. The gaze of my fellow Jews and the gaze of outsiders are both beyond my control. What I had to do was to start working—to define myself in a way that did not fall apart at a careless comment in a seminar discussion, nor depend on affirmation by my fellow Jews and non-Jews. When I define myself by my actions instead of my being, I gain control of who I am.
(Something like artist. Something like student. Something like musician, activist, explorer, volunteer, writer...)
This is what I learned from the third sermon: It is dangerous to predicate my identity on labels which are greater than me. I can be a Jew, a queer woman, or a middle-class American, but only so long as I am seen as such. My power to define such an identity is limited. There are others, both members of my community and outsiders, who will challenge its definition again and again.
This is what I learned from the second sermon: a good identity, collective or individual, is one that begins from the bottom up. Instead of depending on the whim and prejudice of outsiders, it relies on what Asad Dandia called positive vision: self-identification without performance or defiance.
This is what I learned from the first sermon: the battle for self-definition is not only held in protest marches and senate halls. It is a great battle and a worthwhile one to be able to smile at a stranger, or at your friend, and perhaps to hope that they see you right; but even if they don’t, the thing inside you will keep burning, whole and illuminated by its own light.
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