It's the Jewish New Year and I have something to say.
I was recently asked to contribute to a post about anti-semitism for We Need Diverse Books (which you can read here). Various Jewish authors were asked whether anti-semitism still existed and how we've experienced it in our lives. Short answer: Yes. Long answer: Hell yes! Looking back, what struck me the most was how each of us independently defined ourselves differently yet all of us questioned our ability to be considered "qualified" to answer; who were we to speak about anti-semitism, living privileged lives in the United States as educated, literate, well-off Caucasian Jews of varying background and religious identity? Oddly enough, we'd answered themselves--we were all qualified to write about anti-semitism because we had all experienced it in one form or another--often many, many forms--throughout our lives. We could say confidently that anti-semitism was real because it was happening now.
That said, I'd been considering the issue of anti-semitism ever since a certain book won awards and made a bunch of us start screaming. (Trust me, I could put a lot more links about this! There's even been more recent news, which is just pouring lemon juice on an open wound.) But those musings didn't quite fit the subject we were talking about on #WNDB, yet I felt strongly about this and even more strongly that I hadn't yet said it to anyone outside my own little echo chamber. This year on Rosh Hashanah, I thought about what I had and hadn't said and decided--once I'd gotten over my bout of bronchitis/sinusitis/various other ick--that I would say it out loud, as loudly as I could, because this was something important to share as a mother, a writer and a Jew so to be all three meant that it was triply-important and to say nothing is to be part of the silence, part of the problem.
So I'm saying it here. Now.
On Being A Minority
The hardest thing about being a minority is the majority's assumption that it's merely bullheaded stubbornness that keeps us from assimilating. Who in their right mind would want to stand out, be different, be stereotyped, picked on, bullied, or--in some cases--hunted, tortured and murdered, killed, targets of individual hate crimes or calculated mass genocide? Why do that? Why fight it? Just give in, assimilate, convert and it will all go away. We shake our heads in wonder--they have no idea and they cannot understand. But the truth is that many people can identify with this because that same malevolent pressure crosses race, religion, gender, physical/mental/psychological ability, regionalism and sexual orientation. In media and literature, what is most insidious are these tiny assumptions that a minority character is "savable" from their unfortunate circumstance by a well-meaning majority because they not-so-secretly want to fit in, to be "like everyone else," to "pass." But what is the most dangerous message to young readers (and old) isn't that minorities are invisible or inferior, it is that the best way to deal with a threat to your identity is to give up your identity. This flies in the face of everything we wish to teach our children and that is what is most terrifying --something that is being ignored, allowed, encouraged and even celebrated in our publishing community.
On Jewish Children's Literature
Judaism in children's literature reminds me of my old Sunday School curriculum: there's the standard Bible stories, the top holidays, some cultural myths, the history of Israel, then a vast quantity of Holocaust coverage before skipping directly to modern Jewish life, focusing mainly on early assimilation, Bar/Bat Mitzvah parties and interfaith dating and marriage. These are certainly all relevant Jewish topics, but it hardly covers the whole ethno-religious-cultural experience and it barely acknowledges the breadth of Jewish life, which stretches across the globe. In fact, I would have a hard time finding myself or my family's experience in its pages (save for a certain book by Judy Blume). That is not to say that there is no Judaism represented on the shelves, but it is often categorized as "a Jewish book" or "normalized" in mainstream literature as a passing comment or completely ridiculous stories made to match the majority's storytelling pattern, which has nothing whatsoever to do with a holiday or tradition or original Torah story, more a spin-off to make the "other" sound more "norm," and that is the sort of micro-aggressive erasure that is most frightening; it is hard to combat that which you cannot see. Where are the Jewish characters who have two Jewish parents, who live with secular life and faith together like so many modern Christians, who aren't considered "white" by society, who grew up under the specter of the Holocaust but most often encountered everyday antisemitism in the tiny, niggling things like micro-aggressions or ignorant remarks? Being Jewish isn't always about wearing a Star of David or lighting a channukiah or having a "Jewish-sounding" last name; it's a very large conglomerate of experiences and perspectives that are, more often than not, addressed by tokenism at best and stereotypical tropes at worst. So often I go to the library and think, "Where is my Judaism? Where am I?" and, most importantly, "What do I want to share with my kids?"