The Intersection of Jewishness + Whiteness


The discussion of the intersection of Jewishness and whiteness is one I’ve been having for decades in many different contexts, and I imagine it will continue to occupy my mind and heart for the rest of my life.

One thing that has never wavered is the acknowledgement and full recognition and naming of the fact that as a Jew, I can choose whether to conceal or reveal my Jewish identity, just as I can with my sexual orientation. I can gauge a situation, setting, vibe, etc. and determine how safe I feel. People of color of no such option. There is nothing to debate here.

So there is zero question, for me, about white privilege and that being first and foremost the fundamental issue our country is seeing the inevitable outcome of today — the fact that our (and I say OUR, as Americans) collective identity is rooted in genocide, slavery, and white supremacy in ways that continue to go unacknowledged and unchecked, with unquestionably devastating impact on people of color. Antisemitism is also alive and well and that, too, is woven into our country’s history.

Antisemitism is important to raise as a point of awareness and attention if you look at the language and beliefs of white supremacists and the history of a people that has endured and survived thousands of years of expulsions and genocides. As a people, these live not only in memory and history but in the lifetime of our grandparents, genocide at the hands of those whose vile beliefs have been kept alive and revived by the people we’re now seeing empowered to come out of hiding by the current political climate and “leaders.”

I cannot see and hear men — and women, mind you — with burning torches chanting “Jews will not replace us” without feeling alarmed and chilled.

Also imperative to note: NOT ALL JEWS ARE WHITE.

As a white, Jewish woman, do I benefit from the systems of oppression? Yes. Do I feel the need to protect myself as a Jew, as well? Yes. Do I feel the need to use the privilege I have as a white person to further the work of anti-racism? Also, yes — and not only as an individual need or choice but as an obligation and embodiment of living Jewish values. So many things are true at the same time, and personally, my Jewishness serves to strengthen my commitment to racial justice, not in any way diminish, dilute, or whitewash it.

My Jewish identity is inseparable for me from my voice as a writer, an activist, a mother, and an ally to the Black Lives Matter movement. This probably goes without saying, but feels important to articulate tonight.

As Rabbi Hillel said in the 1st century: “”If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”


One thing that keeps going through my head is that we have no leader. No single person to whom we can turn for reassurance or guidance or instructions or context. There’s no sitting around the radio, listening with heads bowed. No single steady voice. (Maybe this has never been the way and is simply a warped form of false nostalgia? Or actual nostalgia for #44.)

What we do have may be what we’ve always had: Communities large and small around the country, organizing. The voices of those who’ve been talking, writing, studying, facilitating, and educating about racism for decades, standing on the shoulders of the ones before them.

And there is us. Us includes you. We all have to step into leadership here, in whatever ways we can. What this looks in our real lives is something those of us who have any semblance of privilege need to be addressing. Don’t think big. Think concrete. Think today. Think one thing at a time.

I know many of you have been doing this your whole lives. Many of you have devoted your careers to this work and risked your livelihoods, relationships, and bodies every singe day by speaking out. For many Americans, every single day is an act of resistance, just leaving the house. Thank you. I see you and my respect runs deep.

I’m addressing those of us who have looked to someone else to do it. Now would be a good time to be that someone else — yourself.

Writing at the Intersections

Blogging — really, writing in any form — is a strange enterprise, in that it’s so intimate and so impersonal at the same time. Hearing from readers always feels like finding out I won the lottery. Every single time. This morning, I received a long note from the mother of a woman I was friends with in junior high. Among other things, she wrote,

“I though you might be amazed that a 70 year old mother of a childhood friend who is not a writer (but an avid reader and a seeker) is drawn to and deeply touched by your posts.”

I slept crazy late and am sitting on my couch with a tissue literally stuffed into my nostrils (real life, yo). I am such a baby when it comes to being sick; just ask Mani and she’ll corroborate (and I will say this — she is so so good to me when I’m sick, super patient and indulgent). It’s easy to fall off the edge of the planet, as if it were flat indeed (alternative earth shape?) and everything — all the words, all the meaning, all the work, all the connections — could just go *poof* the way my writing groups do when they’re over, in an ongoing cycle of impermanence that asks me, time and again, to let go, let go, let go, and not lose a thing.

That’s what Diane’s note this morning reminded me of. We write, or create, or even just share a snippet from our day or bump into a friend at the grocery store, and it’s in the witnessing and connection that our humanity is affirmed and restored. It’s important to me to keep doing this, even (especially) when I’m feeling doubtful, when my faith is frayed and I’m literally sick and tired. This state of vulnerability connects me to every other vulnerable human — reminding me that we ALL deserve wellbeing and witness, and the “ALL” part of this equation was not written into our country’s founding documents nor integrated over time in the ways so many have fought and continue fighting for.

How did I get from a lovely note about my writing to the fundamental flaw of American ideals in a few sniffling paragraphs? How can I not is the more accurate question. Because to have a voice is to bear some responsibility for others, and as long as there is “other” we are not all free. My own intersections of privilege and “otherness” are many — the “chutes and ladders” analogy in the piece I posted yesterday (How to survive in intersectional feminist spaces 101) explains this in plain and brilliantly accessible terms:

“Oh man. Ok. Sensitive topic time. CHECK YOUR PRIVILEGE. I know. It’s a scary aggressive commanding statement. But it doesn’t have to be. See, all these intersections are like a big game of chutes and ladders. Our privileges are ladders that move us toward the top of the heap, our marginalizations are chutes that slide us down.”

I am a cisgendered, white, and educated. I am also a gay, Jewish woman, dependent on the ACA for affordable health insurance, which has been literally life-saving for Mani over the past 18 months or so. My household covers several letters in the LGBTQ soup and if Trump and his cronies had their way, my beautiful marriage would legally be null and void.

I have a cold. Boo-to-the-hoo. I write and wonder why I write. And then I read that a painter friend — the one I bumped into at the grocery store last week — is questioning why bother painting right now, when, in her words, “it’s 1984.” I get it. I really do. And yet, instinct kicks in and I respond to her, “Because it’s 1984. The question contains the answer.” And then I read these words, posted by Dana Schwartz, from Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark:

“Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism. When you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated, and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection.”

And then I read a post from a beautiful and fierce community leader in Vermont, a woman of color who is tired and whose continuous efforts to address oppression — as the road to “unity” — are being met with accusations that she’s being “divisive.”

We have got to stop this shit and listen to each other. Our words matter. Our silences matter. I am trying mightily to address my own places of white fragility and fear (thoughts like “am I being ________enough?” that essentially betray internalized racism to begin with) so that I can root them out. It’s not a good feeling, but guess what? It’s not about feeling good, and if there’s one common thread in this learning, it’s this: It’s not personal.

So full circle back to the writing. It’s both searingly personal and flung wide-open to the world. How can both be true? I don’t really know, except that most true things are not one-dimensional but rather multifaceted, challenging, and resistant to platitudes, quick fixes, or easy answers. This is why it’s work, and this is why I’ve noticed the times when I want to write something pithy like, “We’re just getting warmed up” but them wham! Check my privilege, indeed. There are a lotta lotta women and some very good men, too, who are not just getting warmed up. Who are tired. Who have been marching this march and fighting this fight for years, decades. I’m standing on their shoulders.

My deepest desires remain like steady flickers deep in the belly: To listen. To learn. To grow. To be honest. To cultivate joy and to nurture courage — but not in pretty, feel-good, superficial ways. No, in ways that are demanding here, delicious there, and everything in between. That, to me, is real life. That is really living. Getting really down in it together, not afraid of dialogue but saying, yes, please, talk to me. Tell me what it’s like for you. Ask me about my life. Let’s not tell stories about each other but rather hear and read and really take in each other’s lived experiences.

All of this is a way of saying hello, and thank you — for showing up. For wherever you are in your own honest process of learning, resisting, fighting, questioning, and becoming more and more HERE. Life is so many things, and I am wishing you pockets of ease and sweetness today in the midst of whatever bumps or barriers you might encounter.

Art by Jen Lemen :: thewayofdevotion.org/downloads

“Download this DIY printable zine–double-sided on a piece of 11×17 paper that you can fold into a little book to share with a friend, pass out at a march, save in your bag or wheat paste wherever your heart desires. Created by self-taught artist Jen Lemen, this gentle call to action, invites you to decolonize your mind, relinquish your silence for the good of all. 

This art is FREE, so distribute freely. May we all learn how to deeply resist any powers that be that would make us less whole, less brave, less devoted to one another. May we embrace resistance and love as our path forward, now & always.”

Dive Into Poetry + Support Color of Change

butterflySitting at my desk this morning, taking a deep breath, and turning my attention fully to the words I’m writing to you. It’s a miracle, to sit here not knowing what I will say — and that with the push of a button, whatever comes will land on your screen. I say “miracle” knowing that it’s a loaded word, a word that’s easy to say but difficult to reckon with in the face of so much personal and political pain.

And still a world begins its furious erasure—

Who do you think you are, saying I to me?

You nothing.

You nobody.

You.

– Claudia Rankine, from “Citizen: An American Lyric”

I pause to look out the window and there he is, the hawk who flies over our house every morning right about this time. On November 19, I’m getting a red-tailed hawk feather inked on my left arm — it is a symbol of my devotion to my wife, and by extension, to my life — a life of truth and beauty, of voice and silence, of dark and light. A life of poetry and play and of fight and fierce determination. A life of white privilege and a call to justice deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. A life of it-gets-better and never-give-up. A life I feel blessed to get to share with you, through the powerful double helix of of showing up and letting the words come out.

We call this “writing,” and writing it is. It is also a vehicle for so many other life-changing byproducts. Writing might be the path that leads you back home to your own heart, or it might the way you find your voice out in the world. For me, these two are and always have been one and the same. What was missing for so long was company along the way, and now here you are. Here we are.

But that doesn’t “just” happen. When I put something out there and you say yes, when you write something and share it and I read it and witness your words, we are creating ripples in our own day, ripples that extend to the people first closest to us and then, because we are all interconnected, further out into the world.

“The most powerful force in the universe is an agreement between two people.” – Marianne Williamson, from A Course in Miracles

According to the Butterfly Effect, a tiny, barely measurable air disturbance from the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in China can ultimately result in a hurricane in Florida or prevent a tornado off the Indonesian coast. Apparently I’ve been pondering this for a long time; it was the topic of one of my earliest blog posts.

Since April, roughly 150 people have participated in the quarterly Dive Into Poetry party, an experience more than a few folks have called “life-changing.” For an entire month, you get three poems per week by yours truly in your inbox. You have the option of simply enjoying the poems and images as meditations or inspiration for writing privately, or to accept a spacious, standing invitation to play inside a supportive Facebook group. It’s low-stakes, high-touch, and inexpensive: Just $28 for the month.

As I look forward to the third quarterly Dive, I find I must do more. I must use my voice and work to affect change. Black people are being murdered and as a white person, it is my responsibility to do something about it.

That’s why between now and October 1, for every person who signs up for October’s Dive Into Poetry, I will donate $5 to Color of Change, the nation’s largest online racial justice organization.

Color of Change mission statement:

We help people respond effectively to injustice in the world around us. As a national online force driven by over one million members, we move decision-makers in corporations and government to create a more human and less hostile world for Black people in America.

If you want more poetry in your life AND want a part of “championing solutions for social change [and] making society less hostile and more human for Black people in America,” sign up for Dive Into Poetry today and $5 of your registration will go directly to Color of Change.

Let’s raise and donate $500 by October 1.

That means 100 people signing up for a month of poems in your inbox. Because we have to change this. We have to fix this. And just like with the writing: Everything counts. Just as poetry is not for “real” poets, change is not for other people to make happen — and if we’re not audacious, who will be?

As a white woman, it is my responsibility to speak up, to listen to people of color, and to take action whenever and wherever I can. By joining me this October, we are making a powerful agreement — to acknowledge the impact of our personal choices and priorities — and how even, sometimes especially, the smallest of these either contribute to or dismantle systemic racism.

I hope you’ll join me. Because even if you are busy, even if you don’t want to be in a group — who doesn’t have time to read a poem three days a week, to pause, to look inward, or up, or around with new eyes?

p.s. I decided to “grandfather” in those who already registered, so we are already up to $84 towards the $500 goal.