Tonight, I stumbled upon a treasure trove: My house’s basement has a huge library of Jewish literature, ranging from The Jewish Book of Why to Hebrew and Yiddish dictionaries, and so much more. This is going to save me many trips to the library, and it will help me get in touch with my culture in new ways, which I’m always searching out.
As I was browsing and looking at the spines and reading titles and stories, I began thinking back to the old questions that get asked, “Who is a Jew?” “How does Jewishness affect your life and outlook?” and others, and I began thinking about what pops into people’s minds when they hear the word “Jew”. My informal guess would be that, if they live in North America, their first mental image would be of an Ashkenazi man, probably conservative or reform, pretty well informed on his religion, possibly speaking Yiddish as his first language. Because Ashkenazim have played such a prominent role in the making of North American culture and pop culture, they’re often considered the de facto Jew, to the point where TVtropes has an entire entry deconstructing this called All Jews Are Ashkenazi (For the record, I’m Ashkenazi with a dash of Sephardic Mediterranean blood from way back)
This has the unfortunate side effect of making the de facto Jewish identity be white. For Jews who are not Ashkenazi, or who are just not 100% Ashkenazi, Gerim, or Jews of colour, or Jews from interfaith and interracial families, this often means being met with the “You’re Jewish?” question with surprise and shock. I’m light enough to pass for 100% white most of the time, even though I’m not really, and I still get asked the question with surprise, especially after people meet my mother, who is not Jewish and is very dark-skinned. This also means that those who are familiar enough with some aspects of Judaism will often assume fluency in Yiddish on the part of the Jew. I grew up with a father who spoke Yiddish (mainly cusses, hehe) but I’m far from fluent. Same with Hebrew, which I am not very good at, from a linguistic point of view. But there are Jewish communities which thrive entirely outside of Yiddish and Hebrew, such as certain pockets of Montreal. What language we feel may be “our” tongue will depend entirely upon the Jewish person you are asking, they may be totally unfamiliar with Yiddish and Hebrew, but embrace Spanish, or French, or Arabic.
Another aspect of the “default Jew” is how it presumes growing up in a religious household (not the case for me at all) and being part of a separate community from the mainstream. I’m from an assimilated family which encouraged me to explore different religious traditions and find one which suited me best, I just happened to come back to the faith of my ancestors. But in the words of Einstein, “A Jew who sheds his faith along the way, or who even picks up a new one, is still a Jew.” And the assimilated aspect, I’m rather sad about in some ways, because I feel I missed out on some, but if I were to form my own family with children, I would make sure that my kids had the same encouragement I had to find what fits best for them, but they would still belong to a Jewish household.
Speaking of family, the elephant in the room when it comes to how we perceive the “default Jew” is sexual orientation and gender identity. I’m in a relationship with a goyishe transwoman, and will likely marry her. I will be joining a congregation which promises acceptance of our love, our bodies, and our wishes to marry, and that gives me so much hope. I think it’s important to maintain close ties with an accepting Jewish community if you are Jewish and queer (Can I get a loud “Oy Vey I’m gay!” from you?) because nobody will think we exist of they don’t see us actively partaking in Jewish life. 🙂
Stereotypes about the “default Jew” aren’t limited to goyishe misconception. They can even be found among other Jews. Nobody will never come up with an ideal image of what constitutes a Jew, a Sephardic secular woman in Tel Aviv will have different answers than an Ethiopian Baal Teshuva in Montreal, or a New York Hassidic man, or me. But it’s important to keep striving for a better, more inclusive Judaism, as it, along with the Jewish identity, belongs to all of us, and we all have a part to play in its celebration and preservation.