culture/multiculturalism · education · hair · Hispanics/Latinos · jews of color · Jews/Jewish/Judaism/Orthodox Judaism · prayer · race/racism · Shabbos/Shabbat · speaking · teaching

My Second Shabbaton: Ruminations on speaking at Brandeis University

My cousin O. wants to know how I’m making so much money talking about myself. But the answer to this question and similar mysteries can only be answered by G-d. And if G-d started talking directly to either of us, we’d probably be filthy rich (or locked up in Arkham Asylum).

In the meantime, I am still going around talking about myself and letting people pay me for it. I just got back from a quick Shabbat jaunt up to Brandeis University where I spoke thanks to the university Hillel and the Mixed Heritage club. In fact, only the members of the Mixed Heritage club got my chancleta joke: “Children should fear G-d, their parents and the chancleta, the Latino disciplining tool shaped like a slipper.” A white student later explained she could see how corporal punishment might seem funny to different cultures but I think she was just trying to make me feel better.

I don’t usually get scared before speaking gigs but when I entered the Friday night dinner, my knees were shaking a little. I had never seen so many Jews in one place. I thought the hundred students the dinner at Brooklyn College was a big crowd but at Brandeis there were hundreds of Jews gathering for a Shabbat meal. And my husband explained that this kind of thing happens at Brandeis EVERY week.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t supposed to speak at the dinner. I think I could have projected my voice to the entire crowd. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. During dinner, there was an abrupt, awkward announcement that my talk would be scheduled in a nearby room. But only thirty or forty of the students who attended the dinner made an appearance for my speech, which was billed as “Jewminicana: The Intersection between Religious and Racial Identity.” So I was a little disappointed.

My speech on becoming and being a Jewminicana is really more of “a performance,” according to my husband. And I did get a lot of laughs but it was nowhere near the thunderous laughter I received at Brooklyn College. A Brandeis student later explained that Brandeis students are awkward. So maybe people didn’t feel comfortable laughing at loud or maybe they just didn’t get my jokes? It is possible I stopped being funny over the course of a month? Is it possible I’m less funny in Boston? Or actually in Waltham, because I also learned over the course of Shabbos that Brandeis is not in Boston.

My favorite part of the Jewminicana performance was the Q&A afterwards where I promised to answer intimate questions. I ended up telling the story of how my husband and I met. My husband was in the room to corroborate but I told the crowd that he is a desperately private person (so how did he end up with me?). I also gave away the recipe to our “Carribbean cholent” when someone asked what other innovative ways we had mixed cultures at the dining room table. Otherwise, people asked pretty staid questions and I told them about the crazy ones I’d been asked in Brooklyn College. My husband says I can be a little intimidating. (What? How? I’m barely 5’3”!)

My husband spoke during services the following morning. I attended in spirit. From my bed where I was snoring away after popping muscle relaxers and pain killers, an unfortunate side effect of giving my speech the night before. We joined forces to give our “Racism in the Jewish Community” speech.

As usual, my husband played it cool while I skated on thin ice, showing some anger when students questioned whether or not some of what we were proposing was really racist. My husband noted that some students felt like we were attacking Jewish texts when we were trying to illuminate the racial undertones of specific pieces we used in our class.

We spent a rather lengthy time debating whether the prayer for nappy hair, albinos and hunchbacks is racist and insensitive. I didn’t think the audience was ready to hear me call this type of prayer a symptom of “white guilt” or an example of “fetishizing” people who are different so I left both terms off the table. (By the way, I apologize to the world right now for my insensitive joke on Hunchbacks and I feel very much like President Obama did after his recent Special Olympics joke.) We plan on being better prepared next time so the students don’t feel they have to personally defend the Jewish texts we’re examining in our class.

I was surprised that when we used the “Ashkenazi Privilege List” we had to explain how Ashkenazim are privileged, like whites, in the Jewish community. How could we begin to make a dent on some of the racist assumptions students had when they couldn’t even consider how they benefited from the racism around them? But everyone jumped in with the correct answer when I mentioned a stereotype, while positive, is an example of racism: Asians are ____.

And as usual, most students didn’t understand why “Where are you from?” is racist though several students chimed in to say that to a person of color this question often turns into “What are you?” (On a side note, my husband tried to explain the difficulties of teaching the “Where are you from?” question to a white Jewish friend today. The white Jewish friend said the question wasn’t racist and merely friendly until a Jew of color walked into the conversation and said, “OH MY G-D! Are you talking about the ‘Where are you from?’ question? I am so sick of being asked that question. It just never ends.”)

After the speech, I came across a helpful handout I may use for my next class “So You Think You’re an Anti-Racist? 6 Critical Paradigm Shifts for Well-Intentioned White Folks” because it clarified that the major problem is that our students focus on the intent of their actions (usually well-intentioned) instead of their impact (making people of color feel uncomfortable and excluded). I think that one of the reasons I hate giving this speech is because I cannot relate to how “uncomfortable, difficult, emotional and painful” it is for some of the white students to come to terms with talking about racism.

I am not uncomfortable with the subject of racism. I am uncomfortable with people who try to deny that it exists in the simplest daily interactions between different races. I mean, isn’t that just sad but given. I think that’s why it’s so handy to have my husband there saying things like, “Look, people of color can be boring too. White people can be interesting. It’s racist to assume people of color are always more interesting and white people are always boring” and “the problem with asking someone ‘What are you?’ is that it’s none of your business what their race is and it makes a person of color uncomfortable.” When I make comments like these, they just come off as angry.

So, things got intense at Brandeis University during our final class but I think we learned a lot about how to give our next speech. I’m not sure what kind of impact we made but I do know we left people feeling more awkward than they had before and asking themselves a lot of questions. Afterwards, my friend Drew pointed out that the students were probably questioning things we claimed were racist because for better or worse, racism is not a topic they usually think about. One interesting soundbite came from a student who said that people assume “white people don’t know where their grandparents are from” and that’s perhaps another reason only people of color get asked. But I’m sure there are a thousand different ways to rationalize the racism people of color suffer on a daily basis.

Well, I’m hoping that on my next speaking engagement I will get to do some press for the plight of converts in the Jewish community. It’s a safer subject. And you know how I like to play it safe.

6 thoughts on “My Second Shabbaton: Ruminations on speaking at Brandeis University

  1. Aliza,I don’t think the status of converts in the Jewish community is any safer than racism. I think the problem is that you haven’t had training on how to handle Diversity Training. The ADL offers very good training on the topic.Also, some more reading in my field would help you express your views more eloquently. Beg, borrow, or steal “Rethinking the Color Line” by Charles Gallagher.


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