culture/multiculturalism · jews of color · Jews/Jewish/Judaism/Orthodox Judaism · New York · rabbi · race/racism

A Video Response to "Where you from?"

You’d be surprised how some conversations in Jewish circles start for Jews of color. Often, they don’t start with “Hi, what’s your name?”

Instead, they start with “Hey, are you a convert?” even before the other person has introduced themselves. Usually, this question has substituted, “Hi! Hello! How are you?” The curiosity of the person on the other end is so overwhelming that all polite pleasantries quickly fall out of the window. Splat.
Or they start with “Sooooo, where you from?”But you notice they’re not asking the other Jews, the Jews who are white. Without knowing your name, they demand to know your story, the story of how you came to (maybe) be Jewish but not white. But when you tell them you’re from “New York,” there’s always a follow-up question: “No, really, where are you really from?” And you notice no one else got a two-parter. And now, there’s even a new variation: “no, what’s your maiden name?”
All a Jew of color wants is a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T. We want people to get to know our names, get to know us as people. We are not exotic monkeys that will talk to you and let you pet us for treats. We are not free entertainment at your Shabbos tables or Jewish events. We want to be treated like every other Jew but we are walking, talking proof of something that many Jews forget…Jews come in all shapes, sizes and colors!

11 thoughts on “A Video Response to "Where you from?"

  1. When I try to view the video, it says the video was “removed by user”. I want to see the video becasue as an ABCJBC (American born Chinese Jew by Choice) I get my share of these questions.

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  2. For me the drawn out question goes like this:
    Where are you from?
    > I live outside of Chicago, but I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area.

    But where were you born?
    > Boston

    Where are your parents from?
    > My dad was born and raised in Portland, Oregon.
    (I note the disappointed expression on the inquisitor's face) And my mom went to boarding school in Massachusetts….but she was born in China. And my paternal grandparents were from southern China, unlike my maternal grandparents who were from Shanghai.

    {Then if we were in a Jewish location, the questioning might continue}
    So are you a convert?
    {Before I converted, my answer might be:}
    No….(and while the puzzled expression takes over their face) actually I'm not Jewish. But I've been going to shul for over 20 years, and I'm married to a Jew and my children are Jewish. (and I'm wondering if what is now going through their heads is “Ugh. She's one of those shiksas who are luring Jewish boys into intermarriage. Doesn't she know that her kids aren't Jewish if she isn't Jewish?” Then I would watch as they struggled to decide what expression to wear and what to say next.)

    These days, I preempt the “Where are you from?” series with this answer: “It depends on what you mean: I live in the Chicago area, I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I was born in Boston. Ethnically, I'm Chinese.”
    Are you a convert?
    >Yes.

    Frankly, it is sometimes better when the conversation moves to the Jewish aspects of my identity. When the questioners fixate on the Chinese part, I have to listen to them tell me about every Asian (Japanese or Korean is close enough to Chinese) acquaintance that they have ever known. (And I should be interested why?) Sometimes people don't even ask me about my background before launching into a list of their Asian acquaintances just because I look Asian. (I imagine that white Jews must be told by non-Jews about all the Jews they know.)

    My daughter enjoys playing it out by answering that her parents were both born in Boston, and then continuing to move up the tree first on her dad's side of the family: her paternal grandparents were born in Cuba and Argentina. Her great-grandparents were from Cuba, Spain, Pittsburg (Pennsylvania) and Poland.

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  3. Wow, Debbie, did your comments ever resonate with me!!!!

    At some point talking about my conversion and being the constant spectacle at the Shabbos table stopped being interesting. I refuse to answer questions about my background or conversion unless they occur naturally in conversation. It’s not the first thing I want to discuss when I meet someone. And I don’t think it’s anyone’s business. As I noted in that link to my article on conversion, it’s also not kosher to ask a convert if they’re a convert.

    I honestly do not want to spend every Shabbat meal acting as travel agent for people who want to learn more about vacationing in the Dominican Republic or as Social Studies teacher for people who don’t even know where the Dominican Republic is. The worst is when they start asking me for “Mexican recipes” (burrito, taco and enchilada) and I have to explain that Hispanics are not a monolithic group that all eat the same foods. One time someone even gave me a Caribbean cookbook they’d been trying to pawn off on someone for a while. “Here, you’re from the Caribbean, I bet you would like this!” (Note: Caribbean Islanders are also not a monolithic group who eat the same foods, speak the same language, etc.)

    Up close I am either mixed-looking (half-white/half-black is usually what people guess) or Hispanic-looking or something even more ambiguous which drives the curiosity of others into insane overdrive. This has always been the case. As I’ve written before on the blog, I’ve been mistaken for everything from Israeli to Egyptian, half-African American, Greek, Indian…whatever looks “ethnic” and has dark hair, dark eyes and an olive-skinned complexion. It is nice when people just assume I’m “Sephardic” or Israeli and don’t ask me questions. I know it’s a luxury that many Asian Jews of color and African-American Jews of color don’t have.

    Where are you from? Where are you really from? Where are your parents from? Where are your grandparents from? I know plenty of converts and Jews of color who have no qualms about answering these questions. Like your daughter, some of them even enjoy being asked questions and playing with the questioner. But in the same vein, there are plenty of converts and Jews of color who just want to live their Jewish lives out of the spotlight, blending into the background, in peace!

    Honestly, the answers to most of these questions are mostly the same. My grandparents and my parents (with the exception of my father who moved back to the Dominican Republic after living here for 10 years) have spent more of their lives in America than anywhere else. Everyone, including my father, is a citizen of the United States whether they were born here or not. Now if you want to talk great-grandparents and great-great grandparents, we cover the Dominican Republic, Spain, Venezuela and some surmise even Turkey. But again, why do I have to pull out my family tree at every Jewish function?

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  4. I'm a very white Jew and yet I still resonate with what you are saying. I get it from two sides, or maybe three. I'm Sefardi, not Ashkenazi, but everyone assumes Ashkenazi because, well, I'm so durned white. Nearly everywhere I've lived in my adult life has been not-my-original-home (it's a long list, but these days I'm in Israel), so I get a lot of the “Where are you from?” in lieu of “Hello. I don't think we've met. My name is…” Finally, I know what you are talking about because my eldest son looks very Hispanic and back in the US people are certain he can't possibly be Jewish. Ironically, it's my very white-looking daughter who had a thick Salvadoran accent in both Spanish and English until she was about 11. She gets, “De donde eres? No, en serio… de donde?” pretty regularly because, well, no body expects the freckled, auburn haired girl to REALLY be a Salvadoran-Californian Jew.

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  5. It is not like they are interesting in writing your biography and publishing in People En ESPANOl or TIME magazine. They just do it because they are control freaks. They want to intimidate you and make you feel bad about yourself because you unlike them are brave. Just be blunt and say that is not polite to ask personal questions without knowing the person well enough. Most educated people, professionals that I have known in my life behave better than most Jews within a social setting. Jews need to learn not only Gemara but also how to behave like respectful human beings in this world.

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  6. Thanks, Lisha for bringing in the white Jewish perspective. Plenty of Sephardim get asked the same questions as do plenty of blonds. When a Hispanic person asks me, “Where are you from?” I know that 99% of the time it's to find out if I am or if my parents are from the same town. First they ask “Are you Dominican” before “Where are you from?” If I say I'm from Washington Heights and people want to play Jewish geography fine but concealing “Are you really Jewish” with “Where are you really from?” just insults my intelligence.

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  7. I love how you get to what the real question is.

    I'm white. Really white. With blonde hair, light eyes, and a cute little nose. People have always awnted to know if both my parents are Jewish. They mean, of course, BORN Jewish. (They are). They never aksed my sister. Or my brothers. Made me feel as though I didn't look Jewish enough.

    Whatever that means.

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  8. It's so sad, Rivster. My darker-skinned sister has never once been asked if she's “really” Hispanic. But me with my much lighter skin and my other sister who falls somewhere in-between have spent our whole lives answering, “What are you? Where are you from? No really? Which one of your parents is white?” All because of other people's issues.

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