Sunday, November 17, 2013

A Comment Worth The Sharing: On Passing And Jewish Identity

Liz Shayne offered these thoughts as a comment on a previous post.  I found them really interesting, and from a perspective that was new to me, maybe since I'm living in New York City, where Jews are plentiful and pretty identifiable.  I thought it was really interesting and worth getting more attention.  I invite you to read on, and share your own thoughts and reactions in the comments section.  

"Visibility interesting problem because I've found there's a difference between looking different and being visible as a member of a group. There's a strange space between passing and proclaiming identity where I look different from everyone else, but my surrounding culture lacks the necessary cues to identify me.

This is another sticky place between privilege and presence, because I look "stylish" when I cover my hair with a hat, especially when I'm wearing a beret/wool cloche during the winter. And even my headscarves pass for intriguingly retro or offbeat on the street. There are days when I want a large sign taped to the back of my head saying "This covering has religious significance for me!" and then there are days when I very much don't.

When I first started teaching, I only wore hats because hats, as Rachel says, help one pass. By the end of my first year, I was more comfortable wearing scarves to teach (and I was running an 8am section and taking my orals at that point so the fact that I got to the classroom with a lesson plan and my shirt the right way round was an achievement) and, over the summer, I deliberately wore a large, rectangular scarf on my second day as an odd kind of "this is who I am" statement.

But I never know if the statement I'm making is the same one other people are hearing (this has often been my experience with teaching, especially in the beginning).

So I value being able to pass because I am uncomfortable standing out without standing up. And yet there seems to be a lack of cultural awareness of Jewish hair covering as a recognizable form. This, I imagine, is because the how of covering has always been culturally determined and so Judaism, as such, does not have a distinctive style. We adopt the style of the culture around us and cover accordingly. And the current Western style of public hair covering is to not, which complicates matters and means that the current generation of Ashkenazi women (for the purposes of this conversation and making sweeping claims, lets say women under 40) find themselves in search of a tradition/stye of hair covering they can turn to and (assuming they have a job that does not mind scarf-like coverings) they, somewhat naturally, turn to the Israeli styles and modify them for the kinds of scarves and styles suited to the West…and attempt to avoid cultural appropriation in the process.

Do we fail to stand out because we pass or because we aren’t identifiable in the first place?" 


  1. So this is a particularly interesting perspective and conversation for me. For a while, I toyed with covering my hair and found it wasn't for me-- at least at this point in my practice and in my life. While you seem conflicted between being visible as a Jew on multiple levels (in terms of having to pass, in terms of adopting styles, etc), I feel that conflict in a very different way.

    I live in a neighborhood with many Orthodox and modern Orthodox people. I actually work at YU, in the writing center, as well, and often I feel invisible as a Jew, even after I self-identify or talk about my own experiences as a Jew. I'm going to bring up a very strange example of different treatment that may or may not be completely relevant: when I was (heavily) pregnant, I was standing on the subway. I was dressed in a pair of maternity jeans (because at that point, they still fit haha) and had my hair uncovered. There were a few young Jewish men (kippot-wearing) sitting and chatting in the area that was particularly marked for individuals with disabilities (which I have in addition to my past pregnancy). They looked at me, and I felt like they saw through me; I was not offered a seat and stood the duration of my trip in front of these men. At another point, perhaps not a week later, I had my hair covered with a scarf-- mostly for fun-- and was wearing a skirt. Once more, I saw a Jewish man on the packed train car and he saw and "identified" me and offered up his seat at once, nearly pushing others out of the way to do so.

    Why do I tell this story? So many things are at play. Perhaps the gentlemen talking really didn't notice me, despite the fact that I had made eye contact. Perhaps they had invisible disabilities that made standing hard for them. Perhaps they had had particularly long days and needed the seats more than the gentleman in the second story. Who knows. All I know was when I felt like I was most visible as a Jew, I was treated by others in the community with a special sort of kindness that I don't often experience when I'm not visible to the community. To me, the concept of being visible as a Jew is a way to connect with the community, rather than to immediately be visible to everyone else.

    I know it's "my own fault" or something else because I chose/choose not to cover my hair and perhaps dress in a way that would make me more visibly Jewish. At the same time, I wonder what implications that might have for how we behave as Jews towards each other and towards people outside of the Jewish community. I know that 'kol Yisrael aravim zeh lah zeh' but I also feel like being visibly Jewish means that you have a commitment, on a deeper level, to behave with kindness towards everyone. I think that we are identifiable, in many cases, to others when we dress a specific way or don kippot or cover our hair-- and that during those times, it is the most important to keep in mind that we are visible as Jews and that our behaviors reflect on others in our communities.

    I wonder what an acknowledgement of "standing out" would look like; I don't immediately change course in conversation because I see someone wearing a large cross or a hijab and make that about religion or background. What, in this case, does "identifiability" (ahem) get us? How does it change or not change the conversation, outside of the community? And why?

  2. My wife used to cover all of the time. Over the years she has moved away from doing so and typically now she only covers at periodic times at home. Her experience of covering was more negative. Most people in our region do not identify headcovering as something distinctively Jewish and therefore the attention received from wearing one is not always welcome. She has had her fair share of being approached and yelled at in puclic spaces such as the grocery stores for being discerned as a Muslim woman. During one episode wheerein a man confronted her in the store she pointed out that she was not Muslim rather she was Jewish. The man was even more enraged and retorted something stupid to let her know that both were equivalent. To cover one's head in certain setting could be a real safety concern and a woman should not jeopordize her security. This is the reason for the Chabad's insistence that a woman should wear a shetl albeit I've never considered this a legitimate alternative and neither has my wife.

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