Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Question of Identity

Have you ever noticed that when you are tuned into something, you spot it everywhere? Perhaps you had a particular type of dog once upon a time and now you are always on the lookout for that breed.  Since the loss of a wire-haired terrier, I’ve been known to follow after people walking white dogs with jaunty tails just to pet the pup.  I’ve spotted wire-haired terriers all over the world.

As I’ve become interested in the question of identity it seems to pop up everywhere and there I am following behind.  I started this exploration with the oral history project Jewish Identity and Legacy, but am finding that many of the same issues cut across racial identity, gender identity and many other identities.  This week I attended a talk by Michelle Norris of NPR who has written a book called the Grace of Silence.  Originally this was to be a book focused on the emerging discussion about race after the Obama election.  Instead it took her into long buried family secrets and questions of identity and legacy.

I quickly read the book prior to her talk and would highly recommend it.   She talks about her family’s focus on outdoing the neighbors to counter black stereotypes, from keeping the nicest yard to being the first to get the snow shoveled.  I loved the impudence of her mother in the stories about neighbors selling their homes after they moved in.  When the real estate agent showed up with potential buyers she would send her children out to play, emphasizing the presence of a black family next-door.  She then delves into what wasn’t spoken about.  Her father’s shooting by a Birmingham police officer, her grandmother’s work as a traveling Aunt Jemima and the unease with burdening the next generation with this history.

At the talk she asked the question, how often do you think about your race?  Many non-whites at the event replied, “Every day”.  One woman said she didn’t think about it when she lived in New York, but upon moving to Minnesota she was far more conscious of it because there was less diversity.

I turned that question around a bit in my mind and thought, “How often do I think of religious or ethnic identity?”   When I was growing up, I thought about it with every well-meaning teacher who asked me to talk about Hanukkah, a minor Jewish holiday that has the distinction of falling close to Christmas.  I thought about it when we sang Christmas carols at school and I would go silent on the words “Christ” or “Jesus”.   As the only Jewish kid in my grade school classes, I felt painfully conscious of differences, but I participated in the culture that surrounded me. I helped my friends decorate their Christmas trees and paint their Easter eggs.  I even looked into the sky for Santa on Christmas, a little Jewish kid believing in a myth that wasn’t even mine.  And I vividly remember when my parents tried to end the one effort they made to allow us to share in the celebrations around us.  When my siblings and I were young our house was the only one on the block that wasn’t lit up on Christmas.  No tree graced our living room, but my parents broke down on one small thing.  They allowed us a stocking that they filled with stocking stuffers.  One day they guiltily decided they had to end this ritual, but how to do so?  They finally settled on a myth to counter the myth, a hair of the dog that bit us.  They announced that they were going to call Santa and tell him we were Jewish and he didn’t need to stop at our house when he made his rounds.  I still recall them on the phone as we screamed, “Noooooooooo!  Don’t tell him!!!”  So what did I learn from that?  If you tell people you are Jewish, you won’t get the goodies.

Growing up Jewish in a Midwestern town reinforced a sense of otherness even as it allowed me to develop a chameleon-like veneer that allowed me to fit in.  I still remember when I began to do work in New York.  I felt as if I expanded into myself, the kid raised by two Jews from Brooklyn, who had to fight for air time in family discussions came into her own.  No more reining myself in to keep from interrupting or finishing people’s sentences lest they take offense.  In New York that seemed to be just a conversational style, one I was very familiar with.  Discussions were infused with a familiar energy, one that I grew up with in my home, but squelched in public.

When I think of identity, I think of otherness.  Being different, being excluded, reining myself in lest I transgress on the norms of those around me.  It has less to do with religion, but far more to do with being different. When my friends visited family they went to the family farm, I went to Brooklyn.  My experience was different and different not only from my Christian Midwestern neighbors, but different from many Jewish communities.  I was a small-town Midwestern Jew and didn’t have the cultural affect that made many East Coast Jews more visible.  I wasn’t sure what my community was as it was an amalgamation of many and not clearly any one.  Perhaps that is why identity is a topic that interests me.

When I contrast my experience with that of race, I realize it has a different dimension than that of those who wear their otherness on their skin.  I don’t wear my ethnicity openly and given my Midwestern roots, I don’t display it in my manner.  In some ways that may make it more complex as I can choose when to introduce my different background, or conversely not to do so.  My name is a Jewish one and I have always been glad I kept it upon marriage as I’ve come to embrace my otherness.  My name is the tip off that my background may be different, not quite the same as many of the people around me.    For other Jews it is the tip off that we share a common heritage and creates an openness that might not exist as quickly otherwise.

Since I’ve been working with material that relates to ethnic heritage I think about it far more often.   My current bodies of work deal with the traces of the Jewish community in Lithuania and in Poland.  Some of the Lithuania work has dark stories related to the Holocaust and how it is addressed there today.  I find that when one does work related to family history, and one’s history is Jewish, the Holocaust is a topic that is hard to avoid.  When people come into my studio or to talks, I discuss the work and the journey.  There is a part of me that always feels a bit apologetic when I share the stories with Jewish content when my audience is not Jewish.  I hasten to add that I realize this is not a rational part of me.  Everyone should know about the Holocaust and my artwork and stories help to make it accessible.  It is not just a Jewish story, and yet….there is that irrational hesitance.   I am often surprised that interest in this story is by no means exclusive to those of Jewish ancestry so this hesitance is more about me, me declaring my Jewish ethnicity, me declaring my differences very vocally.  Perhaps it is about the chameleon Midwestern me who got used to flying below the radar, who feels some discomfort at being public about my differences.

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