I’m white, until I’m not: Being a Jewish Atheist in the era of Trump

Most of my life I’ve been white… except when I wasn’t. As a young child, maybe six, I came up what I thought was the perfect insult: “Goo Goo on You.” It was marvelous in its simplicity and ease of use. Mom would say, “Eat your vegetables”, and I’d respond “Goo Goo on You!” My mother would laugh, and of course, I’d still have to eat my vegetables — but it was empowering, and silly, and fun, and I used it often… that is until someone else in the family responded with “Goo Goo on Jew.”

According to the generally accepted notion that Judaism is passed from mother to child, I’m not technically Jewish. My mother, a woman of mixed western-European decent, met my father, a Jewish man from Philadelphia, in the mid-1970’s where his afro was at the height of popular hair styles.

I didn’t grow up going to Synagogue or Hebrew school and only had the vaguest notion that I had any kind of otherness. My father through most of his life practiced a new-age spiritualism, meditating and talking the healing power of crystals. My mother has always been Christian, her faith waning and strengthening at various parts of her life. I would describe my childhood religion as moderately theistic, but not in such a way that put religiosity forward as a crucial element to our family. When I was five, my parents divorced, further distancing me from religion or a notion of belief.

When I was twelve I became friends with a guy from school named Josh. He was the son of the local Rabbi, and I was invited to my first Shabbice dinner at their house. Everything was strange and formal. The lighting of the candles, the washing of the hands, the prayers in Hebrew; I marveled at it all, and the Rabbi, Jonathan, presented each part as if it was something that had always been part of me. From the beginning, he treated me as a Jew, ignorant only to the mechanics of belief, but part of the greater tribe. A month later, my father and I were invited to the Passover Seder and I saw for the first time in my life my father don a yarmulke and recite prayers and perform rituals he had left behind two decades before.

Through most of my high-school years, I spent Friday nights at Rabbi Jonathan’s house, always welcome to dinner. I often attended Synagogue on Saturdays and studied and learned as much as I could. When I was sixteen I was invited for the first time to participate in services, acting as one of the people to open the ornate Ark on the Bima. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was in many respects a Bar Mitzvah. What’s more is that in truth it was a gift from Jonathan, letting me really understand my Jewish heritage and my place among those who proudly say, “I’m Jewish.”

My life at home, living with my father, was always overly independent. He was a good man who worked hard to provide, but while I lived with him from seventh grade through the end of high school I was mostly left to my own devices and to fend for myself. I spent most nights alone and learned self-reliance. In some ways, this was great for me, and in most other ways it was quite lonely. My mother’s house was turbulent with the upheaval of her third divorce, so the only real sanctuary I had was Jonathan’s house. His sons, Josh and Derek, remain two of my best friends to this day, and at Derek’s wedding (after five too many bourbons) I pulled Jonathan aside to thank him for making me feel part of the family, feel Jewish, and feel accepted.

As an adult, I’ve become quite atheistic in my beliefs, but still feel culturally Jewish. I feel a connection to the culture and rituals that will be with me my whole life. From the inane and silly love of Matzo Ball Chicken Soup when I’m sick, to the occasional lighting of Shabbice candles, I’m, for all intents and purposes, a Jewish Atheist. To most of the world, when they see me, I’m a white guy. Sure, my features might give me away to someone in the know, but I’ve also been mistaken for Persian, for Italian, for Russian. Most of the time, I am accepted as your run of the mill Caucasian. If you ask me, I’ll tell you I’m Jewish — Ashkenazi Jew specifically, my family hailing mostly from Poland.

Chris Rock, in his hilarious Bigger and Blacker stand-up comedy special, said, “I’ve never been in a barber shop and heard a bunch of brothers talking about Jews. Black people don’t hate Jews, they hate white people. We don’t have time to dice white people up into little groups.” So, I’m white — until I’m not

With the election of Donald Trump and the increased volume of the antisemitic “Alt-Right” movement, I find myself once again as an “other.” Facebook friends scorn the proliferation of freshly painted swastikas, but I don’t know think they understand the fear that puts into me and my fellow Jewish friends.

We like to think that we learn from history, that we as Americans will never let the horror of the holocaust be normalized here, but a decent portion of those same Americans will turn their cheek to call for a Muslim ban… or at very least vote for the person calling for it. Those who say we’ll never put people in camps fail to remember that America did just that to Japanese Americans in the 1940s. An article from the website “The Hill” cited an NBC News / Survey Monkey poll that showed 50% of respondents supported a Muslim ban.

When people ask me what I fear from a Trump Presidency, my answer isn’t President Trump. He seems to be swayed by the loudest voices screaming in his direction and right now the loudest voices are those that drive ideals that, while rooted in American history, don’t feel very American. I fear his supporters, emboldened by what he represents, and what they might do. Whether it be antisemitism, or Islamophobia, or Homophobia, or Anti-Latino, or Anti-Immigration — and the actions that follow those hollow belief systems — that’s the real fear. We, every one of us, regardless of race, sexuality, ethnicity, or immigration status, need sanctuary from this fear. It starts in our homes, with our own compassion. It needs to radiate to our communities, town, cities, and nation. A Sanctuary city is the one of the many concentric circles it takes to defeat evil. Your personal decision to not hate, to have empathy, and to educate yourself to the plight of those with less is the point where those circles begin.

That is the lesson I learned from Rabbi Jonathan; it starts with me. It starts with a call to action to not hate those who are different than me. To not look at someone and instantly judge them. To not fear someone because of what they wear or believe. To not be complacent as others do that to them. To accept I am an American — personally built on a history of different races, religions, and nations, and that as an American, as a member of two minority groups, I have a voice as important as anyone, and a role to play as someone willing to stand up for what is right. To open my checkbook when I can, to offer a couch or a blanket to someone cold, and to wield any amount of privilege I have for those lacking.

What can you do? Recognize that somewhere in your history you too were an other. It’s what America was built on, and you too have a role to play, a voice to be heard, and a vote. Join a protest, join a campaign, join an online community. Be an active participant in providing sanctuary where it’s needed. In our homes, in our communities, in our town, our cities, our places of worship, our schools, and in ourselves.

My community now isn’t just Atheists, or Jewish — I’m in the community of the others. White, brown, black, Asian, Native, Arab, Indian, Gay, Straight, Trans, Deists, Theists, and everyone else deserves sanctuary from the fear that someone is coming for us for something we can’t change. I’m willing to stand with you all and fight for what’s moral and right. I’m a Jew. I’m an Atheist. I’m a Father. I’m the Grandson of an Immigrant. I’m a feminist who believes in equality. I’m a liberal. I’m a voter, and I’m willing to speak up.

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