Jewish Arrival Day

(It's Jewish Arrival Day! See Jonathan Edelstein's master index to the blogburst)

It's hard sometimes to free yourself from stereotype when trying to make an honest appraisal of how a given culture has contributed to America. That's true of Arabs, blacks, Indians (the Desi kind, ahem), Latinos, etc. Jewish culture is no different - my own first reaction is to think of bagels in particular and New York City in general. I'm a bagel maniac. My personal favorite at Einstein's is the potato bagel with veggie cream cheese, but there was this bagel joint in Lexington MA called Aesop's Bagels that had simply the best sun-dried tomato cream cheese in existence. I haven't been in Lexington since 1998 but I still remember fondly eating my bagels while waiting for the bus back to the lab, standing in front of the Minuteman statue on battle green.

And as for New York City, well, it's just a Jewish town. And a Chinese one. And a ... well, NYC is NYC. Take any group away and you're left with only an approximation. But I've spent a fair amount of time in the city and I always felt that its Jewishness was essential in a way that the other ethnicities weren't - there's just a sense of continuation, as if someone was writing the history of an ancient people in a single sentence and needed a modern exclamation point at the end. It just fits.

These thoughts, while mostly sentimental, are really just manifestations of stereotype. I wanted to find something more substantial for Arrival Day than these, so I have decided to share this little anecdote - a confession of sorts.

In college, my friend Meredith and I both lived on Detling House, the honors dorm at UW-Madison. She and I have had enough shared adventures to probably fill a book, and our mutual interaction was rich enough that the question of our respective religions was more of a footnote. I can't even recall a single discussion about belief or culture with Mer, we were too busy talking about Hot Salsa, batholiths, and badly-timed jokes told by a completely oblivious teller.

I can't speak for her, but the aversion to religious topics was probably at least partially conscious on my part. It was around the time of Oslo and there was optimism about the peace process in the Middle East, but I was shockingly ignorant (and at the time, was extremely partisan against the Palestinan cause). My own self-identification on "Muslim issues" was also meager, though I did eventually join a group called Truth in the Middle East (TIME) because a cute acquaintance suggested it. I lasted about two meetings, but after leaving UW I did join a few mailing lists and started doing some actual fact-finding.

Still, Mer and I were indeed the Muslim and the Jew. And there was always the occassional comment about "shouldn't you guys be stabbing each other" thing. That expectation and surprise that two friends couldn't just be friends without bringing our religion and ethnicity into play was a kind of pressure, that eventually resulted in a game Mer and I would play. It was stupid as games go, but it went like this - upon seeing each other in the hall, if there were other people around, we would greet each other thus:


Meredith: (with somewhat less drama): INTIFADA!!!

Would you believe that at the time I actually thought "intifada" was the jewish word for jihad? It never occurred to me to ask.

While silly and deliberately playing into stereotype for lampooning's sake, I realize in retrospect that we became a kind of living endorsement of the idea that we were supposed to be at each others' throats instead of sharing class notes and bad salsa. It was essentially meaningless for us, but to an observer, it must have only served to entrench the stereotypes. Mer and I were examples of how things should be - ie, religion was a non-issue. We weren't doing cultural exchanges or teaching each other our religious beliefs. We just hung out together. But when we engaged in that little bit of play-acting, suddenly we were the Jew and the Muslim on television, satirizing but also acknowledging the image of eternal enemies.

I've done a lot of writing about jihad (and hirabah) since then, and of course my own feelings on teh intifada are well-known to my regular readers. But there's a lot of work to do in overcoming the stereotypes and misconceptions that are attached to these concepts and historical events. Those are formidable barriers, and they were built one small piece at a time. I carried a few rocks myself in erecting it.

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