Friday, January 07, 2011

When You're Strange - A View from the Inside

Several of my friends on Twitter have committed to a monthly blogging schedule based on a specific theme. January's theme is racism and/or discrimination. At first I felt this was a topic to which I could add no real insight. After all, I am not a member of a visible minority, and as such have never encountered racism. I am Jewish, but have been fortunate enough not to have had to deal with anti-Semitism, at least not overtly.

This got me thinking that when racism or discrimination is the topic on the table, we often think of it in terms of what members of one group does to another. There is always some sort of cultural, religious, or racism differentiation. However, my own experiences have shown that discrimination can happen within the same ethnic group.

I grew up in a fairly traditional Orthodox Jewish home. As a result, it was always assumed that when my brother and I became of school age, we would attend the local Talmud Torah day school. As my older brother approached the time to register for grade one, it became evident this would not be the case. In those days, there was no transportation provided for children who needed a ride, despite my parents being told otherwise. My father, a professor at the University of Alberta, taught 8 a.m. classes and would not have been able to drive my brother to school every day. My parents desperately tried to work out car-pooling and ride share agreements with other Jewish families in our area, but to no avail.

Finally, it was time to register my brother for school. My parents enrolled him in the public school a couple of blocks away, and that is where he and then I attended for our elementary and junior high years. I was the only Jewish child in my class for the first six years of my school career, and I never felt strange. I knew I had customs and traditions that were different from the other kids, but it did not bother me at that time. My father often came to my classroom to make presentations about the Jewish holidays and share some ethnic food treats. At the same time, I enjoyed taking part in Christmas decorating and concerts. Yes, there were a few things I had to skip, like birthday parties on Saturdays (the Sabbath) and the annual hamburger barbecue (I ate no non-kosher meat at that time), but to put it in the vernacular, it was all good.

Then came junior high.

The Talmud Torah only went up to grade six back then. It was a feeder school for the school I attended, so when junior high came around so did a lot of Jewish kids. I was very excited that for the first time I would get to hang out with other people of my tribe. I would finally have Jewish friends! Or so I thought.

It broke my heart when the other Jewish kids would not accept me because I did not go to their school. They would not even believe that I was really Jewish. The irony is that I was still religiously observant at that time, while they obviously weren't given their dietary and weekend habits. I was severely taunted verbally by many of them, and physically by one in particular. I was an outsider in my own cultural group.

To this day, I still feel somewhat like an outsider in the Jewish community. I do have some Jewish friends and am involved in a few community activities, but I don't really consider the Jewish community to be mine. The community is very small and homogeneous, and when you are someone who has views that don't fit with the mainstream, you really stick out. It is almost as if one's Jewish identity is determined by outside forces like what school you went to, what family you're from, how much money you have, and your political beliefs.

While I still bear some of the scars of my youth, I have come to terms with myself and my identity. Developing the courage to stand up in the face of adversity I believe is one reason I became a social activist. It is why I cringe when I see others (either here or abroad) mistreated by a system, a nation, or a paradigm of thought. This has led me down some interesting and unusual paths both as a Jew and in general. Pressure and heat, when applied correctly, can create newness and beauty. If faced with a choice of an easy route or a struggle, I choose the struggle.

Related Posts:
Blog Group Topic #1: Racism/Discrimination/Stereotypes by @lindork
Discrimination and Helplessness by @JenBanksYEG
The Double Meaning by @TamaraStecyk
Racism, would it cease to exist without...? by @sirthinks
It's Not Me, It's You by @Joanna_Farley

1 comment:

Joanna said...

thanks for sharing Paula!