It’s something that makes most Jewish people cringe: that moment when, in the midst of some celebrity or political or financial scandal, it’s revealed that there’s a bad guy who happens to be Jewish. And now, quite publicly, this Jewish person has done wrong.
Let’s call them the “Bad News Jews.”
I was pretty young when I first realized that if you’re Jewish, and especially if you’re the only Jewish person someone knows, you will become a go-to-source on All Things Jewish. Not just around holiday times, but also when there’s someone Jewish in the news. Especially when the news is not good, and a fellow known-to-be-Jewish person is getting some bad press.
It was Monica Lewinsky who first taught me this.
I was in high school back when she was in the news. Despite the fact and context of that story, and the whole topic being, y’know, not exactly appropriate conversational material to dive into with a teenager, people would ask me what I thought about that situation. They would ask what I thought about her: Monica Lewinsky, who “sort of looked like me,” as I was told a couple of times. Like maybe, since we were both Jewish, I had some insider info on this hot mess (um, nope!); or I’d be more sympathetic to her plight (um, nope!); or at least I’d be more personally impacted by the story (um… nope… ish?).
That last parenthetical “nope-ish” is where it gets complicated. Because while it doesn’t have anything to do with us, and seems misguided when non-Jewish friends and family ask us specifically about these “Naughty Jews,” well, there is some truth to the fact that we cringe a bit harder when someone Jewish is revealed to be the bad guy in a news story. Even when we have no actual connection to the person, we feel embarrassed. Like it’s making “us” look bad. The same way we take pride in “our” Albert Einsteins, we cringe at “our” Anthony Weiners.
How do we respond to Bad News Jews? When people ask for our opinion, what do we say?
After years of being in this position, my response has become pretty standard. When someone asks me what I think “as a Jewish person,” I try (and sometimes fail) to not roll my eyes, and then lead off by saying that I don’t speak for “the Jews,” I can only speak for myself. A person, who happens to be Jewish, but whose opinions only represent me, and are not representative of all Jewish people. Just like, yes, that schmoe in the news is a person, who happens to be Jewish – but whose actions speak only for him/her, and are not representative of all Jewish people. In a small town, where the Jews are few – like the rural town where I grew up, and the small Southern city where I live now – it somehow seems both more remote and removed, and yet also all the more personal.
It’s a sound basic strategy, but it doesn’t always stop the questions. Or the cringing.
What’s your response when people ask for your “Jewish opinion” on bad news on fellow Jews?
I saw a post on my Facebook feed yesterday that confused me. The post was from a friend who happens to be a Jewish educator, and this is what she shared:
“Dear JC Penney, I am sorry the rest of the world is so bananas! I think your new kettle looks lovely and it NEVER crossed my mind that it looked like Hitler!!! Seriously people!!!!!”
Clearly, I hadn’t spent enough time on social media this week, since I had no idea what she was talking about. So I Googled “JC Penney Hitler kettle.” I found lots of articles, and the image in question – and I have to say, I agree with my educator friend.
The billboard has been taken down, but Twitter and Reddit and Facebook are all still full of people boiling over, whistling about how offensive this is; Jeffry Cooper, the Mayor of Culver City, CA, where the billboard appeared, issued the following statement: ”As a Jew, I am offended, [and] as an elected official, I am mad that the city I represent is linked to this.”
Really? As a Jew, I’m not offended, and as someone who used to work in advertising, I’m picturing the poor creative director out there somewhere who signed off on the billboard. She’s surely shaking her head and saying “Oy! I never saw Hitler when I looked at it.”
I’m sure she (or he) didn’t – because quite obviously, there was no malice intended here. I seriously doubt there was some subliminal pro-Nazi message embedded in this ad. If anything, for a big ol’ corporation, JC Penney has taken lots of surprisingly inclusive stances. So why are they being put through the ringer for this?
Growing up in the rural Midwest, and living for more than a decade now in the Deep South, I’ve been someone’s “first Jewish friend” on more than one occasion. I’ve come to appreciate but also be wary of over-sensitivity. When people go out of their way to make sure that I’m not offended or excluded, it’s incredibly sweet. What I worry about is when we (in this case, Jews and our protective friends) swing that pendulum a little too far, and get up in arms over something that’s actually harmless. While it is everyone’s job to be as kind and sensitive as possible, it’s also our job to sometimes say “No, no – in this case, it’s really okay! I get it – no offense intended, and no offense taken!!”
Don’t get me wrong; cultural sensitivity is incredibly important. But if we make a mountain out of every mole hill, how will we be taken seriously when we’re trying to fight for what really matters?
What is seen can’t be “un-seen,” as they say, so at this point it’s best that JC Penney took the billboard down. What else could they do? Once the dictator was pointed out and a furor over the alleged resemblance to the Führer went viral, JCP wisely responded by saying buh-bye to the kettle – but you never know when something might backfire: the billboard is down, the item is no longer selling on JC Penney’s website… but the now-infamous “Hitler Kettle” is currently going for $199 on ebay. Oops, y’all.
Do you agree, or disagree? Was this billboard culturally insensitive – or a silly mistake? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
I’d like to preface today’s post by saying that while I *wish* this were some sort of April Fool’s Day joke, it is not.
A friend just sent me this article about a controversial art installation in Germany. In this installation, now informally dubbed “Jew in a Box,” visitors can see, encased in glass, a living person of Jewish descent. They can ask that person questions about what it’s like to be a Jew in Germany, about Jewish beliefs – anything they have ever wanted to ask a Jewish person, they can pose the question to a Jew in a box.
When my friend (who is not Jewish) sent me this article, her email asked me just one question: “How do you feel about this?”
My immediate response to her, after reading the article, was “SO FREAKING WEIRD.”
There is something deeply unsettling to me about this exhibit – this stark presentation of “us” and “them”; a venue where people are literally put in boxes. I read the curator’s rationale, about how this will catch folks’ attention, and be in their face, and give Germans a chance to interact with a real, live Jew.
But is this the sort of interaction we want?
Why not actual interaction? Something more organic, and less disparate? Jewish docents, perhaps? Moderated conversations? An exchange, even if it’s still in-your-face? As an educator, it seems counter-intuitive to me to humanize someone, or some group, by putting an actual wall between people. It seems to me that this does not emphasize unique-ness, but other-ness. And isn’t that the problem Germany is still painfully recovering from, decades later?
I also had to wonder why on earth someone would get in the box. Who would volunteer? Luckily, the article covers this, with a volunteer Jew-in-a-box describing why he is participating in the installation:
“With so few of us, you almost inevitably feel like an exhibition piece,” volunteer Leeor Englander said. “Once you’ve been `outed’ as a Jew, you always have to be the expert and answer all questions regarding anything related to religion, Israel, the Holocaust and so on.”
I considered this. After all, I live in Jackson, Mississippi. I have been several people’s FJF (First Jewish Friend, y’all). I’ve had to answer questions about Jewish culture and religion, although I’m quick to point out that I can’t speak for all Jews. In other words, yes. I do understand what it’s like to feel ‘outed’ as a Jew in a place where we are so few. I do understand what it means to “feel inevitably like an exhibition piece,” as the installation volunteer puts it – but that doesn’t mean I would want to actually be an exhibition piece.
Still – this exhibition is resonating with some folks, even as it irks others. And here’s the real kicker, in case you didn’t already click on the link and read the whole article already – what museum is hosting this exhibit?
The Jewish Museum. And the curator, Miriam Goldmann, is Jewish.
By the way, the actual name of the exhibit is “The Whole Truth: Everything you always wanted to know about Jews,” and in addition to live people in boxes, it includes installation such as a wall posing the question How Can You Recognize a Jew?, with hats and yarmulkes and “traditional Jewish garb” on display in front of the wall.
The whole truth? How can you recognize a Jew? It reminds me of the last time I went to a zoo, and the various species of birds and monkeys were being described. The more I read about it and the more I thought about it, the more my initial reaction seems to sum it up: SO. FREAKING. WEIRD.
And more than that – a little frightening.
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below…