Years ago, one of my high school teachers gave us a hint to help us spell the word “privilege” correctly. She said that it was a privilege, to have two eyes and a leg and the word itself has two “I”s and the word “leg” contained within it. That’s a simple definition of the word, as well as a spelling reminder: not everyone has a whole and healthy body and therefore not everyone has the benefits associated with health. Privilege can seem basic, but it still shouldn’t be taken for granted.
This weekend, there was a lot of discussion about Tal Fortgang’s article, “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege,” in The Princeton Tory.
Tal, a freshman at Princeton University, shared his legacy—a legacy shared by many Jews—of anti-Semitism, persecution and survival.
His point: while he is privileged to have benefited from the support of his ancestors, he is not going to apologize for this privilege because it was the outcome of the sacrifices made by them and on the basis of their “formidable character.”
There is so much that is problematic in his article, which has been both praised and heavily criticized. Not all privilege can be earned simply on the basis of “formidable character.” Reflecting on the spelling lesson, for instance – having the privilege of health is not correlated with formidable character. Similarly, for those Jews who are White, the color of their skin is not a reflection of their hard work. Yet, it is undeniable that sadly, at this point in time, there are benefits that are associated with Whiteness that have nothing to do with character and at the same time, there are White people and people of all races who work very hard and have great character.
But it is the last line of his piece that is particularly striking. “I have checked my privilege. And, I apologize for nothing.”
My response: “Who asked you to apologize?”
Asking someone to check their privilege doesn’t necessitate that the person apologize for having privilege. Instead, it is asking one to be aware that not everyone shares that privilege and therefore it might be worthwhile to find ways in which people who don’t share that same privilege can experience some of the benefits associated with the privilege. In other words, recognize that you have something others do not have.
Why is that so much to ask? The consequences of reflecting upon your privilege only helps a person appreciate the challenges others face to achieve similar benefits and find opportunities to minimize some of the barriers that make these benefits less accessible to people who do not share some of the privileges we have.
I believe that Judaism, the legacy Tal and I share, teaches empathy. We can learn empathy from Jewish liturgy, from Jewish history and from present day Jewish experiences. The Jewish story teaches us what happens when people don’t “check their privilege.” For many of those who persecuted Jews, they were privileged in the sense that they were a part of a majority and the Jews were a less privileged minority. Would persecution have been impacted if these majorities “checked their privilege?” I don’t have the answer to that question. But, I would argue that it is critical to empathize with people who do not share the privileges we have. As people who have seen the consequences of a privileged majority and oppressed minorities, I will posit that part of our legacy is to constantly check our privilege, to ensure that we handle it responsibly.
Maybe it could even be thought of as a modern mitzvah. Not simply a good deed, but literally an obligation.
In conclusion, may I suggest an alternative ending to an opinion piece on this topic?
I am thankful for the many privileges I have, among them, good health and a legacy of empathy and survival. I wish that everyone could say the same and I hope that I continue to check my privilege.
What do you think?
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Below, Michele Schipper explains why she lets her kids trick-or-treat. To hear from another Jewish mom with a different perspective, check out “Why I Don’t Let My Kids Trick-or-Treat.”
What happens when we post a photo, in October, of an Education Fellow reading some students a book about witches, while wearing a witch hat? An immediate assumption by many that the religious school students are celebrating Halloween – followed by a lot of strong opinions shared on Facebook!
First, to explain the picture: The Education Fellow was reading a story from Yiddish folklore, The Rabbi and the 29 Witches by Marilyn Hirsh. It’s a wonderful children’s story, and as the synopsis describes: “Once a month, when the moon is full, twenty-nine of the meanest, scariest, ugliest, wickedest witches that ever lived come out of their cave to terrify the villagers . . . until one day the wise rabbi invents a plan to rid his village of those wicked witches forever. The rabbi’s clever plan works–with hilarious results!”
The book has nothing to do with Halloween – and had we posted this photo of the Education Fellow reading this book in January (which we easily could have, as they share this story on the road throughout the year!), I don’t think anyone would have had Halloween on their mind. But even still, the wide range of reactions to the photo was surprising; especially how many negative responses were shared. Several of us began thinking about Judaism, the celebration of Halloween and our own personal practices.
Despite Halloween’s religious origins, most Americans consider Halloween to be a national tradition, without the attachment of any real religious meaning. Many American Jews have adopted this tradition as their own with the understanding that the holiday has become wholly secular. Although I know that Purim is indeed the Jewish holiday where you get to “dress up,” I grew up and experienced both Halloween and Purim, and my children have gotten that same experience. My sister, whose birthday is October 30, had at least 1 Halloween themed birthday party.
I also remember when I was about 8 years old, I was sick during Halloween and couldn’t go trick or treating with my friends and family, so my Southern Jewish mother let me “trick or treat” in the house, knocking on all of my family member’s bedroom doors, so they would give me candy and I wouldn’t feel that I had missed out…
That important feeling of being included, of not missing out and being part of the larger community, is important to us. My husband and I have enjoyed “fall festival” activities with our kids; going to the pumpkin patch, carving pumpkins, deciding on costumes– and of course, my husband is famous (infamous) for laying claim to his favorite candy from the trick or treating “loot”. I don’t worry that my kids are confused. They are now almost all teenagers, and do not seem to have suffered any adverse effects, and neither have I. Halloween did no damage to our Jewish identity.
So I say, enjoy Halloween – and make sure you’re the house that gives out the good candy.
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…