Jewish& is a blog by Be’chol Lashon, which gives voice to the racial, ethnic and cultural diversity of Jewish identity and experience. The original multicultural people, Jews have lived around the world for millennia. Today, with globalism and inclusion so key in making choices about engaging in Jewish life,Jewish& provides a forum for personal reflection, discussion, and debate.
I remember the exact moment when I realized I’d never be the Jewish James Bond.
It was right after our son was born four years ago. We were still in my wife’s hospital room, and I thought to myself: “well, there goes the globe-trotting, the international intrigue, the fast cars, and the faster women.”
Instead it was diapers, daycare, and, now — four years later — answering the question “why?” 14 jillion times a day.
It was a bittersweet moment. Still, I have no regrets. Yes, it’s true, moviegoers will not get to see me defeat the evil villain with my AnxietyGuntm (yes, I trademarked that, because you never know), or speed-walk my way through a crowd of pedestrians (not for any reason other than just generally being anxious), or go to my favorite watering hole and order a “double-espresso, not shaken and not stirred, and for Pete’s sake not allowed to cool down to room temperature”). On the other hand, I’m a dad of an awesome 4-year-old, who right this very moment is pretending to sleep because he thinks I haven’t seen that trick before.
Along the way, a lot of changes have happened in our life. The bags under my eyes are now big enough that I can no longer stow them in the overheard compartment on the plane. As well, my wife and I are no longer what you’d call “vibrant” individuals. We’re more like what you’d expect if potted plants could be nervous about paying bills – sort of boring and anxious all at the same time. And, let’s not forget that I began my podcast – Multiracial Family Man – to talk about the issues that our family and others like us were encountering.
Yes, we’re a multiracial Jewish family, which is not as unusual as it seems unless, like so many Ashkenazic Jewish people, you think Jewish people only come in one flavor, “White Neurotic.”
People found our family blend fascinating. So fascinating that I felt compelled to talk about it onstage in my comedy act and to write about it for magazines and blogs. The more I did, the more I thought it would be fascinating to talk with others like us and examine their experiences.
Hence a podcast was born. My podcast, on which I interview people with some connection to the “multiracial experience” to talk about issues of concern to multiracial people and multiracial families.
When I started the podcast, I didn’t know what to expect. I know what I hoped – that 10 bazillion people would subscribe, and I’d be richer, better known, and more ubiquitous than Donald Trump.
As is so often the case, life held surprises. Hence the Donald is a leading candidate for the presidency, and I remain safely ensconced in anonymity, with my slightly less than bazillions of listeners.
But, despite my frustrated hopes, I also learned some things along the way.
First, I learned that interviewing people is difficult. My podcast consists of hour-long interviews. I figured that would be easy. Just call someone, ask them questions, and they answer. How hard could that be? I thought. Anyone who’s talked on the phone can do that.
Turns out, it’s a little trickier than that. I learned very quickly that conducting a good interview — like so much of life — is about asking the right question. As a Jewish person who’s participated in my share of Passover seders I should have known that.
I also found out that interviewing isn’t a passive exercise. You don’t just ask questions and sit back and listen. Rather, you’re taking the interviewee down a path, teasing out certain information, getting them to expand on other information and perhaps glossing over things that are not essential to the narrative. Like a film director making a movie with someone else’s script and another person’s acting, you very much are at the helm of how the story gets told.
And that’s a big responsibility. You owe it to the interviewee to let them tell the story unfiltered by your own biases. But you also owe it to the audience that the story be told with pace and with a narrative arc that is compelling and is not just a laundry list of the events of someone’s life being regurgitated: “and then . . . . and then . . . and then . . . .”
This reminds me of our rabbinic traditions and why those traditions have proven so successful over the eons. Rabbis don’t just lecture. Rabbi A doesn’t just go up to the bimah (the stage from which synagogue services are conducted) or head of the yeshiva (place of Jewish study) and say “and today Rabbi B will lecture us on Leviticus.” No, just the opposite, the study of Torah – the heart of Judaism – is about Talmudic discourse: rabbis asking pointed questions that beget thoughtful answers that in turn beget heated and spirited debate. The result of which is that the students (the audience) learn more, are more engaged, and are far more apt to turn around and teach succeeding generations. Does the Torah have lists? You bet. But, there’s a reason why so much of it is a story and there’s a reason why it’s taught the way it’s taught through question and answer rather than through rote memorization.
But, I didn’t just learn about process. No, indeed. Given the nature of my podcast, I learned quite a bit about the multiracial experience, which I have to admit was somewhat surprising. I thought I knew a lot. My wife is Black and converted to Judaism. Our 4-year-old son is biracial. Through my wife and our son and my in-laws as well as through reading books about race and racism, I thought I had some insight and understanding into race. And, I do. But, it was not at all complete. The old adage that you can’t really understand someone till you stand in their shoes is true.
But, I can’t actually do that. I interview people from afar and can’t actually stand in their shoes. Even if I could, I can’t live my life as a person of color. But in interviewing people, asking questions that caused them to dig deep and reveal much, and really listening to the answers, I learned a great deal, more than I ever thought I would.
I learned that seemingly innocuous questions can cause great and lasting pain. Without exception, every multiracial person I’ve interviewed has responded that one of the things they’ve encountered most and like the least is the question: “What are you?” We know why people ask – they’re curious. Also, people don’t like ambiguity. They like things to fit into a box, and multiracial people don’t fit in a box. So when asked this question, they are reminded that they don’t have one neat category into which they can dropped, that they are different, that they are – as the “Sesame Street” song goes – “one of these things that’s not like the others.” How could that not be painful? Indeed, it’s such a pain-causing question that grown-ups can remember being asked this as a child.
On a related note, I learned that multiracial people generally, though not always, find themselves in a veritable racial “no-man’s land” where they fit in everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Again, it’s not a universal, but I’ve heard it often enough to believe that more often than not, multiracial people feel welcomed and shunned simultaneously.
Finally, and, perhaps most importantly, what I’ve come to understand about race and racism is that when talking about the multiracial experience, you simply cannot understand what any one person’s experience has been like if you remain focused on generalities. Yes, there are some experiences that many (if not most) multiracial people have had. But, having interviewed the number of people that I have, what I’ve realized is that one’s experience when it comes to race is a uniquely individualized experience dependent on myriad variables. Thus, if you could clone Lenny Kravitz and then raise the two clones in distinct environments, it’s not clear that they would at all have the same experience when it comes to race (much less whether both would be talented musicians).
Perhaps this is not such an earth-shattering revelation. How else could we understand an individual except by looking at their individual life? Yet, while that is seemingly self-evident, what is equally evident is how often in this country we talk about races of people as a massive, indistinguishable bloc, in which the individuals are fungible and their individuality is reduced to irrelevancy. We watch current events relating to race and ask “why are they doing that?” It’s the wrong question. If you’re going to understand why “they” do anything, you have to understand who they are – one at a time.
So, that’s some of what I learned. And, I keep learning more with each episode of the podcast. Mostly, though, what I learn is how much I still have to learn. And, knowing how much I don’t know and need to learn is an inspiring and exciting thought that keeps me moving on this journey. I hope that you’ll join me.
Oh, and for what it’s worth, even if I can’t be the Jewish James Bond, I hope they give Idris Elba a shot at playing the real 007.