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Friday, December 29, 2006

Re: My Jewish Problem

posted by on December 29 at 9:40 AM

Yesterday Christopher brought up the “hipster” anecdote from my recent story about Seattle’s Jewish Problem. He’s not the first. Ever since that story came out, all my friends (as well as several letter writers and one radio host) have been talking to me about this one particular section of the piece.

Christopher bolded some of the lines and words from the “hipster” section, in which I write about the awkwardness of being introduced as “the Jew” upon arrival at a party, and his boldings aren’t what I would have bolded for readers like him, readers who are my friends. Not that I can control such things, but here’s what I would have bolded for Christopher:

Sometimes, in the right room, in front of the right people, or with good friends, a certain amount of post-Jewish, post-anti-Semitic humor works. There is something liberating about being able to laugh at one’s own identity, especially in the presence of people who don’t share it. But the precondition for this is a shared understanding and respect for the identity that’s being mocked. In Seattle, that precondition is rarely met.

It’s rarely met because Seattle is not the Los Angeles suburbs of Christopher’s youth. Here in Seattle, Jews make up less than one percent of the population. In 1997 in Los Angeles, when Christopher was getting ready to graduate high school with all his Jewish friends, the number of Jews in Christopher’s geographic area was about equal to the entire population of Seattle. Which means that in Los Angeles, there were then (and are now) far more people likely to be ready for post-Jewish, post-anti-Semitic humor than there were (and are now) here in Seattle.

That’s what I was trying to say with the party anecdote.

Christopher is not the “hipster” I was talking about, and neither are any of my other friends who have asked, in different ways, whether they are now, or have ever been, that guy at the party. I’m sorry I didn’t make this more clear in that section, and I’m sorry to get all mushy on the Slog, but attention friends: You people are my friends precisely because you are not that guy at the party and don’t want to be, but are nevertheless willing to make fun of me—even, sometimes, to my face, about my being Jewish, not because you hate Jews, but because you love them enough to laugh fondly at them, and care enough to be careful when doing so.

Christopher brings up the mutability of the word “gay,” which he points out is similar to the word “Jew” in that it can easily morph from a term of derision into a term of endearment, and back again, depending upon the context and the speaker. Same with “fag,” “nigga,” and even, as one of his commenters points out, “chink.”

I don’t think this complicates the point I was trying to make, as Christopher suggests. Rather, I think it makes my point. The point is that context is paramount.

If Christopher were to find himself in a town where gay people made up less than one percent of the population (say, Cheyenne Wells, CO), and he was at some random party (meaning the chances of another homosexual being at this party are less than one percent), Christopher would be unlikely to greet the next party entrant with a hearty “Hey, Faggot!” and he’d be a fool to assume that this statement would be absorbed by everyone around him as some ironic, post-gay comment on the silliness of homophobia and homosexuals alike.

At times, Seattle gatherings can be to Jews what most gatherings in Cheyenne Wells are to gays: Events where the chances of being completely understood by everyone in the room are slim, and therefore events where identity-mocking is going to be problematic, whether well-intended or not, whether well-executed or not.

This is not true at all gatherings in Seattle. This is true at some gatherings in Seattle. Don’t ask me when exactly this is true and when this isn’t true. That’s not my job to figure out. It’s yours.

Back to my vacation. Party on.

And yes, Jewish dudes are super hot.

RSS icon Comments


Also, if you were offended by it, then you're writing from your experience. Christopher might have had a different one in your shoes, but he wasn't.

Posted by Matt Davis | December 29, 2006 9:33 AM

Just to weigh in here, the word "Jew" isn't a slur in any context. Jews refer to ourselves as Jews, and it's fine to call someone a Jew. I find it preferable to "Jewish person." Obviously, if there's hate or derision dripping from your tone of voice, we'll hear it. But please, well-meaning Gentiles- it's ok to call us Jews. No need for embarrassment.

Posted by Misty Brown | December 29, 2006 9:49 AM

this is a great post.

Posted by craig | December 29, 2006 9:55 AM

Great article and follow-ups. Could have been improved with a photo of an actual hot jewish guy though. I think it would have really crystalized the issues for many of us.

Posted by here now | December 29, 2006 10:30 AM

Might it be suggested that these same youthful 'hipsters' are simply lacking in common courtesy and just a little bit of decency?

Whether Mr. Sanders is Jewish ethnically, theologically - or both - it isn't an issue for discussion unless he makes it one.

I was born and raised here, and have worked and lived about the country, so I know it's different; it's not Chicago, L.A., etc. But when I enter a room none of my friends or colleagues introduce me as "The Faggot" or "The Eskimo" or "The Scandinavian" - all of which would be true in a post-gay, post-Aboriginal racist humor kind of way. If I am announced it is by my proper name or, sometimes, by what I do for a living.

As it should be.

Posted by Laurence Ballard | December 29, 2006 10:40 AM

What's the matter with calling someone The Scandinavian? I certainly wouldn't be offended by that, although it would be cumbersome in a city with a substantial number of us.

Posted by keshmeshi | December 29, 2006 11:00 AM

fluffy memoirs.

what people talk about when they have an audience.

Posted by bigger problems are out there | December 29, 2006 11:23 AM

Let me treat this as a question of orthography.

I remember the very first time someone referred to The Jew in my presence (yes, capital "T" and singular noun). It was in a graduate seminar in history at Harvard -- and one graduate student (not Jewish) brought up the issue of The Jew in Reformation Germany. There were two of us who were Jewish in the Seminar and we both rocked forward in our chairs sputtering. In that context it was flat out, unintentionally antisemitic.

The Jew is not a person. She or he is not a particular high school graduate. A specific boyfriend, a date, or a colleague. The Jew is not an individual. The Jew is a category. And categories are all too often stereotypes, caricatures, tangles of preconceived ideas and prejudices (some innocent, some not).

There are jews and Jews and sometimes there is the only Jew (or jew) in the room. But there is never The Jew.

Posted by Jonathan | December 29, 2006 11:31 AM

The only thing I have against the Jews is that they start all the wars in the world.

Posted by Mike in MO | December 29, 2006 11:32 AM

Not much hip in hipster.

Posted by Juliet Balcony | December 29, 2006 12:13 PM

Wait. Eli, was it me?

Posted by SEAN NELSON, EMERITUS | December 29, 2006 1:05 PM

I think the entire process of pointing out the cultural differences of people we hang out with is to convince ourselves we live in the utopian diversity of a college recruitment pamphlet. This hipster was probably just worried that the party would be deemed anti-semetic if they didn't get a Jew up in the place.

Posted by fromohio | December 29, 2006 2:31 PM

Great post. I was actually going ot say "Another beautiful piece from The Jew!" to kind of riff off of your hipster anecdote and Jonathan's post, but none of you know me so I won't.

Anyway, the "jewish guys are hot" thing is completely lost on me.

Jewish women, on the other hand? Yummy.

Posted by Sean | December 29, 2006 10:42 PM

My Jewish question is figuring out whether cloned meat (obviously not pork) is kosher.

Posted by Napoleon XIV | December 30, 2006 12:07 AM

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