by Jen Chau
One of my arms is a lot longer than the other. It's not visible though. You won't see me fidgeting and pulling my green-knit sweater sleeve so that it covers the wrist of my long arm. It doesn't drag down to my knees. It doesn't get in the way or help me to reach the things that my other arm can't get to. It's not even something that I noticed until recently. My long arm is long because it has been reaching back back back to 10 years ago. 12. Maybe even 20. My time-traveling arm has been stretched from holding onto the past.
The other night, I spoke on a panel at the Jewish Theological Seminary about intermarriage. This was not the first time I have spoken on the subject, but the first time in a long time. I have been asked to speak on my experiences as an Asian and Jewish woman many, many times since graduating from college and becoming a community activist, a little over ten years ago. I stepped away a few years ago from burn-out. I was telling my "heart-breaking story" over and over and feeling like it wasn't having much of an impact (I know that this is not true because I have reached some people, but I wasn't sure if my efforts were matching the outcomes).
Telling people about the discrimination and exclusion I have faced within the Jewish community...well, it has made me feel a host of emotions depending on where I have been in my life.
When I first started to share my experiences as a speaker, right after college, it made me feel hopeful. I was speaking out about the elephant in the middle of the room. Even though Jews are diverse, there are a lot of pockets within the Jewish community that are racist and homophobic. This is true, but somehow we were having a hard time acknowledging this and dealing with it. I felt that my voice was creating space for an important discussion.
Well, I spoke and spoke and spoke. I thought I was tapping into something. But then I saw that I was having the same conversation over and over and that nothing was moving, shifting, changing. And maybe this was right - maybe this was a process of initiating the conversation with many different people and synogogues and Jewish leaders. Maybe I couldn't yet expect any change because the conversation was still just starting. Maybe. But I was tired.
I was speaking at conferences, workshops, on panels...and it was like de ja vu each time. I knew which of my stories were going to elicit gasps, which ones were going to get claps of approval, and I knew that there were going to be some people who shed tears, shook their heads in awe, and pounded their fists in anger. I knew what was going to happen before it happened. I knew that there would be a buzzing energy in the room and that it would soon die once the evening's program was over and everyone went home. I became disheartened and thought that there must be a better way.
My story had gotten me into many different rooms, but I needed to be a part of the action in order to feel that I was really helping to build solutions. That's when I got involved in a couple of different committees and organizations devoted to dealing ("dealing") with the diversity of Judaism. There is a focusing on diversity for the sake of doing the right thing. And then there is a focusing on diversity because you can't not do it. It's a part of your values as a person or organization. Let me tell you - anyone with a good gut can tell the difference. And I could. I saw that the groups I was involved with - while the members were extremely committed and had a personal connection to diversity work - the leadership was paying attention to diversity so that they could say that they were paying attention to diversity. This falls flat.
I was pissed off. One of the groups added "diversity programming" to their organization's calendar of programs. But it flailed because it was always marginalized. Diversity was not a thread that ran through the organization's larger work. It was a nice thing that they did here and there. The Jews of color who were in the committee eventually tired of this. It felt like we were a colorful circus that came to town a few times a year - sure, we were met with excitement, but it was in a very us versus them sort of way. We were a spectacle. People liked to come to see our events because it made them feel good about themselves. Cultured. Open.
The other group I was a part of also eventually pissed me off for the same reasons. It claimed to hold diversity as hugely important, and then made the Jews of color feel unwelcomed, like we were not to be trusted. I realized how much unspoken and unchecked racism there was in the Jewish community. And I wasn't sure if it was my fight. I was simultaneously working full-time and trying to run Swirl and I decided I needed a break from the Jewish community. I also felt that it might need a break from me. :)
I also started to contemplate whether this was how I should be relating to my Jewish culture (my family is not religious, but many of the traditions that we observed were and continue to be important to me). Given my negative experiences growing up in a Conservative temple, I had distanced myself and then came back to Judaism as an activist and a speaker. But how was I relating to it all on a personal level? I wasn't. I felt disconnected from the community. I was working for the betterment of it but didn't actually feel a part of it. I was a poster girl (and I'm not kidding - I was actually surprised to visit a Jewish organization and to see a big poster-sized picture of my face in the reception area. Reppin' diversity all the way!).
Since I was so angry and busy, I decided to take a step back and to reflect on my involvement. That stepping back lasted for years and has only recently been broken. Speaking to the group of rabbinical students the other night - on a panel about interfaith marriage - made me realize that my long arm has started to let go of the past. I remember leaving similar conversations and being frustrated that we didn't get anywhere (from my point of view of course). I would be angry that the same conversation was happening. But as I walked away in the brisk night air this time, this time felt different. I felt lighter.
The conversation itself was not strikingly different than any of the conversations of which I was a part ten years ago. And typically, this would enrage me. Where's the progress? Okay, admittedly, I think I'm growing up a little. I still have that fire, but I think I have a better sense of where to direct it now. I'm less likely to get angry at others for being where they are. Today, I am happier to take the approach of realistically seeing people and where they are and working from that...without judgment that they should be farther along or in a different place. That's not really fair and doesn't get us anywhere. It puts walls up and makes it hard to see what specific steps are actually needed to move the conversation and work along. The problem of racism in the Jewish community is a big one and one that will take many people and many resources to change. I am more realistic that it's not going to take ONE conversation to magically dissolve racism from the Jewish community. I know that we have to approach it systemically and structurally (as with racism in general).
Most importantly, I think that my new lightness has come from forgiveness. Forgiveness for my childhood rabbi who mistreated me and my family because my father is Chinese and my brothers and I are mixed. Forgiveness that none of the adults involved were able to explain to me what was happening - that I was left to sort through the complexity of the situation with my 12 year old mind, alone. Forgiveness that the larger Jewish community is currently limited in how it sees diversity, embraces diversity, understands diversity, and leads diversity. I can see now that people have always done their best and will continue to do their best. This doesn't mean that I stop trying. It just means that I don't waste as much time being angry about the limitations and instead use that energy in more productive ways. ;)
I realize that my long arm has loosened its grip on the past. Blood starting to return'to tired whitened knuckles, so used to gripping hard to past gripes. Little moon-shaped indentations fading from my palm where my nails had gotten so used to digging in. I'm letting go of people from my past who have hurt me. My long arm is starting to shorten and retract. It is beginning to match my other, very much in the present and able to use its hand to feel what's right here. Right in front of me. Today.