(This letter originally appeared in my Mixed and Matched column in the J-weekly on April 14, 2021)
Dear Dawn, I am from an interfaith family; my dad isn’t Jewish. I was raised and identify as Orthodox. Jews assume that it must be OK to criticize Orthodox Jews to my face. When they realize they are insulting me, they amend their comments with, “but not you.” This happens in Jewish places like synagogues, JCCs, Federation, etc. Jews feel free to insult and disdain the Orthodox. I’m so tired of this. What can I say to get them to stop?
Dear Tired: I am very sorry for the treatment you have received from your fellow Jews. Sadly, you are experiencing an accepted prejudice in our so-called diversity-embracing, Bay Area community.
I wish there were some magic words I could give you to change others, but there are none.
What you can do is prepare yourself for these encounters and be ready to respond. The question is: What are you comfortable doing and saying? Let’s look at some options.
If you are comfortable with conflict and feeling angry, you have every right to say, “You are talking about people I know and love. You are talking about me. Saying ‘not you’ does not take away your intention to insult the kind of person I am.”
If you are sick of these encounters, you have a right to simply walk away — with or without an eye roll.
Should you want to appeal to Jewish tradition, you can reference sinat chinam, Hebrew for baseless hatred.
Whenever we Jews instigate hatred against other Jews, we are guilty of sinat chinam. It is like racism and antisemitism, because it is hatred of someone who is not like you and not the way you think people should be.
You could suggest that they get to know Orthodox Jews and begin to see them as individuals instead of a faceless mass of misguided or foolish people. Point out the absurdity of the idea that only a few people from a huge group are the “good ones.” I concede that this may not work; I tried to do this with a Conservative Jewish woman, and she said she does have Orthodox friends, “but they are good ones.”
These speakers, in expressing anger about the Orthodox control over Judaism — around issues such as equality for women, patrilineal inclusion, interfaith relationships, etc. — are the very people assigning that power to them. These complainers lack the confidence to say, “My Judaism is equally valid.” Others must be wrong in order for them to be right. Ask the individual: “Why do you need all Jews to be in agreement with you?”
What about diversity? If your speakers truly embrace it, then they should be pleased that there are all kinds of Jews. You could ask: “Do you really want all Jews to be the same? Doesn’t our variety delight you?”
Some are afraid that the Orthodox in the U.S. are too visible and will be seen by the larger Christian country in negative ways. These folks are fearful that the practices of these visible Jews will draw violence or condemnation on all Jews, including themselves. Suggest to these folks that they imagine themselves to be Korean and fearful of being targeted by Asian haters who hold racist views of the Chinese. Is shrinking from view really a solution?
No. We can clearly see that racial and ethnic hatred must be addressed.
Then there is always your father. You told me he is quite content living as a non-Jew in the Orthodox community. Maybe the people judging you should attempt to be as open as your dad.
I want to acknowledge that all of these suggestions require that you engage with these individuals. Perhaps you’ve “had it” and don’t want to discuss this anymore. Feel free to say, “I am going to stop you right there. I don’t want to hear your insults to me and my community.” And if they persist, you may want to end the relationship and distance yourself from them.
Finally, I want to again say that I am sorry that there are rude individuals who have no qualms about being cruel to you. Please know that you are not alone. There are many of us who are hurt and angered by this intolerance in our community. If someone won’t stop for the simple reason that they are hurting you, they probably aren’t worth your time.