I’ve never experienced antisemitism. I’ve never experienced racism. Maybe the reason is that I’m white, I speak with a British accent and when my hair’s cut short enough, it eliminates my thick black wavy hair – well it used to be thick and black but lately it’s getting a little thin and grey. I don’t have any typical characteristics that might identify me as Jewish.
Growing up in England in the 1970s, my friends at school thought I might be Italian – there was a kid in my class who had an Italian dad. This kid had hair that looked a little like mine. It was a logical assumption from my classmates that I was therefore Italian as well. They didn’t know any Jews; I was the only one in both the schools I attended through my first 15 years.
My teachers who knew I was Jewish were respectful. If they harbored any negative feelings towards Jews in general, they kept those thoughts to themselves. As long as you conformed to the well-established English norms, as long as you didn’t stick out as different, you were fine, you were accepted and could live your life free of curious stares and the potential for discrimination. In provincial England, devoid of any meaningful Jewish presence, you can practice your Judaism in the safety of the synagogue or in your home to your heart’s content, but not in public. This was my experience growing up in 1970s England.
Since then I’ve lived in many countries and always managed to escape being categorized as Jewish. I’ve never been subjected to the racial slurs, the threats and even the violence that so many of the members of my faith have been. Even while living in Paris, France for several years – which by all accounts is considered one of the more dangerous places in western Europe for Jews to publicly display their religion – I managed to escape any discrimination.
I came to America because I felt that you can be who you want to be without being judged. Isn’t that the premise of the American dream that attracted so many people from so many places where they were subjected to discrimination? My overly naïve assumption was that there was an equal and respected place for everyone in America. For Jews, for Catholics, for Muslims, for blacks, for Asians for Latinos – everyone could be who they want to be without discrimination. Call me naïve now, but I believed that this was the great successful American experiment – a nation of immigrants where everyone is respected for who they are.
While I certainly would not define myself as an observant Jew (I used to be in another life), I am steeped in the Jewish traditions. I practice them, I celebrate the Jewish holidays, I attend synagogue sometimes and even chant from the Torah on occasion.
Growing up in provincial England as the only Jewish family in our town, my parents instilled a love of all things Judaism in all their children. We practiced our Jewish faith in the house and in the synagogue. We all had our bar and bat mitzvahs. The three boys of the family even were sent to Israel to study when our parents felt that we needed a deeper Jewish education that could not be acquired locally. I actually have a suspicion that in fact the reason we were shipped off to boarding school in Israel might have been something to do with the girlfriends we were choosing from the local selection of girls – but that was never confirmed.
Fast forward quite a few decades later and following struggles to find my one true soul mate from the pool of nice Jewish girls that my mom would have approved of, I find myself married to the love of my life, my soul mate, and one amazing woman.
My wife is Korean. My wife is a Protestant Christian, a United Methodist Pastor and the lead clergy at an important church in Los Angeles. She is in fact the opposite of everything that I was brought up to believe was the ideal woman for me.
Not even mentioning the cultural differences between a Korean and an English/ Israeli/ American guy, how could a traditional Jewish guy who is proud of his heritage and his religion co-exist with a UMC pastor who leads her congregation in the love of Christ? This is the subject of another post, probably much more fascinating than this one.
In short, we have established a unique relationship that is based upon love for each other, trust, mutual respect, an open mind and understanding. We work hard to understand each other and make our lives work together. We are a team with the same goals!
We do travel a lot. Travel provides us with shared experiences that help us grow as a couple. Long road trips provide us with ample time to chat endlessly about our beliefs, the world we live in and what we want from our future together.
Initially, I was surprised when my wife would speak about experiencing discrimination as an Asian American. She would tell me stories of how she had been discriminated against in a restaurant or in meetings with members of her church or colleagues of hers. The silent mistreatment, the looks of – you are not worthy. My initial thoughts almost automatically went to a place where I believed that what she was telling me was probably in her head, she might be oversensitive or imagining things that weren’t actually happening.
We as Jews know discrimination – not me personally, but we as a Jewish collective know discrimination it is part of our shared experience of being Jewish. We have all lived the Holocaust. How could anything she experiences be compared to our thousands of years of suffering? I was initially and ignorantly dismissive of her feelings.
Recently we decided to take a road trip to see the national parks in Utah. Amazing places such as Zion, Bryce, Arches, Canyon Lands. Our thought was that we’re not getting any younger – lets hike these amazing places while we still can.
We found an Airbnb in a small town, not too far from one of the national parks where we would stay for several nights. We made a reservation for one of the local restaurants. Not a special restaurant – this is rural Utah, there’s really not a lot out there.
We arrived to a mostly empty restaurant. Eventually we were led by the hostess to an outside area where it was very hot and windy. We told her that we wanted to be inside. She showed us to a chair at the bar right by the door. We were not interested in sitting at the bar either. The hostess told us that there were no other seats available in the restaurant and that they were all reserved. My wife shot back that we have a reservation. Her response was, “yes you do, but those tables are reserved for other people.” My wife was having none of this and continued to argue that we had made a reservation, there is an empty restaurant, and we want to be seated. The hostess eventually gave in and seated us in the main area of the restaurant.
None of this was overt racism but it does leave you wondering if the hostess’ consideration of where to seat patrons is based upon race.
What happened next was overt and unmistakable. As we sat down, my wife commented that a group of men sitting at a table opposite us were staring at her and she felt uncomfortable. I looked up and immediately understood. They were turning around, staring at us and making comments to each other that left no doubt as to their opinions of us. I noticed that one of the people at the table got up and went to the hostess and had angry words with her while looking in our direction. Throughout dinner this continued nonstop. They would turn around and stare at us as if to make us uncomfortable, as if we were animals in a zoo .
The next night we went to another restaurant in the same area. Once again, we were subjected to the same seating arrangements. An empty restaurant but we were shown to a table outside which we were not interested in.
A white man came in with an Asian wife. They were seated in the entrance at a big table. The man got very angry and was eventually moved to a table for two in a “more exclusive” area. An Asian family came into the restaurant they were seated outside where there was already another Asian family.
I felt angry, hurt, and guilty that I had ever doubted my wife’s feelings of discrimination. I felt many emotions but mostly I was sad. I was sad for the knowledge that with my total indulgence in my own shared Jewish experiences of discrimination I had not even recognized that my own wife was suffering much worse than I ever had. I was sad that the American dream that you can be who you want to be, is in effect dead already. Intolerance and hate are alive and well in the heartland of America.
My wife, who was born in Seoul, Korea is by nature non-confrontational. After arriving in the US at age 14, her family settled in Honolulu, Hawaii. Later they migrated to Seattle where her parents, sister and brother still live. When asked where she’s from, she always replies Hawaii.
After the incident at the restaurant, I told her that she’s American and if anyone asks her where she’s from she should be proud of the fact that she’s American. She should make no apologies for who she is.
We stopped at a coffee shop somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Utah. A man with a thick eastern European accent, behind the counter asked her, “where are you from?” She answered hesitantly, “America, … I’m American.” He replied, “no, you’re Chinese. Are you from China?” “No”, she replied with a firmness in her tone, “I’m an American from Hawaii.” “Ahhh Hawaii,” he replied and immediately changed directions, “Biden is responsible for the war in Ukraine. Trump would have made peace with Putin and no one would be dead – Biden is a murderer.”
Welcome to the REAL America – this is not your California la-la land
Whether we like it or not, we are already living in an alternate vision of America. Not the America I naively believed in. It is a conservative, an openly racist America where in rural communities minorities are openly discriminated against. As one local person responded to me after asking where I’m from, “Welcome to the REAL America – this is not your California la-la land”. No, it most certainly is not! It is also not what my America stands for either.
I am guilty of dismissing my wife’s feelings of discrimination. I am guilty of comparing her discrimination to that of my people. Discrimination against one minority is discrimination against all people. I have no doubt that had the people in the restaurant known that I am Jewish we would have experienced no less discrimination and probably much more.
All I can do is support my wife in all she does, try to protect her from discrimination and be there for her as she is there for me every day. Most importantly, if we have learnt anything from our shared experiences, it is to not be silent in the face of hate and to call it out wherever it exists.