by Jen Chau
I’m sure that as adults, we can all say that there are things we wish our parents knew about us as we were growing up. Perhaps things that would have made things easier? Or things that would have created more understanding between us? (Disclaimer: ”I wish my parents knew…” is going to be a regular column in which adults will talk about things that they wish their parents had known in raising them. In no way is this meant to be judgmental…I know my parents did everything they did because they loved me and wanted the best for me…100%!…but why not reflect on my experiences, especially if my thoughts can help others? That is what my hope is for this column — that our reminiscing will resonate with others and help to address some of the potential parenting questions that arise around issues race, ethnicity, and identity).
I just recently ranted on Addicted to Race about the phenomenon of co-workers “outing” me every year when the Jewish holidays roll around. A Jewish co-worker who knows I am Jewish tells a new Jewish co-worker who may not know, and the next thing I know, I am explaining “how I’m Jewish” for the rest of the day. If you know me, you know I am pretty tired of this “Ohmygoodnessyou’reJewishnoway?!” game. (btw, for those of you who aren’t familiar with Addicted to Race, it’s a podcast that Carmen and I co-host on….you guessed it, race ). At the end of the day, I know that my colleagues don’t mean anything mean by it. I know that it is really fascination mixed with happiness that I have this thing in common with them, but it doesn’t lessen the annoyance it causes me when I am at work and have tons to do before 6pm.
Anyway, all of my thinking around this phenomenon made me think back to how things were for me when I was younger. As a mixed-race Jewish person, this has been happening all of my life, except back then, it was with classmates instead of co-workers. In general, most never even consider that I could be Jewish because I don’t look like their conception of a Jew. When I was younger, I remember this really bothering me. From the age of six through twelve, I went to Hebrew School and was the lone person in my class who didn’t have two white parents. I looked different, my last name sounded obviously “non-Jewish” and different than the Weinsteins, Rosens, and Cohens, and no one would let me forget it. Of course, as an adult, I can challenge people’s narrow views of who is included in the Jewish community. Jews can look like anyone and they can have any kind of last name. Assumptions shouldn’t be made, because more and more, you will find yourself dead wrong!…But back then, I didn’t have the same strong voice.
I remember Hebrew School being a struggle in my family. My mom really wanted us to go so that we would understand history, culture, holidays, and learn the basics. Me and my two younger brothers would make excuses not to go — we were sick, we were too bogged down with homework, anything. Anything to get out of it. We each went three days per week for the required six years, and even one day off here and there was a relief. Heavy snow days were the best - we would get word that Hebrew School was canceled when we were still in class at our public school. It took all I had not to bust out with a happy song and dance. For “good kids,” we sure were thankless, and acted naughty when it came to the opportunity of attending Hebrew School. I learned years later that one of my brothers would even go into the building long enough to make my mom think he went in, then run out as she drove off, to spend the next two hours at the comic book store around the corner with his one friend (a boy in his class who was black, adopted by a white, Jewish mom).
What was the problem here? It wasn’t that we didn’t want to put in the extra work or the extra studying. It wasn’t that we were opposed to being Jewish or learning about Judaism, and it certainly wasn’t that we just wanted to get started on our homework directly after school. For me, and I think my brothers, the feeling of isolation was bad enough that it was a deterrant. Does any kid want to be someplace where they feel they don’t belong? Where other kids are always teasing with no back-up from the adults in the building? (I specifically remember this girl who bullied me. She was at least two feet taller than me and would sit in back of me, kick my chair all through the two hours, and call me Chicken Chow Mein…and don’t even get me started on the Rabbi. ) Even though I was determined to stick it out until I was Bat Mitzvahed, it was a miserable experience. Not trying to be dramatic here, it was just truthfully a bad experience.
As adults, my brothers, my mom and I have talked about Hebrew School. It was so interesting to me that my mother thought that we were just being lazy or stubborn and didn’t want to go for no good reason. When I explained that it was hard to be there because we were basically discriminated against on a regular basis, she was shocked. She had no idea. And why was this? Well, we didn’t tell her. No questions were asked about it, but we also didn’t say anything. I can say that as an eight year old, I personally felt ashamed and thought that there was something wrong with me — that everyone was teasing me for a reason, and that it was my fault.
Obviously, growing up in the early 80s was a very different time. There were less resources and less families like my own than there are today. I think that my parents did the best they could at a time when no one around even had language to talk about my mixed-race experience. Perhaps if my family had had an open and honest discussion about how the school was for all of us, it may have come out. I have written about this before, and have promoted the idea of asking children questions and having discussions, even if things appear to be okay, or if you think you already understand them completely. Chances are there are things that may still be unknown to you. In my mind, if you already have honest, open communication with your children, you’re golden. I think that’s the most important thing you could ever do. That way, instead of masking problems as something else, your children will come directly to you. OR you will be able to really figure out what is at the bottom of the emotions your child is displaying, even if they don’t communicate the problem initially.
I wish my parents knew that my resistance and complaining about Hebrew School was in response to the exclusion I felt when I was there.