My Jewish identity and Connection to Race by Wendy Millstine

I am the grandchild of Russian Jewish immigrants. Thanks to my maternal grandfather’s memoir, I know that he survived the violent anti-Jewish pogroms in Ryzhanovka, County of Zvenigorodka, in the State of Kiev, in Ukraine, and eventually escaped to America. I come from a story of first generation immigrant parents. Their story is in my blood. Their immigrant story influenced and shaped who I am today.

I can’t remember my first awareness of race or racial categories or racism. It likely started when my parents and maternal grandpa spoke of the persecution of Jews throughout history, the Holocaust, and antisemitism. I knew the word oppression from a very young age. Even though I had been raised to know that being Jewish is not a race, it doesn’t feel solely like a religion either. It can feel more like an identity, or belonging to a tribe. Jews come from all over the world—each with their own widely diverse origins, traditions, cultural beliefs and skin colors. With Judaism, you can opt into joining the Jewish faith, but you can’t opt into a racial group. In other words, you can decide to convert to Judaism or join a temple or do other Jewish things but you can’t join a racial group because Jews are not a racial group. 

I do remember having discussions at my temple–probably led by the rabbi or teacher–with other young Jewish teens about how the Nazis viewed Jews as an inferior race. According to Nazi scientists, Germans were the superior “master race” and the Jewish race had specific physical characteristics, which polluted the Aryan race, and thus needed to be exterminated to keep racial purity. I learned about the stereotypes–big noses, sinister dark eyes, big bushy hair, and other egregious features to be reviled. I recall the confusion between learning that Nazis believed that Jews were both lowly creeping vermin while at the same time powerful greedy overlords controlling the world. So even though factually Jews are not a race, the Nazi viewed Jews as a subhuman race, which led to the systemic annihilation, and so the Holocaust was a form of racism.

Today, there are still white supremacists who believes that Jews are racially distinct and inferior. There are far-right groups who see Jews as not part of the white race. In other words, Jews are racialized by some, whether we like it or not.

So my early awareness of race and discrimination comes from the stories and history shared by my family. And through those stories, I remember feeling kinship with others who have experienced persecution or bigotry. When my dad used to introduce me to new neighbors of color or his friends of color, I knew intuitively that I was safe and that we had some kind of historical bond through different (not equal) stories of oppression.

By high school, I understood that enslavement of Black people in American history was an unimaginable oppression that went on for many, many generations. I believe it is by far one of the worst atrocities committed in U.S. history. Racial awareness was a part of my upbringing. I understood clearly by my teens that I had white privileges that others did not.

As an adult in my mid-50s, I identify as “culturally Jewish.” I don’t belong to a temple and I don’t practice my religion, with the exception of lighting of Shabbat candles as a ritual of gratitude on Friday nights when I’m with my mom, and the occasional high holiday or observance of the dead. Passover is still my most favorite and sacred ceremony, since I was a small child. Passover is a holiday that we remember the oppression of all people everywhere throughout time and I see it as a place to renew my commitment to holding myself accountable in systems of oppression and persecution of other marginalized people and communities.

I was taught that what happened to the Jews has also happened to others. I came to learn that we (as Jews) are more powerfully unified in our empathy for our common experiences of intolerance and discrimination with other oppressed people globally, than if we stand alone and isolated by our differences.

I am the child of immigrants. The immigrant story is a familiar one, far and wide. It can unite or divide, depending on what we teach children. Today I use the story of my ancestors to help connect, empathize, and value those shackled with inequity, injustice and oppression. If we don’t want to see the brutalities of history repeat itself, then each of us, in our own way, must find the path to work for the side of peace and justice for all.

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