Whatever you are, it always turns out to be the wrong kind.
––Saul Bellow, Seize the Day (1956)
The essay below is the third part of a series and is most profitably read in sequence after parts one and two — comprising a kind of memoir that participates in a literary genre that has become obscured: a feuilleton, a form of occasional literary journalism that arose in French newspapers and became a staple of Russian authors like Dostoevsky and Yiddish ones like Sholem Aleichem. David Stromberg and I are both, among other things, students of Dostoevsky. And under Dostoevsky’s pen the Eastern European feuilleton became a form of short nonfiction in which a dreamer-narrator tests his dreams against contemporary reality. This is the impetus for a long series of anti-heroes– — the Underground Man, Raskolnikov, and, perhaps most importantly, Prince Myshkin of The Idiot — whom Dostoevsky called his favorite hero. These characters cast their strange notions and feelings into an outside world that had no idea what to do with them. In this way, the urbane flâneur of the French feuilleton became the holy fool of the Russian feleton — and in all three essays here, he is reincarnated as Stromberg’s political naif, who turns the genre into what I’d call, with as much deliberate awkwardness as possible, the American feel-a-thon. We ignore political feelings at our peril, for when left to languish in the unconscious twilight, they return to us as raging ghosts and ragged furies. — Val Vinokur
It’s a confusing year when you find the Anti-Defamation League calling out both Rashida Tlaib and Donald Trump for using the same anti-Semitic trope. In terms of political power, there is no parity between Tlaib and Trump, and while some in the press have defended Trump and his positions, others have defended Tlaib. It’s the condemnations, though, that stand out: with the ADL expressly issuing a statement on the dangers of Trump’s invoking anti-Semitism in his divisive politics, and the rabbi who spoke at the presidential inauguration disagreeing with statements made by the reality-show-host-turned-reality-show-president — along with many other Jewish groups in America. Tlaib, too, has been criticized by members of her political party, as have her links to organizations with documented anti-Semitic bias — and even those who criticized Trump’s rhetoric against Tlaib alluded to her own rhetoric as problematic. What strikes me about this tangle of positions is the degree to which both sides of the political spectrum — majority and minority powers, big money politics and grassroots movements — invoke anti-Semitic tropes to gain attention from their audiences. This, to me, is more than scary. It’s a fait accompli.
Anti-Semitism is infamously hard to define – even for Jews. But as a Jew born in Israel to parents who emigrated from the Soviet Union, a kid who immigrated to the barrios of Los Angeles and got bussed to the predominantly light-skinned Valley for high school, a college student who encountered majority American culture at UCLA — as someone who has experienced vastly different cultures and perspectives — I think I have some sense of what anti-Semitism feels like. And this feeling of anti-Semitism is rooted not in political definitions but in experiences.
The first time I remember being negatively singled out for being Jewish was at 32nd St. Middle School, when one kid gave me the nickname of Jewish Nazi. This kid, who was himself not part of America’s majority culture, wasn’t even trying to be mean. He was simply confused. You see, my dad, who cut my hair at home to save money, had given me a buzz cut. This kid knew I was from Israel, which, I suppose, he figured made me Jewish. He also knew that Jews had something to do with Nazis. And he knew that some Nazis were Skinheads. And that’s how, to him, I became a Jewish Nazi.
I came home and told my dad I no longer wanted to have my head shaved. I wanted to go to a barber to get a fade. He said he’d do the fade himself — but it ended up as a fat mohawk. I couldn’t go to school that way so he shaved my head again — and, when my hair grew out, I insisted he give me the eight dollars I needed to get a real haircut.
This might sound like an unfortunate but singular event, a random act of bullying, yet its effects were anything but random. Having gotten into six fights in the first year of middle school, I tacitly accepted that I couldn’t stand alone in defending my difference — as different from the light-skinned kids bussed into the inner city as from the dark-skinned kids from down the block — and I opted to adapt to the culture around me. I accentuated my ethnic features to look like those around me and took on their values and prejudices. I abandoned my identity to survive because, in the neighborhoods where I grew up, unwanted attention was not just unpleasant. It was dangerous.
People who haven’t grown up with the specter of violence can’t really understand the full significance of this sentence. But I can testify from this and other experiences — and from what I learned with time — that when being a Jew feels like a liability, this is one of the best indicators of the feeling of anti-Semitism. One may argue that what I experienced was not anti-Semitism per se but rather general xenophobia or another kind of racial prejudice common among children. Except that the terms in which I was singled out were those that connect to deep-seated anti-Semitic tropes in which Jews are blamed for the deeds of their enemies or else identified with them. I didn’t even know the term anti-Semitism at the time. But I was already experiencing its effects.
I can’t say when I actually first learned the term “anti-Semitism,” but I know that more than a decade passed before I started to think seriously about its historical implications in America. I remember, especially, an afternoon in the fall of 2004, when I sat with a friend, Lana, at Cafe Tropical, just down the street from where I grew up. I had “made it out” of my neighborhood — and in the meantime it had gone through a rapid process of gentrification, filling the streets on which I grew up with the kinds of people I’d never known growing up. I’d been away that summer on my first-ever trip to Russia, the native land of my mother’s first language, and also visited Israel, my own native land, for the first time since I was ten. I was actively reclaiming my cultural and linguistic identity then — and also reckoning with my experience of America. I had met Lana in St. Petersburg, where we both took part in the same writing program, and when we met up in Los Angeles, I remember sharing some of my thoughts with her — particularly as they related to the male Jewish-American authors I was then reading.
I told her I felt I had little in common with these American-born men who treated anything that wasn’t in the English language as having to do with the so-called old country. The America in which I’d grown up had little to do with their America — and, despite having been in United States since the age of nine, the old country still felt closer to me than the new one. The America of their parents, I told her, felt more familiar to me than the America of today — and I added that I felt a strange sense of validation when I read in their books about American anti-Semitism in the 1930s and 1940s, including the period of the Holocaust. Lana, whose mother is the daughter of Jewish Holocaust survivors, laughed in my face and told me I was out of my mind. I was living at a time, she said, when anti-Semitism — which had never been as bad in America as elsewhere — had practically been eradicated in our society. I didn’t have the words then to express to her what I meant. Today I’d probably just say that the visceral experience I’d lived through as a Jew growing up on the cultural margins of American society is reflected in what I’d call the feeling of anti-Semitism.
This sense of anti-Semitism as a visceral experience is one that really crystalized for me in 2014. I was visiting New York after four months in Brussels when, on May 24, I read the news that a man affiliated with the Islamic State had walked into the Jewish Museum of Belgium and killed four people — an event that opened the floodgates of terrorism in Europe which essentially remain open. I went back to Brussels in mid-June after a two-week trip to Jerusalem — flying on Friday the 13th, the day the news broke that three Israeli teenagers had been kidnapped in the West Bank. I remember hearing the news on the radio in the taxi on the way to the airport and thinking, This is not going to end well.
I was only supposed to stay in Brussels for three weeks, but with war raging in Israel, and the airspace temporarily closed because of rockets, I ended up staying longer — and that was when I not only experienced but also witnessed the corrupting poison of anti-Semitism. I was at an evening cocktail party put on by a friend who was herself Italian but who had a group of friends who were Jewish — mostly grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. At the party, they all discussed the fear in which they’d been living since war had broken out between Hamas and Israel, to the extent, they said, that they were all — their parents together with all the cousins — considering emigrating as a family to Canada. There was no future for Jews in Belgium, they said, when any event in Israel was liable to end in violence against them in Brussels.
I went back to Jerusalem in September 2014 feeling like I had to face a very powerful reality: hate had won. While I had been away, a Jewish man recruited two minors to kidnap a Palestinian boy and burn him to death — leading to an outbreak of hate between Israelis and Palestinians that ripped apart whatever fragile social fabric had existed between the two peoples in the city. About six months later, I moved back to New York, and spent the next two years under the heavy shadow of the 2016 election and its aftermath. And what I discovered when I was back in America was more or less what I’d seen in Europe and in Israel — and what I had sensed growing up — that hate in America could as easily target Jews as it did other ethnic and racial groups. It reinforced for me the sense that Jews are not White — that they became, as Karen Brodkin called it in 1998, “White Folks” as a process of cultural adaptation and racial change in America. It also made it clear that, as Brodkin also said just three years ago, Jews are quickly regaining their ethnicity — their status as other .
It’s complicated to live as an other. Jews know this firsthand — not only from their persecutions in the old country but also from their lives in America. The issue, of course, is that for over half a century Jews have at least partially passed for white. And their role in American culture is complicated by this period of partial integration. We are nonwhites who were once considered white by some and not by others, and who now need a category into which we can be placed — but which doesn’t exist because there are no others like us in American culture. And so we are placed back into the preexisting category of Jew. In the worst sense of the word.
There’s talk now in America about how to fight anti-Semitism. It’s a noble struggle. But it’s important, I believe, to keep in mind that historically the prevailing Jewish response to anti-Semitism has been not to fight but to flee. And when they didn’t, bad things often happened. Odessa was once nearly forty-percent Jewish — now the number of Jews is negligible. New York has a Jewish population of ten percent. But it wouldn’t be a historical impossibility to think of the city without Jews.
David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and literary scholar based in Jerusalem. He is finishing a project titled “Idiot Love,” dealing with concepts of intimacy in literature, philosophy, and psychoanalysis. His first monograph — Narrative Faith: Dostoevsky, Camus, and Singer — was published by the University of Delaware Press.