Growing up in Canada, the child of refugees and Holocaust survivors, I never felt like I was part of the majority. This wasn’t entirely because of things others did or said to me, but rather a general feeling of not fully belonging. The white kids (as we’d call them) were rich — and preppy. They had families of British, Irish, German or Scottish origin, with long roots in Canada. They dressed well and had fancy cars and houses and — as is the Canadian way — had the ability to make you feel less-than or “other” with a smile on their faces.
Though we lived among wealthier people, my parents were firmly (lower) middle class, working hard to climb their way out of dislocation and poverty with sheer force of will. Other members of our family had it much easier — becoming (or marrying) doctors and lawyers. My parents happened to flee communism just as they were nearing college age. The years they should have spent studying for a profession became years of dislocation: refugee camps, long ocean crossings, huge supermarkets, strange new languages. They did what they could to get by and give us the best.
But our class differences stuck out like a sore thumb. Our cars were old and clunky, with mufflers hanging off and holes in the floors. My clothes were bought mostly at Bi-Way, which was a profoundly generic clothing store before the advent of Wal-Mart and Target. Imagine a big sign that says “boys jeans” with exactly two choices: made-in-China Lervies or Jardache. Maybe my parents loved it both for the low prices and that sense of Marxist scarcity.
But none of those things alone explained why I never thought of myself as white in Canada. It was much more about my family history.
My grandparents would tell stories of growing up in rural Romania. They had worked the land and been part of a sprawling, mixed-religion community that lived peacefully with each other. Sitting in my chair in my grandmother’s small, hot Toronto apartment, watching her methodically roll out pastry dough, my mind would drift to images of what I thought it must have been like. Warm, yellow sun. Animals everywhere. Dirt roads, but the people were happy. Heavy clothes, and annoying chores, and neighbors waving at each other and marveling at their good fortune.
But my grandmother’s stories always took a dark turn, which — if you’ve ever known anyone who was nearly murdered in Auschwitz — is not uncommon. She talked about the time when they knew something was up. Her brother hadn’t returned from fighting for the Romanian army and there were rumblings of bad things happening in Poland and Hungary. But they felt safe and secure, enmeshed in a community they thought would protect them.
So when their neighbors — their white, Christian, neighbors — sold them out to the Nazis after a hundred years of cohabitation, it stung. When my grandmother returned back to her little village in 1945, she found them squatting in her family home. Jewish property at the time was seized, some of it kept by the Nazis and some by the locals. Gaunt and near death, she had to face these people who were once her friends and demand her small piece of the world back.
The betrayal of those neighbors never left my grandmother. And seeing the “othering” she and all eastern European Jews experienced in the Holocaust, left her embittered even as she celebrated her grandkids growing up in her adopted country. She’d often point out that the only people you could really trust were family, and she never forgave the German — or Hungarian — people and governments that stole her parents’ and siblings’ lives.
Into this environment of trauma and destruction, betrayal and strife, my parents were born, post-war, under communism. My mom’s parents, who lived in Budapest and similarly survived the camps, assumed their young daughter would be safe from Anti-Semitism in a culture that took pride in its collectivism and defeat of the Nazis. But the racism that underpinned the brutality of Hungarians towards the Jews (Roma and any other “foreigner”), lingered on even after such divisions were no longer legally sanctioned.
My mom and her parents faced constant harassment once she entered school. The teachers would call her “the Jew” and the other kids wouldn’t interact with her. It was possible to be called “the Jew” in the late 1950s in Budapest, because it was the place that the Nazis were the most successful. Budapest’s large and thriving Jewish community was decimated in WWII, and only dozens of families returned from the camps to re-establish their lives there.
It was to the point that when I was a kid and we visited my grandparents, they’d sometimes take me to the temple. The Dohany Templom was one of the great synagogues of Europe, and it had somehow stayed relatively intact during WWII. After, in the 1980s, services with my grandad consisted of us, and a handful of old men, standing inside this giant, baroque temple while their voices echoed off the granite and marble. The songs always seemed especially mournful there, like the congregants were waiting for the dead and missing to sing the refrain. There were so few Jews left that many times they couldn’t make a “minyan” (the Jewish requirement for a 10 man quorum for prayer). They would often conscript me as the 10th member even before my bar mitzvah. Under normal circumstances, this would be a major no no. But there, it was normal.
The merciless bullying of my mom got so bad that my grandparents literally changed their last name from a very Jewish one to a very Hungarian one. They moved across the city as well, to ensure that my mom could have an education free of that kind of abuse. They strenuously tried to blend — keeping their Jewishness hidden from view while expressing solidarity with their neighbors. They had pushed aside the betrayals and lived their lives practically.
My parents therefore knew that they too weren’t “white”. Their hearts were filled with fear (not entirely unfounded) that what had happened in the gas chambers could happen again at a moment’s notice. That it was better to carefully pick your battles, hide your identity and trust no outsider with your truth, than to be honest and in the world. Again, we were othered.
When my parents emigrated to Canada (separately), they were refugees. My dad’s family fled in the middle of the night, and claimed asylum in Italy. There, they waited in a refugee camp for 2 years before Canada would take them in. My mom defected, leaving behind her parents for a better life abroad, never sure if she’d see them again.
In the new world, my parents became, extraordinarily, open and proud of who they were. Surrounded by others just like them, in our little “village within a village”, my parents espoused comity, harmony and the need to proudly proclaim our Jewishness. But it was only because of the safe confines of their community — where jobs, socializing, education, spirituality — was tightly controlled, could they build the proto-Jewish world of which they had long been deprived.
But this sense of us as the “other” never really went away. How could it — after all they had been through? They sacrificed tremendously to give their kids a safe place to be themselves, to reclaim their nearly-extinguished history, but the lessons changed only slightly.
It is, in retrospect, a beautiful thing. They taught us to be proud and individualistic, and to never back down from embracing our identity. This would come in handy when I came out of the closet, and would become a feature of my way of relating to the world.
But there were dark sides. Crying — so much crying. But also a kind of permanent cynicism that worked its way into every nook and cranny of our Thomasowitz’s Jewish Muffin. With Fleischman’s, natch.
I can remember my mom and dad admonishing me in my early teens to “Always marry a Jewish Girl.”
I, ever the curious contrarian, asked them the simple question: “Why?”
Their response was always “Because one day you two will have an argument, and she’ll call you a dirty Jew and your whole world will fall apart.”
I remember being rather perplexed by this scenario. It seemed oddly specific, and dramatic — designed to “scare us straight” which was all the rage in Reagan’s 1980s. But now I look back on it and think about the kind of emotional damage that underpinned that belief. Because even if they were being hyperbolic, it was based on their experience — their family’s experience. That everyone who isn’t like us will eventually come to hate us. That even those close to you could — and would — turn against you.
I still struggle with this every day, and I only now understand where it comes from. It is painful to worry that your closest friends will abandon you when the going gets tough. And it’s made it difficult for me to truly trust and be vulnerable.
But I was taught to be honest, and when University admissions came around, I saw the race/ethnicity question for the first time. Until then, there had been no ambiguity about what “race” I was, understanding that as a construct for deciding who lives and who dies in a genocidal world.
The options were something like “White, Black, Asian and Native”. There was also an “other” box. Jewish was not listed.
My mom walked by just as I was filling out the form. She looked over my shoulder and remarked, matter-of-factly, “Gabika you’re not white. You’re Jewish.”
“So, mom, is that what I should put in the race box? Shouldn’t I put white?”
“Yes, son. Other. Because even if you check white, when push comes to shove, they will check the other box for you.”
So I checked other, and dutifully wrote in Jewish on the little line that asked for a further explanation.
My skin is white, my eyes are green, and I used to have dirty blond hair. I understood that I was “white” in the most simplistic of definitions. But my family history also informed me that Capital-W-White didn’t mean what it said on the tin. Like it was some kind of genteel, soft way of saying “not that trash,” rather than simply referring to your skin tone.
And I believed this. I spent my entire childhood in Canada referring to the White kids — both my friends and tormentors — as though we were not one. I didn’t feel a kinship towards them, but more strongly identified with other groups — not just Jewish refugees — who had experienced displacement and loss, and come to a new country with hope. I saw Whiteness as more of a brand than a fact, something you bought into with Benetton and Polo, Toyotas and Beemers — and not something I would ever be.
And then I moved to the US. I kept living with a Canadian bubble around me for some years, as I went through school and set about establishing myself in the tech community in the Bay Area. I never questioned my sense of non-whiteness, because it was simply not who I was. I was “other” and that’s the box I continued to check on forms which, in the US, ask about race a lot.
This should have been my first clue that I was thinking about it all wrong, but I think I was too caught up in becoming an adult, creating an identity and working toward my goals in my adopted homeland. My friends and co-workers were a melange of characters, and I circulated in a very liberal, affluent and kooky San Francisco just-post-AIDS. Everything was on display, and everything was great, and no one ever questioned my identity — not the least of which myself.
Sometime in the last decade, I began to tick “white” on those forms. I don’t know when it started precisely, but I can clearly remember all those little moments of indecision, staring at the square and deciding what to check. I think I went through a period of not answering the questions at all before finally giving in to the onslaught of American identity politics and becoming white. If only I had known that it would be as easy as checking a box!
But it was not especially deliberate. And certainly didn’t come from a place of pride in my whiteness, an attempt to gain privilege, or the dissolution of my past identity and history. It just felt that over time I became “white”, because that’s what everyone told me I was. Obviously, I wasn’t any of the other options on the form, so I must be white. As my circle expanded, and I started to see more of others’ identities — not just the hazy, pollyanna of 1990s San Francisco — I recognized in those who were non-white a kind of struggle in the US that I didn’t have.
Sure, being openly Jewish and gay in all aspects of my life had hurt me sometimes. But my parents taught me to be super proud of my background, and so I wore it like a shield. If I told you I was gay and Jewish in the first interview or date, you could decide to simply not call me back. This way, no one would have to confront their racism or homophobia. And if you did hire or date me, knowing full well who I was, I felt you couldn’t reasonably change your mind about my otherness later.
But as all those identity conflicts and establishments faded away, and I began to get some perspective, defining myself as white, here and now, seemed an anodyne choice. The only obvious choice. Something not worth fighting over anymore, or having to clarify, or engaging with friends in late-night conversations about whether or not Jews are a “race,” and does race even exist. That stuff gets tiring much more quickly than you might imagine.
The other day I had to confront this, however. I was working on a creative project with a dear childhood friend of mine, and we were getting ready to submit it for a competition. In the intake form, they asked about the diversity of the voices we were going to represent. And, in collaboration with this friend, we filled out the form.
Children of refugees. Check.
Middle Eastern. Check. (My friend)
Female. Check. (Also my friend)
And then we got to race for me, and — out loud — I said “white.”
She froze, and for a second I thought our zoom connection had become wonky. And in the way that’s uniquely hers, she said, “What? You’re not white. You’re Jewish.”
She proceeded to then tell me that her daughters — my goddaughters — were instructed in the same way I had been by my mom. When the box shows up, you check other and write Jewish on the line, and that’s our race. Her family too had been othered in Iraq, and the story of Jews there and their exile and betrayal rivals the Holocaust for pain and suffering.
I experienced true cognitive dissonance in that moment. Something so simple and banal — an act I’d done hundreds of times, one way or the other on autopilot, had become fraught. Was I white? Wasn’t I white? What was I?
And it got me thinking. In the 25 years I’ve been in America, perhaps I’ve finally become an American: seeing race in simplistic terms that paints everyone as White or the other. And perhaps I was losing my connection to my Jewishness and how it realistically places me in the hierarchy.
I know my struggle isn’t the same as any persons’ of color — and I don’t have an equivalence to draw on. I know it looks like I might be able to “pass” as white. But I can’t — and I won’t.
My name is Jewish enough, and my social media history transparent enough that I’m definitely marked as a Jew. And even though I’m comfortable downplaying it situationally (try doing business in the Gulf as a gay Jew), there’s no plan — not now and not ever — to go back into the closet of my identity.
I’m confident enough in who I am to know that I’m not White, the way they mean. That I’m obviously white but not White. That my privilege of passing is only fleeting, and that no matter what people might think of my identity, it’s up to me to decide who I am and where I belong.
It has been ever thus for Jews. We lived among our non-Jewish peers and — throughout history — enjoyed periods of great acceptance and assimilation, and others of strife, genocide and displacement. That cycle goes back to the dawn of recorded history, and makes it clear to me why I’ll never be White — even if America wants to make me thus. This full cycle has happened in just the last couple of generations of my family history, and it still feels very real.
That fear and anxiety of knowing that when the chips are down, and the dominant culture decides — once again — to commit atrocities, they’ll use the one drop rule and I’ll be first in line. There’s no coincidence that Jews and gays are often scapegoated by fascists and the right. The fact that we pass, that we blend, is part of what fuels their insane conspiracy theories. The enemy is hiding in plain sight.
Somehow, the past 20 years lulled me into a sense that it could never happen again. At least not in my lifetime. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the last 3 years has shaken my belief. And in this context of the great reckoning of America’s sordid history of race relations, it seems more important than ever to embrace my sense of self and work for justice from my own, unique perspective and experience.
Since Trump’s election I’ve naturalized, and worked hard to change the political winds. In 2018 I co-created a game with Samantha Bee designed to get people to the polls. It worked. And this year, I’m working on a few fun projects that I hope will get that guy out of the white house (and flip the senate).
I briefly flirted with the idea of walking districts in Kentucky to talk to folks about why they need to turf Mr. Turtle Head out of the Senate.
“I’m a middle aged white guy, I can blend,” I explained to a group of my closest southern friends one day this summer. “I can sneak attack.”
“Girl, they’re gonna see your gay, Jewish ass coming a mile away. You’re fixin to get shot.”
And there’s the rub. To some, I’ll always be white. But to the Whites, I’ll never be one of them. I blend until I don’t. There’s safety and privilege until there isn’t.
My family’s story is rife with fortunes turning on a dime, and having the rug pulled out from under you. Their cynicism about outsiders was never really my bag, but I guess it’s in there. So is their nascent pride.
Maybe they also thought they were White enough to escape tragedy. If there’s one thing I learned from my discount-bin upbringing, it’s that I’ll never be that.
And it’s alright with me.