S’iz shver tzu zein a Yid, part I

I Googled “shver tzu zein a Yid” to check its English spelling (wasn’t sure if “shver” and “tzu” were two different words, and the phrase wasn’t listed in the “Yiddish idioms” section of my Yiddish book — wonder why?). I got, along with the results I wanted, a Google disclaimer about the word “Jew.”

Most of the pages I found were English rather than Yiddish, so they included the translation, “It’s hard to be a Jew.” And this apparently set off some kind of sensor (censor?) at Google, which responded by informing me that “… the word “Jew” is often used in an anti-Semitic context. Jewish organizations are more likely to use the word “Jewish” when talking about members of their faith.”

On the one hand, I’m delighted that Google is paying attention to issues like this. On the other hand, I’m appalled that we don’t use the word “Jew” ourselves. I remember reading something about this a long time ago: a suggestion that American Jews are more comfortable describing ourselves as “Jewish” — using an adjective — than naming ourselves as “Jews.” (Could it have been part of this discussion in 1992?)

It’s a thought-provoking distinction. What’s the difference between “I am American” and “I am an American”? Between “I am Jewish” and “I am a Jew”? Between “I am a lesbian” and “I am lesbian?” (Note that there’s no adjectival version of “I am a mother.” I guess if you are one, you just are one! Same is true for fathers.)

There is a difference between how it feels when I call identify myself as the noun instead of with the adjective. The adjective is fuzzy, it has permeable boundaries, it allows for other identities along with itself. The noun claims me, as if to say, “I belong here, but not there.”

And I do belong here, and I think it’s important to say so; e.g., as uncomfortable as I may be sometimes in being an American, I am one, and I am as responsible for the course of America as any other American. Saying “I am an American” reminds me that I don’t have the luxury of apathy regarding my country’s policies and politics.

And I am a Jew. In my mind, those words echo the words that American Jewish journalist Daniel Pearl said right before he was murdered. It may not be quite what he said — I will never watch the horrifying videotape to find out. He might have said, “I am Jewish,” which is the title of the book of essays that his parents commissioned after his death. But the way I heard it first, he said “I am a Jew, my father is a Jew, my grandfather was a Jew.” And even if that’s a story — a midrash — it rings in my ears to this day. I am a Jew, and that too brings certain rights and responsibilities.

So I think it’s good for me to say “I am a Jew; I am an American; I am a lesbian; I am a white-skinned middle-class woman” every so often. It reminds me how others see me. It reminds me of privileges and oppressions. It reminds me that these are identities I truly claim, or rather which claim me.

And therein lies the rub. I am claimed by more than one identity, as are all of us. I am not one thing. I am not even primarily one thing all the time. And this leans toward the adjective.

Most of the time, my Jewish (and rabbinical) identity is the one I present to the world. But when I come home on vacation, I do my best to leave my rabbi hat at work (not literally, because I usually wear a kippah anyway), and then I am primarily Eema (mom), partner, and farmer.  And I am also female, college-educated, musical, full of middle-class expectations, American, of an intellectual bent, goofy, and empathic, all of which affect how I live in the world.

I almost always prefer the use of the adjective “lesbian” when describing myself aloud, despite the power of the noun. Gay and lesbian people have SO OFTEN been defined ONLY in terms of our partners, as “a lesbian/a gay man” and nothing else. Who I love and who I’m partnered with is certainly crucial to my life, as it is for any married/partnered person; but the fact that she’s a woman is NOT the defining facet of my personality! And thank goodness, in the early 21st century in the United States it doesn’t have to be the defining experience of my life, either. Being lesbian is always there in the background, but I don’t usually notice it any more than I notice that I’m human; being a parent and being in a relationship is much more important.

So yes, I am a Jew, and an American, and a lesbian. But when I use the adjectives instead, I leave room for all of myself, honoring my rich and varied self.  Still, it’s a pity that we’ve so lost the use of the word “Jew” that Google feels the need to advise that websites with “Jew” are likely to be antisemitic.