Portrayed, or Betrayed?
“SHE SAID IT. SHE SAlD SHE WAS JEWISH.” WHEN I HEARD THAT, REBECCA WALKER, daughter of Alice, had written a book about her childhood and titled it Black, White, and Jewish, those were the first words out of my mouth. I was amazed by the pride and relief I felt. Walker is the daughter of a feminist icon, she is a famous activist my own age…how could the book not he fabulous? But that she called herself Jewish, and put it in the title of her book, was precious to me for two reasons.
I was hopeful that the book might begin the public discussion of Jewish identity by the mixed-marriage children of my generation. I imagined that what Walker had to say about herself as a patrilineal Jew would inspire this.
I also imagined that Walker would present a Jewish identity that would blast the entrenched image of the JAP. Surely Mel Leventhals daughter would have something to say to those who imagine that any Jewish woman involved in social action is a departure from the norm.
That was my fantasy, the book I wanted Rebecca Walker to have written. The reality is less nuanced. Black, White, and Jewish has an exquisite sense of detail and memory: her life unfolds as a series of parental abandonments and experimentation with sex and drugs and racial identity. But. though the writing is vivid and at times, magical, there are problems with this book that language can’t solve.
When Mel Leventhal married Alice Walker, a black woman, in 1966, his mother sat shiva. Though her grandmother later acknowledged her son’s family and tried to play a role in her granddaughter’s life, Rebecca’s relationship to her father and his family remained complex and painful. Walker’s father and stepmother sent her to a ritzy Jewish summer camp, and eventually moved when she was in her early teens to an affluent, white, largely Jewish area. The move did much to hurl their relationship with Rebecca, who found the suburban neighborhood racist and bourgeois.
Unfortunately, Walker believes that their conformity and wealth was, and is, typically Jewish, and when writing about her life with the Leventhals she uses ugly, unabashed stereotypes about Jewish life and, in particular, Jewish women.
Of the move, she writes: “I don’t know at the time that it is, like, the Jewish dream to live in the suburbs, as close to Scarsdale as possible: to have a Volvo or two in the garage next to the kids’ bikes and baseball gear: to eat Dannon yogurt and bagels every Sunday and light Shabbat candles on Friday night…”
Walker’s portrayal of Jews in the second half of the book is unexamined, irresponsible, and almost comically stereotypical. The girls at camp are wealthy and spoiled. Neurosis is almost the only Jewish trait she will admit to in herself. She describes herself as locked in combat with her “white, holier-than-thou perfect Jewish stepmother” over her father’s soul, “my brown body pulling him down memory lane to a past more sensual and righteous. she scratching the dirt off pale Jewish roots I didn’t know he had.” No Jewish men except her father become characters in the book, and Jewish women are uniformly wealthy and shallow. In the end she escapes to bohemian righteousness.
Exasperatingly. Walker never bothers to acknowledge her own economic privilege, or the advantages that come from being her mother’s daughter. She eloquently describes the impact of racism on her expensive private high school education, her art museum internship, and extensive world travel, but never appears to realize that she has these things because she is a child from a fairly wealthy background, and the daughter of an internationally famous novelist. It’s hard to take it seriously when she writes, “when I am at camp I wear Capezios and Guess jeans and Lacoste shirts, and I assume the appropriate air of petulant entitlement,” but feels she’s “a Jap but not one. I know baruch atah Adonai Elohainu…but I don’t own fifty LeSportsacs or spend the week before camp starts on a Teen Tour in Israel.” Given Walker’s unwillingness to acknowledge her own privilege, her contempt for the “Jewish dream” of the house and two cars in the suburbs seems self-serving.
By the end of the book. Walker declares that she feels no connection “with whiteness, with what Jewishness has become.” I cannot see any indication in this book that she has any right to say “what Jewishness has become,”
Although she writes that on the subway “surrounded by Hasidim crouched xenophobically over their Bibles, I have to sit on my hands and bite my tongue to keep from shouting out I know your story!”‘ it doesn’t seem that she does. “I don’t feel loyalty,” she continues, “as much as an irrational, childlike desire to burst their suffocating illusions of purity.” This isn’t childlike, it’s childish, and apparently based on nothing but an assumption that Traditionally dressed Jews (crouching a la Shylock) would be horrified by the child of a racially mixed marriage.
Because of the power of her mother’s name and her own reputation as an activist, Walker’s prepackaged anti- Semitic invocation of the JAP and the spoiled manipulative Jewish wife will have a profound impact on young American feminists. The common assumption that “normal” Jews are materialistic, conformist and uniformly wealthy has just been given new fuel by a woman Time magazine calls a leader of my generation. I am deeply angry, and apprehensive about what this will mean for young Jewish women.
This book is being extensively promoted and reviewed in venues ranging from the New York Times to InterfaithFamily.com, and it carries a famous name. Amazon promotes the reading guide River-head Books has prepared for it, and a chapter has been excerpted for the Washington Post Salon website. It will be widely read in women’s and ethnic studies classrooms. It will be read by women who will feel justified in their stereotypes of Jewish women, since Rebecca Walker (Jewish herself) confirms them. It will be read by Jewish women who will have to defend their cultures, languages and experiences against a cultural icon’s sweeping anti-Semitic stereotypes. If this is the voice of the third wave, young Jewish women had better beware. We are not welcome here.
Charlotte Honigman-Smith is a writer and activist in San Francisco. She is editor of Maydeleh, a ‘zine for nice Jewish grrls.