Loolwa Khazzoom reflects on Ella Emhoff’s Jewishness and who gets to decide.
On Inauguration Day, I was very emotional – not only because Kamala Harris is the first African- and Asian-American woman in the White House, and not only because her husband, Doug Emhoff, is the first Second Gentleman in the White House, but also because Emhoff is the first Jew in the White House. Not one to take lying down the mainstream media’s silence on the matter, I wrote and videotaped myself singing a song, ‘Jew in the White House,’ celebrating this momentous occasion of Jewish power.
I was surprised that within 36 hours, my homegrown video had gotten significantly more views than any other video on my YouTube channel over the past year – including my band’s professionally-shot music video. I was equally surprised that my video sparked a stream of hate from fellow Jews, who called me ‘a stupid cow,’ ‘psycho,’ and other epithets, for deigning to call Emhoff a Jew (his Jewish mother be damned), considering that he does not follow their brand of Jewish practice- which appeared to be Ashkenazi ultra-orthodox. ‘I advise you to pick up a Tanakh,’ one self-appointed monitor of Jewish peoplehood advised me – not bothering to discover first that I had grown up orthodox, so I had picked it up plenty of times, thank you very much.
As if this response did not raise enough interesting questions about who is a Jew and who gets to decide that, The Forward reported that Ella Emhoff’s social media manager released a statement that Ella ‘is not Jewish.’ From what I read, it seemed the discussion revolved exclusively around religious practice. I found myself not only wanting some confirmation of that matter but also wanting to know more:
- Does Ella perceive Jews as being a religious group only, like Christians, and if so, why – what experiences led to that perception?
- If she does recognize Jews as being more – an ethnic group, a people, a tribe, whatever – does she identify on that front, and if so, to what extent?
- And lastly, is her lack of identification as ‘Jewish’ rooted exclusively in the fact that she is not an adherent of Jewish theology, or is it rooted in something else – perhaps that ubiquitous internalized racism, or in other words, the ‘ick’ factor of being associated as ‘one of them’?
I find myself particularly interested in the questions surrounding Ella’s identification, not only because I wrote about her in my song (Ella rocks a JewFro / Makes me proud / Turning up the Jew / In the DC crowd / On Inauguration Day / It’s time to get loud), but because Jewish obsession with pegging other Jews – according to formulaic notions of family, religious observance, and so forth, especially in orthodox circles – has sent me running from any number of synagogues and community organizations over the years. In one incident, following a particularly strident interrogation, it even sent me running to the bathroom of a synagogue, in tears, until I could get myself together enough to leave – and never go back.
Speaking of that Tanakh I need to pick up, it too is obsessed with pegging Jews, through genealogy, with its nonstop ‘so-and-so begat so-and-so, who begat so-and-so,’ down the line throughout the generations. Interestingly, this meticulous documentation fails entirely to mention the women doing all that begetting, which is especially curious, considering that from a halakhic standpoint, Jewish identity is matrilineal. But I digress.
The central question raised by all this hullabaloo is, ‘To what extent do we get to define ourselves, and to what extent do other people, or do circumstances of fate, get to define us?’
Let’s start with Ella’s JewFro: As most people forget or choose to ignore, the Jewish people hail from the Middle East, and therefore, historically share the physiological traits of others in the Mediterranean region – including the ‘JewFro’ and ‘the Jewish nose,’ which are not in fact exclusive to Jews but are shared by Arabs, Italians, and the like. Through mixing with the locals in Central and Eastern Europe, over the generations, the skin and eye colour of Ashkenazim got lighter, but other racial/ethnic traits remained.
For decades, a nose job – the act of erasing one of the last remaining physical marks of Jews’ indigenous Middle Eastern roots – has been a right of passage for Ashkenazi girls. By way of comparison, through generations of blending with other ethnicities in the United States, there are now African-Americans with light skin and blue eyes, who for the most part can pass as White, but who still have the kinky hair and nose shape of their African ancestors. Here too, Black women routinely alter their appearance, most commonly, by straightening their hair – thereby erasing a physical mark of their African roots. While nose-bopping and hair-straightening certainly may be a matter of personal preference, that preference, in turn, may be the result of internalized racism – slipping by, unexamined, as an aesthetic proclivity, like when I kept buying blonde Barbie dolls as a kid, because they were ‘prettier’ than the darker ones.
Now let’s bring this around to the matter of identity: A mixed-race Black woman may personally identify as White. Perhaps she never knew her Black side, and grew up in an exclusively White neighbourhood. And yet, she may boast African features in her skin colour, nappy hair, and nose. So can she outright dismiss that side of her, and who gets to decide that? As a corollary, can Black people (including Black Jews) still be proud of her, as one of theirs, if she rises to a position of power, leadership, and visibility? White supremacists certainly won’t let her forget her Black side. As a friend of mine notes, if you have a drop of Black in you, and the rest of you is White, you’re considered by others to be Black. But if you have a drop of White in you, and the rest of you is Black, you’re still considered to be Black.
Similarly, Nazis will unequivocally define as a Jew anyone with the faintest shade of Jewish lineage. In fact, as part of the social media uproar caused by my ‘Jew in the White House’ song, people kept pointing out that while ultra-orthodox Jews might not consider Emhoff a Jew, Nazis would. But wait – does that mean that haters are, through targeting whomever they hate, the definers of identity?
When it comes to Jews, questions of who gets to define us are complicated by mass ignorance and confusion about who the heck we are, to begin with. I think of us a nation in a knapsack – hailing back to the motherland of Israel, or more precisely, the southern Kingdom of Yehuda (Judah), from where we get our name Yehudim (Jews). Following the Babylonian conquest and exile of Yehuda 2,600 years ago, we consolidated all the elements of our national identity (land, culture, language, temple, ritual, etc) and made it mobile, adaptable – heck, virtual, if you will – so that it survived and thrived through millennia of persecution and exile ever since.
As we fled from one place to another, blending with locals in new lands, adapting our traditions to what was doable in said lands, integrating local customs with ours, and regulating our religious practice according to what was anything from safe to fashionable at the time, we shape-shifted in our individual and collective identity. And so today, we are an international, multi-racial, multi-ethnic people, with atheists, devoutly religious types, and everything in-between in our midst – existing well beyond the confines of contemporary language and constructs. We are both/and, not either/or.
At the end of the day, regardless of how Ella identifies herself, or how anyone else identifies her, I’m grateful for her visibility and the complexity of her identity- if only to catalyze thoughtful public discourse about what it means to be a Jew, and who gets to decide that. Come to think of it, given the onslaught of additional questions that have arisen from the singular question of her identity, one might say that Ella is, in this way, very Jewish.
An edited version of this article was published in J: The Jewish News of Northern California.