Sandy Barnes

A Person of Color

I didn't realize that I was a person of color until I was in my forties.

One busy morning in the mid 1990s, a group of harried parents (including myself) squeezed into a crowded classroom for an adult education program while our small children attended class at the progressive Jewish religious school. The rabbi at the adult class stated her challenge; she would give a history of the Jewish people in 45 minutes. Lightening fast.

So we all started out in the Middle East. The people of Israel.

A parent asked "If we started in the Middle East, how did we get to be European?"

"European, how?" asked the rabbi.

"My grandparents say that their families came from Prussia and Odessa," he explained.

Another parent said, "My great grandfather was born in a village in an area now part of Poland."

Germany, others added. Austria. Bavaria. Ukraine.

The Jews from these areas (like all of my ancestors), known as Ashkenazi, made up the majority of Jews in America.

"That's not the Middle East. If we're descended from the peoples of the Middle East, why are our ancestors all from Europe?" we all wondered.

I grew up in the California suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s. Everybody there was white. Neither my elementary nor my high school included very many Asian or Hispanic kids. And the only black student was a well-mannered daughter of a physician who we were taught to condescend to. My parents who heartily embraced the assimilationist doctrine, found all this quite proper. They were eager to leave any ethnic roots behind. Opportunities abounded for everybody in the California sunshine.

"Being Jewish is just another religion," my mother had told me. "It just means that you go to a different religious place to worship. We belong to the temple but it's just like a different church. You don't look any different. Nobody will know you're Jewish if you don't tell them," she assured me. "And it doesn't matter anyway. You are the same as everybody else."

So I believed that I was just the same as the other kids there in the California suburbs with the winding streets with Spanish names, lined with homes with the big front lawns with chugging sprinklers, each with a working dad and a stay-at-home mom. White, from European descendants. As children, we talked about what part of Europe our ancestors emigrated from. From Scotland. From France. From Germany. From Sweden. Me too. "My ancestors came mostly from Germany, " I would say.

Now as an adult sitting in the room with all of the other Jewish parents, it hit me, was my ancestry really European? The same European stock that the other kids were talking about?

My Ashkenazi ancestors were not the 'regular people' in those countries. The European Jews probably were descended from the middle eastern Semitic populations. Not like the Slavic, Latin or Germanic peoples who they lived among, who often abused and persecuted them.

The parents sat silently, pondering.

Somebody suggested the very idea I was thinking, "So maybe these Jewish immigrants weren't REALLY European?"

More silence.

Maybe my neighbors' German heritage was not the same as mine, I thought.

More specifically, they were white and I was not.

After another period of silence, another parent posed a question.

"Look at us, do we look white?"

I warily looked around the room at the other parents, sneaking a peek and wondering, for the first time, what 'looking white' meant. At the same time, I thought of my own dark features shared across my family members. Around the room, I saw dark curly hair, olive skin, some prominent facial features and lots of brown eyes with a certain soft look about them. And adults who all definitely had a thing or two to say.

We didn't look white. Or sound white. Or act white. I hadn't thought of myself as part of an ethnic group quite like this before.

That's not what my mother would have said. "Our family had been in New Haven for generations," she told me. "Your great grandfather Morris Baumann, owned the Baumann Rubber Company that employed over two hundred people. Your great great grandfather, Maier Zunder, served on the School Board; he had a school named after him. And another of your great grandfathers, Charles Weil, was a Police Commissioner."

She proudly showed me the gold watch owned by my Police Commissioner great grandfather and the pictures of Zunder School.

Definitely mainline establishment. We didn't come from those shtetls, small towns in central and eastern Europe with largely observant orthodox Jewish populations dramatized in "Fiddler on the Roof". None of that foreign Yiddish business in our family. The affluent High German Jews of my mother's family had had been in the US for over a century and looked down on the later emigrants. We were as European as our neighbors. Same as everybody else.

As a child, I could never understand how adults in my community knew I was Jewish. The name Ginsburgh? German, European like all the other kids, right? And lots of other kids had dark hair and eyes. How did those people know I was Jewish? And I felt uncomfortable when they did know. Was being Jewish something you should hide or be ashamed of?

I looked back at my senior picture in the high school yearbook and the young dark eyed girl with the wavy dark hair stared back at me. I definitely did not look like everybody else on that yearbook page. It seemed so obvious that there was an ethnic thing going on here despite my parent's denials.

So, it was true after all. I looked Jewish and had a Jewish name. Why should I be so surprised? I occupied a minority niche in my own society. And nobody in the majority can understand how that feels. The slights and value judgments had grated on me. The winter holiday condescension. The feeling that Jews were somehow primitive. The aggrieved concerned looks of the true believers that you could never be saved. Plus, the horrible details of the Nazi Holocaust were revealed during my childhood. Generally shushed up because it was 'far away and long ago'. As I grew older, the events in the 1940s in our 'home Europe' seemed closer and closer. And the realization of the often unstated view from many in that same 'home Europe' that maybe that genocide wasn't such a bad idea.

A huge demographic shift has occurred in my lifetime. Myself, all of my siblings and all of my cousins married non-Jews. Looking back, I experienced latent anti-Semitism from my in-laws. They accepted me and supported our marriage but I think they viewed it as rather a shame. No tall blonde grandchildren. I really didn't have to bring up that Jewish stuff, did I? The Hanukah imagery was rather quaint but could never measure up to the marvelous Christmas. My husband's parents would sneak in baby Jesus books that my husband and I would throw away.

Recently a relative from my husband's birthfamily and his wife invited my husband and me for dinner at their home for the first time after knowing us almost 20 years. We enjoyed the evening and returned the invitation a few months later. They had learned from my blog that I was Jewish and they seemed quite worried about this. What would I say? Would I eat their food? What would I be like? They didn't know quite what to expect. Were they supposed to do something special? Had they maybe never met a Jewish person before?

Since that day at the religious school, I've identified myself as a person of color. I did not have to pretend to be like everybody else because I wasn't. I belonged to that outside world where everything looked different. I had to admit that I was no longer part of the privileged class, if I had ever been. I could never assume that the way would be clear for me. I was fair game for condescension, whispered comments, not being included, left on the margins.

I no longer had that nagging feeling of being found out because I was not hiding anything. My feelings that those around me were on some kind of track excluding me also began to make sense. Because they were! I was neither white nor Christian.

I don't completely reject my parents' assimilationist's aspirations; that we could completely join the white mainstream. They fervently believed it and, most of the time, the strategy worked. But not always and not completely. Being on the outside gives me more room to move and does not let those who believe they are in control hem me in.

—Sandy Barnes

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