In the teen rom-coms of my youth, bullying was as normalized as brushing your teeth. Watching movies like Clueless or The Princess Diaries, the implication was always that there was one way to be cool, and if you didn’t fit into that category for whatever reason (be it race, class, age, gender, size, religion, and so on), then you deserved to be bullied until you agreed to assimilate.
In these stories, safety was often only found in affinity groups. Ty seemed weird to Cher, but she fit right in with equally eccentric Travis. Mia was publicly shamed by Lana, but she could be herself with free-spirited (Jewess) Lilly. Growing up, I devoured these narratives like they were matzah ball soup. My takeaway was that, as a lower-middle class Jew from a family of eccentric creatives, I was bound to be bullied when I found myself surrounded by people who didn’t identify with any of those characteristics — but that I could always feel safe when surrounded by other Jews.
However, my experience turned out to be quite different than the ones highlighted in those stories. I’ve faced anti-Semitic bullying from non-Jews, but I’ve encountered the most damaging treatment from within my own Jewish communities. I’m left with a question: If affinity groups for marginalized people are supposed to bring strength and unity, why is there so much internal bullying within Judaism?
When I was 8, I was the only Jewish student in a small public school outside of Albany, New York, and I faced anti-Semitism every day. One day, in my third grade classroom, a popular kid named Eric gestured for me to come talk to him. My heart joined forces with my throat — Eric was cool, and hot, and definitely not Jewish.
“Did you know that ‘fuck’ is a Jewish word?” he whispered. “I heard that on TV.” I flushed bright red. I didn’t know the word “fuck” — or any curse words, for that matter — but the way he spit the word out at me, I knew right away that it was a dirty word. And I knew the implication was that the word was bad and nasty, and since I am Jewish, I am somehow bad and nasty, too.
That year, I survived daily torment. Multiple classmates felt around in my hair for my horns. I had never heard anti-Jewish stereotypes before, and they made me feel a sense of doubt in my identity. Were we supposed to have horns? Maybe I was one of the weird Jews because I didn’t have horns? Was the Jewish star actually Satan’s symbol? Who was Satan, anyway? I felt isolated, insecure, and like I’d never fit in. And I wanted to fit in, badly. The dream of assimilation was enticing. I’d write stories casting myself as my goyish alter-ego: a princess with long, blonde hair who ate white bread with butter.
My parents, filled with regret for putting me in that school and anxiety that my Jewish identity would be damaged in a long-term way, pulled me out at the end of the year and sent me in the opposite direction, to a private, Jewish day school.
Technically, the school was non-denominational, but almost all of the students were Conservative, as were our prayer classes. As was standard for Jewish day schools of the early 2000s, we were inundated with Zionist propaganda and images of the Holocaust, which were meant to serve as tools to bond us to our middle-class Jewish-American identities.
After I transferred, my hope swelled and surged. Finally, a place where I could feel comfortable. Finally, a place where I might belong. Fourth grade was satiating. I felt seen and acknowledged by my classmates. I was the new kid in a school where everyone had known each other since kindergarden, or even preschool. I was different, but my exoticism pushed me to new realms of popularity. I was finally cool.
But over the next few years, my reputation slowly started to shift, and in the middle of sixth grade, it suddenly flipped. One day, I belonged. The next, I did not. My parents were involved in organizations that did conflict resolution work between Palestinian and Israeli folks. My dad, a Reconstructionist rabbi, made electronic instruments out of Judaic ritual objects like tallits and menorahs. My mom was a dance/movement therapist. We all wore hand-me-downs. I felt like I must have done something to cause this sudden loss of inclusion, this foisting out, but no tangible evidence ever arrived.
The bullying and harassment didn’t just come from my peers. It trickled down from their parents. It seeped into my daily interactions through local faith leaders and youth organizations. I was uninvited from youth group activities that everyone in my grade was required to be invited to. Once, I was even pushed down the stairs. My Judaism was a lonely vacuum, isolating me from others around me.
The anti-Semitic bullying that I experienced at the small public school in third grade didn’t hold a candle to the bullying that I faced at Jewish day school. The former wasn’t personal. It was based off of stereotypes, ignorance, a genuine fear of the unknown. It stung, but it didn’t stick with me. I was able to rationalize it. The latter was lengthy, psychological, nonsensical, and felt deeply, deeply personal. This was a place where I was supposed to feel a sense of belonging, where I could take a deep breath. Yet, this was a place where I felt more isolated than I ever had, pushed away from my Jewish peers and their families.
On the surface, it may have looked like I was experiencing a version of grossly normalized middle school targeting and bullying. I have another theory about this behavior, however. This is the theory of internalized oppression. This is the theory that marginalized folks who have fought to assimilate and have bought into the “American dream” will act out oppression onto those from our communities who refuse to conform.
An article from Psychology Today by author and psychologist E. J. R. David defines “internalized oppression” as such: “When we accept or ‘buy-in to’ the negative and inferiorizing messages that are propagated about who we are, then we have begun to internalize the oppression that we experienced. We have come to learn that — having certain traits, being a member of a particular group, and being who we are — are not good enough or are not desirable. Sometimes, we even learn to hate our traits, our groups, ourselves. Even further, sometimes we end up hurting ourselves, our communities, and those who we share many similarities with, the ones who likely care for us the most — our family and friends.”
White American Ashkenazi Jewish folks have created a blueprint for what it means to be Jewish. This definition is narrow and confining. Jews wear the same things, eat the same things, pray the same ways, have the same socio-economic status. I have seen this isolation time and time again in Jewish settings. Despite the classification of lashon hara, or gossiping, as a sin, synagogue cliques gather to whisper about so-and-so’s outfit or divorce or intermarriage. Jews who identity as queer struggle to find homes for themselves in prayer communities — and often end up having to create our own. Jews of all different races and nationalities struggle to see their traditions reflected — or even respected — in American Ashkenazi-centric Jewish communities.
We talk about these ideas sometimes. When I was in high school, it was popular to speak of the Jewish American Princess stereotype, which I, decidedly, did not fit into. And yet, we never ever say what we’re thinking, which is that we are scared. We are terrified. We’ve learned about the cyclical history of Jewish oppression worldwide, and we know what happens to Jewish people who stick out. We know what happens to Jewish people who “look” Jewish or act Jewish, yes, but we also know what happens to people who are hard to define. What does it mean to be Jewish if we don’t fit into the boxes that we’ve been offered? Do we still get to claim Judaism as a home?
The thing is, I don’t want to be a Jew who fits in. I learned these lessons from my parents. From my mom, I learned to dance in public settings and wear my heart on my sleeve and fight, loudly, for justice. From my dad, I learned that Judaism is as much a personal identification as it is a communal one, and that no one can force you to conform to their idea of who you should be.
There are as many ways to be Jewish as there are Jewish people, and all Jews are equally worthy of protection and respect. Please, teach this to your children and to your friends. In this fear-driven time when so many of us are experiencing the triggers of inherited trauma rising up to the surface to nip at our toes every day with reports of anti-Semitic violence and hatred, we can’t let others define what it means for us to be Jewish, including other Jews.
We don’t need to stand as one, because we are not one. We come from different cultural, racial, and spiritual backgrounds. We come from different belief systems. We come from multigenerational communities. We come from our experiences of gender, sexuality, class, ability. We come from mixed-faith and mixed-race homes. We aren’t all Zionists. We aren’t all religious. And this exquisite tapestry of experience is Judaism. The more we can embrace this tapestry, the stronger we become to stand up against oppression and marginalization against all people in our world. We are entering into a time of battle. Our weaponry is our refusal to be quiet, small, or confined.
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