What Not to Say to Marginalized Jews

After I published an article about Romani Jews on this here website, What I Wish Other Jews Knew About Romani Jews, I was overwhelmed. Waves of support and acknowledgement and sharing made me finally feel like I was seen by the Jewish community. It was amazing. For a couple hours.

Then came the idiots.

Hint: If you want to be an actual ally, and not one of the exact people I wrote about in the initial article (the ones that made me and my fellow Romani Jews feel unwelcome in the Jewish community), avoid saying these things. These go not only for Romani Jews but any marginalized group, anywhere. By the way, all of these comments were ones that were said after my article was written. Interestingly, 100% of these comments came from Jewish men.

1. I googled Romani Jews and didn’t find anything. You’re lying.

First of all, I’m trying to think of a reason that I’d lie about being part of a community that has been treated so horrifically by so many for so long. Masochism? Boredom? Not so much. I’d happily trade the crap I’ve gone through for a modicum of stability and acceptance. But no, men are convinced I… am making up an entire ethnoreligious people for fun?? (I’m in grad school, honey. I haven’t known the word fun since 2014.)

2. There’s no scholarly research. You’re fake news.

No one seems to have thought this statement through. Why do you think there wouldn’t be scholarly research? Perhaps because, as a realm, scholarly research is heavily dominated by white men? There is very little in the way of scholarly research on Roma as a whole, much less on the small percentage of us that are Jews. As a formal discipline, Romani studies originated in the United Kingdom in the 1990s, with key contributors including Ian Hancock, Thomas Acton, David Smith, and Michael Stewart. That’s right. Research on the largest ethnic minority in Europe, existent for over a thousand years, started… in the ‘90s. By mostly Roma, like Ian Hancock. But sure, a lack of white men writing racist articles about us is what really proves our existence.

3. Well if you’re not written about in scholarly articles, prove your DNA. RIGHT NOW. Give me your name, DNA, family tree, and bar mitzvah certificates.

Literally this was demanded on multiple fronts. I’m gobsmacked. On the one hand, I do have my DNA, family trees (to an extent… my mother’s father goes back two generations before there is nothing), and certificates and photos. My great grandfather actually has a tree with his name on a plaque in Kiryat Ono, in Israel.

But none of that matters. Because I don’t owe proof of my genealogy to anyone — certainly not strangers on the internet. The entitlement is just… incredible, really. To give someone my DNA results and the names of every family member who I don’t even know in order to “prove” my Jewishness is something straight out of a dictatorship. No one asked for bar mitzvah certificates when they marched my relatives into Treblinka or Auschwitz. But they marched them there all the same. (And yes, I have records of that, too.)

4. How many of you are there? Why aren’t there written records? Or temples? You’re fake.

For a diaspora people, non-Romani Jews really struggle with the concept of Roma not being able to settle anywhere. Unlike Jews, who moved around a lot but did build communities (and shtetls), Romani have not been legally allowed to settle anywhere for hundreds of years. In fact, to this literal day, Romani settlements (tents and shanties) are being systemically dismantled and their residents chased out. For a people denied access to education, healthcare, and even housing, I cannot imagine how it is expected that we have some library of historical record and experience. We don’t have housing or education access. How would we have the time to go writing leather bound volumes?

5. If there’s so many Roma how come *I* never heard of your people? Huh???

I mean, I neither know nor care, but I can make some educated guesses. Most Americans don’t even know Roma exist. Like I wrote in my article, Roma in America generally fly under the radar. That’s kind of the point. We were so miserable in Europe that we hid our heritage once we came to America. I’m a first-generation American. It’s not like it’s that distant and I’m pulling facts out of my rear end after looking through Ellis Island records. No, this comes first hand. From my mom. Who left Trieste, Italy, on a Pan Am flight. On top of that, what is generally known by gadje (non-Roma) about us is a thin layer of stereotypes or, at best, pitiful advertisement pleading to help our poor savage people. If you barely know about Roma, why would you know anything about Romani Jews, who are an even tinier population?

6. Well if you don’t have a rabbi you’re not halakhically Jewish you’re not a Jew you’re fake. FAKE JEWS

I’m so tired of this one, and it really stings. No, I didn’t have a bat mitzvah. My family was broke. We couldn’t afford sending me or my brother to some fancy Hebrew school, or to throw a big party. But my family in the past has had bar mitzvahs and Jewish weddings. Romani Jews have generally had different paths. Almost as though a diasporic people may have — shocker — differing experiences.

There isn’t one Roma Jewish experience. Just like there isn’t one Jewish experience (though I encounter many American Jews who believe summer camp, matzah ball soup, and a big bar mitzvah are universal). I don’t know why this fact is so difficult to grasp, especially by Jews.

My family is Jewish and has been for as long as I can tell. They had trouble and travels and attempted extermination in between (many times). But… we’re Jewish. Which brings me back to point #1: Why on earth would I get a master’s in a heritage that isn’t mine, and attempt to join a people that I don’t relate to? The Jewish experience (for all Jews) is not easy, and less so for someone like me.

Comments like these make me sometimes wish they were right, and I wasn’t Jewish. But mostly I just wish these comments would stop. Now.

Sarah Elizabeth Hartman

Sarah Elizabeth Hartman was born and raised in San Francisco, and has since been gentrified out to the edges of the Bay Area. She is someday going to finish her dual MA in Jewish studies and Arts Education; she lives with six cats, has a great mom, and a heckin’ cool partner.

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