On Bravery

— By Hannah Lee

The Medal of Honor is the highest decoration bestowed by the United States for bravery on the battlefront, although I’ve noticed that these recipients often recall that they had no choice, they did what they had to do.  But what about the ordinary circumstances of our world in which we confront banal evil in the form of prejudice, ignorance, and injustice?

More after the jump.
During this year’s Veterans’ Kiddush held at my shul, coordinated by an ardently patriotic member named Paul Newman, there was a new display on movies and documentaries that featured Jews, in particular Jews in the American military.*  I picked one for my family’s viewing: Gentleman’s Agreement in which Gregory Peck goes undercover to write an expose of anti-Semitism in suburban America.  The film won three Oscars in 1947 and was just listed by Tablet as one of the 100 Greatest Jewish Films. Neither the director, Elia Kazan, nor the producer was Jewish, but Darryl Zanuck acquired the film rights from the author, Laura Z. Hobson, after he was mistaken for a Jew and denied membership at the elitist Los Angeles Country Club.  On Wikipedia, I read, “Before filming commenced, Samuel Goldwyn and other Jewish film executives approached Darryl Zanuck and asked him not to make the film, fearing that it would “stir up trouble.”

In Gentleman’s Agreement, Peck’s character, Philip Skylar Green, does not look remotely Jewish but he quickly experiences the subtle and overt acts of prejudice committed against Jews at the time.  He gets his publisher to change its policy of not hiring Jews, although his Jewish secretary (who’d changed her name from Estelle Wilovsky to Elaine Wales) cautions him that the wrong Jews might get hired and ruin it for the few Jews who’d already made it into the system (an insider’s bit about Jewish anti-Semitism).  Green is later denied a reservation at an elite inn.  His best friend, a Jew named Dave Goldman, (played by John Garfield, formerly Jacob Julius Garfinkle), newly discharged from the military, cannot find housing within commuting distance of his new employer.  Finally, Green has to deal with his fiancée’s timidity in upsetting social norms: how would her sister’s friends and neighbors in Darien, CT deal with Green being introduced as a Jew?

A widower, Green has a young son who experiences bullying from his peers for being a Jew.  When his fiancée, Kathy Lacey (played by Dorothy McGuire), consoles the boy that it’s not true, he’s no more Jewish than she is, Green explodes in anger and dismay that she’s accepting the prejudice that Jews are socially inferior to Christians.  Lacey learns from Goldman that every time she hears an ethnic slur, even in a joke, and she doesn’t do anything about it, she’s giving the racists a pass. She realizes that the only way to convince her beloved that she hates injustice in general, and anti-Semitism in particular, just as much as he does, is to take a stand.  Get this fine film from your library or Netflix to find out what she decides to do.

This weekend, my brother forwarded to me an Associated Press article, in which students are not checking “Asian” on their college applications as a response to the racial quotas at universities, particularly of the Ivy League schools.  Asian students experience stiffer competition for admission, because of the perception that they’d overrun a campus if only high SAT scores and grade-point averages were used as standards.  It’s an easier tactic for students from a mixed marriage bearing the surname of their non-Asian fathers.  But at least one full-blooded Asian student, as identified in the article, did not write in her race on her application and was admitted to Yale.  My friend Lindsay told me that her Chinese husband has quipped that his surname, Eng, is common in northern Scandinavia, so maybe their daughter would be mistaken on paper for a Norwegian.  Another friend, Marshall Jaffe, told me that

colleges can’t have it both ways: They can’t be institutions that, on the one hand, claim to be dedicated to the public interest and are therefore entitled to all sorts of benefits such as non-profit status, while, on the other hand, act as private organizations with their own interests — maintaining a “diverse” student body among them — even if that means flouting policies that would be grounds for prosecution in other sectors.

My reaction to the article was dismay, that students have to resort to subterfuge, but this tactic is similar to the practice of Jews changing their names in the early 20th century.  They want to be evaluated on their own merits, their own skills, not the preconceived notions of what their ethnicity connotes to Americans.

As we observe the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent incarceration of nearly 120,000 Japanese-Americans in internment camps by the United States government, I remind my readers to act responsibly when we encounter injustice, from the slight to the great.  My husband chides me when I make a generalization about male chauvinistic behavior.  Do you reprimand the guy who litters in public?  Do you object when someone makes a racial joke or an innuendo about fat people?  We will ultimately be judged by God for our ordinary human interactions, so would you be brave?

Note:
For film buffs, the other films included in the Veterans’ Kiddush display were:

A Hyphenated Identity

— Hannah Lee

Schoolchildren of the early 19th century were punished for speaking any language other than English.  We’ve come a long way in our tolerance of differences.  (My mother-in-law says that someone who speaks English with an accent knows at least one other language, a dig at the monolingual Americans.)  We’ve changed our perspective in cultural assimilation and the iconic image is no longer of the melting pot, but the salad bowl, in which the ingredients are separate and distinct.

More after the jump.
A running series in the New York Times on racial identity in America highlights the growing comfort that young Americans have in declaring a multiracial background.  According to the Pew Research Center, one in seven new marriages is between spouses of different races or ethnicities.  The latest installment in the series looked at how different institutions tally racial data.  In contrast, I’ll ask the question from the other end: what does it mean when college student Michelle López-Mullins (right) identifies herself as being of “Peruvian, Chinese, Irish, Shawnee, and Cherokee” descent.  How does she honor each of these heritages?

My Rabbi said that Philadelphia’s new National Museum of American Jewish History is very good at depicting how successful Jews have become in America, but it fails at telling how Jews in America are Jewish.  A critic from the New York Times asked at the time of its opening, if this country needed another monument touting the success of Jews (which is better, I say, than another monument about the death of Jews).  So, my friend asked me, are there any U.S. museums that does what my Rabbi thinks the one in Philly should?  Well, the Yeshiva University Museum puts on exhibits that highlight aspects of Jewish history, but it’s an institution that’s not well-known outside of the Orthodox Jewish community.

At least once a year, I love to visit the Museum of the Chinese in America (MoCA) in a tenement building re-designed by Maya Lin, the Chinese-American architect who established her reputation while still at Yale with her design of the Vietnam War Memorial.  It has an extensive permanent display of notable Chinese-Americans, with more details and more personages than in any other setting or book.  There are other informative displays from American history, which are unsettling because of the prejudice the Chinese have faced.  There is also a replica of the historical Chinese store, which once served as a community center for its compatriots.  The current traveling exhibit is on Chinese puzzles-tangrams, linked rings, sliding block puzzles, and Burr puzzles (see www.ChinesePuzzles.org).  The museum succeeds in educating visitors regardless of their background.  The books available for purchase in the gift shop are of particular value to me, as these titles are not promoted in the mainstream media.  

The difference between MoCA and the National Museum of American Jewish History — or rather the difference between what the latter museum is and what it could be — may lie in the difference between ethnicity and religion.  The donors and board of trustees of the Jewish Museum chose to depict Jewishness as a cultural trait.  My Rabbi defines Jewishness as Yahadut, a religion.  Ergo, it’s a difficult balance to reach out to a wider audience.  My husband noted that the donor list of MoCA included corporate and government sponsors, who were comfortable with the idea of a cultural museum about the Chinese.  Similarly, it seems the sponsors of the new Jewish museum wanted to tell the cultural story of the Jews in America.  

Finally, what is the difference between a Jewish American and an American Jew?  It lies in the value the person places on the relative labels.  Someone who declares herself an American Jew says that being Jewish is more transcendent than being American.  And such as person identifies as a religious Jew.  So, the National Museum of American Jewish History needs to live up to its chosen name.  It needs to also educate the public about the religious history of Jews in America.