“Ah, I used to think about anti-Semitism!” Dr. Ross exclaimed with a burst of energy as he read my response in his new patient questionnaire.
“What do you think about?” was the big question.
I was there to see him for my migraine headaches.
My response, “Anti-Semitism,” resonated.
“Thinking about Anti-Semitism used to give me headaches too, ” he shared, “but now, ahhhhhhhh…” he inhaled deeply for me, and exhaled equally dramatically. “But now, I do Yoga,” he said blissfully.
It was the mid-seventies in San Francisco, but even then, this was an unusual response from an M.D.
“When I was in medical school at Colgate University, I used to think about anti-Semitism,” he explained.
Didn’t all Jews think about anti-Semitism, I wondered, and wasn’t “Colgate” a toothpaste?
“Colgate” brought memories of shopping at The American Pharmacy with my mother in Kobe, Japan, to buy our American toothpaste. I loved taking in deep breaths of the uniquely “American” scents that permeated the small store.
As a young person in Japan, I imagined what it would be like to live in America someday, a place where I would be around “foreigners” and Jews I didn’t already know. Our international community in Kobe was limited to a few hundred gaigin, and our Jewish Community was tiny, with thirty families or so.
As I write this, Kobe’s foreign scene brings to mind San Francisco’s women’s community where I ended up in the early seventies. Our lesbian community was small enough for most of us to know each other by name. We danced at the same clubs, played pinball, hung out by the pool table and felt intimately connected as a community.
When I arrived in Los Angeles ten years earlier as an eighteen year old foreigner, it wasn’t Kobe, and it was a lot bigger than The American Pharmacy. I was about to live my dream of being surrounded by Americans, especially American Jews.
I left Japan so ready to break out of the tiny community i grew up in.
Jews in Los Angeles who were my age were second and third generation who grew up American. Most took being Jews among a large Jewish community for granted. They found my enthusiasm every time I identified myself as a Jew/long lost family, strange. Many Jews I approached found my use of “Jew” offensive, I was told to say “Jewish” instead. Non-Jews were surprised as well, “you’re not like most Jewish people here…” even though I spoke perfect unaccented English from years of study.
And my background was too unfamiliar for the Jews.
“How can you be Jewish if you are from Egypt and Iraq? You are an Arab!”
“Yes, an Arab Jew,” I tried to explain.
Further confusing the issue, I had no Yiddish in my background, and our experience re. “Jewish food” was a whole other story.
The huge influx and influence of Persian Jews had not yet arrived in Los Angeles, and there was little to no awareness of the ancient Jewish communities and cultures all over the Middle East and North Africa.
The invalidation was worse than being a gaigin, foreigner, in Japan.
I wanted to go home. My parents were unequivocal; “there is no future for you here.” They hoped to join me in America eventually, when we got immigration. We had already waited almost 20 years. I was in the United States on Red Cross Papers for college. If I left school I had two choices: marry a willing American man or go back to Japan.
Meanwhile, I practiced saying “Jewish” instead of “Jew” even though it disturbed me.
“Today, many years after my visit with Dr. Ross, an even more distancing dynamic is taking place. “Jew-ish,” doesn’t seem to go far enough.
Some American Buddhist Jewish teachers delight in stating: “I am only Jewish on my parents’ sides.”
The disavowal never fails to fill the hall with laughter from the disproportionately large percent of Jewish meditators in the hall. Ironically, the disrespect is unexamined. I think about internalized anti-Semitism.
Thirty-five years ago Dr. Ross had the cure; “Do Yoga,” he advised, “Ahhhh, close your eyes and breathe, no thinking about anti-Semitism.” He didn’t want the headache. And I couldn’t use his prescription. Short of a lobotomy, I will never “stop thinking” about anti-Semitism.