I’ll start my blog off with an apology and an assurance (and assonance, it seems). First, I apologize that I haven’t been able to write before now. It’s been a whirlwind of a few weeks in Kuala Lumpur (and now, Ipoh), and as you’ll soon see, this blog wasn’t the kind of thing I could turn out in half an hour. Secondly, I assure you that I’ve been having a great time so far: our cohort has been a lot of fun to hang out with, there has been a lot to see and do, and I’m very excited about my school placement in the state of Perlis. I would’ve written more, but I figured the best use of the time that all of the ETAs are together in Kuala Lumpur to bond with the other ETAs exploring the city. So that’s what I did, at the expense of finding time to write. But even with as well as orientation has been going, there are still moments when it’s hard to be here.
My first true hard moment came last Tuesday, when, as part of our orientation, we went through a number of segments on navigating our identity while in Malaysia. On the whole, the sessions, which explored race, religion, privilege, assault, and “being closeted,” were well put-together and much needed. There were helpful tidbits for me in each of the sessions, such as how to navigate being a white person in a non-white environment and how to talk about our identities through an intersectional frame (which is not, as some in the Jewish community have recently suggested, the belief in some “transcendent white, male, heterosexual power structure”). The sessions also covered how to handle being Jewish in Malaysia, which hit a bit more close to home.
This session wasn’t the first time that I’d thought about being Jewish in Malaysia. It’s something I’ve considered since I first considered applying to the program, more than 18 months ago. One of the first questions I asked to a Jewish alumni of the program was how he navigated the anti-Semitism here, and after I was accepted I talked to two other Jewish ETAs (English Teaching Assistants) in different parts of Malaysia about their experience. I like to think that I’ve been sober about the situation, neither minimizing the potential danger nor letting any fear or discomfort derail my plans here. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people going through similar experiences, and even checking the Anti-Defamation League’s annual survey of anti-Semitism around the world. (While I don’t agree with most aspects of the ADL’s Israel advocacy, especially their conflation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, I have no reason to believe their polls are inaccurate.) Everyone I talked to told me a similar thing: though Malaysia isn’t dangerous for Jews, Malaysians generally have bad perceptions of them. So, I would have to hide my Jewish identity for much of the year. It wasn’t an easy thing to hear, but by the time I arrived in KL I had accepted that fact and started to think about what I could say to deflect questions. And as a personal growth opportunity, I was interested to see how my own Jewish identity would mature when, after a year instead of touting my connection to Judaism for work, I would be in a place where I had to hide it.
But of course, it’s one thing to know that at some point in the future, in some far-off country, you’ll have to hide your religion. It’s quite another to be in Malaysia and sit through a presentation telling you to pretend to be Christian. The game of pretend felt so devastating for me because it was so familiar: growing up in a city that’s said to be owned by a Southern Baptist megachurch (I’m only half-joking), people would assume that I’m Christian all the time. However, back in Jacksonville, I would use my friends’ ignorance as an opportunity to teach them about my Judaism. I still remember the spiel I used to give to my teachers about why I’d be missing a random Tuesday and Thursday in September, and the spiel I would give when I was asked which “denomination” of Jewish I was. I kind of liked it, actually. It made me different, and back in middle school when I struggled to make conversation with, well, anyone, having a cross-cultural exchange was a surefire way to have something to talk about for at least a few minutes. Hell, my Myspace name (z”l) back in 8th grade was Jewman Jonny! By high school I stopped wearing my Judaism so prominently on my sleeve, but I never lost sight of how valuable to expose a friend to a new religion. Ignorance became curiosity, and hopefully, understanding, and there are few things I enjoy more in this world than fighting ignorance.
I’ve been wondering what that 8th-grade, Jewman Jonny version of me would think if he heard that, 10 years down the road, he’d be going around telling people he was Christian. He’d probably be pretty upset. I’d explain to him that this experience is part of furthering my Jewish identity, and that sometimes, meeting new people from different cultures requires us to keep secret really important parts of our identities, at least at first. I might point out that he wouldn’t go into Jacksonville’s heavily-conservative Westside and start talking about how he opposed the Iraq War. Maybe Jewman Jonny would accept that reasoning; maybe he wouldn’t. But the whole thought experiment made me uncomfortable.
I tried to deal with my discomfort as I often do: by laughing about it. Our coordinators advised us to pick a denomination, just in case I get a follow-up question to my pronouncement of Christianity (since Malaysians tend to be fairly curious about Americans’ religious habits). So, I decided to post on my Facebook wall about needing to choose a Christian denomination, and asked my Christian friends to weigh in with their thoughts. Having done interfaith work in D.C. for a year, I have a pretty good idea of the differences between the mainstream Protestant streams, and I envisioned a snarky debate amongst my Christian friends over which was best. However, my vision didn’t pan out. Instead, over half of the 25 comments I got were from Jewish friends and family (despite the fact that the post was explicitly addressed to Christians), ranging from funny asides to suggestions to “just say that I was Jewish anyway” to an implication from one of my most virulent Facebook trolls that my whole journey to Malaysia was inherently flawed. I was taken aback by the presumption of my Jewish community—which has never been to Malaysia—to insert itself into a conversation that it knew next to nothing about and that it wasn’t even invited to. The whole exchange taught me two important lessons:
- If I post about making cultural adaptions in Malaysia (whether concerning religion, politics, or sanitary habits) on Facebook without giving any context to it, people WILL freak out, and
- My Jewish community is going to follow me to Malaysia and throughout my travels here, whether I like it or not.
The second point is perhaps the tragedy of my pretend religion: I really want to tell my Malaysian community about my community back home and why they care so much about me going to this Muslim country halfway across the world, but I have to leave out a big part of that description. I want to tell them about how my Judaism is not just the prayers I say and my connection to Israel, how it is also this weird and amazing community that gave me my moral and political values, and how, like Jonah, I couldn’t get away from my Jewish identity no matter how hard I tried.
That feeling of being “stuck” to my Judaism as a fact of life, for good and bad, has made picking my pretend denomination all the more strange. If I were choosing which denominations I liked best, I’d probably say I was a Quaker or a Universalist, since both are known for their anti-slavery roots and progressive ideals. I thought about identifying as Presbyterian as a small act of protest, since (though I’m no supporter of BDS) I admired PC(USA)’s reasoned restraint after Jewish groups called them BDS supporters and anti-Semites when they decided to divest from a couple American companies with direct ties to the Occupation. But that felt a bit too snarky, even for me.
I kept coming back to a dream that I had in third or fourth grade, one of the few dreams I remember from my childhood. Back then, my Jewish preschool and Temple did a particularly poor job of Holocaust education, going heavy on the shock and trauma factors and light on the “how should we help these young kids deal with this upsetting information?” considerations. As a result, I would have nightmares about the Holocaust once every year or two until I reached high school. In one of the most intense ones, my dad and dream-me were hiding from the Nazis in some European town, and our hosts implored us to make a speech to the community about why we had mysteriously moved there (I know, dream logic). In an attempt to disguise myself effectively, I talked about how I used to be Baptist but recently became Methodist (not sure why, but dream logic). I don’t remember anything after that point in the dream, but that dream moment has always stuck with me as a moment of disingenuousness, shame, and terror.
Of course, it’s a GROSS exaggeration to suggest that being Jewish in Malaysia is anything like being Jewish in Europe in 1939; as I’ve said earlier, I have no reason to be concerned for my safety. Yet in remembering that moment of shame and terror, I found what I’m going to pretend to be for the next year: Methodist. Not because I like it more than other Christian denominations (though I did thoroughly enjoy the time I spent doing interfaith work at the UMC building in DC last year), but because I have the feeling that it chose me. I have an immutable connection to Methodism—an incredibly scary one lodged in my subconscious, concerning maybe the darkest time in human history—but a connection nonetheless. That connection is binding in a very literal sense: whenever I think of that dream, it reminds me of how much emotional baggage I carry from anti-Semitic persecutions, and perhaps, from my loving, neurotic Jewish community.
As one of my favorite social justice activists, Bryan Stevenson likes to say, there’s power in identity, and denying that identity—and the community that comes with it—comes with real costs. Luckily for me, I’m able to use my hidden identity as an opportunity for personal growth and reflection, instead of being forced to hide it as a matter of life and death like so many of my ancestors and so many around the world today. (Not to mention all the Muslims who would be forced to hide their identity coming to the USA under the infamous “ban all Muslims” proposal, which, by the way, is supported by three-fifths of Republicans.) I hope to explore the special kind of privilege that comes from being able to have such meaningful growth experiences, but for now the lights are dimming in my hotel’s one wifi hotspot, and I fear I must go to bed.