Some Things, We Can’t Hide

Hey all! I wrote a piece for the Jacksonville Jewish News summer magazine a couple months ago. Since the piece, which is on page 51, is a bit onerous to get to online, I’ve posted it on the blog below.

“Fulbright—like any worthwhile program, really—is designed to be just a little bit subversive. As teachers, you have social capital, but you have to decide how you want to use it.”

The director of the Malaysian Fulbright commission offered us this piece of advice during one of our orientation sessions in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, in January. Life at my high school, situated in a rural village next to the Thai border, feels a world away from the cosmopolitan capital, but I think about those words often. See, my very presence here is an act of subversion: the Malaysian government says that they’d prefer not to have Jews here teaching their kids. Of course, atheists have it worse, homosexuality is illegal, and people around my rural state think that only blonde, fair-skinned Christians are “real Americans.” I can’t really hide my brown hair and tan skin, but the anti-Jewish attitudes here are serious enough that I have chosen to hide my, well, lack of Christianity.

Now, some of you probably read that and thought, “Malaysia isn’t safe for Jews—it’s too anti-Semitic.” I don’t think so; I feel perfectly safe here. I’ve even told a close Malay confidant about my religion, which has been a huge help for navigating Pesach over here. My hiding is more of a job tension thing: at the moment, coming clean about my religion would be too much of a Pandora’s box for me to handle as I still learn the norms and culture of my school. I’m sure I will reveal to more people in due time. And having an identity cause tension in my job isn’t exactly a new thing, either: I remember several times last year having to talk to rabbis who told me that they didn’t like “young people” or “liberals like me” working in Jewish politics. The problem isn’t just a Malaysian one.

And yet, I’ve come to discover that as much as I can hide my Jewish religion, there’s just so much about my Jewish identity that I can’t hide. People here mistake my Ashkenazi-Floridian skin for Syrian or Lebanese, for starters. And while I’ve tried to take a step back from Jewish community politics, I can’t stop myself from stealing a glance at the Jewish Daily Forward and Ha’aretz at my desk.

Ironically, being Jewish has opened all kinds of doors for me in Malaysia, even though my Malaysian counterparts don’t quite know it. There was a special moment I had recently, when I was sitting and talking to one of my students after playing basketball (a sport I honed through training at the JCA), where my student started talking about a movie he saw about a man who overcame Tourette’s Syndrome and a terribly discriminatory school system to become an award-winning teacher. I wouldn’t have thought twice about this movie, except for the fact that I’d heard this very person speak last year when I went to Camp Coleman to help out with the Olim Fellowship retreat. His name? Brad Cohen. I emailed some contacts in the Reform Movement, got Brad’s email, and now my student is so excited to email Brad himself. It’s an amazingly Jewish way for my student to learn English, even if my student doesn’t know it yet. Subversion, indeed.

Brad-Speaks
Brad Cohen. Photo courtesy of http://www.classperformance.com/

A couple notes to the piece. The version I have here is unedited—the one in the magazine had just a couple word choice edits, plus they deleted my reference to being liberal and causing strife within the Jewish community. I’ll play nice and assume the deletion was for space; make of it what you will. Also, the article was accompanied by a picture of me and a couple Fulbrighters wearing a traditional Bamar headscarf in Burma: please note that the scarf is not a part of Malaysian culture.

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