"I don't talk it up, is all. Figure there's enough trouble in this world without people thinkin' Jews are all monsters like me." —Ben Grimm (The Thing)
The Fantastic Four are elemental, both in the fire air earth water way and that they are foundational to superheroes as we know them today. Basics, classic features of the marvel universe are sourced in their very first issues; they open the door to the weirder cosmic Marvel with shapeshifting skrulls and evil autocrat rival scientist Dr. Doom.
It’s a known fact to most Jewish people that when we go out into the world, we represent all Jews. It’s in a subtler way than for other racialized groups, and arguably we’re not as confined by it, but Jewish respectability politics do exist.
A popular view of Judaism, both from outside and within, is that we have a choice between Orthodox jewish practice or assimilating into mainstream culture.
Maybe you stand from the goyim, but do your best to fit in at shul; marry young, have a big family, do as many of the the right things as possible, while still fitting into your community. This is not the environment I grew up in, so I have less to say about it; but it is stifling in ways I don’t know how to interact with, and being a genderqueer individual facing a highly gendered space I don’t intend to start now.
The one I am more familiar with: you don’t stand out, or call attention to yourself for jewishness. You send your kids to hebrew school and go to shul on the high holy days (if you don’t have to work, or if your boss is tolerant), but otherwise you dress and act and look like everyone else. Maybe you light shabbas candles at home, but you assimilate, or you hide in pursuit of safety.
In either case, there is often not room for misfits to be our true selves in Jewish community. You show off the nice boys and kind girls and beautiful babies and smart doctors and suburban families. You’re kinda embarrassed about the older singles and the gays and the rock monster who moonlights as a hero.
I understand the role of safety in choosing to assimilate. But when respectability politics run roughshod over which Jewish people are allowed to represent judaism, what it teaches the rest of us is this:
Judaism does not want us; judaism does not have space for us; judaism is only for picturesque white straight nuclear families who form promptly and produce children.
But—Judaism has always been an evolving and changing religion of weirdos. It has always been a space where it is difficult to be us, where we are chosen to live eternally in covenant with Hashem, where we are responsible for doing the work and keeping community with each other. It is not just for the nice jewish boys and girls, for the abled until old age, for the ones who agree with the rabbi week after week; it is not for Americans who ignore local politics and choose instead to send funds to the israeli military.
It is for cripples, and it is for queers, and it is for all of us messy people and monsters and the people who love us.
I still struggle, when I talk about Judaism, when to get my politics and embarrassing lumps and clarifications out of the way. Whether I am going to be a Model Jewish Person this time or a Proper Leftist With The Correct Palestine Politics or a Nice Jewish NotQuiteGirlOkCloseEnough. How am I representing my people? How much of an embarrassment am I?
My grandmother was obsessed with propriety, and how things looked, but she loved my weirdo self fully. She clearly didn’t always understand, and I will have her slightly distraught "oh, Meli" as a soundbite in my head for the rest of time.
She taught me that we all find our family members embarrassing sometimes, but you can be a little embarrassed while also being proud of a person. You don’t have to hide what you don’t understand, even if you’re not looking forward to explaining to your charity board friends that your granddaughter has purple hair now and maybe you wish she’d waited until after the annual luncheon.
You don’t have to "get it" to support it. And maybe that’s what we need to be about, instead of black-and-white correct ways of being Jewish, so our current-day Ben Grimms aren’t embarrassed into hiding their jewishness.