Sunday, December 27, 2015

Privilege and Perception

There is a well-known saying that goes along the lines of, "you don't know what you got till it's gone." I wholeheartedly agree with this saying, but I would expand its meaning so it also conveys, "you don't know what you got till it's staring you in the face."

I confronted both of these notions during my Chanukah holiday, which I decided to spend in Germany visiting friends I made when I studied in Australia. As soon as I entered Germany, I noticed several drastic changes from the environment I have become accustomed to in Israel. One of the most significant details I realized was the abundance of Christmas decorations situated literally everywhere I went.  The most common example of this was the large Christmas markets, which appeared at least once in every city I visited. These markets were crowded with both Germans and foreigners who were looking to buy toys, ornaments, and other gifts for Christmas and enjoy traditional German food and drink such as sausage, schnitzel, and my favorite, the traditional Christmas wine called gluhwein. As someone who has always enjoyed the Christmas spirit through the heartwarming songs, movies, and decorations and appreciated Christmas as a significant part of American culture, I got very emotional being in a place that so closely resembled what Stamford and DC look like at this time of year. While I love Israel and living here has been such an amazing experience, seeing the ubiquitous Christmas spirit of Germany made me realize that the predominantly Jewish environment in Israel is so different from the environment I grew up in, and that moving to Israel permanently would mean giving up on components of my American background and culture that I hold dear.

Decorations at a Frankfurt Christmas market

A Christmas tree in Berlin, with ornaments showing the different landmarks

My friends Kathrin, Sebastian, and Johannes drinking gluhwein

On the other side, noticing the dramatic shifts between Israel and Germany also made me appreciate the benefits that living in Israel offers, particularly the prevalence of Jewish expression. While in Germany, I was both enlightened and surprised by how different the German Jewish communities are from the ones I am used to. In Israel, I am accustomed to seeing multiple synagogues on one street and I just need to walk next door to attend prayer services and perform other Jewish rituals. In Germany, not only are there not as many synagogues as there are in Israel, but the ones that are there are extremely protected with security measures that produce barriers to entry, even for a proud Jew like myself. For the two synagogues I visited during my trip, one made me go through an exact replica of an airport security check, and the other made me hand over an ID after calling on an intercom requesting to be let into the locked building. I understand the precautions German Jews need to take due to the country's history with anti-Semitism, but out of all places, I never thought the most impenetrable place in a community could be a synagogue. True, things went much more smoothly after I got past the barriers, and I was so moved at the opportunity to light Chanukah candles and attend a Shabbat service with other Jews while traveling in a foreign land. However, the dramatic security presence and exclusivity apparent at these synagogues really left a mark on me, and made me appreciate places where I can comfortably practice my religion and connect with my fellow Jews.

A meaningful moment during my time in Berlin. Seeing the Chanukah menorah and the Christmas tree together at Brandenburg Gate.

Another meaningful Jewish moment from Berlin. Walking through the Holocaust Memorial.

These two experiences brought me significantly out of my comfort zone, and helped me to better appreciate what it means to be both an American and a Jew. I learned that though it often seems advantageous to be seen as an American or a Jew, especially when discussing relevant issues in today's global society, there are also contexts in which maintaining an American or Jewish identity brings more challenges than benefits. For each comfortable experience I have had as an American in the US or a Jew in Israel, I have been in other contexts such as Germany where neither identity is predominantly expressed, which has made me struggle with insecurity about success in these environments. Though I am most certainly proud to be American and Jewish and I appreciate the privileges these identities offer, I have become aware that privilege is based on your perception and those of the people around you, and just because you are considered privileged in one context does not mean you are privileged in every context.

I started to think a lot about privilege and perception after a session I participated in last week on the topic, which was creatively organized by my fellow Yahelnikim Brittany and Rachel. During this session, the entire group needed to sit in three rows and collect one piece of paper each. We were then instructed to crumple up our paper and try to throw it into the garbage can, which was situated in front of the first row. Naturally, the people in the row closest to the can had the best chance of achieving this goal. Conversely, the people in the back row had a much tougher challenge, despite having a seasoned athlete there.

This session brought to mind that people's opportunities for success are determined by the level they sit at in relation to others, which corresponds to their privileges in society. However, the most significant idea I gathered from this session is that one's privilege can easily change based on the context he or she is in, and one who we generally see as privileged is not always as privileged as we think. Like the athlete in the back row who couldn't make the shot, just because we have been privileged in the past does not mean that every situation will come easy for us, as contexts can always change in any direction.

I'm happy that this idea got brought to my attention, and I think this is an important point for people to remember. I am usually reluctant to discuss the concept of privilege because I think it can be a divisive and polarizing term. I have been in many conversations with my peers about privilege that have turned very heated because one group feels they are more victimized than the other and so the other group's contributions can be easily pushed aside and ultimately silenced.  I have felt this way many times as a white, heterosexual male. I, of course, realize that this part of my identity allows me certain privileges that other groups do not have, and I sympathize strongly with groups who need to suffer because of discriminations based on identities they were born into. However, I also strongly feel that my identity as a white male should not erase my place in these discussions, and it certainly does not mean that I do not have significant struggles and challenges.

Living in Lod has exposed me to many instances of struggles with privilege, in both obvious and more obscure senses. I, for example, have struggled a lot with language barriers and not being fully comfortable in a new culture. Even after three months of living here, I cannot get past my tendency to be polite and always get confused in situation when I need to be direct and confident. This is made even more challenging when I can't understand what someone is saying in Hebrew or Arabic, and when I have a hard time finding the words to say in response. Even though I feel equipped to do everything I need to do in my daily life and lucky to have the tools and experience to do so, I still feel jealous of all Israelis, regardless of their background, who are more comfortable with the language and culture and are able to fit in much more easily.

I was surprised to see something similar with the Russian community in Lod. Though many of them know Hebrew and are very active within the Lod community, many Russians here struggle greatly with maintaining their language and culture while adapting to Israeli society. Lia, the manager of the community garden I volunteer at, is one such person. This week at work, Lia shared that since in Israel the Russian language is basically confined to the Russian population, she and other Russians in her community need to work very hard to ensure their community members grow up aware of the Russian language and culture. I appreciated hearing about this challenge because it is not one that I have been exposed to in the past. This example showed me that each population in Israel, especially immigrant populations, has its own stories of struggle, and all of these stories are significant when discussing the notion of privilege.

I have also appreciated exposure to populations in Lod that do not receive benefits that I take for granted. For example, working in an Arab school in a poverty-driven neighborhood has shown me how privileged I have been to receive a quality education and live in an environment that suited my education needs. This week was the first week of Elrazi's winter break, and Jodie and I have been assigned certain days to go to school with our 5th graders and help prepare them for the Meitzav exam, a standardized test all 5th graders in Israel will take in March. We were instructed to give our students practice Meitzav exams, and I asked the English teacher Adel if we could tell our students to review certain topics at home. To my surprise, Adel instructed me to never give my students homework assignments, because with their unstable and unsupportive home environments they will never be able to complete them. This was a big eye-opener for me as someone who has never needed to worry about not being able to do my homework because of my situation at home. I gained a lot of insight from this, and it is definitely something I will keep in mind when interacting with my kids going forward.

My encounters with the Ethiopian population of Lod have also shown me how privileged I am to come from a stable home environment. This past week, I began conducting a weekly music lesson at the local matnas (community center), and my first two students were two little Ethiopian girls aged 6.5 and 7. I started the lesson asking the girls to introduce themselves and describe how singing plays into their lives. I asked one girl if any of her family members sing, like her father and mother, and she responded by saying that her mother sometimes sings, but her father "doesn't live in Lod" and she "never sees him." This response could have meant a number of things, but knowing the prevalence of youth at risk in Lod brought a very negative picture to mind. This got me thinking that my work makes it so I am constantly in touch with individuals who are completely alien to the benefits I have become accustomed to, and this is a great opportunity for me to make a real impact in their lives. Through this weekly music lesson specifically, I am aiming to use singing as a way to bring joy and hope into the lives of my kids, and to teach them that even if the world pushes you down there is always a way to be brought back up.

Through my time in Israel, I have learned about multiple facets dealing with the word privilege. I have learned to appreciate the privileges I have, and show sympathy toward those who do not share these benefits. On the other hand, I have also realized the importance of recognizing challenges that all groups are facing, no matter how privileged we perceive them to be. Relating to myself, I understand the need to think about the struggles experienced by the underprivileged communities of Lod and around the world. However, this does not mean that the challenges I face should be disregarded, and hence I should also feel entitled and confident about sharing my own struggles. Privilege is a word that gets thrown around a lot, and deservedly so. But instead of using it as a way to discriminate against other groups, we should be using it to recognize each other's struggles and come up with solutions that work in everyone's favor. By recognizing that privilege can be perceived differently in different contexts, I believe we can become more understanding and productive in any situation we are placed in.

Happy holidays to all, and to all a Happy New Year! :)

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