I've mentioned before that I'm a member of NetGalley and also that I love it to little tiny pieces. Once a week or so, I get a title round-up in my inbox and these frequently become fodder for my traditional rambly musings. Today this one showed up in the inbox:
Jews and Words
By Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger
Why are words so important to Jews? Novelist Amos Oz and historian Fania Oz-Salzberger roam the gamut of Jewish history to explain the integral relationship of Jews and words. Through a blend of storytelling and scholarship, conversation and argument, father and daughter tell the tales behind Judaism's most enduring names, adages, disputes, texts, and quips. These words, they argue, compose the chain connecting Abraham with the Jews of every subsequent generation.
Framing the discussion within such topics as continuity, women, timelessness, and individualism, Oz and Oz-Salzberger deftly engage Jewish personalities across the ages, from the unnamed, possibly female author of the Sons of Songs through obscure Talmudists to contemporary writers. They suggest that Jewish continuity, even Jewish uniqueness, depends not on central places, monuments, heroic personalities, or rituals but rather on written words and an ongoing conversation between the generations. Full of learning, lyricism, and humor, Jews and Words offers an extraordinary tour of the words at the heart of Jewish culture and extends a hand to the reader, any reader, to join the dialogue.
Now before I get any further into this post, I want to stress that what very little I know about the traditional publishing industry informs me that it's very likely that neither Amos Oz nor Fania Oz-Salzberger (hopefully linked to the correct people there) had any input or control over this blurb. It's highly possible this blurb was written up by someone in the marketing department who may not be Jewish, may not know anything about Judaism, and may not have even read the book.
I'd also like to point out that I am not Jewish.
So I may be about to say a bunch of really foolish and offensive things. If I am, I apologize and do please for goodness sake let me know so I can improve.
All that out of the way, my first thought when I read this was, Huh. I'll bet there are some Jews for whom words aren't important. I wonder how they would feel reading this? Is it possible that they'd feel like they are being told they are "un-Jewish" for not attaching importance to words?
My next thoughts ranged over similar territory: there are probably some Jews who don't believe in the literal existence of Abraham; there are probably some Jews who believe that the Song of Songs is a work of a collection of authors (rather than a single author) many of whom may not have been Jewish at all; there are probably some Jews who feel that their cultural uniqueness is linked not to central places, monuments, heroic personalities, rituals, written words, or ongoing conversations between generations, but rather to something else entirely. There are probably some Jews who don't like being called "Jews" at all and might prefer something else, like "Jewish people" or "Jewish person". How would all these different individuals feel reading this blurb?
(Also, I am the only one who is surprised that food wasn't mentioned in that list of culturally unique things? I've seen more than one scholar argue that one way to really define a culture is through that culture's general eating habits and popular food. In fact, now that I say that, I remember also reading that theory from at least one Jewish scholar in my library, which would be topical! Hang on. *goes to search Calibre* (This is now officially the most rambly post ever.) Ah! Here we are!)
Today, as in the past, people demonstrate their ethnicity in many different ways: in language, religion, customs of dress, burial practices, and elaborate dietary taboos. The simple material culture left by the highland herders and farmers who became the first Israelites offers no clear indication of their dialect, religious rituals, costume, or burial practices. But one very interesting detail about their dietary habits has been discovered. Bones recovered from the excavations of the small early Israelite villages in the highlands differ from settlements in other parts of the country in one significant respect: there are no pigs. Bone assemblages from earlier highlands settlements did contain the remains of pigs and the same is true for later (post–Iron Age) settlements there. But throughout the Iron Age -- the era of the Israelite monarchies -- pigs were not cooked and eaten, or even raised in the highlands. Comparative data from the coastal Philistine settlements of the same period -- the Iron Age I -- show a surprisingly large number of pigs represented among the recovered animal bones. Though the early Israelites did not eat pork, the Philistines clearly did, as did (as best we can tell from the sketchier data) the Ammonites and Moabites east of the Jordan.
A ban on pork cannot be explained by environmental or economic reasons alone. It may, in fact, be the only clue that we have of a specific, shared identity among the highland villagers west of the Jordan. Perhaps the proto-Israelites stopped eating pork merely because the surrounding peoples -- their adversaries -- did eat it, and they had begun to see themselves as different. Distinctive culinary practices and dietary customs are two of the ways in which ethnic boundaries are formed. Monotheism and the traditions of Exodus and covenant apparently came much later. Half a millennium before the composition of the biblical text, with its detailed laws and dietary regulations, the Israelites chose -- for reasons that are not entirely clear -- not to eat pork. When modern Jews do the same, they are continuing the oldest archaeologically attested cultural practice of the people of Israel.
So! Not entirely sure where I was going with that, except that food could have been in that list of things that some Jewish people might consider part of their cultural uniqueness and that some Jewish people might not consider part of their cultural uniqueness and that -- probably -- it's better not to generalize about what precisely comprises Jewish cultural uniqueness because probably different Jewish people would answer that question differently. I'm guessing.
And this is the part of the post where I move away from the tentative flannel-graph book example and leap into the general cultural example where I'm much more comfortable, because as both a woman and a rape survivor I have seen this before.
There are so, so, so many books out there about what women think and what comprises being a woman and what is important to women and how women prioritize things and women are from [insert planet here] and therefore [insert generalizations here]. And there are fewer books but plenty of blog posts about rape survivors and how they respond in the aftermath of their rape and how their relationships are affected afterwards and how they live the rest of their lives and what sorts of trigger warnings they do and do not need and how to respond to them when they share their rape experience with you.
Oh, look! I've done that last one by telling men not to react to rape stories with overt anger and other survivors have bravely pointed out that, actually, anger on their behalf made them feel better. Whooops, me!
One of the frustrating things about being a member of a minority group is that you are often expected to be the Representative Minority in the room. If you are a woman, you are supposed to provide The Woman Perspective. If you are a rape survivor, you are looked to as the source of The Rape Survivor Experience. I'm told that other minorities are similarly subjected to this archetyping: people of various colors and cultures are looked to -- both explicitly and implicitly -- to be The Representative of that culture or race for the education of everyone else in the room.
Most of the time, being The Representative in the room sucks because there's a whole heap of expectations to the point where you, The Representative, are being forced to be the face of your entire minority group, and therefore if you aren't perfect, then someone else after you is going to be discriminated against for your failings. If I slack off at work, the next Woman will be pegged as a potential slacker. If I can't complete a spacial math problem, heads will nod meaningfully over Women and their crappy Maths. If I quit work to spend more time with my family or for health reasons, that's one more woman who won't be hired or one more woman who won't be given a raise or a promotion, because these women, you just can't trust them to not dump their career on a whim. And, sure, individual men do all these things, but these men aren't Representative. They're individuals.
Rarely, though, being The Representative can be kind of nice, if you have the spoons and the time and the inclination to do some education. This is the Feminist Blogger situation, where Ana (and people like her) can sit at her computer and do fluffy-bunny Feminism 101 posts explaining to the Privileged People how it can feel to be raped, and how it may feel in the face of certain reactions, and how it might affect the survivor over the long-term. But there's always that tension of getting the Can/Maybe/Could words lined up in the right order while still firmly suggesting that while it is possible for some Real Life women to react [insert stereotypical reaction here], that doesn't mean that the media is justified in reinforcing that trope constantly with every woman in every movie / television show / book evah because "possible" doesn't mean "likely".
And this is really freaking hard to do! And one major reason why I'm very much not trying to dump on Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger (besides the fact that their book blurb may have been written by someone else entirely). Because "you're missing the Can/Maybe/Could boat and claiming total Representation" is a concern troll tactic so popular it made it into the Derailing 101 compendium:
Your Experience Is Not Representative Of Everyone
Of course, straw man arguments are critical to any successful derailing of conversation. It’s very important to discount the Marginalised Person's™ experience at every available opportunity. Apart from being simply outright hurtful and demeaning, it also forces them into a constant position of defence.
If a Marginalised Person™ gives you a personal testament, then you must immediately assume they are speaking on behalf of their entire group of people and be very quick to point out that it's wrong for them to do so.
It's a diversionary tactic, designed to get them denying your accusation and so forgetting to continue to argue their point.
You will find that something very important to Marginalised People™ is stressing the fact that they are not all the same. This is because Privileged People® have routinely lumped them all together as one great big monolithic group who all look the same, act the same, think the same, speak the same, dress the same, eat the same, feel the same - you get the idea. And, of course, all of those monolithic behaviours are "other" than those of the Privileged®. Othering is a process that permits Privileged People® to consider the Marginalised™ as less than human, thereby justifying discriminative and stigmatising behaviours against them. So naturally, it is imperative to a Marginalised Person™ to make it understood their group of people are as diverse in expression and experience as Privileged People®.
You can play on this concern by alarming and insulting them with the implication you think they are homogenising their own group.
It also works to suggest to them that their experience is worthless because it doesn't align with everyone's - particularly those that you've decided to favour. That is, the experiences that, to your mind, back up your prejudices. This is belittling and offensive in the extreme as you are essentially denying their reality. People's personal experiences are important to them, so it's likely they will, whilst getting increasingly hurt and upset, continue to try and defend and "prove" them to your exacting measures while you can bask in the satisfaction of knowing you have caused them distress.
You are well on your way to winning!
So this is seeming to me like one of those areas where Heads-I-Win-Tails-You-Lose for Marginalized Peoples: even if you manage to put in every possible Can/Maybe/Could, there's still someone who can play the troll card and claim that you're unfairly speaking for an entire group of which you are only one member.
And yet... well... we keep trying. We don't let trolls dictate our way of life. So when I say "women don't like X" or "rape survivors feel Y" or "disabled people hate it when Z", don't feel bad to be there to remind me that my perspective (while unique and valuable and non-erasable) is one in a million, and that it might not be true for everyone in that category. And maybe we can all -- even book-blurb-writers who labor under severe word limits -- try to be a little more sensitive to the idea that there are very few blanket statements that can be applied to every member of a minority group. Women aren't all from Venus; Men aren't all from Mars; Jewish people don't all find words "so important".
That's my hope and my goal in my writing, anyway.