Are We Past Passing?

June, 08 2012
Culture, Latest

by Julia Glauberman

“I’ll do it… I’ll be the Gentile, because I could pass best,” says the narrator of Nathan Englander’s recent short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.” This declaration comes as Englander’s characters are engaged in a game they blithely refer to as the Anne Frank game, the Righteous Gentile game, or, most bluntly, Who Will Hide Me? But it quickly becomes clear that it isn’t really a game; these characters are, in seriousness, mulling the benefits of passing.

The term “pass,” popularized by Nella Larson’s 1929 novel Passing, is often used to describe racial, ethnic or religious misrepresentation. Passing relies heavily on the existence of prevalent notions regarding fixed identities. Such static impressions of identity largely explain why we’re always so surprised to learn of a celebrity’s newly revealed Jewish roots or discover that someone we had always assumed was Jewish is not. Yet as Englander’s characters’ preoccupation with survival suggests, this issue has much deeper roots. The matter of passing or masking (the latter term suggesting a more deliberate act and one that sometimes carries a more negative connotation) is a theme that has emerged time and again throughout the course of Jewish history.

Over the years, masking has often served Jews well. In Nazi Germany, concealing one’s Jewish identity could be the difference between life and death. In the landmark graphic novel Maus, Art Spiegelman chronicles his parents’ survival through the Holocaust, much of which depended upon masking, an act Spiegelman depicts by giving characters physical masks. Closer to home, hiding Jewish roots could be a means of avoiding discrimination in a number of spheres including employment, housing and social clubs, a lesson Gregory Peck taught us clearly in Elia Kazan’s classic 1947 film Gentleman’s Agreement, in which Peck a reporter who posed as a Jew to investigate anti-Semitism. Laura E. Weber’s 1991 case study of economic discrimination against Jews in Minnesota between the years 1920 and 1950 provides a fascinating in-depth look at the kinds of issues that arose from these types of inequities in recent history. In particular, Weber notes that such discrimination, including the near-total exclusion of Jews from all major industries, was generally unsurprising to Jews because of similar experiences before emigration from Europe.

Masking certainly isn’t a modern development. In the Middle Ages, the Spanish Inquisition was undoubtedly a cause for widespread masking in addition to the intended conversions (a number of descendants of conversos have recently returned to Judaism publicly). Even further in the past, there are quite a few examples of biblical figures concealing their religion: Esther, Joseph and Moses all hide their Jewishness for political or strategic reasons until the time came when revealing their faith seemed to be the only remaining option.

Over the course of Jewish history the narrative of passing has evolved. Earlier stories of passing hinged on revealing Jewish identity as a means of mass survival, but more recently it seems that masking Jewish identity has been employed as a means of individual survival. We now live in an era of pluralism, in which many classes of discrimination have been outlawed, but with such a strong history of concealing religious identity, can Jews give up passing and masking entirely?

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