May is evidently Jewish American Heritage Month (as well as being Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month) and the library that employs me has put up a nice exhibit of related works in the library collection. Which is good, and as it should be, and appropriate to the various months of the heritage calendar.
But… when the person in charge of the display asked me for input, as I happen to be one of the nearby Jews, I was honestly very conflicted. Here’s the thing: I was much more concerned about items I did not want on the display than items I did want.
Things I was uneasy about putting on the display:
- Material about the Holocaust. We had a display for Holocaust Remembrance day a couple of weeks ago, and that was fine. There’s a sense in which the Holocaust has become culturally central to the Jewish American experience, but I don’t like it, and I’d much rather emphasize those parts of the Jewish American experience (or, rather, experiences) that are not Holocaust related.
- Material about anti-Semitism. Again, this is part of the Jewish-American experience, but it doesn’t seem appropriate for what I would prefer to be a celebratory display.
- Explicitly religious material. I mean, I don’t know, I feel like it’s a little inappropriate for us to highlight explicitly religious material. I certainly don’t want anyone visiting the library to feel like they are being pushed to a particular religious viewpoint.
- Material related directly or symbolically to the nation-state of Israel. Jewish Americans are Americans, and while many of us are naturally interested in the state of Israel, it’s a different country, and this Heritage Month is explicitly about Jewish American heritage. Vaddevah dat means.
- Material highlighting highly successful American Jews in the fields of entertainment, banking and finance, industry, or politics. This is where I get particularly uneasy—obviously, part of celebrating the history of Jewish Americans is celebrating American Jewish celebrities. But given the anti-Semitic trope that Jews control certain aspects of American life, I am uneasy about celebrating those Jews who have been successful in those fields.
- Material like The Big book of Jewish humor or The joys of Yiddish, that hold up borsht-belt Your Show of Shows shtick as what it means to be an American Jew. Both because, come on, that’s embarrassing at this point, and also because the whole history of “Jewish American Heritage” in popular culture has too much of that, such that putting one of those items in to the display, even alongside other less ashkenormative stuff, makes me uneasy. Really, if somebody who didn’t know any actual Jews would have chosen it for a display in 1965, I’d rather leave it out.
- Anything I don’t happen to like, personally.
My point is not that it’s impossible to make a good library display for Jewish-American History Month. It is possible, and in fact our display is pretty good! My point is that, in contemplating such a display, my mind goes much more to what I don’t want than what I do, which is probably worth thinking about in relation to all these Heritage months.
And just so this note isn’t unduly negative, I’ll mention that I recently read When the Angels Left the Old Country, by Sacha Lamb, and it’s one of my favorite new books in years. Just delightful. In a ashkenaz queer YA specfic anticapitalist ace/trans YPSL sort of way.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,