Self-reflection in a time of scandal: An attempt to approach identity with empathy

Max Stein

I had an Israeli camp counselor who said, “I don’t like this word, Jewish. I am a Jew. There is no ish.” I wish I could say the same. Unfortunately, I missed Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services this year and sometimes I forget to call my mom. I am jew-ish. I am American; I am white. Last Thursday I had to read aloud from a story about Jews ritually killing Christian children, a story calling the Jews the spawn of Satan, a story describing them as the world’s greatest evil. I had to tell my English class about how a variation of this story led to the Jewish expulsion from England. I pictured 300 Jews inside a tower, deciding to lock themselves in and burn in from the inside rather than face the frothing mob outside. I remembered in 9th grade when my friend called me a dirty fucking Jew and I lost control until I found myself holding him on the ground by the neck. I guess I used to have an Old Testament temper. Whatever. Antisemitism is, like, so not in right now. 

I had to desperately wonder whether Chaucer wrote his story ironically, or whether he hates me. I had to wonder whether I am the world’s great evil. I’m not even that Jewish. Last week I had to critically read a narrative that formed the foundation of 700 years of persecution and millions of deaths. I had to critically read a narrative that today only exists in taboo sections of libraries and on 4chan. And, I guess, in my English class. Why? It is nearly unimaginable for me that so many students here go through that experience in almost every class, starting from the first time they had to read To Kill a Mockingbird in 7th grade. But I need to imagine. I need to empathize. Is it worth it to push through my emotions and be an academic? Is it brave to disengage from my identity and focus on rhetorical devices? My morality is so tangled that I can’t form an answer, yet, so all I can do is listen and hope.

My professor said, “I need Chaucer to give me a clear sign that it’s ironic. But he doesn’t.” I need to know that Chaucer loves me, but he doesn’t. I need to feel okay taking English classes and diving into the pre-1800 literature that I love, but I don’t. And probably, I shouldn’t. I need to know that Chaucer loves our faculty of color, but he doesn’t. I need to know that students and faculty of color always feel safe in Williamstown, always feel at home at the College and always feel full support from us all, but they don’t. I need to know that we are a truly welcoming community for all races, genders and class with no underlying, insidious discrimination. I need to know it’s not my fault, but it is. I need to know progress is possible. I need to speak less in class and I need to reserve less space on EMS room scheduler. I need to know that my place here is justified. I need to be inspired by genuine, radical curiosity to dive into a fully diverse breadth of subjects within the infinitely wide and deep range that makes up human literature. I need to call my mom. I need to pass the mic. I need to be moved by empathy and love to always listen to the disenfranchised and do my absolute best to give them space, respect them and lift them up. I need to write my GLOW post, one sec.

I need to know that I can put something in the Record without being scandalized, and I need people to focus on what is important. The boycott website never mentions my professor’s name. The Record mentioned it 11 times in its first article. It is easier to attack a person than it is to attack an institution. “The Record reserves the right to deny publication of all or part of a submission for reasons such as the use of… personal attacks, hearsay, factually untrue or libelous content.” It is easier to attack an institution than it is to attack a culture. But institutions are the permanent structures of culture, and they are where we can begin. It is easier still to attack culture than it is to attack ourselves. I think, though, that is what I need to do. Look at me, spewing Jewish guilt, still unable to see my own irony. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to, but I need to.

Max Stein 21 is a computer science major from Carbondale, CO.