Jewish in Polynesia

April 17, 2006

As a Jewish professor, I know that it is my lot in life to deal with stereotypes of Jewish academics. As a Jewish professor from California, dealing with these stereotypes is even more difficult because I lack recourse to the solution favored by many colleagues: acting as if the complex negotiation of my identity can be accomplished simply by assuming that "Jewish" means "from New York" and leaving it at that. As a Jewish professor from California who teaches in Hawaii, navigating my identity as a practicing Reform Jew, both in the classroom and out, has taken many surprising twists and turns.

Oxford University Press's Judaism: A Very Short Introduction notes astutely that Jews, like tomatoes, are neither "particularly complicated or obscure when left to themselves, but they don't neatly fit into the handy categories such as fruit or vegetable or nation and religion which are so useful for pigeonholing other foods and people." Growing up in northern California, I went to a high school where the blanket term "Asian" was scrupulously decomposed into a wide variety of ethnicities, which included not just Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, but Hmong, Miao, Mien, Lao, Hongkie, Taiwanese, and so forth. When I got lunch at Vang's convenience store, my Thai friend grumbled about "those hill people." But for him, as for me, there was only one kind of white person: the white kind.

It was not until I moved to graduate school in Chicago that I realized that there were different kinds of white people. Growing up in Reagan's America, "Marxism" to me meant a critique of the soullessness of suburban life. Exploitation was not about class -- it was about Mexican-Anglo relations. While I understood that my religion made me different from most people, it didn't seem to make me any more distinctive than the guy in my class whose family had a time-share in Tahoe: I missed a few days of class for high holy days, he missed them for the time share. But living on the south side of Chicago, class became an inescapable fact of life, and "color" meant "black" and "white."

That I could understand. But I was particularly puzzled by religion as a source of social differentiation in America. I traveled to Minnesota and visited small towns, which featured intersections with churches on every corner. Why did the Missouri Synod Lutherans need one church and the Wisconsin Synod Lutherans need another? And how was all this related to the graduate student parties where bizarre passes would occasionally be made at me by women whose complex psychological relationship with novels like Portnoy's Complaint and Ravelstein had driven them out of their dairy-rich farming communities and into the arms of a cosmopolitan intellectualism which they expected me to embody?

My dissertation committee consisted of three Jewish structuralists and a Protestant interested in performativity. The Protestant member of my committee claimed that reading Kierkegaard's analysis of the sacrifice of Isaac through a Derridean lens could help explain nationalism in Indonesia, but this was the closest I actually got to Judaism as a religious phenomenon. Actually that is not true. At one point as I was driving in the car with one member of my committee, she pointed out a kosher butcher shop and told me that that was where another member of my committee went "for really good meat." But that was it -- my committee was alarmed when I suggested that Judaism was not actually synonymous with being an atheist intellectual, or even who knew where to get a pound of lean pastrami.

I originally felt my move to Hawaii would be a sort of homecoming -- a return to the multicultural environment of my childhood and an end to the terrible, terrible cold I had suffered through in the Midwest. In fact I was in for a bit of a shock. Hawaii has a unique local culture derived from the state's legacy of plantation colonialism and its overthrow at the hands of a strong labor movement. As a result Hawaii owes much to the Japanese, Chinese, and Portuguese workers who moved here to cut cane. And of course there is the rich tradition of native Hawaiian culture, which has experienced a renaissance here in the past 30 years. Since the United States has long been the inheritor of Spanish colonialism in the Pacific, our islands are called home by increasing numbers of Chammoro and Filipinos. The growing number of migrants from Samoa and Tonga allows Hawaii to challenge Auckland as the unofficial capital of Polynesia. And there is no doubt that Honolulu -- the forward point for the projection of U.S. political and military power into the Pacific -- has long been a center for Micronesian migration.

Further, Hawaii has one of the highest rates of intermarriage in the country, and the place is remarkably cosmopolitan given its small size and distance from major centers. The result of all this is that my students are more likely to visit Saipan than Schenectady, and know more about Pago Pago than Paris. It soon became apparent that the welcome return to my natal relation to my Jewish identity was not to be had -- and for reasons more enduring than the fact that the Web site for my new shul in Honolulu was "shaloha.com."

A great deal of my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course involves getting students to rethink ideas of race and ethnicity in light of the anthropological concept of culture. However, I feel very uncomfortable asking my students to objectify themselves in class by asking them "as an Asian, how do you feel about this?" or lecturing my African-American students about supposedly innate black athletic ability. On the mainland I solved this problem by objectifying myself and examining, for instance, stereotypes about Jews. In fact I typically use the tomato imagery from Oxford's Very Short Introduction to Judaism. "So," I said in my first class in the islands, dry erase marker in hand and ready to make a discussion-spurring list, "what are some stereotypes you have of Jewish people?"

Silence.

"Please," I say generously, "This classroom is a safe place where people can discuss controversial topics civilly, so don't feel you need to spare my feelings. So: what are some stereotypes of Jews?"

Silence. As a new professor I had read countless books and articles exhorting me not to get freaked out if it took a while for someone to say
something. But this time I get nothing. Nada.

"How about the idea that Jews are good with money?" I finally offer.

"You mean like they're pake?" asked one confused woman, using a
Hawaiian term originally meant to describe Chinese people, but which in
local slang simply means tight-fisted.

In this and other classes I quickly came to realize that when it comes to Jews the Hawaiian response to the question of "is a tomato a vegetable or a fruit" is to ask "what's a tomato?" In California, my identity as a Jew wasn't particularly relevant. In Honolulu, I am pretty much off the table insofar as the ethnic imagination of my students goes. All white people were haole -- a Hawaiian word with a slightly derogatory connotations (one of my students wears a T-shirt to class that reads "Haole you flew here I grew here".)

The problem was not just that my students didn't know that I was a tomato, they're often a little unclear on the idea that people must be sorted into fruits and vegetables. To put it another way: it is difficult to expose the culturally-contingent nature of your student's essentialist folk theories of identity when they have names like Motoko Kapualani da Silva or Brian Ka'imikaua Li. This latter student claimed to be "Japanese, Filipino, and Hawaiian." I pointed out to him that his last name was Chinese. He paused and thought about it for a second and then remembered that yes, his family was also Chinese but he had never really thought of "Li" as a Chinese name. By speaking frankly about my own identity with my students I learned that they did not operate with the same concepts of race and ethnicity that my students on the mainland did, and this insight allowed me to teach anthropology in a way that was accessible to them.

Now when I teach my intro class I engage my student's expectations about ethnic difference by approaching some of the aporias of identity in Hawaii. How does the selective retention of taboos and purity laws by orthodox Jews provide a model of how (or how not!) to creatively innovate one's tradition? Why do we speak of Hawaii as a multicultural paradise when there is so much racial tension simmering under the surface? Is the distinction of "local" and "haole" one of race? Of class? What does it mean to talk about "ancient Hawaiian tradition" with a professor whose people lived in diaspora for a millennium before the first Hawaiians arrived in the islands? Why are haole tourists noisy, rude, and overbearing compared to locals? How can we use the concept of culture to render this comportment intelligible?

In sum, living in Hawaii has forced me to rethink not just my own Jewish heritage, but  the issue of heritage in general. As an anthropologist I find the challenge of working through these multiple layers of identity and (as we say in the business) “group affiliation” to be both professionally and personally rewarding. And most important of all, it provides my students a chance to grow intellectually by thinking about identity and belonging in ways they may not have before. In the next few semesters I plan to put together a class entitled "Kohen and Kahuna," based on an unpublished manuscript by a Rabbi and sociologist who studied at the University of Hawaii in the 1940s. We will not discuss Woody Allen films or where to get a pound of lean pastrami. We will discuss the comparative study of taboo, social complexity in Polynesia and the ancient Middle East, and anxiety about not being able to chant properly in your heritage language. Shaloha, everyone!

Bio

Alex Golub finished his dissertation in anthropology at the University of Chicago in 2005 and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He blogs at Savage Minds, a group blog about cultural anthropology.

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