The Lobster Effect: Don’t Pull Each ‘Other’ Down

This is why, in my heart, I want to support every other “other,” because I know what it is to be one.
July 29, 2020
Photo by selimaksan/Getty Images

If there is one thing that I have always been able to count on as a kippah-wearing Jew, it’s that society will always see me as an “other.” I’ve considered myself lucky to grow up in Los Angeles, where I’m not as “other” as elsewhere. But it always lingers, and comes up in either small or not-so-small ways.

For example, it was my first day in Paris, with a kippah on my friend’s head, making our Judaism obvious, when a handful of teenagers began throwing glass bottles at our feet. They screamed, “Yisraeli!  Palestini!” followed us, and spat in our faces. Hundreds of white and Black onlookers actively averted my gazing pleas for help, like a driver who knows you are asking to enter a lane and yet refuses to make eye contact because doing so would force him to make a human decision. I left that assault feeling more betrayal by the multitude of bystanders than the handful of perpetrators. 

It was my mother’s first day in London without our kippahs nearby to identify her as a Jew, when some lovely white women at a bus stop made friendly chitchat with her and casually brought up the “murderous Israelis and Jews.”

In the safety of my Los Angeles home, these occurrences have been less common — thankfully — but still persist. It has happened while walking down the streets of Pico Robertson on my peaceful Friday-night Shabbat, when a car driving by has slowed, its occupants gotten my attention, and yelled, “Heil Hitler!” with the salute included, and different variations of “Die Zionist/Israeli/Jew” — take your pick.  

As an undergrad at UCLA, I was treated to jeers and boos as I walked while wearing a kippah, and students held up signs while yelling, “Zionist! Israeli oppressors! Murderers!” as I walked by, but strategically left out the word “Jewish” so that those taunts would be permissible in the guise of free speech on campus.

At my doctor’s office, the nurse who has triaged me for years suddenly asked with an innocent smile, “Is it true that you can take off your beanie once you make your first million?” 

On the bus in Santa Monica, a genuinely curious girl asked me if we wear a kippah to cover up our horns, and if not, then when do they actually grow in?

Examples are not limited to outsiders pulling us down for our “otherness.” Sometimes we are our own worst enemies. While I was in nursing school, Yom Kippur fell on the same day as one of my classes, and a test was scheduled for that day. I had experienced these conflicts in four years of college without a problem, taking tests early or late as need be. Here I was, being told to speak with the dean — the Jewish dean — of my nursing school.

Expecting one result, I was instead hit with the offensive words that nobody wants to hear: “Well I’m Jewish, and that wouldn’t be a problem for me, so there’s no reason it should be for you.” Oh, really? It shouldn’t? Well, it was. Big time. And I was told if I didn’t show up and take the exam, on the highest of Jewish High Holy Days, I would be failed out of the program, which offered “zero accommodations.” Offers to take a more difficult exam earlier didn’t help; a letter from my rabbi did not move her. So I went.

I spent Yom Kippur walking miles to my school, and doing all I could to not break my holiest holiday, while still taking the exam, all so I could begin my career as a nurse. I later graduated as valedictorian. I didn’t thank the dean or the school during my speech. One “other’s” experience should never dictate how everyone in that group should feel and act.

Hatred for the “other” has never been a partisan issue. I have felt and experienced anti-Semitism from a macro level (ranging from politicians on the left supporting the  boycott, divestment and sanctions movement to politicians on the right questioning Jewish loyalty if we don’t support the candidate who supports Israel); and a micro level (all of my aforementioned stories, which I assure you came from Republicans and Democrats equally).

If there’s one thing that can be agreed upon by both sides, it’s that Jews are most certainly, at all times, an “other.” 

This is why, in my heart, I want to support every other “other,” because I know what it is to be one. And we “others” have unique challenges. We have unique pasts. It should never become a pissing match between “who has it worst”; that is a zero-sum game none of us should want to play. As a Modern Orthodox Jew, I have the ability (that I often utilize) to sense a less desirable situation, remove my kippah, and thus, avoid potential anti-Semitism. And I recognize that this is a privilege that a Black or brown person doesn’t have the option to do when their Spidey senses alert them to potential racist danger.

At the end of 2018, my family went on a road trip with friends; two cars driving in Arizona to the Grand Canyon. Without realizing it, the highway speed limit had dropped to 35 mph. I was going around 85 mph when lights flashed behind me, indicating to pull over. I was genuinely confused as to why. When I saw the white cops walking toward us with hands near their gun holsters, I removed my kippah, not wanting to take extra chances.

After explaining that the speed limit had changed and we were 50 mph over, not only did he ultimately let me off with a warning, but during the process, with our baby, Natalia,  screaming in the back seat, he relaxed his demeanor, and allowed my wife, Adi, to exit the car and tend to our baby while his back was to her. I remember him asking for my license; I warned him it was in my jacket in the backseat cluttered with luggage, and he seemed relaxed as I turned around rummaging through dark belongings for it, any of which could have been a weapon. Driving the other car was our friend Courtney, a Black man, who has served his country as a Marine. Had he been pulled over, whereas I removed my kippah, he could not have changed the color of his skin. It is hard to believe the process would have been as relaxed, nor the results as generous.

Each “other” must overcome their own challenges, and we all should be uplifting one another, which is why it is extra maddening when we see the opposite occur, such as with recent anti-Semitic incidents from such public personas as Ice Cube, DeSean Jackson and Nick Cannon. Even more frustrating is that when the offending parties such as Jackson and Cannon offer public apologies, they are met by a strong level of antipathy by their own “other” community. After meeting with Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Cannon said, “I made the Jewish community mad. I made my community mad by apologizing. We should be allies because of our common oppression.” It is depressing that an apology could be widely seen as a sign of weakness rather than strength.

I strongly recommend recent articles written by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Mitch Albom, Jemele Hill and Soraya Nadia McDonald offering interesting and constructive perspectives. Eric Ward writes how anti-Semitism threatens all “others,” and should have absolutely no place within any social justice movement.

“Taking antisemitism seriously as a threat to everyone’s civil rights and humanity means challenging it wherever it arises, within our own ranks as well as in our opponents. Opposing antisemitism can’t be used to make partisan or other ideological points. We can’t choose only to point it out when it comes from white nationalists; nor can we ignore or treat it more harshly when it’s expressed by those fighting for civil and human rights. Hypocrites don’t solve problems, they reinforce problems. Our fight against antisemitism has to be value based.”

I do not expect to ever live in a world without anti-Semitism, where I feel completely safe as a Jew. I do not expect to ever live in a world where someone is always treated equally regardless of their skin color. I am not naive about how slow change comes. But can the education at least propel we “others” forward to help one another?

A bizarre fact I remember learning as a child is that when female lobsters are put into a pot of boiling water, a lid doesn’t need to be put on because they will claw and pull one another down rather than help one another escape. A twisted and sick fact of nature. My hope and prayer is that we “others” can and will be less like those lobsters and more like the humans we were blessed to be, building a bridge that helps all of us climb out of our respective pots.

Boaz Hepner lives in Pico Robertson with his wife and daughter. He works as registered nurse in Santa Monica.

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