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On bodies, Beyoncé, and being from Brooklyn: A Jewish girl faces her racist past

Updated: Jun 20



I wrote this essay in May 2020 in the middle of corona lockdown, when I was watching a lot of Netflix and doing a lot of reflecting about life. I'm a little obsessed with Beyoncé, and I binge-watched her Homecoming documentary several times for a few days. She brings out so many thoughts and feelings for me, about my body and my history and my life growing up in Jewish Brooklyn. This essay is hard for me to share because it brings up some serious shame about my own racist past. I have no doubt that many people in my community of origin will completely deny that any of this was racist. That's the world we live in. It's tough. Very few people who express racist ideas will admit that they are racist. (Very few people people who express sexist ideas will say they are sexist, so there's that too.) Anyway, I've decided to share this today because there is currently a Twitter thread in which a Black tweeter asks her White followers, "What did your parents teach you about black people? Truthful answers please!" In response, I decided it's time to publish this, as it is. I'm telling my story, as much as it embarrasses me. The cracks are where the light comes in. And for all the times I said and did racist things, I'm very sorry.



When I was in ninth grade, I played the glockenspiel. The big, clunky xylophone was an odd choice of instrument for an Orthodox Jewish girl from Brooklyn who took seven years of classical piano lessons. Mr. Gnatt, the school orchestra conductor and my longtime piano teacher, gave me the instrument as an act of kindness. Since there was only room in the orchestra for one pianist, rather than exclude me from the orchestra until the first pianist graduated, he gave me the glock and kept me playing, which also offered me a frequent and much-welcomed excuse to miss class for rehearsals.


I am indebted to Mr. Gnatt for all this, although playing the glock was a bit of a joke. It is a simple and relatively unimportant instrument, it demands more brawn than brain, and – most significantly for a teenager – nobody I knew ever heard of it. Oh, and it shares its name with a gun. The instrument has only one primary use: marching bands. As opposed to the piano, the glock can be lugged across the field and down the street, and is a favorite in parades.

Unfortunately, for Orthodox Jewish teenage girls, the skill of marching in a parade wasn’t particularly useful. In my world, there was exactly one parade each year that mattered: the annual Salute to Israel Parade. Every spring for as long as I could remember, the entire community participated in the spring march in Manhattan. It was a spectacle – elementary school students danced the hora, entire classes walked the mile up fifth avenue, political and communal leaders smiled and waved at the crowd as if they were royalty, and my high school orchestra played. The very one where I played the glock. It was a big thrill.


Well, maybe ‘big’ is a bit of an exaggeration. The orchestra had fewer than ten members, no trumpets, maybe one drum, no uniforms, no baton twirlers, no big brassy sounds or dance moves, and a somewhat limited repertoire. We were just a bunch of religious Jewish kids playing hava nagila as we marched with a lack of coordination up the Fifth Avenue. At the time, I didn’t notice our deficiencies. I mean, sure, there were many other impressive, serious, and imposing marching bands in the parade representing city institutions – public schools, the police, the army, colleges. They were loud and powerful. They wore uniforms and danced in elaborate coordinated moves. They played music with multiple parts. And they had rows of glocks. But if I harbored any kind of competitive jealousy or resentment about it, that feeling was quickly quashed by the persistent mantra that governed my life: That was for the goyim. Marching bands – like Italian pepperoni pizza, bikinis, and German Shepherds – were part of a world that was not ours.


And how did I know this for sure? Because so many of the marchers were Black. That was the clearest indication that this culture was not mine. It was not from Jewish Brooklyn. It was from Black Brooklyn. Might as well have been from Mars.


Last week, I began revisiting these experiences. I was mulling over the cognitive dissonance that was required for me to maintain these boundaries as I watched the new Netflix release of Beyoncé's Homecoming Coachella concert. In the documentary about her incredible 2018 performance that she dedicated to the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), she talks about the significance of the marching bands in the African American community. As I watched all of this beautiful culture – the sounds, colors, movements, coordination, and energy that Beyoncé channeled to construct this historic performance – I started to think back to all those Salute to Israel parades when I dismissed this entire culture with one fell swoop as “other”. I missed out on appreciating an entire genre – several genre’s actually, considering how many musical styles Beyoncé incorporated, almost all of which were far beyond my very limited life experience. It was like I was living life with partitions over my eyes, permitted to see what was my culture and blocked from seeing what was outside of it.


I was also entranced, as I always am, just watching Beyoncé move, and reflected on how different Beyoncé's experience of the female body is from my own. Just a few days earlier, there was a jarring incident in a local school here in Israel where I’ve been living since the nineties. Girls were sent home for wearing shorts that were considered too short, which caused a little protest (little, that is, only in comparison to the current maelstrom in America). My social media was filled with long threads analyzing girls’ legs and behinds, what they should be allowed to show and what they must cover. Every inch of skin was fodder for public discourse. That was exhaustingly familiar. I thought back to all those days in yeshiva when rabbis and teachers would stand by the door examining the length of our skirts and the dips of our collars – like magnifying glasses on our thighs and chests –as if that’s normal. I considered how that religious-male gaze on our bodies has spread to the entire western culture of policing girls’ bodies. I pleaded on my Facebook page, “I wish everyone would just stop looking at girls’ behinds.” And yet, here was Beyoncé, wearing shorts even shorter than the ones that got the girls sent home, swinging her hips and begging people to look at her behind!


The contrast was striking, and I took some time to just sit with it. While the Jewish community teaches girls to hide in shame – and can measure the degree of that shame with rulers on our bodies -- Beyoncé was doing exactly the opposite. She embraced all that sexuality instead of hiding it. She is strong and powerful in voice and body – as opposed to in Orthodox culture, where women are forbidden to even sing in public, never mind dance or perform lead the culture. For practicing Orthodox Jews, Beyoncé's performance of the female body would be held up as the exact thing women should never do, the opposite of holy and divine. She might as well be the devil herself.


As I watched this and considered all these messages, I felt my insides unraveling. Even though as an anthropologist I’ve been researching and writing about Orthodox gender messages for most of my adult life, I am still sometimes struck by how much these things affect me personally, viscerally. I haven’t been Orthodox for a while now, but I’m still recovering from it, still peeling back the layers. And watching Beyoncé and the HBCU marching band tribute I felt like in my Orthodox upbringing, I have missed out on something so powerful and beautiful just because it was labeled as “outside” or “other” or “bad”. I thought, it’s very possible that in my Orthodox upbringing, we had everything all wrong. What I really felt was a longing for some of the energy and power that Beyoncé had within herself. I want what she’s having.


But this longing was only the beginning, and possibly even missed the most important point. This was happening on the cusp of what was to be a moment of reckoning for African Americans. My Netflix-induced unraveling came only two days before George Floyd was murdered by a policeman kneeling on his neck, a day before we all saw Amy Cooper call the police with a lie that an ‘African American man is threatening my life’ when he had just asked her to put her dog on a leash as required by law. Right before the world exploded over the ubiquity of racism, I was watching Beyoncé's marching bands with awe, something deep inside of me stirring, as I contemplated the question that none of us really wants to ask about ourselves: Where am I in the history of Black racism in America?


In Flatbush, where I grew up, Avenue J was home turf. It’s where the kosher pizza places and butcher shops were, where clothing shops sold “modest” women’s clothing and hair-covering, where campaign flyers featured pictures of men wearing black velvet skullcaps and promised tuition breaks for religious communities, and where Orthodox Jews dominated and everyone else was invisible to me.


One block over, Avenue K, was The Street that You Do Not Walk Down. That was the street where there were apartment buildings, crime, and black people. Avenue K was Scary. And Forbidden. If you had to get to Avenue L or Avenue M, which were both ‘safe’, you had to walk quickly past Avenue K and don’t turn in. Never turn in to Avenue K.


Remarkably, I took these instructions as normal. The human brain is a confounding thing, but kids are particularly pliable. I took it all in. We were the people who crossed to the other side of the street when we saw Black men walking. Yes, we really did that, I am deeply ashamed to admit. Black men who describe this everyday racism are not imagining this. It happened. We did that, as we were instructed. We were not allowed to take the subway between the hours of 2:30 and 3:30 PM because that’s when the public schools let out and the trains would be full of black teenagers. We considered them scary. Dangerous. Probably all criminals. Drug addicts. Rapists. All of them. That’s what we were told by the adults in our lives, and as kids, we of course believed it.


There was one Black person in my life, the cleaning lady in our house, named Eva. I know very little about her. For 20 years she cleaned my room. When I was little, she washed my long hair in the sink. She peeled bags and bags of potatoes and carrots every Passover. But I have no idea who she was, what her last name was, or where she lived. She was from Black Brooklyn, practically another universe. When she came over, we were instructed to hide our money and jewelry. Because, you know, Blacks are…..


We had some awful names for them. Vilda chayas. Wild animals. Yes, we did that. We called them that.


It’s hard to write this. And yet, I have to.


I would like to think that I’ve come a long way since I was a yeshiva girl in Flatbush. None of us likes to think of ourselves as racist, or as participating in racist practices, or as harboring racist thoughts or behaviors. I would like to believe that I didn’t cross the road just because I saw men of color. Nobody likes to admit shameful things about ourselves....


As I follow the events since Floyd’s death – the protests, the posts, African-Americans screaming out about the everyday racism that dominates their lives – I have realized that as a White person, and as Jewish girl from Brooklyn for whom blacks were both neighbors and others, I am part of the problem. Even if I don’t live in Brooklyn anymore or identify as Orthodox anymore. My upbringing is exactly part of the problem.


The truth is, I have been thinking about this intensely for the past four years. The fact that an estimated 80% of Orthodox Jews support Trump has been a shocking wake-up call. Many will explain the support of a violent, racist, sexist narcissist in terms of his so-called Israel-policy. “He is the best friend Israel ever had in the White House,” is a line I have heard countless times. As if to say, the best thing for Israel is to think only about maximal power for Jews and zero power for non-Jews in the country. The Trump view is not about peace but about power. It is very similar to his approach to the protests: there are no humans protesting on the other side. There is only me, my needs, and the force I need to get others to bend to our will. The other people are merely “thugs”, not actual humans. But as we are seeing, the powder keg of people’s quashed humanity eventually erupts.


For me, one of the hardest part of the Trump era – and there are many – is observing how many Orthodox Jews support him. Supporting Trump involves an entire internal process of ignoring everything he does to other people – immigrants, Muslims, non-Whites – and considering this one thought about what he may do for ‘me’. This is a quintessential cutting off from humanity. It is a model of not caring about the other. This is exactly what it looks like.


It chills me to consider the ease with which so many Orthodox Jews do this – cut off their/our own humanity. The Trump phenomenon has unveiled the painful truth about the community. We are a culture that easily embraces the dehumanization of the other. We are trained in that practice. And that is what Trump has emboldened. It is why the Orthodox community supports him. His entire posture feels familiar. It feels safe. It feels like home.


It is that dehumanization that these protests are seeking to undo. This is not just about the murder of George Floyd. It’s about the everyday cultures that allow that kind of murder to take place – whether those events involve about black men jogging, taking a nap, entering their own homes, or taking the subway. These protests are about the kind of deep-set fears and hatred of people of color that has been part of American life for a very long time.

I was brought up on that and it took a lot of work for me to observe it and let it go. It takes work. It takes courage, humility, a willingness to be honest with yourself and to feel shame about things that are shameful. Instead of feeling shame about seeing a girl’s thigh or shoulder, we should address the truly shameful cultures of racism, bigotry, and hatred. This is the work that has to happen. It’s OUR work, the work of the people of privilege. We are the ones who have to change. Deep, spiritual and emotional change. Now is the time. Right now.


Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is an award-winning Jewish feminist author, anthropologist, and activist. A version of this essay appears in her book, Conversations with my Body, available at www.lionessbooks.com/shop

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