How A Jew Reads The News

by Lev Raphael (Okemos, MI)

Most people wouldn’t put Trayvon Martin and Anthony Weiner in the same sentence, yet watching the recent news coverage of the Martin trial and the new revelations about Weiner’s sexting, I’ve been deeply aware that I read the news as a Jew.  And that this is something I learned from my parents.

My parents devoured a handful of newspapers between them, and they read them with a special lens.  They were always on the lookout for news about anti-semitism, in whatever form.  That’s understandable, given that they were Holocaust survivors.

But when they read their newspapers, they were also on the lookout for Jews.  Bad Jews.  If there was any kind of crime and the accused had a Jewish name, that name would always be read aloud, with an inevitable “Oy” or some other complaint.  I knew what concerned them:  Why does it have to be a Jew? Why did this Jew have to make us look so bad?  Isn’t it hard enough being Jewish already?

News like that was “a shandeh far di goyim.”  And the lesson was very clear.  If my parents were watching the behavior of every single Jew in New York, imagine what the goyim were doing. Those goyim were the same people Philip Roth’s Portnoy says “own the world and know absolutely nothing about human boundaries and limits.”

And so the Zimmerman trial echoed for me every single time I heard his name mentioned because when the story broke about his shooting Trayvon Martin, along with revulsion about the killing, I also thought “I hope he’s not Jewish.”  As it turned out, he wasn’t.  And I should have remembered that my junior high school French teacher, an Alsatian, was named Zimmerman and had explained that it was a common last name where he grew up.

Just when the Zimmerman trial was over and the controversial verdict started being debated in the media, another story reminded me who I was and where I had come from.  Anthony Weiner was not only running again for office, he was running from himself.

In all the furor over the revelations about his sexual behavior, the question “Why?” keeps being asked, and the answers, as suggested in a recent New York Times article, have been pretty superficial: addiction, inadequacy, narcissism.  Nobody’s mentioned the obvious fact that’s he’s Jewish and that he might be suffering from internalized shame about being Jewish.  It seems improbable at first because what he’s done, both the sexting and lying about it, seems shameless, but that’s just on the surface.

Weiner has always reminded me of guys I knew in junior high and high school.  Nerdy, driven kids, they were all Jewish like me.  And like me, they grew up in a culture that sent very clear messages to Jewish men: you are not athletic, you are not handsome, you are not manly.  You are Woody Allen.  Big nose.  Big ears.  Whiny voice.  A nebbish now and always. It’s only in recent years that advertising images of men have become more “ethnic,” but in the 50s and 60s, goyish was in and ethnic was not saleable.

And so I suspect that like me, Weiner grew up with a core of unexamined shame about being Jewish, though he might never have put it that way.  His behavior makes his doubts about his masculinity pretty obvious. Think of Weiner sending women pictures of himself.  That’s justifiable pride in one sense, but it also evinces profound insecurity and a response to internalized stereotypes of Jewish men as not being well-endowed.  And look how he posed his body for his camera.  All that showing off his muscles seems like an obvious response to intense body shame. Not a healthy one, no, but sadly understandable.

Nobody I’m aware of has published about the possible Jewish angle to this story, and that too is understandable.  It’s too embarrassing to explore. The renowned psychologist Gershen Kaufman has called shame a sickness of the soul, a wound that feels beyond healing because there is shame about shame.

Sexting is the mask Weiner shows the world, simultaneously hiding and expressing his secret shame.  Reading the news about him, I’ve both been ashamed for him, and aware of the ways in which my own shame has shaped my life.  That’s why when I see outraged pundits claiming they can’t remotely understand how Weiner could behave as he has, I wonder what they’re hiding, what nerve he’s touched.

Lev Raphael is a prize-winning pioneer in American-Jewish literature, and has been publishing fiction and nonfiction about the Second Generation since 1978. The author of twenty-four books which have been translated into almost a dozen languages, he has spoken about his work in hundreds of venues on three continents. His fiction and creative non-fiction are widely taught at American colleges and universities, and his work has been the subject of numerous academic articles, papers, and books. A former public radio book show host and newspaper columnist, he can be found on the web at where you can also read his blog on writing and publishing.  His most recent Jewish-themed novel is set in The Gilded Age: Rosedale in Love.  He currently teaches creative writing at Michigan State University.

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Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity

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