November 21-28, 2003
By SANDEE BRAWARSKY
Passing” first came into use as an Americanism to refer to blacks trying to appear as whites. But the word now might refer to anyone attempting to cross a boundary, shift an identity, or invent a new self to present to the world.
Brooke Kroeger’s new book Passing: When People Can’t Be Who They Are (Public Affairs) presents six intimate portraits of individuals who’ve camouflaged part of their cultural identity: a black man passing as a white Jew, a gay rabbinical student and lesbian naval officer passing as straight, a Puerto Rican who veils her lower class background, a white teacher who passes as black and a poet who creates a different persona to write about rock music. Each story has dramatic twists and several of the stories have Jewish layers.
This is a compassionate book, as Kroeger gives voice to the complex struggles of her subjects and presents them in the richness of their humanity. Although the book is grounded in references to theory, research and to the large body of literature on passing, it’s the stories themselves that make “Passing” compelling.
The Jewish Week talked about the idea of passing with the author in her Upper East Side penthouse, amidst an impressive collection of finely printed books. Kroeger, an associate professor of journalism at New York University, explains that she found many examples of passing in our society, and that the stories that most grabbed her were those of people who are “unjustly excluded in their attempts to achieve ordinary, honorable aims and ambitions —things that should be available to all human beings.” That thread runs through the six stories in the book: These are people who pass to be ultimately more truly themselves.
The book is published just as the film “The Human Stain,” based on Philip Roth’s novel, is widely playing.
Coleman Silk, the novel’s protagonist, is a light-skinned black college professor who began posing as a Jew in the 1940s. The timing has been serendipitous for Kroeger, who loved the book and liked the movie. She has seen it twice, delighted to see the subject treated seriously.
“Passing” grew, in part, out of the author’s previous book, “Fanny,” a biography of writer Fannie Hurst. Hurst’s novel “Imitation of Life,” which was adapted into a 1934 film, was controversial in its portrayal of a light-skinned black woman crossing the racial divide and passing as white. After completing her book about Hurst, Kroeger found herself wondering what would happen if the same situation came up today, at a time of greater acceptance of diversity.
She came to define passing as “when people effectively present themselves as other than who they understand themselves to be.” And, she came to think about passing, with its questioning of the status quo, as a means, albeit slow, of effecting social change.
Readers may come to see passing in a new light, with more understanding for those who do it, and also realize that perhaps everyone does a bit of passing, or what one of Kroeger’s subjects calls “selective editing” of identities. Clearly, the Internet provides many opportunities for passing.
Kroeger admits that she has tried to pass in small ways, or rather, she didn’t mind when others assumed she had a different identity than her own. Fair-skinned and blue-eyed with a non-ethnic byline (her first name derives from her Hebrew name, Bracha; her last name is that of her first husband), she was rarely identified as a Jewish journalist. Particularly when reporting for U.P.I. from the Middle East, she didn’t mind, and although she didn’t deny her Judaism, she didn’t bring it up. In fact, while reporting from Jerusalem, even when her brother, an Orthodox rabbi, was living close by, she says that people didn’t pick up on her Judaism.
The author, 55, grew up in Kansas City; her family belonged to a conservative congregation and was “not casual about their Judaism.” She and her husband, who comes from a distinguished Jewish family from Milan, now belong to several synagogues and observe traditions at home.
That the book has so many Jewish elements, “just happened,’ Kroeger explains; it wasn’t something she planned or even recognized as she selected her subjects.
The first story is about a screenwriter, a light-skinned black man, David Matthews, who grew up, as she writes, passing as a white Jew. His mother, who left him at birth, was Jewish, so he is halachically Jewish. On his father’s side, he is the son and grandson of distinguished black journalists and community leaders. Kroeger writes that this was passing “because he experienced the act as passing while he was doing it. … It was passing because he deliberately withheld information about his African American heritage whenever he sensed it would get in his way.” As a young boy, he felt most comfortable with Jewish kids, and wanted them to think that he belonged, and that sensibility continued.
Kroeger also writes of a Puerto Rican young woman, Vivian Sanchez, who excelled in school as a child and hid her lower-class background from her classmates, and hid her academic success from neighborhood friends. Now involved in desktop publishing, she converted to Orthodox Judaism. As a convert on the Upper West Side, she would sometimes present herself as having a Sephardic background, as she didn’t feel comfortable with the usual reactions to her background. She is no longer Orthodox, but living Jewishly in New Jersey. The pain in this story is particularly evident.
And most powerful is the story of Rabbi Joel Alter, who grew up as a committed Conservative Jew, graduated from Columbia, taught at Ramaz and then applied to rabbinical school at The Jewish Theological Seminary. At that time, he was 24 and only beginning to come out to himself. He began studying at the seminary in 1985, aware of the school’s stance on homosexuality. As he progressed through the program, he shared the fact of his homosexuality with a few close friends and later with his family, and was otherwise very private, worried about his status in the school. He chose secrecy, and was ordained in 1996.
Kroeger tells his story in detail, and also interviews Rabbi Gordon Tucker, who was dean for some of the years that Rabbi Alter was in school. Rabbi Alter doesn’t look like Rob Lowe, she writes, but it would be easy to imagine Lowe playing him in the film. Ironically, toward the end of his student career, Rabbi Alter was featured on the cover of a JTS brochure, and he was frequently sent out as a speaker, as one of the school’s best recruiters. “You feel Joel’s righteousness,” Kroeger says.
Rabbi Alter is now director of Judaic studies at the Shoshana S. Cardin Jewish Community High School in Baltimore; he joined the faculty this year, after teaching for seven years at a school in Washington.
Reached at his office earlier this week, Rabbi Alter says that although he has told his story in different settings, this is the first time that it appears so prominently in print. Asked about the word “passing,” he says that it wasn’t a word he used. “I would say that I was very conscious of the fact that there were things I could not speak of in my own name. The ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ analogy was really there.”
When he entered the seminary, he was certain that he wanted to go into Jewish education, as he has done. He also flourished when, as a student, he worked with Rabbi Morris Allen in his Minnesota congregation. He became attracted to the pulpit, but, for a host of reasons, he reconciled himself to teaching, although he hasn’t ruled out pursuing a pulpit in the future. Last Yom Kippur, Rabbi Allen spoke about Rabbi Alter’s story, about the walls people build of different kinds.
Looking back, Rabbi Alter says that JTS was a very positive experience for him, and also a very difficult experience — “both simultaneously.” He remains confident that the movement will overturn its traditional prohibitions on homosexuality “and that this will happen halachically.”
He hopes that his story, as it appears in “Passing” will have impact. “It’s just one more instance of personalizing the issue, and giving it context.”
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Video, event summaries from recent talks in Reports from the Road.
2021 Events: “The Branded Journalist: Nellie Bly Changes the Game.” [VIDEO of TALK] Ephemera Society of America, Jan. 14, 2020, 3pm. Nellie Bly: Pioneer of Investigative Journalism.” American Woman Writers National Museum, March 10, 2021, at noon. Empire State Center for the Book, March 18, 2021, 7pm.