American Orthodoxy

(IN)VISIBILITY: Is it good for Jews to be invisible?

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Chaim Trachtman

Hell of a Book by Jason Mott[1] received the National Book Award for fiction in 2021. This deservedly honored novel is creative and is written with a unique authorial voice. It captures the predicament of Black men, women, and children living in the United States today with great power and poignancy.

The nameless main character of Hell of a Book, an author like Mott, is on a book tour promoting his first novel, self-referentially entitled “Hell of a Book.” The novel is an amalgam, a seamless blend of intensely realistic scenes―such as when the protagonist struggles to control his anxiety and articulate his thoughts during book-signing events―and pure fantasy in which the nameless author speaks to a young child whom only the author can see. One of the central images of the book is the capacity to become invisible. As he jets from book signing to radio spot, the author is followed by the Kid, a Black child who cannot be seen by anyone except for the main character. There is a third character, a nine-year-old boy named Soot, so called because of his deep black complexion. This child tragically witnesses the shooting of his father by a police officer right outside his home just as his father is finishing an evening run through the neighborhood. The Kid is a victim of another police shooting that has attracted national attention and spurred widespread protests. In a recurrent motif, parents try to teach their children the importance of being invisible. The parents cling to the untenable hope that invisibility is the best strategy to reduce their children’s fear and vulnerability in a hostile, oppressive world. Only by being unseen can Blacks sidestep harassment and avoid being brutally attacked by White people, threats that date from their arrival in America as slaves. Ultimately, being unseen is not a long-term strategy, not even a stopgap solution, but merely a naive tactic. In the fantasy world of Mott’s novel, reality rudely intervenes. Adults who strive to be “invisible” are forced to betray their fondest dreams. The real oppressors in Mott’s world refuse to play along, and “invisible” children are murdered by full-bodied police.

Mott’s book is a work of the imagination. His intent is not to create a coherent fantasy world like Tolkien or Herbert, a universe governed by supernatural laws that can be invoked to explain how people can transition between states of visibility or how those who are invisible can have normal conversations with people who have the magical ability to “see” them. The make-believe world is all inside the fictional author’s head, and he alone lives in an illusory world populated by invisible people. But that begs the question: what is the metaphorical equivalent of invisibility that Mott is driving at in the real world, a world unfortunately filled with three-dimensional people and prejudice and oppression?

Jews, like Blacks, have been the objects of convulsive and systematic persecution for at least two millennia. If Benzion Netanyahu is right, it may go back even farther, all the way to the enslavement in Egypt.[2] Persecution and unpredictable danger to life and limb remain common in the lives of Blacks and Jews. Although there is less of a threat of bodily danger in present-day America, the attack at the Tree of Life synagogue attests to the fact that Jews are still vulnerable to sudden attacks on their communal integrity and viability. The question then becomes: is the nature of the threat the same for both groups? Is invisibility―which the parents in the book desperately try to teach their children―or its metaphorical counterpart a tenable solution for very real children and adults who cannot escape to the imaginary world of fiction?

In Mott’s book, many of the characters are intensely black with ebony-colored skin that seems, in his evocative image, to absorb the light around them. Jews come in assorted colors, but―until the recent rescue of Ethiopian Jewry and their entry into Israeli society―very dark black skin was extremely uncommon among Jews. This gave most Jews a similar appearance to their neighbors as well as the possibility of blending into one another.

The Jews’ work situation, on the other hand, was different. In the early modern period through most of the nineteenth century, as ownership of land and access to agricultural work became increasingly difficult, Jews migrated to urban areas.[3] Once there, a considerable number of Jews engaged in activities that were open to them, such as moneylending and commerce―work that was essential for a smoothly functioning economy. In these roles, they were visible members of their communities. To be sure, many Jews still lived in small towns and villages, off the beaten track, isolated from the surrounding population and, in theory, beyond the hostile gaze of outsiders. But the entry of Jews into every part of the workforce, including finance, education, medicine, and entertainment―especially in the United States―meant that they could not hide on the sidelines. For Blacks, it was the opposite. Their skin color stood out, but they were “invisible” in another way. Black people were almost uniformly shunted to the outskirts of society in the United States. Before the Civil War, they mainly lived in rural areas, performed back-breaking work on cotton-producing fields, and held menial jobs in plantation homes out of sight of their community. There were some free Blacks in the South who were educated and owned land, and they were recognized citizens in their communities. But they were the exception, and even they could be taken off the street by bounty hunters at any time and sold into slavery. With the migration of Blacks to the North, they settled in large urban areas―though they lived in restricted areas―and were consigned to poor-paying, low-visibility jobs.

Summarizing to this point, skin color made it impossible for Blacks to hide from their slave masters or scrutiny by outsiders. In contrast, most Jews could “pass.” They could blend into the general population if they discarded some distinctive articles of clothing or behaviors that made them stand out in the crowd. But Jews could not completely escape attention because of the work they did in urban areas. Sizable numbers of working Jews were prominently positioned in the public square and could not be hidden. The consequences of this occupational exposure were amplified because activities like lending money at interest, which Jews were forced to engage in, were deemed immoral and in clear violation of the religious law adhered to by the people among whom they lived. Blacks were pushed to the periphery of society, and their work was done far-removed from centers of power that were accessible to White people around them. As slaves, they were an indispensable part of the Southern economy, but they were cruelly kept out of view, in a place where their oppression could not be witnessed.

This 2×2 matrix comparing the impact of skin color and work on the treatment of Jews and Blacks offers a frame of reference for their experiences, but it should not be considered airtight.

Jews Invisible Visible
Black people Visible Invisible

Some Blacks could hypothetically shed their skin like the character in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain.[4] In that book, Leonard Silk―a respected professor of classics at a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts―is forced by circumstances to reveal that, as a light-skinned Black man, he has been “passing” as a White person after enlisting in the Navy in World War II. But Blacks in general cannot “pass,” and they therefore still encounter discrimination on the job with fewer opportunities, lower pay, poorer benefits, and greater job instability. Even if they are granted equal access to the workforce (and this has been far from a given), because of their inescapable skin color, they may find it difficult to blend in with their colleagues. Although Jews have no defining skin color, many people still think they can pick a Jew out of a figurative lineup based on his/her stereotypical appearance. Even though social access to Jews in the United States is as open as it has ever been in any other country in history, the prominence of Jews in every arena of life has been accompanied by subtle changes in efforts to keep them at arm’s length, such as the intermingling of political support for Israel and antisemitic tropes.

On a practical level, for Blacks and Jews alike, invisibility is not a viable long-term option for survival. Only in fantasy novels can people escape the laws of nature. And even if they imagine they have been successful, they cannot avoid getting in harm’s way. The parents in Mott’s novel recognize that they are fighting a losing battle to keep their children invisible. Their “unseen” children witness the murder of a parent and are the tragic victims of policing policies gone awry. The invisible child, who accompanies the author on his book tour and who is visible to him alone, is a doppelganger of a very real child who was gunned down on the street. The main character realizes that while his mental world is imaginary and the internal settings can be arranged any way he wants, his real-world identity will always bubble to the surface and demand an honest reckoning with flesh-and-blood people.

However, there is a deeper reason that invisibility is a non-starter for Jews and Blacks alike. Those who oppress Jews or Blacks are not looking at the person standing in front of them. They are viewing Blacks and Jews through a prejudicial prism that keeps Jews and Blacks squarely in their view but with a distorted, destructive image. One need not catalog all of the denigrating canards directed at Jews and Blacks. But in the context of visibility, ghastly illustrations depict Jews with physical disfigurements in an effort to discriminate between them and their neighbors. Entrenched beliefs that Blacks are lazy and cannot be taught any skills have demeaned them and barred access to schools and work. To say that this kind of discriminatory thinking is irrational is to state the obvious. It often is not even based on real-life encounters. As David Nirenberg has documented in his book Anti-Judaism,[5] these degrading stereotypes of Jews emerge in communities that have no actual experience interacting with actual Jews. The same phenomenon occurs in locations where Blacks do not live.

In its numerous warnings against mistreating the vulnerable and disadvantaged members of the community, the Torah does not countenance invisibility―externally or self-imposed. True, it does not command victims, the widows, the orphans, and the poor to come forward and be seen. This may represent sensitivity to the fact that the browbeaten people are almost never in a position to safely confront their tormentors. Laying low may seem to be their only option. But in certain circumstances, the Torah does command us to look and see. When you encounter your enemy (sona’akha―literally, one who hates you) in physical need, if you find his animal wandering lost or overburdened, you are commanded not to turn away and pretend you have not seen anything out of the ordinary (Exodus 23:5; Deuteronomy 22:4). The text is unclear about who the enemy is, who this person is who hates you. The Rabbis identified the enemy in need narrowly as a fellow Jew who harbors justifiable animosity toward you because of the sins you have committed (Pesahim 113b). In the rabbinic scenario, the person in need is not someone who has acted wrongfully in the past. But one could potentially reverse the Iabels and identify the person in need of help as the sinner, as someone whose hatred of you is not halakhically justified. I acknowledge that according to Rashbam (Pesahim 113b, s.v. i neima sonei yisrael), the Gemara rejects this interpretation because there is no indication from biblical text that it is dealing exclusively with sinners. There is no reason to believe, however, that the law would be different if the donkey did happen to belong to a sinner. Thus, the mitzvah does indeed apply to the full population. The enemy could be someone who has simply crossed you in the normal scheme of things, or even someone who consistently and systematically makes your life miserable. If, in fact, it is the latter, despite the threat of adding new insult to old injury, the Torah enjoins you to face up to him or her and help them when they need your assistance. Again, the Torah is silent on what to do when the roles are reversed, and it is the oppressed person who needs help. It knows that this is an impossible predicament, as asking for help may only increase your torment. But the Torah may be subtly suggesting that no matter how difficult it may be to stand up and allow your tormentor to see you in full, you will never get the help you need if you fade into complete invisibility.

Ultimately, invisibility not only seems ineffective, but it may be counterproductive. If prejudice and oppression of others are founded on damaging myths, then resorting to invisibility would be to answer intolerance with fantasy. Invisibility and assimilation are two sides of the same coin, an effort by the oppressed to violate the laws of nature and society and to blend in with the oppressor. Doing so would sacrifice the unique culture and traditions of Blacks and Jews as well as the identity and value of each Jewish or Black person. Instead of hiding in plain sight, Jews and Blacks should try to explain themselves, their lifestyles, and their values to the oppressive others. Visible people can talk to one another. They may learn that race and skin color are not determinative factors in human capacity, that religion is not a zero-sum game, and that people are singular types, not prototypes. No one knows for certain whether educational interventions can reduce prejudice and negative attitudes toward minority groups.[6] Ideology and social hierarchies may not change. But mutual visibility may enable vulnerable people to peacefully coexist in the open knowing that the other will at the very least leave them be.

[1] Jason Mott, Hell of a Book (New York: Dutton, 2021).

[2] Benzion Netanyahu, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain (New York: Random House, 1995).

[3] Richard I. Cohen, Natalie B. Dohrmann, Adam Shear, and Elchanan Reiner, eds., Jewish Culture in Early Modern Europe: Essays in Honor of David B. Ruderman (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 2014), 408.

[4] Philip Roth, The Human Stain (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000).

[5] David Nirenberg, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013).

[6] Wing Hsieh, Nicholas Faulkner, and Rebecca Wickes, “What Reduces Prejudice in the Real World? A Meta-Analysis of Prejudice Reduction Field Experiments,” British Journal of Social Psychology (November 2021).

Chaim Trachtman teaches as Adjunct Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Michigan and is the founder of RenalStrategies LLC. He is on the board of Yeshivat Maharat and is an editor of the book Women and Men in Communal Prayer: Halakhic Perspectives (Jersey City, NJ: KTAV Publishing House, 2010).