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It's Hard Being Me

One of the things that I've hated most about dating is that my cultural heritage plays an enormous role in my relationships.
Joel Schalit

Issue #38, May 1998

One of the things that I've hated most about dating is that my cultural heritage plays an enormous role in my relationships. Time and time again over the course of my not-so-adult life, I've had potential lovers tell me after the second or third date, "Even though I'm not Jewish, I want to have Jewish children," or even better, "One of the things that's always attracted me to you is that you're Jewish. I can smell the Middle East in you." As much as astute observations like that may have been intended as compliments, they never fail to elicit memories of the smell of rotting garbage on the streets of Tel Aviv on a hot summer morning. Little do they know.

I'm terribly uncomfortable with events like these because because more often that not it is through my sexual relationships that my ethnicity gets fetishized. The problem is that it's never intentional. Rather, the sense of marginalization I fear I suffer from is a by-product of the way I believe both myself and my partners construct my cultural identity. This is not something that I take lightly, precisely because of how complex my own particular cultural situation is. I am the son of Israeli and American parents. I spent my childhood growing up in Connecticut, New York, Oregon, England, France, Italy and of course, Israel. I never developed a coherent geographical identity. The only thing which has granted me a sense of rootedness has been my cultural upbringing as a Jew. When strangers ask me where I come from, that's what I tell them first. That's why I take a certain degree of responsibility for making my identity potentially problematic. Since all I can do is tell people I'm Jewish instead of a New Yorker or an Oregonian, my religion becomes my nationality. This is not to suggest that there aren't objectively discriminatory cultural structures out there which mark me as being culturally inferior, because there are. The reason why my sexual experience of culture concerns me is that my relationships with women are the only places where I feel subject to damaging cultural stereotypes which try to slot me into these narrow religious categories in which I just can't fit.

For that reason alone I have to take some kind of responsibility for feeling judged, particularly when my working environments -- graduate school, my band, and the 'zines which I work on -- are really safe and nurturing social spaces where my cultural schizophrenia is never fetishized. Well, I lie. Things aren't always that way. Every once in a while I meet certain persons for whom my eclectic cultural upbringing is a really big deal, because they yearn for a dangerous national wholeness which I explicitly reject in my writing and in my music. I'm either an Israeli or I'm nothing. I can't be from anywhere else. I don't have any choice in the matter. If I choose not be Israeli I've made a serious moral error, because whether I like it or not I am indebted to the Elders of Zion for my survival. It's a debt which can only be paid back by being a nationalist. It's such patronizing bullshit. I don't owe anyone anything. Only Americans seem able to come up with such archaic notions of moral obligation like that.

In my professional experiences, such people are more an exception to the rule than they are the norm. It's only in my intimate relationships with women that my religious identity as a Jew is ever an issue. That's where I experience a synthesis of culture and sexuality in my life. If I wasn't so much in favor of miscegenation, I wouldn't find such marriages of eroticism and nationality so problematic. But because I am, it's psychologically damaging to me, because it always makes me feel like an outsider. If I'm not an outsider to someone else, then I'm an outsider to myself. That always conflicts with my own bourgeois ideal of sex, which presupposes that sexual relations should ideally always be about overcoming one's isolation through union with another, through pure physical and emotional intimacy, unmediated by culture (and god forbid, by history). I know how naive that sounds, but in order to demystify my own sexual naiveté; I find it important to 'fess up to my own reactionary and highly traditional expectations.

The fact that I experience cultural difference primarily in my sexual relationships implies that my experience of discrimination is 'sexual,' rather than 'structural.' When I think about that in light of the unprecedented feeling of tolerance I find in my working relationships, I feel the need to make my sexual relationships equally liberating. However, the older I get, the more difficult it is to make sex and labor mirror images of one another. Like myself, the women whom I meet are more set in their ways. As we begin to hit our thirties, we find ourselves less interested in engaging in typically college-age acts of cultural self-transformation, such as defining our gender preferences, deciding whether or not to be monogamous or to get married, or god forbid (!), have children. We've gotten beyond that, or so it appears, because in our own weird way we've become pure labor. Logically speaking, what preoccupies us most is the unsatisfactory nature of our work lives, and the fact that we've yet to find jobs which are as morally fulfilling as we think school once was. We live out our still-young lives burdened with regrets for not having made the right choices, almost as though we've squandered opportunities for individual self-realization which we may never get another chance to realize. We're too impatient with ourselves.

Nonetheless, we continue to search for fulfilling types of employment in a perpetually abusive labor market, in which there are almost no possibilities for individual self-realization. And we blame ourselves for getting stuck in such situations. We do this because exploitation teaches us that work is where we think we're going to find the kind of libidinal satisfaction which we can never find in our sexual lives, even though we have yet to identify the problems which continue to plague our sexual relationships just like they once did when we were supposedly younger and less experienced in bed. The problem is that those developmental issues are not confined to a collective sexual adolescence which many of us from middle class backgrounds associate with high school and college. They live with us forever. Once we graduate into the adulthood of our mid-twenties, when we are forced to take real jobs and leave the distant second family nest of the university, we have less time to reflect upon our need to have a sensually fulfilling existence, from the bedroom all the way to the board room.

The difficulty is that the transition from school to the labor force relegates human requirements of personal intimacy to secondary importance, because most kinds of labor are so de-eroticizing that work ends up taking libidinal precedence over our need for companionship and erotic gratification. But most of us don't realize that. Instead, we blame ourselves for failing to be as lucky in love as we are in the workplace. Unless we're wildly successful, excuses like that don't make sense because if our jobs were more fulfilling, it's more likely that we'd feel better able to have more satisfying sexual relationships. I can't deal with that anymore. Maybe it's because I'm too set in my ways, just like I think everyone else is. Or maybe it's because after three very intense long-term relationships, I've finally started to develop something resembling a perspective. I'd hope that's the case, especially at a time in my life when I think I've learned enough about my sexual and cultural self to know what not to do, to see the alienated ways in which I compensate for my own dissatisfaction with work in my sexual relationships and how that figures into the ways that my partners do the same.

chastity That's where the vantage point of my mixed national heritage suits me well. I was socialized in an extremely militant Labor Zionist family, which while not religious in the traditional sense of the term that most Americans understand religion, was so highly devoted to its political commitments that it was like religion. The sole presiding ideology which united my family was the Zionist idea of creating a national homeland where Jews could live safely, without having to fear the constant apocalyptic specter of total annihilation. We didn't adhere to any traditional religious rituals which constitute what most people believe to be the kinds of devotional practices which define conventional religiosity. In my family, ritual was defined as the struggle for self-preservation, which if viewed as a kind of religion, was the sort of spirituality that placed the struggle for community at the center of the universe. That's how I came to understand religion as a child. Again, it's far from the understanding of religion most Americans share, where the church is officially separated from the state and where religion is regarded as an experience of reassuring, aesthetic interiority which makes life seem more deep and meaningful, if not moral. I have no sympathy for that perspective, because I've always believed that the world is a deep and meaningful place regardless of whether or not we can perceive that reality through the lense of religion. If we can't, it's only because there's something constraining us from seeing it.

One of the things which I've encountered in my intimate relationships with Americans is that it's hard to share my perspective with them because it's so alien to the way they think about religion. Subsequently, I experience a really radical cultural disjuncture -- in the eyes of many of my American lovers, I come off seeming more religious than I really am. This hurts me more than it helps me, because I find myself attracted to people who feel a distinct lack of meaning in their lives, one they think I might be able to help them make for themselves.

The problem is that I can't, and this always disappoints them. But that's a hard thing to make people understand, even though it's very obvious that I spend most of my artistic and intellectual life contending with issues of intense religious concern. The only reason why I've devoted myself to doing that is because I am struggling with the legacy of coming from a family of nation builders, of politically liberal religious nationalists who helped create the first exclusively spiritual democracy in the twentieth century in response to being discriminated against on their basis of their religious orientation. Nothing could be more confusing or contradictory. But I've devoted my life's work to trying to demystify it.

America is a culture fraught with deep contradictions. It professes no official belief system, and yet it has it's own official religion, and that's capitalism, with all of its rituals of production and consumption, it's fetishization of violence, and it's adherence to belief in the divine benevolence of the free market system. In such a context, the established order demands a kind of desire for meaning, because the seemingly secular reduction of spirit to matter turns everyday life into a fetish lacking in any sense of real transcendence, the kind which Americans look for in New Age religions and in monotheistic Fundamentalism. But because they lack an explicitly official language of transcendence to speak about what neo-conservative intellectuals like Michael Lerner call "the politics of meaning," they are enchanted by any and all such discourses that smack of it. I find that extremely frightening, because it suggests how easily American are seduced by the slightest invocation of spirit, no matter what form or shape it takes, regardless of whether they understand it or not. I suppose this is why my intense preoccupation with religion is something that certain kinds of people find sexually appealing -- they see in it my primary telos, something that makes me less alienated and more rooted in this stupid fucking cosmos than they are. Nothing could be further from the truth -- I'm just as alienated as the next guy! The only difference is that I'm trying my damnedest not to mystify that state, precisely because I find alienation so seductive.

Where this kind of cultural need overlaps with my sexuality is in my having been socialized to see sexual reproduction as a kind of national reproduction. Reproducing the nation is a critically important part of any nationalist spirituality which takes as its starting point the struggle for self-preservation. All acts of national unity are predicated on this synthesis of sexuality and culture, which envisions the preservation of culture through the lens of sexual reproduction. When this idea of nationalism takes hold in the collective unconscious of the first generation of any new nation, it makes it almost impossible to dissociate the sexual from the cultural, or to put it more bluntly, the national from the biological. I carry this burden around with me, but it's one that I desperately want to shake in order to be happy. Nevertheless, America is a country which rejects its pluralistic, multicultural makeup. The official culture yearns for a kind of ideological and cultural homogeneity -- it so desperately wants to create a unified national biology. For that's the only antidote to the kind of continuous fracturing of community and identity created by an ever expanding free market that knows no restraint.

What I see happening in my own continuous repetition of relationships which confuse the sexual and the cultural is that I unconsciously synthesize the two. Because that's what I was raised to do as a Zionist. This has been hard for me to see because I've gone out of my way to avoid dating Jewish women, out of the shallow conviction that if I avoid consorting with women of my own kind, I'll somehow avoid being a nationalist. This is deeply stupid, because nationalism is culturally and socially constructed, not biologically or sexually determined.

Of course, this doesn't mean that sleeping with someone of another ethnicity can't end up being subsumed within the confines of a new national project. On the contrary, it can. Perhaps that's why I attract people who end up fetishizing my ethnicity, because what I unconsciously demand of my gentile partners is that they create the same kind of homogenous national community through multicultural sex that I equate partners of the same ethnicity with creating. I'm glad I finally figured that out. Maybe it will help me have a more enlightened relationship next time.

Joel Schalit, aka Khmer Ribs of The Christal Methodists, is learning to get in touch with his spiritual side. He feels relatively well adjusted after a long trip to the Esalen Institute, which Joel discovered through reading too many Wilhelm Reich books in his never-ending search for a higher meaning. If you want to channel him, you can find Joel blissed out in his virtual hot tub at

Copyright © 1998 by Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.