When I moved to South Korea to teach English in 2011, I found myself in a country where no one I met had ever shaken hands with a Jew before. I wasn’t a great ambassador for the Chosen People at first. But before I left the country, two years later, I would throw my first Hanukkah party, write my first Jewish travel story and bake challah to share with co-workers. (It’s beyond me why no entrepreneur has yet opened a Jewish bakery in South Korea, a country that adores sweet, cakey breads – a future life I seriously considered for about a month.)
I found myself explaining my religion to everyone. Why didn’t we believe in Jesus? What was kosher? Did we believe in God? Why didn’t I wear a kippah?
Thrust before these fascinated Koreans, I found myself thinking more about Judaism than I had since fleeing Bialik Hebrew Day School at age 13. I spent my teenage years running far from Judaism, knowing our Canadian Jewish culture would recover from my absence.
In Korea, I didn’t have that option. People were curious. In a sea of white English teachers, my religion began defining me.
So when Flip Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver in Spike Lee’s latest film, BlacKkKlansman, finds himself face-to-face with neo-Nazis for the first time in his life, his hitherto downplayed Judaism cut through to me: “I never thought much about it,” he says, “but now I’m thinking about it all the time.”
The film is based on the true story of a black police officer, Ron Stallworth, who spearheaded an undercover investigation into a local Ku Klux Klan branch. Zimmerman represents more-privileged minorities – those who can escape social stigma by virtue of their skin colour. Yet he takes that privilege for granted. Zimmerman never had a bar mitzvah and doesn’t observe the holidays. He’s a Jew in blood alone. But for the KKK, blood is all that matters.
Priding himself on being able to sound white over the phone, Stallworth calls up the KKK as a first point of contact. Once he arranges a meeting, he enlists Zimmerman as the white-looking face to his white-sounding voice.
In the real-life story, it’s noteworthy that there was no Flip Zimmerman, a point that has disgruntled some of the film’s detractors. But cultural critic J. Rosenfield in an essay on Medium, writes that Spike Lee “takes two people who are refused entry to ‘whiteness’ by its violent gatekeepers, and shows how they co-operatively create an identity to infiltrate it. The film’s use of Judaism – and its invention of Flip – is a brilliant approach to an examination of whiteness as a construct.”
Throughout the film, Zimmerman gets repeatedly cornered into situations that force him to disparage his own people. (When a paranoid neo-Nazi posits that the Holocaust never happened, Zimmerman is dumbfounded, then quickly pivots to defending the travesty as a beautiful foretelling of a pure Aryan future.)
For Zimmerman, BlacKkKlansman is a story of Judaism through opposition: rather than being born into a culture that immediately clicks, it takes an opposing culture to draw out his pride. I get that. My Korean friends weren’t anti-Semitic, but my otherness forced me to explain the culture to people who asked. Rarely in our Canadian Jewish bubbles do we get the chance to feel, in a profound way, like oddball minorities.
BlacKkKlansman nods at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last summer – the one where scores of white people marched down the street with tiki torches, chanting “Jews will not replace us.”
Lee’s meaning is clear: hatred hasn’t gone anywhere. The upshot, though perversely so, is that such opposition often strengthens the very communities it tries to suffocate. We shouldn’t have to define ourselves in opposition to other cultures, but sometimes you don’t have the choice. You don’t even need to move to South Korea to feel it.