Being Jewish in suburban America means being aware of negative space. I'm not oppressed, but I'm still a minority. I go out to deliver some documents and meet dozens of people with ash on their foreheads, grounded in the majority Catholicism of my hometown's Irish-Italian heritage. There is a feeling of being a guest in my own culture.
You shall welcome the stranger, for you were strangers once yourselves. The Jews of my town are welcomed strangers, but we are still strangers. I personally experience anti-Semitism so rarely that it comes as an unexpected blow when I do, but I grew up reading books about the Holocaust.
I am not ostracized or significantly alienated as a Jew, but there is no larger political community in which I am fully comfortable, either. Conservatives both political and religious view us as objects and tools, either for the coming of their Lord or the spreading of North American democracy in the Middle East. Liberals view us as funny heirlooms of eternally conquered bigotry and tragic symbols of the oppressed becoming the oppressors; the cause of Palestinian rights is a noble one, but impossible to traverse without setting off mines of anti-Semitism.
Secular Jews in the media mock our own culture. We are odd, we are funny, we are harmless, we are inconsequential and strange, because we are still strangers.
I read books about the Holocaust when I was too young to understand why we use that word. We use that word because it means burnt offering, because it means sacrifice by fire, because it salvages grace and nobility from meaningless slaughter. Gentiles decided to use that word, but now the Jews of the Diaspora use it too, because we are guests speaking our host's tongue. In Israel, it is simply HaShoah, the Disaster.
The non-Jewish world and those of us who have assimilated into it construct stories around us. We are the wanderers, not meant to ever have a home; we are the controlling elite, wielding disproportionate power behind the scenes; we are the victims rescued and enlightened by our gentile brethren; we are strangers.
We are not oppressed anymore, not here in this part of the United States. But although God loves stories, we struggle to create our own and make them last.
I am a privileged upper-middle-class white woman, and I reap the benefits as much as anyone with my parents' income and my pale skin. But I am aware of passing and of trespassing. I walk the streets on Ash Wednesday and wish well to those who intend to observe Lent, because perhaps being seriously, thoughtfully religious in a society that so often uses the mask of religion to encourage bigotry and other sin is also a way to be a stranger. But I am not one of you, and when Pesach comes I will still not be free from other people's stories.