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assing first came into use as
an Americanism to refer to
blacks passing, or 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; $25), presents six inti-
mate portraits of individuals who've
camouflaged part of their cultural iden-
tity: 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 differ-
ent 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 humani-
ty. 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
The Jewish News talked about the idea
of passing with the author in her Upper
East Side penthouse, amidst an impres-
sive 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
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 playing in theaters. In
the movie, Coleman Silk, played by Sir
Anthony Hopkins, is a light-skinned
black college professor who begins pos-
ing as a Jew in the 1940s.
The timing has been serendipitous For
Kroeger, who loved the book and liked
When People Can't Be
Who They Are
the movie. She has seen it twice, delight-
ed to see the subject treated seriously.
Passing grew, in part, out of the
author's previous book, Fanny, a biog-
raphy of writer Fannie Hurst. Hurst's
novel Imitation ofLift, which was first
adapted into a 1934 film, and remade
in the 1960s, 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 wonder-
ing what would happen if the same sit-
uation 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 them-
selves 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 hus-