With no apologies for having special access to Gina Welch, we asked the author of the newly published In the Land of Believers to write for us about outsiders’ perceptions of Berkeley.

Since my book In the Land of Believers came out a couple of weeks ago, most of the articles covering its release have made good use of some startling shorthand in headlines — “Atheist Jew From Berkeley Goes Undercover In Evangelical Church”, kind of thing.

“When I say you’re a secular Jew from Berkeley, California,” a Christian radio show host recently asked me, “everybody in this audience immediately knows where you’re coming from, don’t they?”

Well, sort of. Not really. The word secular carves space for a vacuum, not a shared system of principles. I’m a Jew, sure, by the matrilineal definition of the word, and by some dim cultural associations, but I don’t practice. And the word Berkeley rings very differently to the ears of people who haven’t lived there.

Joe Scarborough generously had me on his radio program a couple of weeks ago, and he asked if, while I was at Thomas Road Baptist Church [the late Dr Jerry Falwell’s church in Lynchburg, Virginia], I’d noticed young Evangelicals “dressing like they were from Berkeley, California”*.

If you’re from Berkeley you might bristle at the notion that there’s such a thing as dressing Berkeley, knowing, as you surely do, the Berkeley label tends to blankly pave over byzantine cultural complexity. You know the muscle of the Berkeley Left is actually made up of a million fibers, often flexing at cross purposes — the Green Partiers, the Clintonites, the Obamaphiles, the Slow Foodists and Dumpster Divers, the Second and Third Wave feminists, the Marxists, anarchists, and Revolutionary Communists, the vaguely apathetic left-leaners, the merely apathetic.

You know there’s a strong libertarian contingent in Berkeley, just as sure as there’s a North Berkeley mood contrasting that in the South and the West. You know that slight change in cabin pressure as College crosses Claremont into Berkeley from Oakland, once marked by the blazing orange ball of the 76 station. You know how the airy warehouse grandeur of Berkeley Bowl West departs from the alleyway cramp of the original Berkeley Bowl. You know about racial tension at Berkeley High, you know the socio-economic difference between the hills and the flats. You know that Berkeley’s diversity doesn’t always translate into integration.

You know the narcotic waft of the Rose Garden in bloom, the eerie cries of peacocks echoing in the canyons below Grizzly Peak. You didn’t need Gwen Stefani to demonstrate the useful adverbial qualities of ‘hella’. You recognize the hodgepodge of architectural styles in the hills as a legacy of the big fire, the spontaneous reinvention of neighborhoods.

If you aren’t from here, when you hear Berkeley you hear tie-dye, protest marches, politically correct slogans bleated into bullhorns; you hear barefoot hippies with tangled hair tunelessly banging their tambourines; you hear healing crystals and crystal deodorant, hemp sandals and Krishna chants; you hear organic bok choy, humanely raised in a compost garden, nurtured daily with wisdom from the goddess, harvested according to a moon calendar and served on a lumpy, tasteless bed of bulgur wheat.

If you’re from Berkeley, you know all that’s there, that’s part of the story, but it’s only a thin wire in the tangled, complex circuitry of Berkeley life.

As I introduce my book to the world I’ve been slapping down the Berkeley card wherever I go, knowing full well what stereotypes it activates. When I was writing In the Land of Believers, I agonized over how to establish my point of view with great subtlety and precision, to reveal the exact prescription of the lens through which readers would be regarding evangelical Christians. And now when they ask,Are you an atheist Jew from Berkeley, California?” I say, “I am.”

I do it because it’s efficient. Because while the specific universe of Berkeley is deep and complex, pushpinning Berkeley on a map with Lynchburg does illustrate helpful contrasts in political, geographical, and cultural differences.

Trading in reductive stereotype isn’t fair to Berkeley, I know. A high-school classmate trying to find purchase in DC emailed to tell me she had a “beef” with my suggestion that Berkeley was some kind of “atheist den”. “I’m having enough trouble with the Berkeley reputation in this town,” she wrote. “Would you mind just say[ing] ‘Northern California’ or something?”

Apologetically, I told her no. But her angst speaks my language. People hear the Berkeley label and fill in all sorts of information about you before you get the chance to express yourself as a specific person.

The first week my book came out I ran into a former student on George Washington’s campus, her eyes round with concern. “They’re calling you this atheist Jew from Berkeley,” she said, “and you’re totally not like that!”

If you’re from Berkeley, you know that saying a person is an atheist Jew from Berkeley doesn’t tell you much about what they’re like at all.

*“You say that with such scorn,” I replied.

“No, I used to dress that way myself,” he said charmingly. “I’ve got a little artist side to me.”

Gina Welch will be reading at Books Inc in Berkeley, at 1760 Fourth Street, tonight at 7pm, and tomorrow, Tuesday 23, at Book Passage in Corte Madera, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd, also at 7pm. You can read her interview on The Huffington Post and read her blog on True Slant.

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18 Comments

  1. Some communities are more forgiving than others when it comes to tolerating outlier views. Berkeley is not one of them. Gunnar Myrdal, an old-time institutionalist economist whose views seem to be coming back into favor, wrote a brilliant little treatise about this called “Values, Beliefs and Opinions.” Wish I could find it somewhere. Meanwhile I will buy Gina Welch’s book. I love what she wrote above: “The word secular carves space for a vacuum, not a shared system of principles.” Now there’s a great sentence.

  2. I attended Gina’s presentation at Books Inc. She was very gracious, poised and articulate in expressing the complexity of her experiences. I look forward to reading her memoir.

    Many of those posing questions, on the other hand, did not seem as tolerant, flexible or openminded as the author. While Berkeley is a diverse community filled with a fairly broad spectrum of beliefs, practices and values, we do have our own carde of fundamentalists here as well. No, they are not religious fundamentalists, but they share in common with other fundamentalists a dogmatic, self-righteous and intolerant view of those who espouse contrary beliefs and values.

    Most of these Berkeley style fundamentalists become angry when you challenge the certainty of their beliefs. They often react with shock and indignation as well. Those who might openly espouse an anti-abortion perspective in Berkeley are treated every bit as much as heritics and evil doers as someone who champions abortion rights in the rural South. Don’t believe me? As a social science experiment, go to a party or to selected friends and acquaintances and pretend to espouse doubts about some “core values” which are fundamental to Berkeley progressives. See if you suddenly become a pariah or if anyone is actually interested in engaging in reasonable debate with you. If not, then you have encountered a fundamentalist belief system and mindset.

    Yes, it certainly is easy to take cheap shots at ludicrous, fearmongering sermons on Christian radio when you are cruising down I-5 en route to LA, but imagine a Christian from the Central Valley passing by Berkeley and tuning into some of the lunatic fringe ranting audible on our own KPFA radio. Imagine being a tourist here and seeing the X-plicit Players sauntering down Telegraph Ave. after spending an hour gazing at tree sitters or seeing a raucous protest staged by Code Pink in front of the Marine Recruiting Center. In truth, Berkeley is not a freakshow nor is it defined primarily by its radical fringe. The same applies to the Bible Belt and to evangelical Christians as well. They have a right to their beliefs and to champion their values in the public square just as much as Berkeley progressives do.

    Insular thinking, constantly reenforced by most community members and reflected broadly in local media bias are not problems that plague only intolerant religious fundamentalists in Virginia. These are common human foibles which everyone should take care to assess in their own belief systems and in their own communities.

  3. This piece captures the mottled mosaic of Berkeley very well. We aren’t our stereotypes and we’ve always known that.

    I’m constantly annoyed though that many of us find it so easy to characterize populations of other areas in similarly stereotypical ways. Other places have their own mosaic, even if less diverse in some dimensions, equally or more diverse in others.

    Though I’ve lived in and around Berkeley off and on for decades now, I grew up “back east” and have gone to school and worked around the country and abroad. Each of the places I’ve been long enough including the South I’ve found has its own pastiche of cultures and conflicts.

    It is to our detriment that we rely so heavily on the stereotypes that come so easily to mind when we talk about other places. The ultimate of this type of reductionist thought comes when we characterize whole states as being “red states” or “blue states.” I realize that it is a quick short hand but an extremely limited and counter productive one to take too seriously.

    I find that many people in Berkeley don’t really understand the complexity of the populations of other areas in California, let alone other states or countries. Take Orange county for example. Having family now living in the area, I’ve found that though in terms of electoral politics, it is still very conservative, it is by no means as conservative or as culturally and racially non-diverse as its reputation up here. The kinds of public services that are provided by some cities in that county are unheard of here. For instance, in my sister’s town, the city provides each and every school age child with free after-school and summer day care and the city had voted to tax itself to do it. And believe it or not, I think that Orange County is on the cusp of becoming an area where the Democratic Party will have a very strong presence.

    Appreciating the mosaic of opinions in other areas matters if we want to start a national political or cultural dialogue that goes beyond our yelling at each other. We know that we don’t need to influence everybody in order to effect change. All we need to do is to engage some people, just enough people, to change outcomes. Understanding other people’s mosaics might help us do it.

  4. Two things continue to surprise me about Berkeley,
    1. how often I hear from the city or school public servants ” I don’t live in Berkeley, I would not be comfortable here beside taxes are too high”.
    2. that residents tolerate so little accountability and transparency in government, the level of denial and complacency in a city described as having a high citizen participation.

  5. Wow. That was really well-written and conceived. As a relative newcomer to Berkeley (three years), I had some of those stereotypical notions before coming here. What you wrote really resonated with what I have found as a resident. I echo those who ask for more contributions from you, and I’m bookmarking your blog for regular consumption.

  6. As a Berkeley native I enjoyed this as well… I’d agree with James Petersen that in leaving we see Berkeley in a full spectrum. But, having lived outside the city for more than 20 years, often in places where Berkeley is completely unknown (so I don’t get that stereotype*, but rather the larger one about “California” derived from LA-based TV shows), all of this has been a good reminder. A reminder that some urges/choices I think are me may be instead simply *the Berkeley in me*.

    I am definitely getting this book. Thanks for the post, Gina.

    *P.S. I wasn’t an “atheist Jew” in Berkeley — although most of my friends were — and we all seemed pretty much the same, culturally. In New York and LA Jews thought I was Jewish. “You’ve got the Berkeley Jew thing down,” they’d say. Then I moved to the Muslim world, (Malaysia, and now Turkey), and no one mistakes me for a Jew, atheist or otherwise.

  7. Love this! I too am an Atheist Jew from Berkeley – Born and bred but currently in exile.

    My favorite stereotype blowing anecdote from my life – which I use when people try to apply the stereotype to me – is to tell MY story of the 1969 Tear Gas – wherein I was evacuated from 2nd grade because our school was downwind!

  8. Funny how Berkeley is tagged as atheist given the plethora of seminaries, synagogues, temples, churches and other worship centers around here.

  9. I would have to say that the best way to appreciate Berkeley is to move far far away and regard it from a distance. Though I was born in Berkeley and attended UC, I think leaving was one of the best things I ever did. It is way too easy to become intoxicated by the “narcotic waft” of the blooms of the Berkeley Lotus. I regard my siblings who stayed in Berkeley and they seem as if suspended in amber; captured motionless for all time. That said, I have a soft fondness for everything Berkeley–from afar.

  10. Here, here! Let’s hope *this* post gets picked up by bigger news outlets that are fond of characterizing all us Northern Californians as exotic and wacky (coughNYTcough).

  11. If Gina told her audiences that she’d just heard from (say) “a born-again Christian from Tupelo, Mississippi” they’d have the same sort of stereotypical response. We are all prisoners of our mental maps, including those of us Berkeleyans who think we know exactly what to expect when we cross the cultural border south into Oakland. (Have you actually experienced the unexpectedly fine Temescal neighborhood recently?)

    Maybe Gina could just write new words to the old Merl Haggard song about being proud of the Oklahoma stereotype: “I’m proud to be an atheist Jew from Berkeley. . . .” Can she sing?

    I call myself an “apatheist” (religious questions are simply not personally interesting anymore) partly because nobody has created a negative stereotype for that yet.

  12. And this ordained minister who has called Berkeley home for 20 years says “Amen!”

    Recently in San Francisco, I started up a conversation with a 50+ year old local in the Financial District. When he asked where I lived and I told him, he asked “Shouldn’t you be wearing Birkinstocks?” Alas, you don’t have to travel far to find a serious lack of understanding of this slice of the 510.

    Thanks for the great essay.

  13. Exactly. When I lived in DC, depending on the audience, I sometimes told people I was from Oakland. It was just easier sometimes.