Welch: What we talk about when we talk about Berkeley

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.