Black Jews no longer in the background of US life
By way of a joke, Robin Washington, Minnesota newspaper editor, African American and observant Jew, explained how mainstream Christian society marginalizes Judaism in American life, filters its holidays through the lens of Christian tradition:
One kid: What ya getting for Christmas?
Another kid: I’m Jewish.
First kid: Oh. What ya getting for Jewish Christmas, then?
Washington’s joke cuts to the heart of the relative isolation that Hanukkah endures on the national holiday calendar, and by extension the experience of black Jews, a minority inside a minority. As American Jews in general establish their identity in the face of the nation’s predominately Christian identity, Jewish African-Americans — who sometimes self-identify as “JOC’s” (for Jews of color) — face another challenge in the United States.
The idea of black Jews in America is more widely accepted than in years past, dovetailing with the nation’s overall increasingly diverse demographic mosaic. But challenges exist in the integration of the black Judaic experience into a skeptical or disbelieving public, and into some aspects of Jewish tradition itself.
For Washington, editor in chief of the Duluth News Tribune, co-founder of the National Alliance of Black Jews, and an oft-quoted writer and essayist on the black Jewish experience, the sense of being “different” is one he felt most acutely through his children.
“Hanukkah isn’t a major Jewish holiday, and only takes on that significance in the U.S. because of Christmas. By no means is it insignificant, but it’s not Christmas,” he told theGrio recently. “The problem, of course, is for families, and keeping your children from crying when their friends are visiting Santa and getting presents.”
The persistence of the Christmas holidays in American culture and commerce can have an emotional impact on those outside the Christian faith. For Washington, it was in trying to explain to his daughter about being an outsider — a distinction reinforced by a double bind of race and faith.
“You can’t really be black and Jewish and not know it,” Washington said. “My family was unusual — we’d celebrate Passover with another black Jewish family. Not everybody did things like that; it took years to understand that this was to make us feel normal. I’d tell my daughter, ‘you’re the norm.’ But there’s no way you don’t know. As a child there’s no way you can avoid it. How could you not know that race and religion matter, how could you not be aware of your otherness?”
For April Baskin, the primacy of Christmas in mainstream culture excludes as many as it embraces.
“I think that in general the holiday cheer is great, but it’s unfortunate that so much is tied in with American business,” she said. “And it’s interesting to me in that it’s similar to the ubiquity of whiteness. There are many things defined as the norm, but for many other people, that’s not their narrative or their experience.”
Baskin, who grew up in California and now lives in Washington, D.C., and self-identifies as “a multicultural Jewish woman — black, white and native American,” is the president of the Jewish Multiracial Network, a national support group of and for Jews of color and multiracial families.
As a child, Baskin experienced the sense of “otherness” Robin Washington alluded to, but pushed beyond it at an early age. “By the time I reached fourth grade and had been in religious school, I found that the sense of exclusion wasn’t there any more,” she said.
“There were so many meaningful aspects of Jewish life that sustained me,” she said. “That sense of a strong community, and the prayers I learned — it gave me meaning, connection.”
The number of black Jews in the United States varies, estimates swing from as low as 50,000 to more 500,000; although a precise accounting is difficult, there’s a generally accepted number of 200,000 people. The style of that expression of the black Jewish experience takes different forms. Many choose to identify as black Hebrews and Hebrew Israelites; this subset of the black Jewish population is observant and obeys many of mainstream Judaism’s customs, its adherence to the Torah and various dietary laws.
(Tags: Black, Jews, America)