Thoughts From A Unicorn: An Interview with MaNishtana

Shais Rison aka MaNishtana is known in our community for being outspoken about being Black and Jewish. Whether it’s his video about JOC-slapping, or his blog posts, he’s not shy about talking about issues that affect JOCs. Next month, his book Thoughts From A Unicorn will be released. You can currently read excerpts from his book here. I had the opportunity to interview Shais and he discussed the book, projects he’s working on, and much more.

Tali Adina: What inspired you to become a writer and when did you begin writing?

MaNishtana: My mother was an extremely delinquent library user in her youth so I grew up with copies of the classics all over the house. Shakespeare, Wuthering Heights, The Prince and The Pauper, stuff like that. Plus my dad grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s, so his film tastes were these sweeping epics and these smaller 30’s and 40’s films that were just really great pieces of storytelling. I got into comics, which is really a rich world of visuals and storytelling and philosophy and science fiction which has only really started getting some kind of begrudging respect as a fiction form. So all of that was pretty much rumbling around in my head, and I was always generally an imaginative kid, so I’d always have these stories growing in my head. I wrote my first piece, which was this weird sort of Nutcracker/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fan-fiction-but-not-really short story, but from then until high school I didn’t really put pen to paper and just kept everything in my head. Once I hit college I started ordering the sort of writing “set pieces” I had floating around in my imagination into cohesive stories, and started writing screenplays as well.

TA: Can you tell readers a little more about your book? What inspired this story and why did you decide to write the book?

MN: My book is…Well, there are already books about someone “differently ethnic” and Jewish out there. Julius Lester. Ernest Adams. Ahuva Gray. But they’re all from the standpoint of, “I was Black, then I became Jewish, and now I’m Black and Jewish.” And if there is an account from birth, the subject is biracial, like Rebecca Walker’s Black, White, Jewish. People like me, Jewish from birth, two Black Jewish parents, aren’t anywhere on the scene. Let alone Orthodox people like me. And while the other autobiographies are amazing and serve their purpose, they also on the other hand help propagate the idea that to be “differently ethnic” and Jewish, you have to either be a convert or have a White parent. My book is meant to help shed some light on that area. I just felt that maybe the time had come to tell my/”our” story. And especially since, in the midst of writing this one, I was made aware of a Hebrew-Israelite penned autobiography presenting itself as the autobiography of a “Black Jew”, it’s even more timely that I produce mine to illustrate a clear comparison point and to draw the lines.

Tali Adina: What is one thing that you want readers to get from your book?

MN: Lol, that’s a hard one. Only just one? I dunno. I guess the one thing I’d like for readers to get from this book is everything I’ve written in it. Is that cheating? Like wishing for more wishes? That’s a hard question for me because there’s no one reason I’m writing this book. I’m writing for White Jews to be aware of racism in Judaism, for Black non-Jews to realize that Judaism isn’t “White” or a race betrayal, for less observant Jews to understand how Orthodox Jews are humans too, for Orthodox Jews to realize that every denomination has something we can learn from, for Christians to realize why we’re never going to agree on some points, for Black Jews to realize it’s okay to stay Black. There’s really no one point.

TA: In your opinion, what things have changed for the better in Jews of Color? And what things still need to be worked on and what can be done about them?

MN: The fact that I’m being interviewed by a Jew of Color magazine created by a Jew of Color for Jews of Color is a huge leap. That didn’t exist when I was growing up. Or even, like, five years ago. Of course, the flipside is I’m being interviewed by a Jew of Color magazine created by a Jew of Color for Jews of Color and 1-There’s only one 2-We actually need one because the rest of Judaism still hasn’t caught on to the “embracing” part yet. Their knob is still stuck on “tolerance”. The only thing that can really be done is us putting ourselves out there. And doing it in a serious way. Not like the Kali Hawk “Black and Jewish” song or Drake’s “H.Y.F.R.” video. All that does is make JOCs look like a joke. So many people when those videos came out were like, “Oh, they’re just having fun. Oh, it’s just parody.” Last I checked, “parody” can only happen when something serious has been presented in the first place. Otherwise you’re just saying “This is what IS”. JOCs just want to skip to the part where they can have “fun” with Judaism like how non-Jewish Black people can have “fun” with negative stereotypes nowadays. But they forget that “fun” was earned. It was bought with marches and hoses and firebombed churches and sit-ins and assassinations. No such thing happened with JOCs in Judaism. The was no Civil Rights in Judaism movement. There was no great solidified country/denomination/religion-wide unified front saying “We are here, we are your equals, give us what is our due or we are taking it.” And that’s why we—and Judaism—are where we are today.

TA: What other projects are you working on?

MN: I’m currently in the process of moving some movie projects along. Speaking of, the “Punk Jews” documentary I was a part of along with Yitz Jordan and a few others is premiering in December, so there’s that, but otherwise I’m looking to be starting three Kickstarter film projects soon.

TA: Will we see any more videos from you in the future?

MN: I really hope so. Lol. I’m kind of a one-man team and when you have to rely on other people to get something done, it’s not always easy to find people who are ready to get up and go and get on the grind at the precise time that you need them to in order to, y’know, get things done. Plus I don’t have the same easy access to equipment that I used to, and that stuff’s pricey. I’m still just a poor negro, lol. But I’ve had scripts written and ready to film for almost two years now.

TA: What can readers of your blog look forward to in the near future?

MN: Content. Constant and steady content, that is. I know I’ve been kinda lax and sporadic in the past, but hey, when I started blogging I was a single unemployed guy living at home. That makes for a lot of time on one’s hands, lol. Now, I’m married, I’ve got my own place, a job, it’s a little harder to even crank out one blog a week. But I’ll be culling interns soon to help do some of the heavy lifting so all the debris is out of the way and I can just get to that thing I love doing: writing.

TA: What advice can you give aspiring writers?

MN: Write. And don’t do that thing where you’ve got one chapter and you should it to somebody and you think, ”Oh now I’ll be inspired to write because now I have somebody who’s waiting to read it, so now I’m forced to have to produce something.” Because that doesn’t work. You’ll just end up with a bunch of friends who’ve read one chapter of twenty different books, none of which you will actually finish.

TA: Where and how can readers get a copy of your book?

MN: Barring any complications, B”H everyone should be able to find digital copies available for the Kindle and Nook on and in October, with print copies available the month after that.


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