Jewish Like Me
“HOW ARE YOU Jewish?” That’s a question Shais Rison, 28, an Orthodox African American Jew from Brooklyn hears a lot.
His answer, delivered in his signature monotone voice, is usually something like: “Thank you, and how are you Jewish?” Rison admits that some are taken aback by his sarcasm. Then again, many people have never met anyone quite like Rison.
At a Limmud NY event in October, in which he hosted a session entitled, “What Really Does Make a Jew of Color Different from Any Other Jew?” Rison was equally at home with Talmudic phrases and urban street talk. His pinstripe suit, polka-dot tie and crocheted kippa seemed a nod to his complex identity – part committed Jew, part African American.
On the Internet, he’s knows as blogger MaNishtana, an allusion to the Passover Seder song about difference, and is also the founder and administrator of JocFlock.org, an online dating site for JOCs, or Jews of Color, as many prefer to be called.
For Rison, a multifaceted identity is nothing to fuss over. It’s other people who have the problem. Everywhere he goes, he says, white Jews demand his religious credentials.
While in the past, he used to offer information about his father’s conversion and his mother’s Jewish roots, he’s stopped being so accommodating. “If you are white, everyone assumes you are Jewish.
People don’t say: ‘You don’t have a ketuba [marriage contract] from your great-greatgrandfather, so I guess you’re not Jewish.’ I don’t have to provide more proof than anyone else.”
Young African American Jews, like Rison, are on the forefront of an identity revolution. “American Jew” used to be synonymous with Ashkenazi food, music and religious practice, but those markers of identity are on their way out. In an increasingly diverse country, where racial barriers are crumbling, American Judaism is reflecting a widespread cultural shift, explained Diane Kaufmann Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research (IJCR), an independent think tank, in a telephone interview with The Report.
Tobin reports that 77 percent of Americans now approve of interracial marriage, so it makes sense that a growing number of American Jews are increasingly open to the idea of black, Hispanic and Asian Jews. Israel has long held a place as home to “exotic” communities such as Yemenite and Ethiopian Jews; now American Jews are joining that demographic, as Jewish couples adopt children of diverse ethnicities, and communities increasingly embrace converts of all backgrounds.
As the demographics change, so does society’s conception of combining African American and Jewish identities. In an earlier era, it seemed unusual for individuals to have this dual identity. Even well-known figures who had this blended identity – notably entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. – were seen as an anomaly. Henry S. Levy & Son chose to feature an African American child, among other ethnic individuals, on their 1967 advertisement for Levy’s Rye Bread.
The famous tag line: “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s real Jewish rye” made sense in a time when black and Jewish identities seemed at odds.
Today, by most accounts, this is shifting, as multiple forms of identity take the place of strict labels. In July 2009, Alysa Stanton was ordained by the Reform movement as the first African American female rabbi and consequently took the pulpit at a North Carolina synagogue, a momentous event covered by the press. Jewish Rapper Shyne, now known as Moshe Levi Ben- David, as well as the late Orthodox Jewish rapper Yoseph Robinson are also widely known for blending American black culture with observant Jewish living. Yet, according to some young leaders of African American and Jewish heritage, such as Rison, the old ways of establishing who is “in” and “out” are still all too pervasive.
Jews of Color are still seen as the “other,” they say and, as such, are made to feel unwelcome in their communities.
EXACT NUMBERS OF AFRICAN American Jews are nearly impossible to find. About half of the non-white American Jews reported by Tobin – 435,000 or 7 percent of the total – are Jews of Sephardi ancestry, who in Israel would not be considered people of color.
“Historically, it has been complex to count Jews, as is the case with any ethnic minority,” Tobin says.
Additionally, this number reflects the perennial question of “Who is a Jew?” as it is likely to include individuals who see themselves as Jewish, but may not have undergone conversion in any stream of Judaism.
It may also include members of the Black Israelite community, an African American community that claims roots to biblical Hebrews and practices Judaic customs, with some alterations. While they were once viewed as outsiders by the Jewish establishment, that too may be changing. Rabbi Capers Funnye, famous as Michelle Obama’s first cousin once removed, was originally ordained as an Israelite rabbi, but has maintained strong ties with the broader Jewish community. (See “My Goal Is To Build the Jewish People,” page 33.) What is certain, according to Tobin, is that increasing numbers of Americans are interested in Judaism, and are choosing to join the flock. More than ever, social networking tools on the Internet offer people the choice to affiliate with any number of religious groups. She says that Judaism is attractive to Americans, many of whom are “Old Testament readers,” and are looking for a way to “talk to God.”
“If Judaism is part of the marketplace of world religions, then we have a great chance,” she says. However, warns Tobin, with a history of persecution, many Jewish groups tend to be suspicious of others. While some might see this attitude as part of an ages-old Jewish tradition of testing potential converts to determine the seriousness of their intention, Tobin sees it primarily as hostility, which can drive people away – a major mistake, in her view.
“If people want to become Jewish,” she says, “we shouldn’t turn them away.”
These sentiments are echoed by many young African-American Jewish leaders active in established Jewish circles. But ask them what they are working for, and most will tell you that they are not interested in gaining acceptance from “mainstream” Judaism, but in improving and changing the community. They approach the issue of diversity with a wide lens, exploring all the ways that American Jews can open doors and let down their guards. Many seek to bring new values to Jewish life in America – to make it less parochial, more attuned to diversity and, in many cases, more spiritually minded.
LACEYSCHWARTZ, 33, NATIONAL Outreach Director at Be’chol Lashon, an organization that seeks to strengthen the Jewish people through inclusiveness, uses media and content tools to encourage diversity and help people stop compartmentalizing different identities.
Her personal history provided an impetus to get involved in the issue. She grew up in a white, culturally Jewish family in New York and found out at 18 that her biological father is black. Even before coming to terms with her family history, she was bombarded with rude comments from members of her local, non-denominational synagogue due to her black appearance.
She describes the lack of warmth and acceptance in many Jewish venues, citing synagogues as an example. Even when overt racism is absent, a true feeling of acceptance for those who are different is often lacking.
Referring to synagogues, she asks: “Can I be fully myself in this space, or do I have to put a piece of myself aside? Is it because someone said something ignorant and rude? Or nobody talks to me, or invites me for Kiddush (refreshments) after services?” These kind of experiences led to a personal mission: to acquire both a strong black identity and a strong Jewish identity, and finally to blend those and “move forward with that combination,” she tells The Report.
Sharing personal stories is a major part of her work at Be’chol Lashon. She uses film to offer nuanced views of the subject.
Recently, the organization held screenings of the film “Off and Running” by Collier Meyerson, about the experiences of a black girl adopted by lesbian Jewish parents.
Schwartz’s own film project “Outside the Box” is currently in production. Be’chol Lashon also works with Jewish communities, educating about diversity in a way that fits the specific needs of each locale.
According to Tobin, the past 10 years has seen an increase in the number of organizations interested in partnering with Be’chol Lashon and in identifying with their aims.
WHILE THERE MAY BE A trend towards greater openness, American Jews are not there yet, according to Anthony Rogers-Wright, a Colorado-based musician who converted to Judaism some 10 years ago.
Dating is the “ultimate litmus test,” he says. “I have dated Jewish girls who said it would be easier to bring home a white Christian than a black Jew. Parents say they want their kids to marry Jews, but what they really mean is white Jews,” Rogers-Wright relates to The Report.
Rogers-Wright, the child of parents from Sierra Leone, was brought up Muslim on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. His mother, a Christian, raised him with the religion of his father, as is the Sierra Leone custom: boys are raised with their father’s religion and girls with their mother’s religion.
Spiritual searching as an adult led to serious Jewish study and finally to conversion, “a rite of passage” that he happily embraced. However, a sense of acceptance by his co-religionists was not always on offer. While living in Los Angeles, he was encouraged to take leadership roles in a number of Jewish organizations and programs, including Limmud LA. But upon moving to Colorado, he was faced with a different reality.
He cited the fact that people of color are underrepresented in Jewish organizations around the country as evidence of the problem.
“You don’t see any Jews of color in pertinent positions in the Jewish Federations, or in Jewish environmental organizations.
We haven’t been invited yet. We are still seen as different.”
For Rogers-Wright, greater inclusivity would lead to a more robust American Jewish life. “We bribe young Jews to be Jewish with Birthright’s free trips to Israel. They don’t have to earn it. This leads them to embrace Jewish culture, but not Jewish religion. If we keep going like this, we will become a culture and cease to be a religion,” he warns.
Jews of Color, on the other hand, are truly inspired by a Jewish lifestyle and share a zeal for their religion that Rogers-Wright compares to the enthusiasm felt by Christian youth groups in the US. We have to learn from them and from others who have chosen Jewish practice.
JARED JACKSON, 27, WHO traveled to Israel with Birthright and was president of the Hillel at his university, has already been recognized as a leader by several Jewish organizations.
However, as the son of an African American Cherokee father and a “standardissue Brooklyn Jewish” mother, who grew up in a largely black neighborhood, he too has a thorny history of being rejected. He says that his family was asked to leave a local Conservative synagogue, after being made to feel unwelcome. Meanwhile, his father’s Baptist family called him and his siblings “the tainted babies.”
“I felt rejected from both sides,” he asserts to The Report.
On a trip to Israel, awarded to him by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation, he found himself sitting on a rock in the Negev and contemplating what he could do to honor his “dual heritage.”
He returned to the United States and founded “Jews in ALL Hues,” an organization that educates communities about Jewish people with dual forms of identity – including interfaith identity and two ethnicities – and also creates a “safe space” for them to come together. Jackson emphasizes that the group is peer-led, so its mission is determined by individuals dealing with these issues, and not outside “experts.”
“You have the right to claim your heritage,” he says. “When I tried to make aliya, they verified my mother’s bat mitzva and her parents’ ketuba, but identity doesn’t stop there.”
The group allows people to fully discover and revel in multiple identities.
Currently based in Philadelphia, it has already held several events and is set to hold a conference in San Francisco on May 30. In addition to encouraging outreach to communities, it also celebrates the unique flavor that dual-heritage individuals bring to Jewish practice.
“There are certain things in African American culture that I’d love to bring to Judaism. Some synagogues I go to are very bland. People will sometimes clap their hands, but sometimes if you do, you tend to be alone. I’m a jazz saxophonist and I love the liveliness of music. My girlfriend is half-Colombian and we like to go salsa dancing. We would just dance around the synagogue. I’d like to bring that into the service. You don’t have to change the words,” Jackson says.
As he works to push “Jews in ALL Hues” to the next phase of growth, Jackson has also found a way to stay in touch with two often estranged groups: the black community and the American Jewish world. He says that as an African-American Jew, “you are, by default, a bridge to two communities.” It’s a role he enjoys.
Some people may relate to the fact that he resembles them physically, while Jews of all ethnicities will relate more to his mannerisms, he says.
“I tend to be neurotic and that’s a Jewish trait,” he jokes. “After five minutes with me, people say ‘There’s no way you’re not Jewish.’”
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