Black Jew Illuminates Diversity of Judaism

Much of the study of African Americans and Jews relates to relationships between the two groups. But Lewis Ricardo Gordon, a Jamaica-born, Yale-educated author and Temple University professor, is studying African-Americans who are Jews. And he’s not just talking about people of color who became Jews as a result of their parents’ inter-marriage or conversion.

The founder of Temple University’s Institute for the Study of Race and Social Thought and its Center for Afro-Jewish Studies, Gordon, 44, says Jews are among the most racially diverse people on the globe – and many don’t even know it.

Gordon traces his lineage to Jewish maternal grandparents from Israel and Ireland and describes himself as a secular Jew. Religious observances were not a big part of his childhood, but they are important to him now. And he counts himself among America’s largely invisible black Jews.

“My experience is that many Jews are fully aware of being descended from black people and are proud of it,” Gordon says. “And many others want to believe Jews have always been and will always be white.” Gordon will discuss the ethnic diversity of Judaism in a program at 5:30 p.m. tomorrow at Anderson Hall on the Temple campus. His is the first of three planned Caroline Conversations spurred by the Arden Theatre Company’s production of Caroline, or Change – the Tony Kushner play about a Southern Jewish family and its black maid.

Gordon is among the preeminent scholars in this emerging field of study, says Gary A. Tobin, the author of In Every Tongue. (Gordon’s newest book, An Introduction to Africana Philosophy, is to be released in 2008 by Cambridge University Press.) “No people have ever lived in more places, spoken more languages, and been of more colors than Jews,” says Tobin, who published the book in 2005 through his San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research. He asked Gordon to write the introduction.

Tobin worked in the Jewish community for decades, as director of Brandeis University’s Center for Modern Jewish Studies. But after adopting a black child 10 years ago, he says, he literally changed courses. He estimates that roughly 1.2 million of America’s six million Jews (or 20 percent) are of African, Asian, Latino, Spanish, Portuguese or Middle Eastern descent.

Exploring that estimate, and finding out how Jewish people identify themselves, is part of what Gordon hopes to accomplish at Temple. He anticipates doing a demographic study of Philadelphia’s black Jewish community, and he has already added an undergraduate course on Afro-Judaism to the University’s curriculum “Most American Jews identify as descended from ancient Jews,” without acknowledging that the ancients were dark-skinned, Gordon says.

Judaism’s biblical fathers (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) and mothers (Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca and Leah) lived at a time and place when most everybody was brown-skinned, Gordon says. “Moses was probably a dark-skinned man, too,” he says. “He probably did not look like Charleton Heston.”

Time, trade routes and politics each had a role in creating the “wandering Jew,” says Gordon, who previously chaired the Department of Africana Studies at Brown University. “But Jews have always been an amalgam.”

A large-framed man with a quiet composure and an easy smile, Gordon winces at the need to define people by their skin color. In his work, however, it’s a necessary evil because ideas or assumptions that go unspoken or unexplored still exist and can cause problems.

“That’s the problem with color, isn’t it?” says Gordon, whose white Jewish wife traces her ancestry to South Africa. The couple have four children, and Jane Gordon works with her husband at Temple.

Much of Gordon’s work addresses what he calls “the dynamics of appearance and invisibility,” referring to the kind of invisibility that occurs when we fail to see what’s right before our eyes. It’s the kind of thinking, he says, that leads to cultural amnesia. “You can close off a portion of your history,” he says. “There is an abominable absence of understanding of Jewish history by many Jews . . . that has led to a presupposition of Jews being exclusively and historically white.

“If you can only think back as far as your grandparents or your great-grandparents, then you’re going to have a very distorted understanding of who you are.”

“We forget,” or perhaps were never educated, Gordon says. “How many of us think about the choices Jews faced after the American Revolution?” At that time, Jews – who had been second-class citizens in and eventually expelled from every place they lived, found they could have full citizenship in the new U.S., Gordon says, if they were white.

“That created another identity crisis for many Jews,” he says.

Eric L. Goldstein, another scholar in the field and the author of The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race and American Identity (Princeton University Press, 2006), says World War II created an additional identity crisis for American Jews. “Jews often found themselves torn between the need to assert their status as ‘white’ and their desire to define themselves as a group apart,” writes Goldstein, an associate professor in the Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory University.

Gordon would prefer to discuss Judaism outside the prism of race. But anti-Semitism is rooted in race and too often, he says, it is used as a tool to reinforce identity. “Anti-Semitism is real,” he says. “But it should not be used as way to unite people or scare them into embracing Judaism.

“What I would argue is that there are so many good things about being a Jew. Beautiful things, things that you cherish and want your children to remember.”