Temple Professor Works to Create Center on Afro-Jewish History

Dr.Lewis Gordon has only been teaching at Temple University since 2004, but he’s already made a name for himself on campus. That’s because Gordon, 44, a professor of religion, philosophy and Judaic studies, is building up scholarship in an area few have explored: Afro-Jewish studies. A black Jew himself, Gordon is working to create a clearinghouse for research on black Jews in the Diaspora, called the Center for Afro-Jewish Studies.

Already, the center — which is supported by Gordon’s discretionary funds as an endowed professor — has presented research at a major Jewish-studies conference, amassed two graduate fellows, printed several editions of a community newsletter, created an undergraduate course on Afro-Judaism and drafted an impressive list of future projects.

Among them are a Torah commentary for Africana Jews, a demographic study of Philadelphia’s black Jewish community, an investigation into Afro-Jewish music, and — eventually — archaeological digs in Africa.

In an interview at his office last Friday afternoon, Gordon — who answered the door with a hearty “Shabbat Shalom” — said that many of these projects are a long way off, and acknowledged that his skeletal staff would need outside experts if they wished to achieve their goals. But he said he hoped that by acting as a go-between for various interdisciplinary scholars, he and the center could produce “reliable, informed, rigorous discussions” on the history, religious practices, political challenges and intragroup diversity of black Jews.

Gordon — whose mother is a Jamaican Jew with blood from Ireland and Israel, and whose father is not Jewish but of Afro-Chinese descent — said that the center is meant to offer a tonic to how “ignorant many people are worldwide about Jews period, including black Jews.”

In fact, Gordon said the very term “black Jews” shows ignorance — it’s an “external designation” attempting to infuse racial elements onto a people who otherwise refer to themselves culturally (as Jews, Hebrews or Israelites). “Do you call yourself a ‘white Jew’?” asked Gordon. He said that this question gets to the heart of issues of authenticity surrounding black Jews.

The center, said Gordon, will base its research on those blacks who self-identify as Jewish. “We are not in the business of defining who Jews are,” he explained. “They practice a Jewish way of life because they love it. We’re just trying to represent it.”

‘Groundbreaking’ Initiative

Laura Levitt, Temple University’s director of Jewish studies and an associate professor of religion, hailed Gordon’s center as a “groundbreaking” initiative that represents “the new Jewish cultural studies.” According to Levitt, this new strain of research concerns itself with modern-day sensibilities about gender, sexuality, race and globalism, among other topics. “It’s a very inviting space for Afro-Jewish studies,” she said.

And at Temple, which boasts strong gender and secular studies components, Gordon’s work fits right in. Said Levitt: “From the get-go, we embraced him in Jewish studies. We’re very much committed to thinking about Jewish diversity.” The program is also being constructed on a culturally diverse campus: According to statistics from 2006, Temple’s student body is 15 percent African-American and 56 percent white.

Levitt said that given the tensions surrounding the black Jewish relationship since its heights during the civil-rights era, the center brings the promise of, if not reconciliation, at least dialogue. “It’s a way,” she stated, “of thinking more creatively across difference.”