A Nation of Many Colors
Monique Apatow, a black Jewish woman, was walking down a street in her Jerusalem neighborhood of Givat Shaul with an Ethiopian friend and their children last year when a group of ultra-Orthodox boys threw stones at the two families and shouted “kushi!” – a word that in Israel bears the connotation of “a racist white American calling an African-American a nigger,” as Apatow puts it.
Apatow, 38, contacted the mother of one of the boys to let her know what happened and warned that she planned to defend herself in the future. But for all her assertiveness, Apatow has stopped walking down the street where the attack took place and was planning to move to a different neighborhood with her two daughters, ages 10 and 3.
“I’m used to standing out, I stand out everywhere I go,” says Apatow, who moved from California to Jerusalem in 2002 with her now ex-husband. “People have an idea of what a Jew is supposed to look like.” And to judge by the reactions she gets, Apatow does not fit that preconceived notion.
In many ways, Apatow’s external appearance precisely fits the traditional description of the modestly dressed Orthodox woman. On a sweltering summer day, she is wearing a purple and white long-skirted, long-sleeved ensemble and matching head scarf. But if the epithets – and more weighty objects – thrown at Apatow are any indication, some of her neighbors appear to consider skin color more significant than religious practice.
Apatow is hardly the only black American Jew to have moved from the goldeneh medinah to the land of milk and honey. Some of them – like Apatow, who was raised in New York in a Jamaican Jewish family that traces its roots to Ethiopia – have identified as Jews their entire lives, while others have converted to Judaism. Some have experienced blatant racism at the hands of their fellow Jews or had their Jewishness repeatedly questioned, while others are rarely, if ever, compelled to confront intolerance. But all fail, to varying degrees, to conform to the stereotypical Jewish look that to a large extent continues to pervade popular opinion.
“To be Jewish and not white is to fall outside the notion of who is a Jew held by most Americans, Jewish or not,” writes Gary Tobin, Diane Tobin and Scott Rubin in their 2005 book “In Every Tongue: The Racial & Ethnic Diversity of the Jewish People.”
But all is not as monochromatic as it may appear. In some cases, “black” and “Jewish” are not the signifiers of two distinct and occasionally clashing groups, but rather two components of a single person’s identity.
African Americans make up approximately 1 percent of the American Jewish population, while Asians, Latinos, other non-whites and those of mixed race make up an estimated 6.3 percent of the population, according to “In Every Tongue.” The numbers are based on a 2000 National Jewish Population Survey and a 2002 study by the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco, which Gary Tobin heads.
In Israel, where the ingathering of the exiles is a daily occurrence, about 40 percent of the Jewish population is either “nonwhite” or comes from the Middle East, North Africa or the Spanish-Portuguese exile, says Tobin – including the 154,000 Ethiopians who comprise 2.7 percent of Israel’s Jewish population, according to 2005 data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. “Jews, both here in North America but also in Israel, are far more diverse than people recognize,” Tobin says.
All the same, black American Jews who move to Israel may find themselves facing a double rejection – first being marginalized and then ignored.
“Throughout U.S. history, ‘us’ has been defined against blacks,” says Aziza Khazoom, an assistant professor in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s sociology department. “Black has been defined as the main ‘other.'”
Some blacks in Israel may be relieved to move to a society where that rift no longer plays a central role. However, they may find that they have become an overlooked element of the Jewish community once they move to Israel, where, says Khazoom, “black Jews are sort of invisible.” She says that’s because instead of being split along a black-white line as in the United States, Israeli society is divided along an East-West line in which Easterners – Arabs and, to a lesser extent, Jews of Mideastern or North African descent – become the primary “other,” leaving blacks to fall between the cracks.
For instance, while the word “minorities” is often used in the United States as a euphemism for blacks and Hispanics, the Hebrew equivalent in Israel refers to the Arabs who live in the country. The political discourse in both countries is also remarkably similar: in both cases, advocates for minority rights regularly complain of institutional racism and a paucity of opportunities for high-level achievement.
In the Jewish world, the Mizrahi-Ashkenazi fault line, which was most strongly felt when large waves of Mizrahi immigrants poured into the country in the early days of the state, continues to run beneath Israeli society. America’s inner cities are Israel’s “development towns,” code words for largely Mizrahi low-income areas. And while Americans are used to thinking of race primarily along black-white lines, in Israel “racist” is an imprecation regularly hurled by Arabs at Jews and by Mizrahim at Ashkenazim.
Some African-American Jews say they prefer being black in an Israel that tends to ignore blackness to being black in an America saddled with a history of slavery and burdened by the racial divide.
“Here it’s not like in America,” says Shifra, the daughter of Caribbean immigrants to Chicago, where she grew up in a devout evangelical home and underwent an Orthodox conversion after college. “In America I felt a little embarrassed,” she says from her Jerusalem living room as she alternates between holding one of her 3-year-old twin girls and her 1-year-old son. “When someone sees me [there], they see me as a black person, not as a Jew. If they see me walking with a siddur [prayer book], they’re like, ‘What’s she doing?’ I felt self-conscious.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s been smooth sailing in the Holy Land. The 35-yearold Shifra (who insists that her real name not be used because of the sensitivity of the subject) has had to contend with wide-eyed looks of shock when her white American husband – a scribe in a dark beard and black velvet kippa – brings home people who were not expecting to encounter a black wife and three mixed-race children. Shifra and her husband have also come up against an unforeseen difficulty: they are having a hard time finding books for the kids that feature both Jewish content and illustrations of characters who aren’t all white. But most of all, Shifra fears that her children could be ostracized in school for the color of their skin.
For all the challenges that some non-white Jews in Israel face, others say they have encountered nothing but goodwill.
Ahuvah Gray, who gives her age as “over 50,” is the author of My Sister the Jew, an account of her transition from Baptist minister in Chicago and Los Angeles to Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem. Speaking from a chair stationed below the plain wooden Star of David hanging on the white wall of her living room, Gray, who is black, says the worst prejudice she has seen in her world travels – first as a Christian and then as a Jew – has been in the United States. However, Gray says she has not had a single negative race-related experience in the 13 years she has been living in Israel.
Although Shifra and Gray see black-white relations as being easier to deal with in Israel than the United States, Asian Jews sometimes face difficulties in Israel that wouldn’t necessarily have cropped up elsewhere. For instance, some people with Asian features are regularly mistaken for foreign workers living in Israel on a temporary basis.
Whether or not non-white Jews are subjected to rude comments or curious stares, their very presence may help change the way those around them think about what Jews look like.
Shifra’s husband, for instance, says he feels privileged to be widening “people’s conceptions of what’s Jewish,” just by exposing them to his own family.
Apatow, meanwhile, tells of an Israeli cabdriver she provided with an impromptu education. “He saw my hair is covered and I look tzanua [modest], and he said, ‘You’re Jewish? And your mother?'” recounts Apatow. “And I said, ‘You know, there are Jews who look like me in the world.’ He said, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t know.'” “I don’t even know what to call it – it’s ignorance, it’s arrogance, it’s lack of education, it’s something really big missing in the worldview of Jewry,” says Apatow. “Sometimes I look at it like maybe it’s my job to teach them – we are the pioneers.”