BC Alum Proves Jews Come in All Hues
MA NISHTANA? : Shais Rison remains a positive person despite what others may consider to be negative traits; his race and his religion.
W.E.B Du Bois (and Moustafa Bayoumi) asked, “How does it feel to be a problem?” Brooklyn College Alumni, Shais Rison is asking “Ma Nishtana: Why is this night different from the rest?
Twenty-eight year old Rison has been practicing Orthodox Judaism all of his life. His mother’s family can trace their Jewish roots back to the 1800s, while his father converted to the religion after meeting his wife. What makes them different, however, is the fact that this Brooklyn family is African American.
“Being Black and Jewish is like being Black with more Black added on,” said Rison as he took his hat of to run his fingers through his black, kinky hair.
Rison has to constantly deal with stares, glares, jeers and insults while doing such simple tasks as walking to the store down the street.
“I call that Wednesday,” said the Brooklyn resident, “When you walk down the street, you’re not thinking ‘My, that Jew has dark skin, you’re thinking what is that thing on that Black guy’s head?'”
In fact, Rison admits that while walking around Brooklyn in what he calls his “Jewniform,” he was once cursed out by a Jamaican man for not being Christian, the religion that Rison describes as having “ripped [Black people] from our homeland.”
“Going to Church doesn’t make you Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car,” recited Rison.
Rison was homeschooled until the third grade, and had a firm grip on his beliefs when he finally did begin public school.
“Despite what the other kids try to tell you, it wasn’t that big a deal,” said Rison of his younger days. Christmas carols, tales of Santa Claus and insensitivity to his diet never fazed him. Rison knew who he was and understood what he and his family believed in from a young age.
“I was always able to transcend [my religion] into real life,” said Rison, who describes himself as a “pretty realistic and practical kind of person.”
Life is not easy, but he keeps his head up through it all, and uses the negativity as a launching pad for his ambitious endeavors.
The young man is the creator of two innovative websites. His blog site, Ma Nishtana has become very popular among young people of all races and religions because, as Rison says on the homepage, “[a] Jew Card is not mandatory.”
The title of the website, which is home to almost 200 members, is a play on the question asked during the Passover Seder. “Why is this night different than all other nights?” Rison created the site as a community for himself and other “Jews of Color” or JOCs, to have a public forum to ask why they are so different from others of the same religion.
“I blog and film so that Jews of color know they’re not alone out there in their struggles and frustrations,” Rison stated on the site.
Such frustrations include not being able to register for most dating websites. In a world where E-Harmony and Match.com commercials rule primetime television, it is no wonder so many seek love through the World Wide Web. Rison, after hearing many complaints about Jewish Dating Sites from his fellow JOCs decided to investigate the problems.
“They only have ethnicities based on where Jews are from,” said Rison of one website that had three choices when it came to background: Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Convert.
“I had no idea ‘Convert’ was an ethnicity,” Rison continued.
It was then that necessity gave birth to invention, and Rison created JOCFlock, a dating site for Jews of Color. He made sure to include every country on every continent for his members to choose from when creating a JOCFlock profile. Jewish men and women from as far as India and Togo, whom Rison calls “exotic Jews,” have joined the site, which is steadily rising in popularity.
The young man, who was born on Valentine’s Day, is also looking for love. The very traditional Rison knows what he is looking for in a woman, having been previously engaged.
“Most guys want arm candy,” he explained, “my version of arm candy is when I’m doing XYZ and she’s doing A through F…someone who has their own life.”
The self-proclaimed “geek” constantly pulls out his phone, silencing the Power Ranger and Transformers theme music that alerts him of a call or text message. During his tenure at Brooklyn College, Rison was involved in many activities including the Excelsior, the Broeklundian, and ironically the United Students League of Student Government. The one he is most proud of, however, is the club that he created, the Action Adventure Club.”
College life for him was interesting, to say the least. Rison does not shy away from telling the story of one of his close friends and colleagues on the school newspaper.
“We ran into each other at the same Synagogue, and after that, he never said another word to me.”
Rison explains that although he had many Christian and secular Jewish friends, he “never really clicked that much with the religious crowd.” He describes that relationship as a tolerant one, as opposed to an accepting one.
“There are several people on campus I’ve prayed with for 15 years that can just walk by me in the hallway,” Rison continued.
Rison is used to battling prejudice. “In some cases, there’s a double strike against me,” he said of being Black and Jewish.
“I see no reason to not lump them all together. Why not fried chicken soup?” he continued. Rison refuses to give in to stereotypes, noting that he speaks perfect English and refuses to learn to play basketball.
Dressed in a grey blazer and button down shirt with his Arba-kanfat, or Tzit tzit, underneath, slacks and snakeskin shoes, Rison describes himself as being “as American as apple pie.”
Rison has since started a film production company with a friend, called 24/6 Films, “like 24/7, but we take Sabbath off,” he joked. He also hopes to one day open a kosher pizzeria in order to give Jewish people the same delectable options that Dominoes offers.
It is clear that he embraces all aspects of his culture, and does not view the many obstacles he encounters as setbacks.
“I try to make it work for me,” he said, “For me to think of myself as any one thing is ridiculous. Do you ask the color purple if it’s more purple or red? No, it’s purple, with aspects of blue and red.”
(Tags: Black, Jew, Personal Story)