Being Black And Jewish Means Constantly Being Asked To Choose
The following is an excerpt from “The Color of Love” by Marra B. Gad, which was published this month by Agate Bolden Books.
My friend Rosa often says she is amazed that I can be loving. Or kind. Or happy. She says that because she knows a fair bit about what some like to call my “complicated” existence. And I’d like to think I am all of those things.
“How do you not hate everyone?” she frequently asks after I share a story.
“Because I’m the luckiest girl on earth,” I say. “Look at my life!”
I have incredible, supportive, loving parents. A brother and a sister, each of whom I get to connect with in ways that are authentic and meaningful, even when we want to kill each other. As siblings sometimes do. I have two nieces and a nephew, who could not be more delicious. Wonderful, kind, hilarious, ride-or-die friends. Great skin. An incredible career producing film and television, working with some of the very best in the business. And I have a lens into the world that very few share.
I am the luckiest.
I was born in April 1970 to a young, unmarried, white Jewish girl from Manhattan. When she learned that she was pregnant, she went to her rabbi for help, telling him that she could not keep the baby and that her parents would certainly kill her if her pregnancy were to be found out. And so, as he had done many times before with other girls in her condition, he sent her away from the city — upstate to Binghamton — so that she could keep her pregnancy hidden.
A few years prior, my beloved late cousin Adrienne Mae and her husband, Hal, had connected with this same rabbi, despite the fact that they lived in Milwaukee and he was in New York. My cousins were infertile, and this rabbi had made it his mission to make sure that Jewish babies in need of homes were placed with Jewish families. They adopted two children through him. Most rabbis have causes that are dear to them. And this cause was his.
Meanwhile, my parents had been trying to get pregnant for nearly a year before going to a doctor. According to the limited fertility testing available in 1969, my father had a low sperm count, and the doctor suggested my parents use artificial insemination so that the baby would be “half theirs.” My mother saw the horrified look on my father’s face, and without missing a beat, she informed the doctor that they would be adopting. This way, she told him, the baby would be “all theirs.”
My mother called Adrienne. Adrienne called the rabbi. And he called my parents, telling them he had a girl who was due in April and that they could have her baby.
Interestingly, they had arranged to adopt a baby prior to being offered me, but the birth mother changed her mind once her baby was born, leaving my parents devastated. It was not through the rabbi who eventually sorted us out, but through a more traditional agency. I thank God every day that this other woman changed her mind, for I believe with every fiber of my being that my parents didn’t get the first baby because they were meant to get me.
Infertility is fairly common in the Jewish community. I’ve often joked that it’s because we are inbred, but there is a touch of truth to that. Throughout history, the Jewish people have tended to keep to themselves, often living separately from other people in their geographic homes, with marriages being born within the community. Adoption has always been a solution to that issue, even in the 1960s and ’70s, when there was still a fair bit of shame and secrecy around adopting. Couples would go to great lengths to get a child who looked like them so as to avoid questions.
Adrienne and Hal had that luxury. My parents did not.
I was born on my father’s birthday. My parents were out celebrating and received a message that I had arrived and that they should head to New York to pick me up. And so they flew from Chicago to Binghamton and went straight to the hospital.
My mother tells me that my adult lifestyle and colorful — and, at times, dramatic — personality are not a surprise, given that I was kept in a private nursery surrounded by guards to ensure I did not end up in the wrong hands. When the attorney arrived to hand me off to my parents, he went into the nursery, leaned over to look into the crib, and turned in shock to the neonatal nurse. “Are you sure that’s the right baby?”
“That’s the baby,” she replied.
I was the color of milk chocolate and had a head full of dark, curly hair. He apparently became even paler than usual, his face having drained of all color.
Today, there would be a bidding war for a baby who looked like me. But that was not the case in 1970. And while it seems my biological mother was a young, unwed, and — shall we say — passionate creature, she was also smart and forward-thinking enough to know it was unlikely she would find a family willing to knowingly take a mixed-race baby. And so she did not disclose that her lover had been black and left the rabbi, his attorney, and my parents to sort it all out.
The rabbi apologized to my parents and told them they didn’t have to take me. After all, a mixed-race baby wasn’t what they had signed up for. But my parents and I had already fallen in love. Returning me was not an option because, to them, no mistake had been made. When they looked into my crib, they didn’t see a mixed-race baby — they saw their new daughter. And, at three days old, I was taken home to Chicago.
Unlike most adoptions today, my adoption was closed. My parents never met my biological mother. My mother saw her through the window of her hospital room and has only ever said that she was a “bottle-blonde” young woman. The only thing we know about my biological father is that he was black. I’m not sure if he was ever told I exist. I’ve never been contacted by the biological relatives who might be out in the world, nor have I ever sought to find them. And while I had to be carried in another woman’s womb, my family has always been the one I was meant to have. I chose them for a reason. And yes — I chose them and not the other way around.
My parents had always hoped to have a large family, so they told the rabbi almost immediately that they would like to be put back on the list for another baby. Any baby. But, as is known to happen with infertile couples who adopt, my mother became pregnant with my sister shortly after I arrived and then with my brother eight years after that.
My extended family’s reaction to my arrival, much like me, was mixed. It was one thing for my parents to have adopted, but it was quite another that I wasn’t white. Within days, calls came in from both sides of the family for “paper proof ” that I had actually been born a Jew. One relative suggested that a private detective be hired to find my biological parents so that there would be absolute surety about “what” I was. On my father’s side of the family, the reaction was so negative that it created an irrevocable and very painful break in their relationship. One he felt compelled to make when it was clear I was not going to be accepted and loved without question. Again and again, my parents informed family and friends that I was simply their daughter, and that if that wasn’t good enough, they didn’t need to come to the house again. And our circle grew consistently smaller as a result.
It is the job of any parent to protect their child. But for my parents, this job was elevated to a state of constant defense none of us were wholly prepared for. To this day, I see my mother’s physicality change when someone looks askance at us when she is introduced as my mother — or me as her daughter. She stands up as tall as she possibly can. She pushes her tiny shoulders back. And she sets her jaw in a way that always says to me that she is ready.
With my parents, there was never flight. There was only fight.
And given the waters we have had to navigate, as a family and as individuals, having parents prepared to — at times quite literally — take on the world is a gift for which I will never be able to express my gratitude.
Like I said: I am the luckiest girl in the world.
Growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, I never saw myself in anyone around me. Not at school. Not at synagogue. Not at camp. Not on television. Not in magazines. Today, I am starting to see myself reflected everywhere — more and more shades of life breathing in beautiful brown combinations, each of them a bit different and as unique as my own. I see a celebration of us and others as being beautiful, just as we are, that has been a long time coming.
The party, however, is still not in fullest swing.
In the Jewish community, there has always been some level of confusion around the nature of my brown existence — especially around the notion that I was born a Jew and that I did not convert to become one. Jews, many believe, are white. To some, I am simply unacceptable. The first time I heard the word nigger, it came from the mouth of a member of my own community.
To this day, I am routinely asked when I go to synagogue if I am “in the right place.” I am assumed to be “the help” — the kitchen help, someone’s nanny. Rarely am I simply welcomed with a smile like my Eastern European–looking family members. Last year, on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, an usher chased me down the hall at a synagogue my brother’s family was considering joining. “What are you doing here?” she demanded.
“I’m here to pray,” I replied. “What are you doing here?”
In the black community, the struggles for some to make sense of me are similar. On this side, the widely held belief is that black people are Christian or Muslim but not Jewish. When I was working as a musical theater actress and cast in an all-black play, I stood in the hallway and heard the majority of the cast demand that the director recast me. “She’s Jewish!” they said. “She’s not really black.”
When Marvel’s Black Panther film came out — arguably one of the most seminal moments in film history because it was the first action-adventure film of its magnitude with an almost exclusively black cast — groups of my black friends organized to go see the film, wanting to not only support the critical business around it but also celebrate inclusion on the screen. When I noticed that I had not been invited to join any of those parties, I asked a friend why.
“You’re just not that kind of black, Marra.”
People often pressure me to choose which group I belong to, as if I can simply deny being part of the other or force my whole self into a single space. I’ve had people tell me I must self-identify as black because it is important and because, if my skin is brown, society will never let me be white. That I am half-white does not seem to matter. Some believe it should not matter. On the other hand, a rabbi once told me, “You don’t have to be mixed race. You can just be Jewish. Maybe that would be easier.” But being Jewish to me is a religion. The two, in my version of the story, should have nothing to do with each other.
The idea that I can choose at all is almost comical. I cannot simply decide to be only one of the things I am. I cannot disregard, ignore, or marginalize the rest. I don’t want to. And given the relative discomfort displayed by people in both communities, I don’t see what the benefit would be. It would be like picking between two teams that can’t fully see my beauty and aren’t quite sure they want to claim me. And that’s really no choice at all.
Of course, not everyone behaves this way or finds my background uncomfortable. There are kindred spirits everywhere. But even friends of many decades who fall quite neatly into one community or the other have told me I am “different” in the slightly uncomfortable way. Not in the complimentary way.
I have never understood why the unusual intersection where my race and religion exist matters at all, much less so much. And to so many. If it’s so important that we are all one thing or the other, why is the woman who sent me to the kitchen with the catering staff — in the synagogue my grandfather helped pay for — the same woman who tans herself a shade well beyond my shade of brown? Why do black men who want to date women of faith choose “God-fearing Christian girls” but not me, a God-loving Jewish girl?
I have never understood why I am not simply seen as human, which is the way I see people. To me, being human — literally and figuratively — is, arguably, the greatest equalizer of them all. In the Torah/Old Testament, there is a phrase that has always summed it up for me: B’tzelem Elohim. It means “in the image of God,” and it refers to all creation. That should be enough for any of us. For all of us to be able to see our individual designs as beautiful. And as godlike. But sadly, for some — really for most — it is not.
In my life, I have found there are truths many people do not want to hear. I have been told that the stories of my life could not or did not happen. No one wants to think racism and intolerance exist among people who know so well — too well — what it feels like to be discriminated against. Jews and black people certainly know. And should know better.
For many, identity is literally a black-and-white matter. For those of us who live in the gorgeous places in between, we must choose how to manage what comes when we are “othered” by … others.
This is the story of how I have come to know who I am when faced with exactly this, and I know the choice is mine. And mine alone. It is because of everything I have ever experienced, and the fact that I exist in this unique form, that I am able to choose as I do. And not despite it.
And, for me, the choice is always love.
Marra B. Gad is an independent film and television producer based in Los Angeles and holds a master’s degree in modern Jewish history from Baltimore Hebrew Institute at Towson University.