Black and Jewish
Ronni Davis calls himself “BAJ” black and Jewish. Asked with which group he feels more of an affinity, he points out that 99 percent of his friends are Jewish. But he never forgets he’s black. If he does, “the police always remind me,” said the Silver Spring resident.
On the other hand, Shelliyah Iyomahan, who also lives in Silver Spring, says she has had a number of experiences in which it is fellow Jews who have not allowed her to forget her skin color. Entering a synagogue can sometimes lead to questions such as “Are you lost?” or directions to the church across the street, says Iyomahan, the daughter of parents from Trinidad and Tobago. She was raised as a Sabbatarian one who worships the Sabbath on Saturday before discovering she was halachically Jewish. “I’m a Jew, with a bloodline just like you, coming here to learn, and you assume things because of my skin color,” she said. At times like those, she thinks, “how far we have not come.”
But while Davis, Iyomahan and others who are members of both minority groups all report some combination of strange looks, overheard derogatory remarks or some sort of prejudice from Jews, blacks and others, they also are all devoted Jews who have found a place in the community and are eager to talk about their lives as members of the tribe.
Rachel Birtha Eitches says the typical reaction to her conversion to Judaism more than 20 years ago was “You have enough trouble as an African American, why would you want that double as a Jewish American?” The McLean resident recalls that one rabbi didn’t want to be involved at all, she said, because he thought “I didn’t have a good future” as a black Jew.
But “I was not put off by that,” she said, believing that being a part of two minority groups “adds strength.” She also recalls times, particularly in her first years as a Jew, when she would be at a Jewish event and hear someone murmur the word “schvartze,” and the “occasionally awkward questions like ‘Did you convert or were your born this way?’ ” a query that she said her husband, who is white and Jewish born, often steps in to handle.
But Eitches describes herself as “one of these glass-is-half-full people.” She thinks that when people “get to know me, things will be all right with us.” She noted that most Jews eventually “figure it out and proceed … normally,” realizing that “if I weren’t Jewish, I wouldn’t be here.”
Davis also has lived through similar incidents and has a similar attitude. “It doesn’t really upset me,” he said. “Life is too short to get bent out of shape,” he said, adding that “once things come out in the wash” people understand.
“You have to have a thick skin,” Iyomahan said, noting that when she first visits a new synagogue, she usually leaves her children, 10 and 5, at home so they won’t be upset. After bouncing around congregations, she recently found a synagogue, the Conservative Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase, where she feels supported and welcomed.
On the other hand, Carolivia Herron said she doesn’t notice the reaction of others to her double-minority status. “I don’t really feel it … I’m so weird to start with, I’d stick out no matter what group I was in,” said Herron, an author and educator who lives in the District. “I can see people do a double take,” she said, and “I act like I don’t see them and go right on talking [and] continue being who I am.”
But Davis, a member of Tifereth Israel Congregation in the District along with Herron, said he has felt a chill on occasion from the black community because of his religion.
An accountant/auditor, he said that “working class” members of the black community simply “preach to me” about their love for Jesus and want to “save my soul” an attitude that Iyomahan also has experienced.
But Davis said it is the “more educated” members of the black community who seem to “have more of a beef with the Jewish community” and have made comments about how Jews “keep all the money for themselves” or control the financial world. At a previous job, he said, other African Americans didn’t socialize with him after learning of his conversion.
When he was younger, Davis really didn’t understand why Jews talked about anti-Semitism. From his experiences in the church, he saw that “the Bible speaks very highly of [Jews]” and “all the promises and all the blessings recited in the Scriptures are recited to Jews.” Then he converted and ended up stationed with the military in the Middle East. “I’d never seen such hatred,” he said, recalling how his tallit was confiscated passing through customs in Bahrain.
Davis, 50, says he is so happy and proud about being Jewish emphasizing in a conversation the importance that Judaism places on education and community that he doesn’t usually bring it up with those he doesn’t know, recalling a quote that advised “if you show all your wealth, you will be robbed.”
“The best way to keep something so precious is to only share it with those who really appreciate it,” he said.
Davis is the son of a nondenominational Christian minister; of all his family members, it was his father who was the most supportive.
Both sides of his family had Jewish ancestry, and some Jewish tradition had stayed with them throughout the generations. For instance, Davis remembered the “spring cleaning” every year when they would burn the chametz. His father also always made sure they observed the fast of the firstborn the day before Pesach.
Furthermore, Davis always had tons of questions about what he learned in “Bible college” as a teen, and his father would provide him with Jewish texts, from Maimonides to Rashi, to further his knowledge. As an adult, he gravitated toward Judaism, and “the more I learned, the more I got involved in the Jewish community.”
Davis often meets other black Jews on blind dates, but asked if it matters to him that a woman be both black and Jewish, he said that Judaism is paramount.
Iyomahan, a special education teacher in the Montgomery County Public Schools, also grew up with Jewish traditions, like Saturday being a “special day” and kashering meat, but didn’t know she was Jewish until researching her background and discovering she was of Jewish heritage.
Other black Jews came to their conversion after becoming disenchanted with the faith into which they were born.
Herron, 59, was raised a Baptist, but decided about 20 years ago that she didn’t belong in that church anymore and began to study Judaism.
Eitches, in her 50s and an editor at the Voice of America, grew up a Baptist in Philadelphia, but realized that the religion wasn’t for her and never was baptized. Searching for a spiritual home, “Judaism won me over,” she said, because of its “great deal of respect for ancient cultures” and the “kind of principles tied up with Judaism,” such as its “commitment to make the world better.”
“It all fit together for me,” said Eitches, who belongs to the Conservative Adas Israel Congregation in the District, adding that she also liked the music. Eitches said her father was concerned that she would lose her connection to the church, which is the center of the educational, political and social life of African Americans in a way that the synagogue isn’t for most Jews. But she and her husband, Edward, have raised their four children with an appreciation for both parts of their background.
Ironically, she noted, she is the more “religious one” in the family, and much more concerned about getting the children to Jewish activities, while he has long had an interest in African culture and always looking for opportunities to educate them in that area. “The children have had double doses of both cultures … [and] they seem to like it and identify with it,” she said.
Eitches said she appreciates the many joint church-synagogue programs celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. at this time of year, even though the relationship blacks and Jews forged during the civil rights era is “more complicated now.”
“I’m glad those kinds of bridges still exist,” she said. “Worship is a powerful force.” And she said the annual King weekend programming that Adas holds in conjunction with a church is particularly special because her daughters are members of the youth choir. “To have my daughters singing in a black church brings everything together, the roots and the tree,” she said.
Others say they also look at their dual identity as indivisible.
“The way my parents raised me, I can’t separate” the two, Iyomahan said. “I am what I am because of what I am.”
Asked whether her Jewish or black identity takes precedence, Herron responds, “I feel 100 percent both.” With such a background, though, she does question why the leaders of the black and Jewish communities have never come to people like her for advice when there are disputes. “So many people talk [about blacks and Jews] based on separation” and are “not looking at ways we are similar.”
“People who live everyday [in both worlds] may be able to give you insight,” she said.