Black-Jewish Ties Converge in Story, Song at MLK Event

Survey statistics don’t typically become fodder for hip-hop lyrics. Yet, a hip-hop song about the National Jewish Population Survey was among the highlights of a program last week celebrating the meeting of African American and Jewish identities.

Before a mixed crowd of more than 200 people at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School on Wednesday of last week, the Y-Love (Yitz Jordan), an African American who became an Orthodox Jew in 2000, told the gathering he had been drawn to Judaism from an early age.

As a young child, he had gone around his house drawing six-sided stars after seeing a “Happy Passover” message on television; the rhyming of hip-hop became a memory aid while studying Talmud in a yeshiva in Jerusalem.

His NJPS-inspired song includes the lyrics, “Six out of 14 don’t know jack … 1 out of 36 wear black hats … Which of his requests are you gonna deny, that is the state of the nation unified.” One of the other songs he performed is based on the Kaddish, while others tackle politics and other issues.

Y-Love’s appearance was part of the third annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration, co-sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and the NAACP of Montgomery County.

Also telling the story of her journey as an African American to Judaism was Carolivia Herron, a retired comparative literature and creative writing professor who now directs a nonprofit organization that develops literacy and creative writing programs.

For Herron, too, an interest in Judaism dated back to childhood, recalling how she read the entire Hebrew Bible and then asked her mother where she could meet a “Hebrew.”

Told that the shopkeeper down the street was Jewish, she asked him, “Did you know Moses?” He initially thought she was making fun of him, but they soon became friends.

Herron, perhaps best known as the author of the controversial children’s book Nappy Hair, also related a story about her family’s roots that her great-grandmother had told her as a child, which later led her to believe her family had some Jewish roots.

And Herron recalled how her father, watching her go through the process of lighting Shabbat candles after her conversion, realized that his mother had performed the same tradition ? although he didn’t know why.

The evening also included the presentation of the King-Heschel Award for Outstanding Community Service, Civil Rights Advocacy, and Community Building to Operation Understanding DC, the 15-year-old organization that brings Jewish and African American high school students together in a yearlong program to learn about each other’s cultures and train them as leaders in fighting for social justice.

Two program alumni accepted the award. Diandre Watkins, a graduate of Wilson High School in the District and a student at Morgan State University, said that she “didn’t realize how big [OUDC] was going to be for me,” thanking the organization for helping her realize her “passion for fighting injustices.”

Benjamin Shnider, a Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School graduate who now attends Emory University, discussed his “A-ha moment” from the program: That took place when he visited the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham during the OUDC Summer Journey and felt the same emotions that he had had while visiting a synagogue in Prague a year earlier.

The synagogue had been destroyed by the Nazis in 1939, and the church was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan in 1963; both offered a “semblance of hope in the sea of hatred,” he said.

“It symbolized why Jews and African Americans are together in … dialogue to promote understanding,” he said, adding that his experience will inform his “worldview in everything I do from here on out.”

Gerald Roper, vice president of the Montgomery County NAACP, said the unorthodox evening was designed to show the links between African Americans and Jews to the “younger people” in the two communities, noting that links between the older generations are strong, but that there is a “big gap” elsewhere.

And those in the younger generations seemed impressed. Fifteen-year-old Jasmine Snowden of Poolesville said she enjoyed listening to Herron tell her story and that she had never seen anyone quite like Y-Love ? and said she would be telling her friends all about it.

“It was excellent,” said Silver Spring’s Moshe Landman, 30, a hip-hop fan who said he was pleasantly surprised by Y-Love’s background and story.

The program showed that African Americans and Jews have “a lot in common” in terms of their pasts, said Landman, who hopes the groups would be working together more in the future.

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