Color Me Jewish

It was my reading in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal that President Obama checked the “black” box on his census form, but that the young Tiger Woods chooses not to go for single-race classifications (he refers to himself as “Cablinasian” – (Casucasion-black-Indian-Asian), that reminded me of a one-day symposium on “The Changing Face of the Jewish Family” I attended ten years ago in New York. It was really the first time that I had ever gathered with fellow Jewish community professionals to consider the impact of the growing numbers of non-traditional Jews in our midst.

When I say “non-traditional,” I am not referring to religious practice, but rather Jews who were not until then traditionally found in the North American Jewish community: openly gay people, single parents by choice, interfaith couples with no intention of one partner converting, and non-white Jews.

I was long aware that not all Jews are Ashkenazi, from Central and Eastern European descent. My years in Israel had taught me that Jews come in all different shapes, sizes and skin tones, and that they speak many different languages and live life according to a wide variety of customs and cultural practices.

But as far as I understood, Jews – be they Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrachi or even Ethiopian (as I learned Jews could be when Operation Moses took place in the mid 1980’s) – were first and foremost (if not exclusively) Jews as far as their ethnic and cultural identities were concerned.

Sure, you could be a Russian Jew, a Peruvian Jew, an Indian Jew, a Chinese Jew, or a Syrian Jew. But the “Russian,” or “Indian” was an adjective, a descriptor of your nationality or citizenship. The noun, your essence, was “Jew.” This, of course, was a result of the historical reality for Jews over many centuries of being outsiders, of being a people that, despite living all over the Diaspora and interacting to various degrees with the other inhabitants of the countries in which they lived, was always a nation apart. Things did change with the arrival of Emancipation and the modern era, but even up until very recently, Jews tended to in-marry, preserve Jewish ethnic solidarity, and continue to self-identify culturally primarily as Jews.

It’s sort of weird to be in my early 40’s (which we all know are the new 20’s) and be saying, “That was then, but this is now.” But the reality is that my generation is on “kav hatefer” (Hebrew for the “seam line”) between a world in which almost all Jews were “just Jews” and the one today in which many are “Jews and something else.” Little girls from China adopted by American Jewish families are Chinese Jews. But they are Chinese in the cultural sense, not the national one.

The same principle applies for the Asian-Jewish children of marriages between one ethnically Jewish parent and one parent of Asian background. African-American Jews enter the Jewish community through bi-racial marriages, adoption or religious choice, and most choose to maintain their African-American culture and ethnic/racial identity to some degree.

The face of Judaism is changing as more Jews of color become part of the community, and young Jews (whether they are of color, or not) insist that cultural identity is not about differentiating yourself from others, but rather about maintaining your Jewish essence while simultaneously reaching out to – and even equally identifying with – other cultures. For young Jews, being Jewish is becoming less and less about making “or” choices, but rather “and” ones.

I have come to realize this even more since moving to Northern California almost five years ago. The West Coast is almost always on the vanguard of social change, and the shifts in the Jewish community I have described above are no exception. San Francisco is fittingly the home of Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), an organization advocating for the growth and diversity of the Jewish People, recognizing the impact of intermarriage, adoption and conversion on the contemporary Jewish community. Although not the only organization working in this arena, it is leading the field, and it is operating on the global stage.

One of Be’chol Lashon’s strengths is that it gives voice – literally as well as figuratively – to Jews of color. One way it does this is by producing videos and podcasts. Another is by making sure the public knows about relevant resources produced by others. The following is a trailer for Off and Running. You can learn more about the film in the Educational Resources section of the Be’chol Lashon website.

Trailers for two other documentary films, 400 Miles to Freedom and Outside the Box, can be viewed below.


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