Funny, you don’t look Jewish: Local synagogue explores the changing face of Judaism
When Lisa Williamson Rosenberg explains to people that she is biracial – black and white – and Jewish, the reactions vary. Some people are accepting, some are surprised, others are incredulous. And some have told her point-blank that, no, it’s not possible to be black and Jewish at the same time.
Rosenberg, a Montclair resident and psychotherapist at the Montclair Counseling Center, will be discussing the changing face of Judaism in a talk titled “Exploring Jewish Identity for the Racial Mosaic” at a gathering following a special multiracial Shabbat at Temple Ner Tamid, 936 Broad St., Bloomfield, on Friday, Jan. 27.
“I’m going to talk about the fact that a person who is Jewish, whether by birth or by adoption, who is not Caucasian, deserves to be recognized as Jewish,” she said. “I’m thinking about people like me.”
She will likely find a receptive audience at Ner Tamid, which has several multiracial and multicultural families in the congregation. “We have a number of children in our synagogue who are African-American, Asian or South American,” said Ner Tamid Rabbi Steven Kushner. “We have a number of interracial marriages in the synagogue, and families who have adopted children from different backgrounds. My experience is that the kids seem to blend in quite easily.”
Michael Frank and his wife, Susan Helman, spearheaded the idea of a multicultural group at Ner Tamid. Both Jewish by birth, they adopted their sons Ben, 7, and Eli, 5, from Korea and are raising them Jewish, after formally converting them as babies. Both boys attended the pre-K program at Ner Tamid, “so they’d have a good sense of being Jewish,” Frank said. “The challenge is to see that they can be multicultural, that they can have a Jewish iden-tity, that they can have a Korean identity, that they can have their own personal identity. We want to see that they can be all these things.”
Frank said that he and Helman were motivated partly by the desire to know more about other trans-racial Jewish families and whether they would find it helpful to have a community with which to share their experiences and concerns.
“We live in a hyphenated society,” Frank said, “Jews are not what people think they are. The Jewish culture has expanded, and that’s a challenge in the sense of how you make sure that it will be embraced.”
It has helped, he said, that Kushner “was really open to talking about this.”
While Ner Tamid is in Bloomfield, Kushner lives in Montclair, as do many members of the congregation. “I think that what we’re seeing here at Ner Tamid is a mirroring of Montclair, where racial diversity is seen as something of a norm,” he said.
A COMMON STORY
The chance to write this story struck a nerve with this reporter – I’ve been living the topic for decades. My mother is an Ashkanazi, or European, Jew and my father is African-American. I grew up in Seattle, which is a larger, even more diverse version of Montclair, due to its position as the port to the Pacific Rim and proximity to Central and South America. There, even in the 1960s, interracial families were an everyday sight. In my central city neighbor-hood, they were the norm. But mine was the only Jewish mom in the bunch.
When I was 12, my new friend, Karen, had just moved to Seattle from the South. She was black – even though we weren’t quite using that term yet – and argued vehemently that I could not be both black and Jewish. In fact, she demanded, I had to choose one or the other right then and there.
I argued, tried to reason, struggled to educate her about the reality of my identity until I was out of patience and words. She refused to budge and I wrote her off as culturally retarded. Our friendship never quite recovered from the strain.
I’d never shared this story with my 12-year-old daughter. Last week, when I told her about the families I was interviewing for this article, she said, “People say that to me all the time – that I can’t be black and Jewish.”
“What kind of people?” I asked, a little surprised that this was happening today, in our new home of Montclair. “Because I got it mostly from black folks,” I told her.
My daughter, who attends a Montclair middle school, shook her head. “I get it from everybody, all the time,” she said. “No matter what they are, that’s what they say.”
And we don’t even practice the religion.
“This is a common story, that people say you can’t be both things, and most commonly, it’s that you can’t be black and Jewish, you can’t be Latino and Jewish, you can’t be Chinese and Jewish,” explained Gary Tobin, presi-dent of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, Calif.
“But you get the most ‘you can’t be black and Jewish’ because you get it from both sides, and in the black community, Jewish is equated with being white. That’s a really uncomfortable and outdated racial paradigm.”
Tobin, considered a national expert on the topic, has co-authored a new book, “In Every Tongue: The Racial and Ethnic Diversity of the Jewish People,” with his wife, Diane Tobin, and colleague Scott Rubin. The Tobins have an adopted African-American son.
“One of the reasons we wrote this book is for everybody to be able to say ‘I’m Jewish and … ‘ because practically everybody is Jewish and something, whether it’s Jewish and Polish, Jewish and German, or Jewish and something,” Tobin said. “We say that one out of every five Jews in the U.S. is diverse, either black Asian, Latino, mixed-race or of Sephardic background. And part of what’s going on in America is that we’re finally breaking down these racial barriers.”
‘I’M PART OF SOMETHING’
Sherri Neuwirth is the mother of two adopted biracial children, Brett, 12, and Brianna, 10. She is Jewish; her former husband is not. But both children were converted to the faith as infants.
” A mixed family has so many issues,” Neuwirth said. “I want to make my children conscious of all their identities.”
Brianna announced that “I’m biracial and Jewish,” with cool confidence. “Your skin color doesn’t matter. You don’t have to be white or black to be some kind of religion,” she said. “I like being Jewish because it means that I’m part of something.”
Older brother Brett said his favorite part of being both is getting gifts for both Christmas — their father is Christian — and Hanukkah. “It makes me feel special that me and my sister are almost the only ones who are biracial and Jewish. It makes me feel good that I’m different and not the same as everybody else.” As for a divided identity, “It doesn’t matter what your skin color is,” Brett reasoned. “You can be any religion you want to be when you grow up.”
Paul Golin, associate executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute in Boston, said these families and children represent “the changing face of American Judaism.” Internationally, he said, “Jews have always been a multi-racial people. There have been Jews in China. There are Jews from Ethiopia. There’s been a Jewish community in India for 2,000 years. It’s just that in the United States, the majority of Jews – between 80 and 90 percent – come from Eastern Europe or Europe.”
Kushner agreed. “The racial and ethnic diversity of the American Jewish community probably has been changing for about 30 years. I think the notion of someone ‘looking Jewish’ is reflective of an ethnocentric, Ashkanazi world-view that did not take into consideration the totality of the Jewish people. The Sephardic Jewish population from the Arab world didn’t look a whole lot like the Jews of Poland or Germany. We’ve always been reflective of where we’ve lived.”
MARRYING OUTSIDE THE LINES
The multiracial Shabbat and discussion coming up at Ner Tamid reflect a movement within the Reform and Reconstructionist branches of Judaism to reach out to and welcome a more varied membership. “You’re looking at a significantly more diverse population that most Jews and most of the general population don’t realize exists,” Tobin said.
One reason is the growing number of Jews marrying outside of their faith. Golin said that, according to a national Jewish population survey conducted in 2001 by the online magazine InterFaithFamily.com, 31 percent of Jews who are married chose spouses who are not Jewish. This intermarriage is “one of the key reasons that the Jewish com-munity is diversifying in the U.S. today. Another reason is trans-racial and overseas adoptions.”
Cora and James Vest of Montclair are active members of Ner Tamid and the parents of Alexandra, 14, Joshua, 10, and Elijah, 6. Cora is an Ashkanazi Jew. James is an African-American who recently converted to the faith.
“We decided to raise the kids Jewish because we felt that having a strong Jewish identity would give them a strong identity to fight racism and the confusion of being interracial,” Cora said.
While James was always active and supportive of his family’s Judaism, it wasn’t until Alexandra was preparing for her bat mitzvah that he was inspired to make the leap. “When they call up and pass the Torah from generation to generation, I wanted to be there,” James said.
He has discovered an extra benefit from the process. “I did a lot of reading over the course of my conversion, and I feel that I have found myself,” he said.
Despite his satisfaction, beyond the mezuzah conveying blessings and protection on the front door of their home or the bright menorah gracing the mantelpiece, James faces the occasional challenge. At Jewish events and gatherings, “Ninety-nine percent of the time, I am the only person of color in the room,” he said. “It makes me wonder about the people there. Am I the only black friend they have?”
James recalled a visit to one of Cora’s friend’s bar mitzvah. “Afterward I said, ‘mazel tov’ to the friend’s mother. She said, ‘Oh my, where did you learn that?’ I was offended.”
The couple migrated to Montclair “in our search for diversity,” Cora said. “We found Temple Ner Tamid, and felt like ‘this is the place.'”
Ner Tamid “gives us a place to go, to feel understanding and belonging in times of stress,” Cora said. “We are so blessed to have this temple.”
CONNECTED TO BOTH
The idea for the multiracial Shabbat came from the parents, Kushner said. “There was a desire to create some kind of support group to address issues. We have talked for awhile about doing some programming.” The shabbat and potluck discussion that follow are open to the community.
Rosenberg said she is thinking about what she will share in her remarks that evening.
“What does it mean as a Jew to be black?” Rosenberg asked. “It means to be connected to a community of people who share this history, who have shared oppression, who have had to struggle against the most negative stereotypes of any in history. You can’t not be connected to both.
“A Jew can look like anybody, and for Jews who are also people of color, it may be your own personal journey or process of finding your Jewish identity and also feeling entitled to all of your ancestry.”
The changing face of Judaism “is not news. It’s only news that it’s becoming more acceptable,” Tobin said. “And the folks who say you can’t be this and that – they’re on the retreating end of history.”
For information about the multiracial Shabbat and discussion afterward, call Temple Ner Tamid, (973) 338-1500.
Contact TaRessa Stovall at firstname.lastname@example.org