Grappling With Today’s Realities From a Black-Jewish Perspective
As an African-American who is a member of the Jewish community by choice — and is also raising a Jewish child of color — I have a unique experience. And yet, I view my experience as part of the future direction of the diaspora. My link to Judaism involves multiple identities, a passion for social justice and a commitment to nonviolence.
I had my first experiences with the Jewish community while growing up in the Laurelton section of Queens, N.Y., in the 1970s and ’80s. The community had several synagogues, which I occasionally visited with my friends. In addition, the house in which I was raised had a mezuzah in the front door, left from the previous family who had lived there — a foretelling of what was to come, perhaps?
At Harvard College, I studied the Holocaust and genocide with Erich Goldhagen, a Holocaust survivor. Later at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, under the late Harry Reicher, I researched the Nuremberg Laws and their connection to the Jim Crow segregation laws in the American South.
When I married my wife, Sarah Katz, we became members of Mishkan Shalom in Roxborough, marking the beginning of my introduction into the Jewish community. Mishkan is home because of its progressive social values. It has provided an open and welcoming environment for us — particularly an “outsider” such as me — and interracial and interfaith families. When we sat shiva for our first son, Ezra Malik, who was stillborn six years ago, the congregation wrapped themselves around us.
Ezra’s younger brother is Micah, or as he will tell you, Micah Amir Katz Love. This 5-year old bundle of energy likes Lego Ninja Mutant Ninja Turtles and dinosaurs, soccer and karate. Lighting Chanukah and Kwanzaa candles at home, eating in Chinatown on Christmas Eve, and having Christmas dinner with my side of the family are all part of his life.
There is so much I want Micah to know, so much that I want to teach him about his dual heritage. Looking at the African and Jewish diasporas, I can identify many commonalities. For example, both cultures have a history of being lifted out of bondage, the Exodus from slavery to freedom. Both Jews and African-Americans have experienced centuries of persecution, containment in the ghetto, pogroms and lynchings, and unjust laws that were designed to deprive them of their basic rights, their civic life, livelihood, property and their very humanity.
In a household with two public interest lawyers committed to social justice, the theme of unjust laws figures prominently. We tell Micah that Martin Luther King turned bad laws into good laws, and that people such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel were leaders in the movement for civil rights alongside King. That movement claimed martyrs such as King, but also others such as James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in Mississippi.
As Micah learns of the civil rights struggles of the past, we also teach him about the deaths by police of black men such as Michael Brown and Eric Garner in a manner he can understand, and take him to #BlackLivesMatter protests. And we fear for his safety and that of other black and brown boys, in a world where so many children of color are told they are of little consequence.
Justice, tzedakah, is an important concept in Jewish heritage, one which I take to heart each day. Changing the world comes through healing it, tikkun olam, and always asking questions. I have never been satisfied with the world as it is, and have always sought to help transform it, alleviate the suffering, and eliminate the inequities. This is why I worked with victims of police brutality and prison abuse, campaigned against the death penalty and mass incarceration, and fought for voting rights, just as my wife represents indigent families in court and teaches the next generation of lawyers.
Moreover, as a black man with a Jewish son, I commit to rejecting violence in the tradition of Gandhi, King and Heschel. As we collectively watch with horror the terror attacks in Paris and in Nigeria, genocide in Syria and unresolved conflict in Israel and Palestine, I strive to teach Micah to resolve differences through love and reason, discussion and reconciliation.