How can I be Jewish when I am black?
This is a hypothetical question that I’m always, almost asked by my many Jewish friends, associates and acquaintances. In my haste I’d assumed the answer to be obvious until I discovered the subtlety behind which the real dynamics of the question are hidden. What follows is my hypothetical ‘answer’ to the question. There are many parts to be considered before this question can be answered fully.
There are enough parts to fill a book in fact, such is the volume and complexity of the rules that are visited on he or she born inter-racial black and Jewish who then approaches the gates of the shul in search of a refuge from a sometimes racially hostile and anti-Semitic world. I am a mischlinge, and would have been murdered alongside the 6 million had I been alive in Germany in WW2, a war in which my Jamaican grandfather fought through his service in the Royal Air Force as a 15 year old boy where he helped defend the world from Hitler, and helped save the Jews, while stationed in Berlin. A man with such courage, candor and grace, is it any wonder that my grandmother, a Jewess, should fall in love with him on his settling in 1950’s England?
To answer the question we have to consider the perspective of halacha, of the Torah, of my mother and father, of the Jewish community and last but not least – of myself. Halacha say’s I’m Jewish in theory because my mother is Jewish, but in practice I am not to be recognized because both my parents and grandparents were in interracial ‘assimilated’ relationships, at a time when it was totally unacceptable to be so in the Jewish community, a fact that has not changed now according to tradition. My great-grandmother ostracized my grandmother for 10 years out of prejudice towards her relationship choices, though the relationship was re-kindled when my great grandmother fell in love with my mother, a fair skinned, vital and beautiful mischlinge.
But for my great-grandmother’s change of heart, my mother would not have known her Jewish origins and in turn, neither would I, because my grandmother- hated her Jewish identity having gone to an English primary school at the start of the second world war, and which at that time was pro-Hitler. Therefore there are no Ketubahs in these two generations, my parents and grandparents did not marry, but they did hold onto the enduring truth of their souls, hence how I was given life, and how I eventually came to know myself. My great-grandmother passed on the fact of our Jewish identity to my grandmother, and then to my mother, Baruch Hashem, who left it for me to discover in my adoption papers, which I did when I was 27-years-old.
Then there is the word of the almighty Torah to be considered. It wouldn’t recognize me either, not just because my father is neither Jewish nor a convert, but because of the sins that are locked away in the closet that contains my family history, about which the Rabbis apply the laws in the strictest contradictory fashion. The Torah says the sins of the fathers must not be visited on the child, but both Torah and the Talmud punish that child with five generations of exile, for those same sins. I have about 3 generations of exile to endure.
We also have to consider what is ‘being’ Jewish? If we accept the answer is ‘doing’ Jewish things in a cultural, traditional and or religious context, then straight away halacha and God himself conspire to prevent me from ‘being’ Jewish, by refusing to recognize me as a Jew in practice, as oppose to just in theory. Recognizing a halachic Jew in theory but not in practice, severs the Jew from his/her Jewishness’, i.e. his/her cultural, traditional, and religious Jewish context, thus from his/her self. The Jewish law prevents me from practizing my Jewish faith alongside non-banished Jews, unless I quietly surrender my Jewish identity and work towards replacing it with a convert identity. So the question of how can I be Jewish if I am black? is a very good question indeed.
The reality of being black and Jewish is an injustice of sorts for the above reasons, for it is the mother who determines whether the child is Jewish or not, and this is dependent on whether or not her mother, and her mother’s mother were Jewish. In my case they were, but, my mother died before being able to pass on the Jewish way of living and being, though she did pass on the knowledge that I am a Jew – she succeeded only in part in her halachich duty as a Jewess to pass on her knowledge to me to ensure I continue the Jewish traditions. But for my beloved late mother, I would not know I am Jewish. A Jewish orphan should be looked on favorably by the Rabbonim, especially where the orphan was deliberately displaced from the community due to prejudice, as expressed in the adoption practices of the 1970’s, and especially where that orphan has discovered her way back to the Jewish community with an open mind and a wise old soul, bearing only the hallmarks of anti-Semitism, and racial oppression.
How I can I be Jewish if the Rabbonim won’t let me practice my faith? Is it true to the oral law that because my mother died and is not here to kevetch to the Beit Din about it’s treatment of me, as expressed in their strict, literal, and narrow interpretation and application of the laws to me, that I can be recognized as a halachic Jew in theory but not in practice? Where is the Torah truth in refusing to let a Jew be a Jew irrespective of the sins of her forebears? So in deference to tradition I turn this hypothetical question to God and ask him, how can I ‘be’ Jewish when I am black?