Interfaith, Interracial, Intercultural…. and Loving It!
In September of 1976, as my family and I were getting ready to flee the institutional anti-Semitism of what was then the Soviet Union, my future husband, Scott, was in the United States, preparing to become one of the first African-American students at an exclusive, all-white prep school on the Upper East Side of New York City. While he attended M.I.T to study nuclear engineering, I was majoring in broadcast communication arts at San Francisco State University. I was president of my Hillel–a pro-Israel activist on a campus famous for its anti-Israel activity. Scott, while supporting his own community through volunteer tutoring and mentoring programs in Harlem, nevertheless could only pinpoint his religious affiliation down to: “Christian. Well, some kind of Christian.”
By the time we met in 1997, both of us knew exactly who we were and what we wanted in a partner. It took about a half-hour before we were both certain that what we wanted was each other. He hadn’t been looking for an immigrant Jewish girl. I hadn’t been looking for a Black man (in fact, Scott was the first non-Jew I’d dated in five years). And neither of us was so blinded by love that we couldn’t see that the other person looked (and acted) somewhat…differently.
We’d been seriously dating for about a month when I told Scott I expected my children to be raised Jewish. Not half and half, not both, not “we’ll let them decide when they’re older.” 100% Jewish. In response, Scott told me that he expected his children to be raised as New Yorkers. Not upstate New York. Not Brooklyn, New York. Not Riverdale. 100% New York City.
We could both live with that.
Cut to 2004. We have two children. Adam, born in 1999, and Gregory, born in 2003. Both boys had a bris (ritual circumcision) and received Jewish names (Adam Shimon and Barak Zion). The whole family goes to temple for the major holidays, and I take the kids by myself (almost) every Shabbat (Sabbath). We also celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and visit Scott’s parents for Christmas and Easter. They come to our house for Passover. When Adam asks, I tell him, “We go to Grandma and Grandpa’s to help them celebrate Christmas, like they come to our house to help us celebrate Passover. And like we went to help your friend from school celebrate Chinese New Year.”
Sometimes (usually around December 25–go figure), Adam tells me, “I wish I were Christian.” (He also, for the record, periodically tells me he wishes he were a jellyfish and a Telletubbie). I tell him, “There are some things you can’t change about yourself. You were born a boy, you were born with black hair, and you were born a Jew. Those things are forever.” (I think he’s too young to be introduced to the wonders of hair-dye and sex-change clinics, quite yet). So now, the religion question has been tackled. Let’s move on to race.
Adam, and, to a lesser extent, his brother, are very light-skinned. They could “pass” if they wanted to, not that I’d encourage it. Our biggest problem at this point is that in America, where so much about race is defined by skin color, my boys don’t fit the stereotype. They don’t “look” Black. And yet they are. The pithy one-liner I’ve been able to come up with so far is, “Just because you’re not Black, doesn’t mean you aren’t African-American.” Will such semantics be enough to help them survive on the playground? I can only hope. So, far, in his new kindergarten class the other children seem to accept that my blue-eyed, light-skinned boy has an African-American daddy and that his daddy is (more importantly) a whiz at making paper airplanes that fly really far!
Finally, there is the intercultural issue. I didn’t arrive in the United States until I was 7 years old and, even then, I was still raised by Eastern European parents. Scott grew up in Harlem, hardly a typical, middle-American upbringing. Certainly, we have cultural things on which we differ. Scott, for instance, cannot stomach beet borscht, while the sight of fried food swimming in grease and fat doesn’t do wonders for my digestion, either.
And yet, the vast, vast majority of things that we argue about have nothing to do with who’s Black, who’s Jewish, who went to a fancy prep school and who to merely a state university. We argue about opening the window on winter nights (I’m for, he’s against). About whether Adam needs a hat to go outside (he’s for). About whether salt belongs on every dish (I’m against), does an ear infection really need antibiotics, whose turn is it to change the baby, and, most importantly, what to watch on TV. (After all, immigrant or inner city, in the 70s and 80s, we all grew up watching the same TV; it’s the great equalizer).
People who don’t know us very well inevitably ask, “How do you do it? How do you balance everything?” The question always blindsides me because, until it’s asked, I forget that what we’re doing is supposed to be in any way challenging. We live in a racially mixed neighborhood on Manhattan’s Upper (90s) West Side. The streets are filled with Conservative Jews heading to one temple and Socialist Jews rushing to another. Working-class Hispanics chat in Spanish at the bus stop with Mexican executives. Caribbean nannies sit at the playgrounds alongside middle-class African-American professional moms. Asian students on their way to Columbia University stop to buy a bagel from Arab storeowners.
Because Scott had Jewish friends and I had Black ones long before we met, it was never a matter of “integrating” our social circles. My sons’ friends include other children who are Black and Jewish, as well as children who are Jewish and Asian, Black and Catholic, Irish, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, even one blonde and blue-eyed little boy with a Black and Jewish mother! We couldn’t have an “us” versus “them” because there simply aren’t enough people who are exactly the same to form any homogenous group!
So how do we “do it?” I guess we “do it” by not doing it. We don’t talk about race, we don’t talk about religion outside of specific situations, such as, “This is a Jewish holiday,” “This is an African-American tradition,” “She doesn’t eat meat because she’s a Buddhist,” “This song is in Russian.” We simply live our lives as Jews, as African-Americans, as immigrants, as ourselves. The hard part comes with the (over) thinking and (over) discussing and (over) defending. The easy part is just the being.
Alina Adams has written for Lilith, Shofar, American Jewish World, Midstream, Jewish Action, and The Jewish Bulletin. Her latest novel is On Thin Ice: A Figure Skating Mystery (Berkley Prime Crime 10/04).