Is Jewish the New Black?
Carsten Koall/Getty Images
It’s been a bit of a mixed bag for blacks and Judaism lately. In the heartland city of Cincinnati this month, 45-year-old Ohio native Alysa Stanton became the first African-American female rabbi. Sadly, Charles Taylor, the former Liberian dictator awaiting trial for war crimes, made news, too, as a convert to Judaism. Party crasher.
But crazy dictators aside, what’s going on? In our increasingly multicultural landscape, is Jewish the new black?
There are no precise statistics, but Diane Tobin, associate director of San Francisco’s Institute for Jewish & Community Research, said in an interview with The Root, that she estimates that as many as 150,000 blacks practice Judaism in the U.S. today. Sure, that only constitutes about 3 percent of the country’s Jewish population, but that’s more African-American Jews than ever before, and their ranks, she says, are continuing to grow. Sammy Davis Jr. would be kvelling.
Back in 1954, after the lone black member of the Rat Pack converted to Judaism following a near fatal car accident, many thought the idea of a black Jew was absurd. In a 1960 Time article titled simply “Jewish Negro,” even some of Davis’ Jewish friends admitted being confused by his decision, speaking about their religious birthright as less a faith and more a burden. “You have two strikes against you now,” said one, referencing Davis’ race and blindness in one eye. “We Jews have been oppressed for more than 5,000 years, and all of a sudden why do you want to get into the act? Quit while you’re ahead.” But Davis pressed on, attributing his interest in Judaism to the very same hardships his friends bemoaned. “Jews have become strong over their thousands of years of oppression, and I wanted to become part of that strength,” he told Time. “As a Negro, I felt emotionally tied to Judaism.”
Half a century later, blacks of all ages, in pockets of the country one might not expect—Stanton will serve in North Carolina—are following Davis’ lead and leaving the Christian church, once a haven for more than 70 percent of African Americans. So what’s the appeal? History, perhaps, is a starting point. Escaping persecution is obviously a theme that resonates across black and Jewish culture. “We’ve seen that there are many black Americans who are Old Testament readers,” says Tobin, “The exodus story resonates with them.”
It is a powerful link. According to the Old Testament, Hebrew slaves toiled under powerful pharaohs who would occasionally demand that entire generations of the serfs be executed. Salvation came in the form of the prophet Moses, the son of a slave who wound up being adopted by royalty. After fleeing Egypt to escape retribution for killing a man he saw cruelly beating one of his servants, Moses eventually returned to lead the Hebrews from bondage and to the glory of God.
In essence, the most important story in Judaism is a tale of rebellion against those who would smother goodness and decency, and Moses, the religion’s most important prophet, is equal parts John Brown, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey and Martin Luther King Jr. Little wonder that Harriet Tubman, the great emancipator before The Great Emancipator, would come to be known throughout history as “The Moses of Her People.”
But the inspiring tales of the Old Testament do not a religion make. If text is the foundation of a faith’s house, its liturgy is the collection of windows through which its inhabitants can peer at God. For some black Jewish converts, Judaism beckoned when Christianity’s windows started looking a bit opaque.
“I could never understand the Christian conduits to God,” says Terri Ravick, a teacher from Bethesda, Md., who was raised Episcopalian and attended Catholic schools until college. “If I want to talk to God, why do I have to go to Jesus or my minister first? That was always problematic for me.” After abandoning religion completely for a short while in her early adulthood, she officially converted to Judaism in 1994, at age 32, spurred by the assurance that rabbis were only “kind of guides,” not demigods or direct lines to heaven. Ravick married a Jew and took her husband’s Jewish surname. She is now an active member, along with her husband and two daughters, at a temple in Washington, D.C. “Judaism grants me the power to dictate my relationship with God,” she said. “And that’s really important for me.”
Anita Stoll, who worships at the same synagogue as Ravick, drifted from Catholicism to Judaism for love. The priest who performed her marriage to a Jewish man advised her to not convert simply because she was marrying someone of another faith, saying that “marriage was not a reason to change religions.” The couple entered parenthood with a plan to raise their children in both faiths, and the children were baptized in a Christian church. But the kids’ interest in Judaism soon became too much to ignore. “They latched on to it,” she said. “They went to a small Jewish nursery school and were always very involved. I had to learn the prayers and things about maintaining a Jewish home to keep up with them.”
Stoll’s daughter, Isaama, eventually asked her mother if she could “take her baptism back.” “I said, ‘Well, you can’t do that, but you can do some other things to get more involved with Judaism.'” Now 17, Isaama’s religious pursuits find her hoping to one day follow in the footsteps of Alysa Stanton and become an African-American female rabbi. “I think, as a rabbi, you’re the ultimate teacher,” Isaama said, in an interview on her birthday, auspiciously the same day Stanton was ordained. “You get to make an impact on an entire community or multiple communities. You get to help a lot of people.”
Of course, it should go without saying that the life of a black Jew isn’t all love and streamlined conversations with God. While neither Stoll nor Ravick say they’ve experienced more prejudice since becoming Jewish, their conversions have definitely made for some awkward conversations. Stoll was once mistaken for someone’s nurse at a temple, and Ravick says her students are constantly “blown away” when they discover she’s Jewish. Thankfully—or maybe sadly—America’s history of racial and sexual prejudice buffers the conversion experience. “I didn’t really worry [about bigotry],” said Ravick, “Because I’ve been a black woman in America. It’s sort of like, ‘Yeah, what’s one more thing?'” But she adds that she has worried about how her children are perceived. “My children are biracial Jewish girls. I never worried about how I’d be treated, but I sometimes worry for them.”
Ahuvah Gray found the ultimate sense of inclusion in Israel. Ahuvah, who was born Dolores Gray in Chicago and practiced as a Christian minister for 14 years before becoming a Jew, spoke to The Root from Jerusalem, where she now lives and writes Judaica in a strict haredi Orthodox community. Since leaving the states, where she still maintains citizenship, she says she hasn’t encountered one iota of racism. “It may exist,” she says. “But I’ve not seen it. You certainly can’t say that about America.”
What you can say about America, and the world at large, is what Martin Luther King Jr. said about time: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Though they may get the occasional funny stare and graceless comment, the black Jews with whom I spoke each agree that their numbers are constantly growing, as are the numbers of Jews of all races. That means it’s getting increasingly easier for Isaama Stoll to follow her dream of becoming a well-respected rabbi.
Stanton’s ordination was a special event in many black Jewish households. But the pride felt was much more than a black thing. “The first black female rabbi is about more than black and Jewish,” said Ravick. “This is America, and you’re supposed to be able, in this country, to find your dream and live it. And that’s what she’s done.”
Cord Jefferson is a writer living in Brooklyn. Some of his other work has appeared in National Geographic, The Daily Beast and on MTV.