JCC show provokes dialogue on black-Jewish issues

In her one-woman show, “Grandmothers of the Universe,” Miri Hunter HaRuach sang, recited poetry, recounted dreams and took her audience on a spiritual journey to meet her real and fictional female ancestors in the United States, Israel and Africa.

During the show, held Thursday of last week at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, HaRuach asked her mostly white, mostly Jewish, mostly female audience: “What is it like to be an African-American woman in the ’90s?”

Complex answers emerged; the performance prompted a flurry of questions and a lively discussion afterwards.

The event was the first in a series devoted to women’s voices and Jewish/African-American relations.

During her candlelit program, HaRuach, an African-American who converted to Judaism and is a doctoral candidate at San Francisco’s California Institute of Integral Studies, explored what she calls African-Americans’ “faith in everything except themselves.” She touched on many themes including slavery and freedom, rejection and acceptance, danger and safety.

“You have this kind of guilt panic [as] a white liberal,” said one woman who attended the program.

An African-American friend who accompanied her noted that she has come to terms with the fact that her own young daughter wants to be white.

Some Jews in the audience said they identified with African-Americans, as both groups have suffered centuries of oppression. Others said white skin is often a ticket to privilege.

A non-Jewish woman who grew up in a strictly white Minnesota community said that as a child, she never noticed Jews except on Jewish holidays, when they were missing from school.

In response, some Jewish participants said they felt they had two lives — one in which they “did everything to fit in” and another where they practiced traditions not mentioned in public.

The audience attributed today’s cooler relations between Jews and blacks to international politics and the influence of the media, particularly films. But one speaker said relations began to crumble during the civil rights movement, when Jews moved out of urban ghettos to the suburbs, maintained property and businesses in cities and became slumlords as blacks moved in.

African-Americans and Jews in the audience described similar experiences.

And for both, safety and comfort were major reasons for maintaining cultural traditions.

HaRuach said she fits into both African-American and Jewish communities because she asks questions and is interested in learning. “When someone sees me on the street, I’m black. But you can be comfortable with anyone if you take time to understand the culture. I think that’s what we need to do.”

Asked what it’s like to be African-American and Jewish, HaRuach answers with a quick grin: “The food is great.”

The next program in the discussion series for African-American and Jewish women, set for May 29 at the JCC of San Francisco, will be diversity training led by Yeshi Sharover Newman.

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