Montclair Identity Expert to Explore Growing Awareness of Multiracial Jews
“I have to figure out my Jewish identity in a way my husband doesn’t have to,” said Lisa Williamson Rosenberg, who identifies herself as black and Jewish. “If he says, ‘I’m Jewish,’ no one debates him or gets into an argument with him. It was the same for my mother. No one says, ‘Oh, how did you get to be Jewish?’ Everyone asks me those questions.”
Rosenberg is a licensed clinical social worker at the Montclair Counseling Center who specializes in issues of identity. On Friday, Jan. 27, she will draw on her personal and professional experiences as she addresses the topic “Exploring Jewish Identity for the Racial Mosaic” at a kabalat Shabbat service and potluck dinner at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield. A project of a support group for multiracial families begun at the temple in January 2004, the event is free and open to the public.
Her talk comes at a moment when the issue of multiethnic Jewish identity is gaining prominence, spurred in part by the 2005 publication of In Every Tongue: The Racial & Ethnic Diversity of the Jewish People by Gary A. Tobin, Diane Tobin, and Scott Rubin. The study argues that 20 percent of American Jews are something other than Caucasian Ashkenazi Jews, including African-American, Asian-American, Latino, Sephardi, Middle Eastern, and mixed-race.
The study, by the Institute for Jewish & Community Research, takes issue with the 2000 National Jewish Population Study, which found that only 7 percent of the Jewish population, or about 435,000 people, are nonwhites.
“More than ever, people in America are crossing boundaries and redefining race and religion,” Gary Tobin said in a press release announcing the book. “The changing American Jewish people are a reflection of America as a whole.”
Born to a white Jewish mother and an African-American father, Rosenberg attended Manhattan Country School and said she was raised “in a mixed world,” where she identified as Jewish, but secular. “I was the only Jewish kid who did not go to Hebrew school.” Instead, ballet became her religion, her profession, and her life, she said, until she stopped dancing. “Then I said, ‘Wow, who am I?'”
Today she believes that it’s important for children to be grounded and knowledgeable about their identities, so that other people’s issues don’t become their own. “People question me, so it’s my job to question myself, not to be able to answer them, but so I feel grounded.”
She declined to offer any rules about identity and suggested instead that “identity is a journey,” one that is different for everyone. But she is finding for herself that joining Jewish organizations, like a synagogue, something she didn’t have growing up, is increasingly important for her own claim to her Jewish identity. And it’s something she plans to give her children, now two and four.
But, she said, she is still wary. “I’m looking for a synagogue, but I’m also asking, ‘Will my child be the only brown face? When she opens a book in Hebrew school, will she see faces like hers? If not, how will I explain this to her?'”
And while such questions sometimes lead her to reconsider joining a synagogue at all, she reminds herself that Judaism is her daughter’s “birthright, and it’s my birthright. My children aren’t Jewish because my husband is Jewish, but because I’m Jewish.”
Her advice to parents? “Keep listening to your children, and keep listening to yourself. Understand that wherever you come from is part of you and part of your children’s future. It’s important to keep a dialogue going. And if you are between two cultures, be sure to give voice to both.”