One small flame: Jewish family finds pride, faith through diversity
Chris Brown is accustomed to standing out from the crowd. Most people would say she doesn’t look Jewish. Not at all.
It wasn’t difficult spotting her on stage at the Josephine Theater last Tuesday night. She was playing the role of Rebecca in the quirky Hanukkah musical “Making Miracles: A Night of Illumination.”
But as she belted out a Jewish rendition of “Mr. Sandman,” she represented far more than one of the biblical foremothers. She was a flame, and a testimony to the night’s message:
“Making a miracle illuminates the world. One small flame can light countless others without being diminished.” -Tova Rubin, playwright.
Chris was the only black person on stage. She’s been Jewish her entire life, and although it hasn’t always been easy, through her faith she has embraced her identity and passed the same love on to her husband and four daughters — just as her grandmother passed the Jewish faith to her.
“My grandmother… she comes from Ethiopia,” Brown explained. “And coming to the United States, trying to instill in us a Jewish faith was difficult because, you know, there’s not many black Jews.”
On Monday, about 30 minutes before sundown, the Browns will mark the first day of Hanukkah by lighting the first candle on the menorah. It’s a very proud holiday, Chris explained. It’s all about freedom: the freedom to live as Jews.
“That’s what it’s all about,” she said. “So we can link family, togetherness, love, happiness — all of those things. Illumination.”
Having four adult children, all girls between the ages of 18 and 28, the Browns’ home isn’t always as full as it used to be on the holidays. As Chris and her husband, Carl, light the first candle, they keep there children in mind. In a way, each child represents a candle themselves.
Carl first met Chris while he was serving in the Army, stationed in New York and studying for promotion board. He was smitten, and sure that if there was such a thing as love at first sight, this was it. His commander, who went to school with Chris, doubted it. He knew Chris was Jewish. Carl was raised Baptist.
But that didn’t stop Carl. He was persistent — a trait he attributes to his San Antonio upbringing. He was so persistent that even his commander came around and told him that yeah, he actually could see Carl wearing a yamaka. Wear a yamaka? Carl didn’t think so.
“And I said, ‘No way, it will never happen,’” Carl said.
Carl didn’t convert for the marriage, but Chris’ grandmother accepted Carl anyway and approved of the wedding. Shortly after, they started having children. And in accordance with Jewish custom, the children were all raised Jewish, after their mother. They were enrolled in Hebrew school and went to temple regularly.
It wasn’t until their oldest child was in kindergarten that Carl started getting interested. Chris said that her husband saw her and the kids come home from services on Friday nights. They would come home happy, “illuminated,” she said. That’s when Carl decided to approach the rabbi to see if he, too, could become illuminated.
“It shocked the family, but it was an easy decision,” Carl said about converting. “I have no regrets.”
Tikkun olam: repairing the world
There were certain Jewish beliefs that resonated immediately with Carl. Tikkun olam, he explained, is the belief of making the world a better place for the sake of the world, not out of fear of God. And he believed strongly in the idea behind committing good deeds, or Mitzvahs, for the sake of doing something good and not expecting anything in return.
Carl said he was most impressed with the Jewish community during a time of family tragedy. Chris’ sister died, and left her young daughter in the care of Chris and Carl to raise as their own. What impressed Carl the most was the overwhelming amount of support that poured out of the Jewish community.
He explained that during shivah, a period of mourning, he couldn’t even close the door because so many people were constantly volunteering to help the family in any way possible.
They raised Tatianna, now 18, as they raised all of their children. They were all brought up Jewish. They went to Hebrew school. They had Bat Mitzvah. The Jewish faith had ignited in the Brown family, spanning at least three generations from Ethiopia. They were proud that faith was kept alive.
They were also proud of their identity. Brown’s oldest daughter, now 28, was the first black student to graduate from the Hebrew Academy of Suffolk County in Long Island, New York.
Jasmine, 18, said she experienced the same sense of pride through high school, as she was one of the only Jewish students at Incarnate Words High School. She said that being a Jew at a Catholic school was difficult on some levels, because many of the students had so many misconceptions about the religion.
But being different ultimately helped her embrace her identity. She wore the Star of David proudly around her neck. She even recited Jewish prayers to the class — in Hebrew.
“It’s just another part of being Jewish. It’s just another part of my identity,” she said.
Being one of the few black Jewish families is something the Browns agree has actually helped them embrace who they are, just as the Jewish community has done the same.
Ah Lichtige Chanukah: a bright Hanukkah
Before the family moved from New York to San Antonio six years ago, the Browns were worried, as was their rabbi. Chris said the rabbi didn’t know much about the Jewish community in San Antonio. She said he was afraid there were no Jews in Texas and that everyone carried a gun.
But the rabbi was wrong, and quickly connected the family with Temple Beth-El. The family received an enormously warm welcome, Chris said. They were immediately accepted into the Jewish community.
“Temple Beth-El became my family,” Chris said.
“The welcome we received coming here from New York, I mean, it was such a warm welcome I knew we would love being a part of it,” Carl said.
The resilience of the Jewish people was illustrated through ‘Making Miracles: A Night of Illumination.’ From evil Egyptian Pharoahs to World War II concentration camps, the Jewish people have plenty of reasons to celebrate their freedom and the survival of faith.
“So just that one little flame, it flickers and has grown,” Chris said.
The Browns’ flame has danced in many winds, but has never diminished. While the family may look different from those around them, it shines just as brightly, if not brighter.