Out of Egypt

As American demographics are shifting, so too are those of American Jews away from the white Ashkenazi stereotype. Then again, Jews haven’t been ethnically ‘pure’ since the time of the Pharaohs.

Lewis Gordon grew up in the Bronx, a center of Jewish life until the closing years of the last century. In that, Gordon’s background is typical for an American Jew. Untypical is that his father was an Afro-Asian Jamaican and his mother was a mixed black-white Jamaican Jew who traced her maternal bloodline to Jews from Scotland and her paternal line to Jews from Jerusalem. Both sides emigrated to the Caribbean in the late-19th century and intermarried with local blacks, and while some of the offspring assimilated into the larger Christian community, others, like his mother, Patricia Solomon, remained Jews.

Gordon, 43, did not meet light-skinned Jews until he moved as a boy to New York. “Until then it had never occurred to me that Jews were white also. Even the people I had known in Jamaica who were white Jews had darker skin because they were from the Middle East,” he says.

The culture shock went both ways, of course. His Bronx acquaintances often did not believe Gordon was a Jew. “Those kids in the Bronx insisted they were the real Jews, as if Judaism had been born in Europe,” says Gordon, a philosophy professor and founder of the Center for Afro-Jewish studies at Philadelphia’s Temple University.

Jewry’s racial and cultural diversity is evident in Israel, home to Jews from more than 100 nations. That is not the case in the United States, however, where Ashkenazi Jews – generally light- skinned people from central and Eastern European backgrounds – have predominated since the mass immigrations of the early 20th century. But as America’s overall demographic makeup is changing, so too is the nation’s Jewish population.

Several factors are responsible for this shift among Jews. They include growing rates of inter-racial adoptions and marriages, immigration from Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East, and adult conversions by Hispanic- and African- Americans, including some with long-neglected Jewish roots. Gary A. Tobin, a leading American Jewish demographer, says that as many as 1 in 5 American Jews today has non-Ashkenazi roots, a calculation he bases on the findings of various surveys he and others have conducted.

Put another way, he is saying that perhaps 20 percent of American Jews have Sephardi (strictly speaking, Jews whose ancestors lived in Spain or Portugal prior to the Inquisition), Mizrahi (Jews from Middle Eastern countries), African, African-American, Hispanic, East Asian or mixed-race backgrounds. “The fascination for me is that there isn’t a people in the world that is more diverse than the Jews,” says Tobin, director of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research (IJCR). “It’s part of our identity as Jews that we often do not pay enough attention to. But the fact is Jews have lived in more places, they’ve spoken more languages, and absorbed as many cultures and races as any nation of people in the history of the world.”

Adds Gordon: “In actuality, there is no such thing as pure Jewish blood. Jews are a creolized [mixed-race] people. It’s been that way since at least the time we left Egypt as a mixed Egyptian and African people.”

Tobin – primary author of his institute’s newly released book, “In Every Tongue: The Racial and Ethnic Diversity of the Jewish People” – arrives at his population estimates largely through the findings of a 2002 IJCR study and the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS). Some of his extrapolations, he admits, amount to educated guesswork. For example, he pegs the number of Israelis in the United States at about 200,000, a conservative estimate in his judgment. (The Israeli Foreign Ministry estimates 500,000, NJPS found fewer than 100,000, and the U.S. Census Bureau says about 200,000 American households are Hebrew-speaking.) And since about half of Israel’s population is of Sephardi, Mizrahi or African heritage, Tobin surmises that about half the Israelis in America are likewise non-Ashkenazim.

That amounts to about 100,000 individuals, or about 1.7 percent of the nation’s total Jewish population, which he puts at about 6 million – a figure several hundred thousand higher than that used by some other demographers. He then adds in the more than 7 percent of America’s Jews who self-report themselves in surveys as African American, Asian, American Hispanic, Middle Eastern, mixed-race, or simply “non-white;” the 10 percent of (non-Israeli) American Jews who claim some Sephardi roots; and the 1 percent of more recent Jewish immigrants who classify themselves as African, Latin American, Asian and Caribbean.

Moreover, he says, the number of American Sephardim is likely “grossly underestimated.” Many American Jews who think of themselves as wholly Ashkenazi, he says, are simply unaware of their Sephardi roots because of widespread intermarriage between the two groups and the cultural dominance in the United States of the Ashkenazi lineage.

Randall C. Belinfante, chief librarian and archivist of the New York-based American Sephardi Federation, agrees with Tobin. “There tends to be a lot of discouragement outside the specifically Sephardi communities themselves to identify people as Sephardim. I think some Ashkenazi synagogues are afraid of losing members or are unwilling to accommodate Sephardi traditions,” he says.

The first Jews to settle in what became the United States were Sephardim. In 1654, 23 Dutch Sephardi Jews sailed into the harbor at New Amsterdam, now New York, seeking safe haven after having fled Recife, Brazil, where the new Portuguese overseers had brought the Inquisition to the New World. However, American Jews today are largely Ashkenazi because of the waves of immigrants from Germany and, later, Eastern Europe who came in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the U.S. Jewish community’s era of explosive growth.

Given that many American Sephardi Jews today live and look virtually the same as their Ashkenazi co-religionists, why bother to still separate them out? Rabbi Rigoberto Emmanuel Vinas, a Cuban- American Sephardi, says the answer is simple: “Because we are a separate culture that is being lost within Ashkenazi culture. Period.” Vinas is a national leader in bringing anusim – the Hebrew term for Jews with Sephardi lineages whose ancestors converted to Christianity to save themselves during the Inquisition – back to Judaism. He is light-skinned, his wife is Ashkenazi, and he leads an Ashkenazi Orthodox congregation, Lincoln Park Jewish Center in Yonkers, New York.

“There’s a reason all Sephardim get lumped together in America,” he says, “and it’s often a race and class issue. Many Ashkenazim see themselves as the whiter Jews and the Sephardim are the Other, and in America one drop of non-white blood makes you black, or at least a minority.”

Gordon, the Jamaican-born professor, prefers a gentler explanation. He ascribes the Ashkenazi community’s treatment of Jews from other racial and cultural backgrounds to forgetfulness rather than just racism. “The more I learn, the more I think that Ashkenazi Jews, by and large, suffer from a form of historical amnesia,” he says. “They just don’t know Jewish history and that creates confusion about the racial differences among Jews. But I don’t want to call it racism because I see a lot of black Jews who are also unaware of the degree to which black Jews exist in their own community.”

For example, Gordon notes that Christian slave masters in the Caribbean and on the American mainland turned their African slaves into Christians. It stands to reason, he adds, that Jewish slave owners – of which there were more than a few, particularly in the Caribbean – “would have created Jewish slaves, who when freed continued to act like Jews, the only religion they knew. In this way they created a unique Afro-Jewish culture.”

But there’s no denying that Jews are as prone to racial and cultural bias as are others. In the U.S., earlier arriving German Ashkenazi Jews were often scornful of later-arriving Eastern European Jews, whom they considered of lower class. Modern Israel is beset by class and race problems dividing the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities, and Ethiopian Jews consistently complain of being discriminated against. Vinas adds that many Sephardi and Mizrahi communities are also “incredibly closed to outsiders. They’re obsessed with bloodlines.”

Tobin says that when it comes to American Jewish adoption practices, babies from East Asia – China and South Korea, for the most part – are generally preferred over darker-skinned children from Africa or Latin America. That is also true for non-Jewish whites. However, as America becomes more racially and culturally mixed, such ingrained bias will slowly dissipate, he believes. American Jews – from the Orthodox to those whose communal ties are mostly cultural – are undergoing similar change, adds Tobin. (See “Opening Up the Jewish Gene Pool,” September 6, 2004).

Interviews with non-white Jews in the Baltimore area – where the Jewish community is more uniformly Ashkenazi than in multicultural centers such as New York and Los Angeles – bear Tobin out.

Dovid Davis, the 54-year-old owner of a pest control firm, was born into a mixed African-American and white Jewish family in eastern Pennsylvania. He embraced his Jewish side as he grew into adulthood, becoming Orthodox. Davis says he encountered some hesitancy when he moved to Baltimore in the late 1970s. “It was understandable because they didn’t know me and they had no experience with black Jews, or with blacks of any kind,” he says. Over time he became a regular worshipper at one of the city’s more respected and traditional Ashkenazi congregations, paving the way for his acceptance elsewhere in Baltimore’s Orthodox community, he says.

Devorah Goldstein, born in Taiwan, was adopted and raised Orthodox. She says she encountered more prejudice when she lived in Israel than she ever does in Baltimore. “In the early 1980s, when I made aliyah with my parents, there were not many Asians in Israel. People had a hard time relating to me,” says Goldstein, 33. In Baltimore, to which she returned seven years ago, she says, she gets more odd looks from her Korean dry cleaner than from other Jews. “I can see her thinking, ‘You’re one of us. How did you become one of them?'”

David Lipsitz, born in India and adopted by an Ashkenazi couple, is a freshman at the University of Maryland. A graduate of Conservative and modern Orthodox day schools, he “was pretty much the only person with my skin tone wherever I went in the Jewish community. But there was never an issue of my being accepted as a Jew by my classmates, though there were “questions galore” about his background. “That’s fine, because the most important thing about questions is that they lead to an information exchange, and that leads to acceptance,” he says.

Tobin, who with his wife adopted an African-American boy, now 8, believes the U.S. Jewish community’s growing diversity and its long- term continuity are inextricably linked. “Increasingly, Jews in America will marry blacks, Hispanics and Asians, and will adopt blacks, Hispanics and Asians, because that’s the changing demographic of America,” he says. “You could say that America’s future is Judaism’s past. But it’s also Judaism’s future.”

Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.


Related Articles

Archive Search

Search the world's largest online archive of material about Jewish diversity.

Archive Search

Search the world's largest online archive of material about Jewish diversity.