Pride, no prejudice: we’re young, Jewish and black
On Shabbat, frummers often stop Lia Grant on the streets of the Jewish neighbourhood where she lives and ask her to ring doorbells and switch on ovens for them. They preface their requests with a quick explanation of Shabbat and the type of work they are prohibited from doing on Judaism’s day of rest.
However, what they do not know is that far from being a potential Shabbos goy, Lia is a fellow Jew. So by asking her to work, her frum interlocutors are inadvertently committing a serious transgression: they are entreating someone who is obligated to keep Shabbat, to violate it.
“When I tell them I’m Jewish, very awkward shock washes over their faces,” says the JCoss sixth former whose mother is Jewish, Israeli and Nigerian, and whose father is Nigerian and Scottish.
It was a similar story when Lia first joined the Jewish secondary. “Are you Jewish?” her classmates would ask her. And six years later, her intersectional identity often elicits a similar response from non-Jews: “Wow! There’s such a thing as a black Jew?”
While non-Jews can arguably be forgiven for not knowing that we Jews come in all colours, members of the tribe should not be let off so lightly. In Israel, the most Jewish place on earth, one in two Israeli Jews are people of colour from Iraq, Iran, Morocco, Turkey, Ethiopia, Yemen, Egypt, Pakistan, and India, among other places. Of the countless myths circulating about the Jewish state, the claim that its population is entirely white is surely one of the most pernicious.
Daveed Diggs, Drake, Craig David, Sophie Okenado, Maya Rudolf, Lenny Kravitz, Lisa Bonet, Tracee Ellis Ross, Lauren London, Amar’e Stoudemire, Rashida Jones and Shyne: across the pond and within these shores the list of entertainment stars who are both black and Jewish is long and often distinguished.
And if you are a Torah scholar rather than a Celebrityville acolyte, you will also know that black people and Jews share a knotted history. In Numbers 12.1 we learn that Moses’ brother and sister spoke against him “for he had married a Cushite woman”. The Cushites were a dark-skinned people from Ethiopia who descended from Noah’s eldest son, Ham, through his son Cush, and who some biblical scholars claim are the ancestors of today’s Ethiopian Jews. Other countries in Africa are also rich with Jewish presence. There are Igbo Jews in Nigeria, Jewish communities in Ghana, and genetic studies of the Lemba in South Africa and Zimbabwe have revealed connections to the worldwide cohanim.
And yet the myth that we are an exclusively white people stubbornly endures.
It’s one that Lia loves to bust: “I never hide who I am. Being Jewish is something to be proud of, as is being black. Both peoples live with the trauma and legacy of oppression and both have fought hard for their emancipation and freedom. So to deny who I am would be disrespectful to my foremothers and fathers. “
Though she’s encountered ignorance from her fellows Jews, Lia says she has not experienced racism from the community. But she has been the victim of antisemitism: “When I was in Year Eight groups of black and white kids would throw pennies at JCoss pupils on our way to school.”
Charis Crawford Corri, who’s Jewish through her mum and whose maternal grandmother has records of the family’s Jewish ancestry stretching back generations, says she also sees racial persecution as the link between her black parentage and Jewish roots. “I feel my mixed-race heritage keenly. Culturally I’m British, religiously I’m nothing, and in my bones I feel what I am — Jewish and black.”
However, she isn’t always open about the Jewish part of her identity. “This is not the easiest time to be Jewish. I recently wore a Star of David pendant around town and although I live in multi-cultural and multi-ethnic London, I got some unfriendly looks in the street and what I would call micro-aggressive behaviour from sales assistants who weren’t in a hurry to serve me. It has left me reticent about who I share my Jewishness with.”
Dena Wilson doesn’t exercise the same caution. She lives in Lewisham where she often pounds the pavements in her LJY-Netzer Israel tour hoodie. “Once this guy shouted across the street that my top was satanic, and I still kick myself thinking of all the things I could have said to him.” Most of the time, though, she’s more than ready for the haters. “If people are iffy when I say I’m Jewish, I just don’t speak to them again. Being Jewish is too big a part of me.”
It’s also a big part of her family life. Her Nigerian father, a social worker and convert to Judaism, and her Russian-Jewish mother, a translator, keep a kosher home, and the family are members of the South London Liberal Synagogue where black Jews are well represented. “And if we lived anywhere near a Jewish school, I think I’d have been sent there,” says Dena.
As it is, she attends the local comprehensive where she is openly Jewish. “It’s not been an issue, and if the question of Israel ever came up, which it hasn’t, I’d have no problems saying I was a Zionist.”
She is angered by anti-Zionist vitriol from the black power figures she follows on social media. “When Israel is called an apartheid state, I find it incredibly ignorant — and offensive to the South Africans who lived through apartheid.”
Meanwhile Noah, whose mother is a black South African, says he has little interest in the black power movement. “It doesn’t speak to me. I’m too politically central, and I move in entirely Jewish circles.”
Which might explain why, unlike his Orthodox-born father, Noah would not countenance marrying a non-Jewish woman. “I wouldn’t even date a non-Jewish girl. I can’t physically imagine it.”
However, like everyone else interviewed for this article, he would like to see more representation of black Jews on the screen and the page. “There is certainly an awareness problem.”
As Vivien Sinclair puts it: “I honestly don’t think people realise we exist. People are so surprised when I tell them I’m Jewish. It makes me feel like an alien.”
And unlike Noah she doesn’t have the cushion of a Jewish community for support. “The only Jews I know are the handful who go to my north London school. I’m really interested in learning more about my Jewishness, but I’m also nervous because I know so little about Jewish culture.
“My mum’s a Russian Jewish artist who grew up under communism and who’s not part of the London Jewish world. So although she’d really like me to get a Jewish boyfriend and I’d really like to go on Birthright tour, for now it’s just me and her in our little Jewish bubble.”
While she might not have much Yiddishkeit, Vivien is well versed in antisemitic stereotypes. “I really hate this notion that Jews have money. I live in a one-bedroom council flat in Euston, and I can’t be alone, surely.
“The thing about antisemitism is that it never goes away. In London at least, it’s now actually quite cool to be mixed-race, there’s a certain glamour attached to it. But I never admit to being Jewish online. I’m too worried about the racism.”
Interestingly, she also recoils from the notion that Jews are white in any sense of the word. “Even Ashkenazim with white skin can have that whiteness taken away from them if someone discovers their Jewishness. History has shown that again and again, particularly in the part of the world where my mum comes from.”
Unlike Vivien, Yasmin Bowen is steeped in Yiddishkeit: her primary education at Simon Marks Jewish Primary saw to that. “My mum, who isn’t Jewish, sent me there because it was good local school. My Jewish grandparents were really pleased because although some of my extended family are quite religious I’m actually the only one in my family who’s had a Jewish education. It softened the effect of my parents’ separation, who were young when I was born, and made me a bit more Jewish, if you like.”
However, when her mum, who is black, first went to the primary the then receptionist asked if she knew it was a Jewish school.
Fast forward fifteen years, and it is now Leeds University student Yasmin whose identity causes confusion for some. “People have misconceptions about who is Jewish and who is not, and I guess confirm them. The truth is that I have multiple cultural identities, and I’m content with that — one part of me does not dilute another.”
When she was a little girl at Simon Marks she remembers wishing her name reflected the Hebrew roots of that mixed heritage. “But I understand why my parents decided against a double-barrelled surname. Bowen-Cohen, it doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, does it?”
Additional research by Leah Pennisi-Glaser