The Eyeball Test
In August of 1998, I eloped on motorcycles to the Jacksonville courthouse with my white Scottish/Jewish husband. As we walked back to the bikes after saying “I do,” I said to Chad, “Hey! That old white lady put me down as white.” I guess that interracial marriages in Jacksonville were uncommon enough that she checked off the box that made sense to her. In 2004 when the black girl at the St Pete courthouse divorced us, she put me down as black. Neither had asked me my race. They’d just administered an eyeball test. Further neither of them would have ever thought to assume I was Jewish.
I’ve attended minyan 3 days a week for the last 2 years at CBI in St. Pete. In March an elderly lady that I’ve never seen before rushed up to me after services and gushed, “What made you change your religion?” I replied, “My birth-mother was a Jew, as white as you. Would you like to see her picture?” She nodded vigorously so I pulled up the picture I carry around of my birth-mother on my phone. While she looked at it, I followed up with: “Let me show you a picture of the black woman that raised me.” She looked at the picture of my mother and asked: “Was it very difficult being raised by one of them?” I assured her that it wasn’t hard at all having a second home on Cape Cod, attending private schools and visiting Bermuda in the winters after they retired.
I walked away disturbed though. Yet again how you pass the eyeball test depends on the person giving it to you. And yet again, another Jew assumed I was a convert because of the brown in my skin.
Ethnic and racial groups are primarily based on cultural and historical constructs not biology. People, not nature, create group identities and those identities are complex and fluid over time. In some cases, ethnicity involves merely a loose group identity with little or no cultural traditions in common. In contrast, some ethnic groups are coherent subcultures with a shared language and body of tradition. We fall into that last definition: A coherent subculture with a shared language and body of tradition. But notice that definition says nothing about physical characteristics.
When Ruth said to Naomi, “Let your people be my people,” she didn’t just mean Naomi’s immediate family. She meant all the Jews everywhere would henceforth be her people. Upon embracing both the God of Israel and the Jewish way of life, she became, unquestionably, a Jew. So much so that her great-grandson David became the King of Israel. It would never occur to any Jew to question his Jewishness because he descended from a convert. Likewise it shouldn’t occur to any Jew to question the authenticity of someone who is sitting in shul davening in Hebrew, merely because they look different.
A Jew can be biracial, like me, black, like Nell Carter, Hispanic, like the rebbetzin behind the Jewminicana blog, and even white like Phoebe Snow.
In fact the only friends who msg’d me that she’d died a few weeks ago were my black friends.
I had fun breaking it to them: She’s Jewish you know. Snow’s a stage name. Her real name was Phoebe Laub and both her parents were white. One friend spent the better part of the day trying to assure me that she was black. She was finally convinced after I sent her both a Jet magazine article from the 80s coupled with the NYT obit.
I recently found the following article in JTA’s Jewish News Archive:
April 3, 1967
N.Y. Federation Body Urges Adoption of Negro-jewish Children
Increased efforts are being made to find Jewish parents willing to adopt children born out of wedlock to Jewish women and Negro Christian men, it was reported here by the Commission on Synagogue Relations. The Commission is working on this project with the Louise Wise Services, an agency which serves predominantly unwed Jewish mothers. Under Jewish law, a child born to a Jewish mother is Jewish, regardless of the father’s religion.
According to Mrs. Mignon Krause, a spokesman for the Louise Wise Services, the agency has placed 117 inter-racial Jewish children for adoption in the last three and a half years. Of these, she said, 11 had been placed with white couples — five of whom were Jewish and six Christian. “We will not, ” she said, “delay or deny adoption to a child for religious reasons alone.”
I was one of those other 106 children they were talking about. One of the children too brown to be adopted by a Jewish family. Out those of 117 children, only 5 were raised by members of their tribe.
The fundamental truth is, regardless of whether I am perceived by others as black or white, either way I am Jewish. My mother was a Jew, I am a Jew. Whether on any given day I choose to identify as white or biracial or black, I am still a Jew.
Judaism is a religion that is not limited by the race of the adherent. We are bound to each other primarily by the Hebrew language, the worship of Adonai and the commandments He gave to us to obey. That is why we are gathered here tonight in fact. To commemorate the giving of that Torah that would bind us to Him and to each other. “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it.” We are all in there too. Those of us, like Ruth, who chose to join, and those of us, like me, who were born into it.
Am yisroel chai.
Caryn Baird, a news researcher with the St. Petersburg Times, was adopted and raised in NYC. She has a Jewish biological mother and black biological father, but did not discover her Jewish lineage until she asked the adoption agency for her medical records.