Thoughts on Being Black and Jewish

Thoughts on Being Black and Jewish

She no longer remembers, but when my daughter Erin was six, she thought that Jewish people didn’t smoke.

The perfectly logical explanation is that none of the Jewish people she knew smoked, at least in front of her. (Aunt Margaret was an exception, but she wasn’t that practicing — though she was a lot of fun)

Erin also thought that black Jews were more observant than white. Aunt Margaret contributed to that paradigm, too as well as Julius Lester, who uncharacteristically sans cigarette davened for us in his UMass office before filling in as the cantor at his synagogue.

Erin was fortunate to have wandering into our lives a database of multicultural subjects large enough for her to form some misperceptions, as well as very accurate perceptions, of who lives in this world. She is a second-generation guinea pig of this experiment: in 1950s and ‘60s Chicago, my mother added to biological family a United Nations of fostered children.

The lesson hiding in a cliché here is that children learn by your example. If you expose them to various cultures, those diverse groups will never be foreign, weird or threatening to them.

I have made this suggestion in any number of talks, when I am rushed at the podium by a well-meaning mother who states. “I really believe in what you’re saying, but I don’t have any black friends. Where can I find some?”

Well… you could join an NAACP chapter, I suppose. They take white people (and Jews, too!)

But if you haven’t instilled in your children a comfortability about race in your own actions (they’re uncannily perceptive), you could start by considering what images you expose them to.

It’s too late for me and too late for my daughter, but a good place to begin is with Jewish children’s book. Try as I might, the images (and really bad music) of my childhood song-and-book sets reverberate in my head each Hanukkah: “Come get your drum and march with me! You too can be a Maccabee!”

The militaristic tone would hardly wash today, but the drawings of little white kids (and a seeming disproportionate number of towhead blonds) remain the staple of Jewish children’s publishing.

Is this what our people really look like?

Estimates of the African American (not Ethiopian) Jewish population alone hover at 200,000 — three to four percent of American Jewry. Then there are Asian Jews, Latino Jews, the aforementioned Ethiopian and other African Jews whose numbers make it clear that being Jewish is not synonymous with being white.

The omissions of Jewish children’s publishers are repeated on the adult level. A recent volume on Jewish intermarriage contained no black, African American, or race entries in its index because the author didn’t go there. Yet many Jews did, leading a 1960s survey o conclude that they most often chose black partners when they did intermarry (and blacks who interreligiously married most often coupled with Jews.)

The diversity of Jewry aside, the images we feed our children on race and religion generally are potentially the most promising — and damaging.

What do you say when you watch an NBA game with your child?

What about when there’s a Jewish lawyer—or albeit rarely, a black neurosurgeon — on Nightline?

And what do you say when Min. Farrakhan graces your screen? If it’s “That evil man!” have you given your child the information she or he needs so that she will know you that don’t mean all black men?

A decade or so ago, Ronald Reagan said something very truthful: ”When I was a boy growing up in Dixon, III., America did not know it had a racial problem.”

The good intentions of our current president’s dialogue on race aside, most white people I have encountered say that race was never a subject at home. A thousand times in reporting about race and religion I have heard the “Brotherhood Week” speech:
“We never talked about race growing up. We were taught that all people were the same, and we sang Kumbaya, too—that’s African isn’t?”

If you never talked about it, when were you taught the everybody’s the-same-part?

We black folks talk about race all the time. And we Jews ain’t letting go of anti-Semitism anytime soon.

Talking is one step, but how you live your life is most important.

And don’t smoke, either.


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