Waiting Outside the Promised Land

One of my five-year-old daughter’s favorite “Jewish” books isn’t technically Jewish at all. It’s titled Let My People Go: Bible Stories Told by a Freeman of Color and it recounts familiar Jewish Bible stories from the perspective of nineteenth century African Americans. In the cadence of southern black speech, the narrator compares Esther to a light-skinned African-American woman who rescues a group of slaves, Joseph to a slave boy who forgives the betrayal which caused him to be sold away from his family, and of course Moses to the black American slaves demanding their own freedom.

These stories have always meant a great deal to me, as they did to my father and grandparents, who lived and died in the hell that was the Jim Crow South. They are a part of what first drew me to Judaism as a child and to my eventual conversion at age thirty-three. I felt an immense attraction to Jews and Jewish values, especially the emphasis on ethics and right behavior, which I saw reflected in Jewish concern for social justice.

Being Jewish gives one the courage to be an outsider. For my conversion ceremony, I wrote a humorous list of “Top Ten Reasons for Converting to Judaism.” The first was, “I wanted to make doubly sure I’d never get asked to join a country club.” That shared experience of exclusion was part of the reason my parents had always had so many Jewish friends and were far more comfortable around Jews than around other whites. Given my history of connections and affinities to Judaism and Jews, I confidently expected to blend seamlessly into the Jewish community. So maybe I was a tad naive.

I belong to a good-sized Reconstructionist congregation in the Chicago suburbs. My daughter and I feel loved, appreciated, accepted; I’ve been asked to be on the board, played Esther in the Purim Shpiel, spoken at synagogue events, and had two essays published in congregational anthologies. I’ve even been granted the highest honor a Jewish female can receive: named co-chair of a synagogue fundraiser. Surely now I must feel that I belong? Well, not quite. There’s always the odd incident that reminds me I am still an outsider.

High Holiday services, 2005. My wonderful rabbi, who has traveled to Uganda and Nigeria with World Jewish Service and is active in the Save Darfur campaign, is speaking about multiculturalism in Jewish life. He refers to Gary Tobin’s work on Jewish racial diversity, to the Beta Israel, the Ibo, the Abayudaya. “Ours is a multiracial community!” he reminds us. “Why even here at our shul, we have African American members!” I cringe and slither lower in my seat, feeling the weight of 600 pairs of eyes. I’ve always thought it was hilarious that my fellow congregants proudly describe our congregation as “multiracial.” I remember coming to shul one afternoon before my daughter was born, just as Sunday school was letting out. One of the moms smiled at me and said, “Oh, your daughter’s on her way up!” Momentarily bemused (“what daughter?!”) I then noticed Marissa, the only black child in the school, standing nearby, and it clicked. I explained that although I was quite fond of Marissa, she was not my daughter.

When there are so few black congregants that strangers automatically assume any two of them are related, it’s not a multiracial congregation. Of course, this same scenario plays out occasionally when I attend predominantly white churches. Yet there is one big difference between being black at a synagogue and being black at a mainline Christian church. Christianity is a theology; Judaism is a theology and a peoplehood. Anyone can subscribe to a theology; there is nothing inherently white or black or European or Asian about it. And of course given the church’s centuries of conquest, colonization and conversion, there are thriving, long-established Christian churches in all parts of the world. When I walk into a Christian church, no one questions my presence, my right to belong.

For an African-American, walking into a synagogue is a completely different story. Although I’ve had Jewish friends all my life, and attended my share of Bar Mitzvahs growing up, that first walk into Beth Emet, Beth Hillel, Or Torah was always intimidating, if not downright terrifying. I could feel the stares, like a physical weight. No matter how friendly the people were, I couldn’t help but feel . . . conspicuous. The experience of being black in an environment where I don’t “belong” is one of hypervisibility. Coupled with my insecurity about reading Hebrew and following protocol during services, my natural black paranoia was always switched on to full power.

In synagogue life, there are so many subtle reminders that the American Jewish world is primarily Ashkenazic. The emphasis on Yiddishkeit for example. To most Americans, Jewish and non-Jewish, Yiddish is the Jewish family language. Yiddish jokes color the synagogue newsletter and pepper the Purim shpiel. Although I dutifully bought and studied Every Goy’s Guide to Common Jewish Expressions, using Yiddish always feels awkward, like I’m pretending to be someone I’m not. We “new Jews” feel a bit left out when the Yiddish jokes start flying at the oneg (informal light refreshments after a service), kind of like the unpopular kid at school who never got taught the secret code.

I wonder, how comfortable would a Beta Israel, or an Ibo or an Abayudaya family feel at a typical synagogue oneg? But questions of language and culture aside, African-American Jews must also contend with the weight of black/Jewish history. I was at a new members brunch several years ago, and we went around the room introducing ourselves. Many of those present were from Chicago’s “old South Shore,” a formerly Jewish community that succumbed to block busting and white flight in the 1960s and ’70s. Ah, the fond remembrances! The nostalgia for those glory days! The sorrowful resignation for the unbearable ruin “they” had made of “our” neighborhood. Quietly I sat waiting my turn. At last I introduced myself. “My name is Lesley,” I said, “and I’m from South Shore, too. I guess my parents moved there a little later than yours did.” Dead silence.

Flash forward a few years. I was in a committee meeting with three friends and someone brought up Detroit. All three had lived in, or had relatives in Detroit back in the early sixties, you know . . . “when people still lived in Detroit.” Again the fond remembrances, the nostalgia. “Such a shame, ah, I get sick when I think about it,” “Such a beautiful place it used to be.” I said nothing this time, just sat there seething. Detroit was where my parents honeymooned, where some of my relatives still live. It was so painful to sit there and hear it described as a hellhole by these women, all friends of mine, one of them my closest friend at shul.

Now of course, the urban centers of Chicago, Detroit, etc., suffered terribly during the upheavals of the sixties. However the bulk of that suffering was borne by African-Americans, not Jews. And you know, I’m tired of being made to feel that it’s my fault, or my parents’ fault, that urban Jews were exiled to the suburbs. I resent the unchallenged assumption that these former Jewish enclaves are now unlivable, horrible crime dens. They are poorer yes, although not completely; my parents’ South Shore neighborhood is graced with three-story, beautifully maintained homes and yards, as relentlessly bourgeois as in any suburb. But even given the poverty and urban blight, these are neighborhoods, and “people” still live there. They just happen to be black.

I realize that these generalizations about black neighborhoods aren’t unique to Jews, but here’s one that is: the patronizing attitude that Jews are responsible for the success of the civil rights movement. The 1997 PBS documentary Blacks and Jews explored this issue: a Black veteran of the movement said, “Schwerner and Goodman, Goodman and Schwerner: I am so tired of hearing those boys’ names. You’d think they was the only two ever strung up by the Klan.”

The “movement” was actually a big reason for my conversion. It’s great that Jews supported civil rights far out of proportion to their numbers, that they still tend to support progressive causes more than any other ethnic group except blacks. I see this as a reflection of Jewish ethics and it makes me extremely proud. And yet . . . not everyone was on board with Abraham Heschel and Rabbi Marx in Chicago’s Lawndale. Not everyone was wild about open housing when it started to affect their own economic interests. A lot of the vaunted “coalition” was a quid pro quo, rather than pure altruism. There is nothing wrong with self-interest, but it doesn’t require African-Americans to feel some everlasting debt of gratitude or humility towards their Jewish benefactors.

Here’s a perception problem that Jews didn’t cause, but that definitely plays a role in how blacks view the Jewish community. Almost in spite of ourselves, most American blacks feel a connection to Africa, and judge our government’s treatment of Africa as a measure of its attitude towards African-Americans. Between 1962 and 1999 the U.S. government spent a total of $52,640,800,000 on Sub-Saharan Africa. During the same period it spent $123,384,200,000, more than twice as much, on one country: Israel. Recently, spending on Africa has increased: in 2003, the U.S. government spent $3,303,300,000 on Sub Saharan Africa. Yet during the same period, it spent $3,695,600,000 on Israel.

Now, we know about Israel’s strategic importance, our one ally in the Middle East, the lone democracy, etc. but a fair-minded person has got to ask: how is this justified? Given the appalling human misery in much of Africa, how is it fair that a relatively prosperous country like Israel gets so much and Africa so much less? Given the populations involved, about 6,300,000 in Israel versus over 700 million in sub Saharan Africa, that’s $588 per capita versus $4.71.

In reaching out to African-Americans, how do we address this question? What is the Jewish community doing to support human need in Africa? As we continue to support aid for Israel, are we also advocating for a fair share of U.S. aid to go to Africa? And how much private Jewish giving is directed towards Africa? I’m proud to say that my synagogue has made a sustained, sincere commitment to African causes: sending a task force to Uganda with the World Jewish Service, studying African Jewish communities in Sunday school, linking the genocides in Rwanda and the Sudan with our Yom Ha Shoah observances. It’s important to me that my daughter sees these connections, sees her African heritage as a complement to her Jewish one. Yet I wonder; will she feel as comfortable in other synagogues when she grows up? Where will the promise of a Jewish upbringing leave her?

Given all my angst about finding a place in the Jewish community, you may wonder, why am I still a Jew? Because I believe. I believe blacks and Jews share an ethos that has profoundly affected my life. I believe both communities have important lessons for each other, and that blending these two identities will make my daughter a wiser and stronger person. I believe the Jewish community is generous and farsighted enough to adapt, to broaden its temple for the children of sharecroppers as well as shtetls.

Another African-American, who was fond of quoting the Jewish Bible, cited the Exodus story shortly before his death: Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind . . . I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. I’m still waiting for my promised land. And I pray that as a black Jewish adult, my daughter will find hers.


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