Speaker Stresses the Importance of Recognizing Non-European Jews
Jewish multiculturalism is a fancy term for playing catchup on Jewish history, said David Lash, teacher of comparative religion and history at Charlotte’s Hebrew High School. On Thursday evening, Lash addressed a group of students and visitors to UNC Asheville’s Laurel Auditorium. Hillel, the Black Students Association and Nucleus sponsored the two- hour discussion of “Jewish Multiculturalism: Our New Identity.” Lash, an African-American Jew, emphasized the importance of recognizing the existence, histories and cultures of non- European Jewish communities and their implications for a diverse world. “The average American will define a Jew as being of European descent,” Lash said. “They will think of bagels, Hanukkah and perhaps grasp the concept of kashrut (dietary laws). But few Americans know anything about the Mizrahim, Jews from Arab countries, the Jews living throughout the African continent or the Bene Israel or Cochin Jews in India.”
During his presentation, Lash delved into the demographics and locations of non-European Jewish communities, African- American converts and the Cohen Modal Haplotype, a gene marker being used to identify descendants of Moses’ brother Aaron. “It’s shocking news to a lot of people – the idea that there’s this hidden history being revealed,” said Montford resident Sharon Fahrer. “The fact that DNA testing can be done to trace thousands of generations back means finding all these lost connections between people.
“Jews have thought about this, not from an African- American perspective, but from the perspective of the Ten Lost Tribes. We know they went somewhere – and they weren’t all white people. I have family members who were Holocaust survivors, so I always think about the people who were lost because of their beliefs. There’s a real enormity to it, beyond the numbers.” Lash credits his former students with making him step to the podium to share his research and his journey of faith with others in Western North Carolina. Scott Sherman, copresident of WNC Hillel, arranged Thursday’s discussion. He called Lash’s teaching approach both confrontational and empowering.
“I was his student for five semesters at Hebrew High,” Sherman said. “He lets students know they are free to express different viewpoints – and he challenged us to study subjects we weren’t initially interested in,” he said. Sherman, a second-year psychology and religious studies student, said he knows exactly what his professional plans are: “To be a rabbi working in education and administra tion.”
Lash grew up in Winston-Salem during the school desegregation uproar. His parents, both educators, put their stock in a Catholic school education for their children. Even before graduating from Wesleyan University and traveling to India, South Asia and Israel, Lash began a spiritual journey for “something kinder, that made a lot more sense.” “I remember at age 7 being taught that one must be Christian to see heaven,” Lash said. “Even as a child, such attitudes tore a hole in me that took time to heal. Stories of European Jewish culture were only my adopted stories. I began to research, remember and revere my Jewish roots. I like to focus on Tikkun Olam (healing the world), the here and now – not some future reward or punishment.”