The Marriage Question: Non-White Jews Wonder If They Will Find Spouses

The first time an acquaintance set up Tashia Moore, 25, with a man 13 years older than her, she figured she would give it a try. It didn’t work out. “I mean, he was old!” said Moore, an assistant account executive for a jewelry wholesaler.

She was even less excited when the same acquaintance, an Orthodox Jewish man she had met through her previous job, called again to tell her about a 37-year-old man who had previously been married and had a child living in Israel. “I kept thinking, why does this guy think I can date these older guys?” she said. She has a point — one part-time matchmaker refuses to set up any man with a woman more than 10 years younger. “It’s just very interesting who people set up with me,” she said.

Moore, who recently moved from the Upper West Side to Flatbush, Brooklyn, is an Orthodox Jew. She is also black. Jews such as Moore, whose external features differ from the Eastern European, or Ashkenazi, Jews who make up the majority of American Jewry, are often forced to defend their religious identity. The limits of acceptance of non-white Jews into the white Jewish community are most severely tested when it comes to that ultimate arbiter of social inclusion — marriage.

White Jews may be reluctant to date those who look different, said Rabbi Daniel Wolff. He works with converts at Ohab Zedek, an Orthodox synagogue on West 95th Street, where he is the assistant rabbi. “There is something to the idea of a certain American look, a white American look,” Wolff said. “I think race is still a dividing line for a lot of people.”

Traditional Jewish parents generally rate the religion of their child’s spouse as more significant than the race, said Chaim Waxman, a sociology professor at Rutgers University. But sometimes the surrounding white culture into which American Ashkenazi Jews often assimilate, to varying degrees, trumps the identity of Judaism as an ethnicity separate from race. “If it were a choice between a white Jew and a non-white Jew, I think probably, as in the larger white community, there is some prejudice – call it preference for one’s own kind, however you wish to phrase it – so that a non-white person would probably have a more difficult time than a white person,” Waxman said.

Discrimination on the part of white American Jews, then, may well be an extension of a broader racist attitude that continues to persist. But there is at least one significant practical difference. While non-Jewish minorities can date other people of their own ethnicity, non-white American Jews committed to their religion are faced with a pool of mostly white people who may be reluctant to bring them home to mom and dad. This is especially relevant in the Orthodox community, in which marriage and family are highly valued. Although some Orthodox Jews find people to date by meeting them at parties or in synagogue, others date only after being set up with a suitable partner through a mutual friend or a matchmaker.

Partly because of their small numbers, non-white American Jews are often a curiosity. According to the 1990 Jewish Population Survey (the latest numbers available) 3.5 percent of Americans who identify as Jewish also identify as black; 1.9 percent identify as Hispanic. Several Jewish organizations and matchmakers in New York said they have experience with few if any non-white Jews. At Ohab Zedek, 25 people have converted over the last four years, about one-third of whom are not white. Among those, there is about an equal mix of black, Asian and Hispanic converts, Wolff said. These numbers are high compared to other synagogues, especially those outside of Manhattan, he said.

Abbie Yamamoto, 22, is often asked if she grew up Jewish. “I feel somewhat defensive about it,” said Yamamoto, a Barnard College senior. The child of a white secular Jewish mother and a non-Jewish Japanese father, Yamamoto, who has a round face, glasses and straight brown hair that stretches down her back, grew up in Japan. There, her study of Hebrew made her increasingly interested in the Jewish heritage with which she had long identified. But when Jews in America and in France — where Yamamoto studied French for two summers — see her face, they sometimes appear to doubt her identity. “I’m tired of being questioned about how authentically Jewish I am all the time,” she said.

One of the reasons Yamamoto thinks people question her is that her idea of Jewish culture does not correspond with that of American Ashkenazi Jews. Like the Jews who came from Spain, Portugal and Arabic countries such as Iran and Syria, Yamamoto does not fit into the bagel-and-lox New York Jewish stereotype popularized by such performers as Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld. “I definitely don’t associate chicken soup with being Jewish,” she said.

Yamamoto has found Orthodox Jews to be the most accepting of her non-white appearance because, she said, they place a high value on halacha, or Jewish law. For many Orthodox Jews, religious observance — including resting on the Sabbath and not eating meat with milk — is a more significant index of Jewishness than the ethnic affiliation that developed among Ashkenazi Jews in America.

Since Orthodox halacha dictates that the child of a Jewish mother is Jewish, Orthodox Jews, said Yamamoto, are least likely to question her identity once they know her lineage. “People who see Jewishness as more of a cultural or racial thing tend to give me more of a problem and tend to be more insulting to me.”

Yamamoto decided to become more observant because it was much easier to do so in New York than in Japan, where school is held on Saturday and kosher cheese – which Yamamoto brings back with her on short trips home – is nowhere to be found.

For two years Yamamoto led a women’s prayer group at Barnard. She attends Orthodox services at several Manhattan synagogues, but she said, she hasn’t yet managed to get a date. “I feel like it was kind of unnatural how I’ve never been asked out on a date the entire time I’ve been here,” she said.

Despite her difficulties, Yamamoto said she felt lucky she did not have to convert to Judaism to be considered Jewish. The element that makes Yamamoto’s Jewishness most palatable to the Orthodox — her Jewish lineage — is the same element that creates difficulty for converts. For people of color who convert to Judaism, religious and racial issues often overlap and make it difficult for them to know exactly why they are being treated as outsiders. This social hardship occurs despite the explicit injunction of the Torah that forbids discrimination against converts.

Of all non-white converts to Judaism, blacks may have it the hardest, said Adam Resnick, who has taught the conversion class at Ohab Zedek for the past four years. White congregants will often ask Resnick about a particular student if they are romantically interested. But they generally don’t ask about the black students.

There are cultural differences between Ashkenazi Jews and other ethnic groups that converts from all backgrounds have to overcome, Resnick said. But some groups fit in more easily than others, both visually and culturally. “If you’re with someone who’s Asian, they’re going to be accepted,” he said. “If it’s someone who’s Hispanic, Latino, fine, they can fit in. But if it’s someone who’s African-American, they’re going to stand out. Unless it’s someone who really doesn’t mind being different, they’re not going to go out with an African-American.” Resnick added, “The darker you are, the more difficult.”

When Tashia Moore first became interested in converting to Orthodoxy, she had been much more positive about her dating prospects than she is now. She has had a hard time finding what she called her “perfect soulmate” — a black Jewish man. According to the 1990 Jewish population study, about 2,500 men aged 20-24 were converts, compared with about 7,000 women. In the 30-34 age range, about 5,000 men and four times as many women had converted. At Ohab Zedek, whose conversion class Moore attended, all but five of the last four years’ converts have been women. One rabbi attributed the high percentage of female converts and “ba’alei teshuva” — Jews who become more religious — to the Talmud’s description of women as having an extra spiritual intuition. Whatever the reason, the gender imbalance is one more hurdle for Moore to face.

Moore, whose father converted to Reform Judaism when she was 5, spent her childhood in Winston-Salem, N.C., attending Hebrew school and celebrating such Jewish holidays as Passover and Chanukah. After she moved to New York in 1999 to find more single Jews, Moore, who is 5 feet 7 inches and usually wears her hair in a bun behind her head, began attending Jewish education classes run by Manhattan Jewish Experience, an Orthodox institution. She started learning more Hebrew, then tried a class on spirituality and God. Soon, she began considering conversion to Orthodox Judaism, partly because she wanted her future children to be considered Jewish by all denominations and partly because then she would have no problem being accepted as a Jew in Israel — which only accepts Orthodox conversions — should she choose to live there. Ethiopian Jews have been a common sight in Israel since 1997, when about 26,000 Jews were airlifted from Ethiopia to Israel in Operation Solomon, according to the Israeli Ministry of Immigrant Absorption and the American Sephardi Federation. As of March 1999, there are about twice as many.

As she tried to decide whether she wanted to convert, Moore contacted a white Jewish friend of hers from North Carolina who had become Orthodox. The friend told her explicitly that it would be difficult for Moore to date within the Orthodox community because she was black. But even when the wife of a rabbi whose family Moore was visiting told her the same thing a little later, Moore refused to let her optimism flag.

“I wouldn’t turn down Orthodoxy because people aren’t nice,” Moore said. “It’s more of a personal journey, not because the group is really happening. You can’t really keep kosher with the group, you have to choose by yourself.”

Once Moore began learning more about Orthodoxy, the religious habits she developed became “innate,” she said. As a Reform Jew, Moore said, she hadn’t been satisfied by religion. Now, she prefers the Orthodox prayer service – longer than the one she was used to – and enjoys saying a blessing before she eats as a way of thanking God for the food. Moore also wears skirts as an expression of modesty and does not touch unrelated men. “It just made sense,” Moore said. “It’s not something that I feel is burdensome or anything. It’s fulfilling.”

Now, though, she wonders if the naysayers were right about the dating trouble she would encounter. “I sometimes feel like somebody’s not going to be interested if they do meet me, so I usually just strike my own self out,” Moore said. “If someone says I have someone I want you to meet, I’ll say, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ ”

Moore still feels different from other American Jews. “The first thing is if I say, ‘Yes, I’m Jewish,’ they’re going to say, ‘How?’ ” she said. “I don’t think people are mean. They just want to figure out, wow, how is this person Jewish and they’re not white?”

Although Moore said she rarely, if ever, encounters overt racism from other Jews, specific incidents occasionally make her realize that some racial presumptions may still abound. One man she knows said he thought FUBU — the black-owned company that sells clothing geared toward blacks and whose initials stand for “For Us By Us” — was really owned by Jewish people in the background. “To me it was kind of a statement that said, ‘I don’t think black people can own their own businesses, only Jewish people can,’ ” Moore said. She told him she thought the company was owned by blacks. The statement was probably not meant to be racist, said Moore, but it bothered her to hear what the man was thinking. And it was a reminder that she wasn’t exactly like him.

Connie Singman, 40, also feels her difference from other Jews more often than she would like. The black mother of three grew up “church-hopping” with her family in Brooklyn, practically attending a different religious service every Sunday. She didn’t come to Judaism until after she had married Noah Singman, a white secular Jewish man she met when they were both at Brooklyn College, and given birth to her oldest child. “It seemed like I needed a basis of, how do I put it, an ethical way to raise your child,” she said. She started attending classes in Judaism and eventually underwent an Orthodox conversion.

As with Moore, part of the attraction Orthodoxy held for Connie Singman was its universal acceptability regarding her and her children’s Jewish status. “I believe that Orthodoxy is the mainstream,” she said. “It’s the benchmark. That’s what you shoot for. If you go Orthodox, then everybody accepts it.” She now sends her children to yeshiva day school near the family’s home in West Orange, N.J. Her husband is financially and emotionally supportive of her decisions, although he chooses to remain apart from religion.

Connie Singman said she was glad she was already married by the time she decided to convert. “I sometimes wonder,” she said. “If I hadn’t been married” — before the conversion — “would I ever have been married?” Answering her own question, she said, “I don’t know. I don’t feel positive about it.” She may have reason for her concern. At Oheb Zedek, all those who converted over the last four years and are married came to the conversion classes already dating someone, Resnick said. All those who came in without anyone still don’t have anyone.

Sometimes Connie Singman is denied the casual niceties that American Jews take for granted, such as exchanging Sabbath greetings. When she first began attending an Orthodox synagogue in West Orange, the woman sitting next to her refused to acknowledge Singman as a Jew. “I would say ‘good Shabbos’ and she would say ‘good morning,’ ” Singman said. “Eventually she moved her seat because she didn’t want to sit next to me anymore.”

Although Singman said some people have welcomed her into the community, “I get more of a sense of not belonging — like there’s this undercurrent of ‘What’s she doing here?’ sort of thing.”

“There’s just always that feeling of not quite good enough, not quite accepted, just not quite,” Singman said. And she worries about her biracial Jewish children: Logan, 15, who is himself a convert because he was born before his mother had converted; Ian, 12; and Brenna, 10.

Connie Singman recalls one time when she sent Brenna off to a Jewish camp. “The children on the bus told her that I couldn’t be Jewish because my skin was brown,” she said. “And I want to know, how did they come up with that concept?” More specifically, she is concerned about their future. “Will they get married in a community where things are sort of open, but in the back of my mind I’m thinking, ‘Would you let my son marry your daughter?’ That’s what the real proof is for me.”

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