What does it mean to black and Jewish?: Speakers tell of struggle, laughter

When Carol Conaway picks up the newspaper, she reads about skinheads and neo-nazis with special dread.

“What does it mean to be a black Jew in America?” She asked. “It takes an act of courage to read the paper.” Along with other black Jews, Conaway took part in an April 11 Symposium that addressed the oft-made assumption that being both black and Jewish presents a conflict.

Conaway was joined by Robin Washington, managing editor of the Bay State Banner; and Laurence Thomas, a scholar at Syracuse University and author of Vessels of Evil: American Slavery and the Holocaust and living Morally: A Psychology of Moral Character.

A Harvard University research fellow, Conaway told the audience of approximately 100 people in the Hassenfeld Conference Center that as the daughter of black parents, she grew up singing in church choirs and hearing negative stereotypes about Jews. As a child, her religion was changed numerous times and she slowly learned that it was possible to transform one’s identity. In the 1950s, she remembered seeing her first photographs of the Holocaust.

“I was so horrified,”? she recalled. “I felt an immediate bond with Jews.” In high school in the 1960s, Conaway said she was friends with white, Jewish students and, as a result, she was shunned by fellow black students. She started attending Jewish services and learning Hebrew, activities that went underground after her parents burnt her Hebrew books. In December 1971,Conawa converted and said it has taken decade to integrate her two worlds.

“For me, being black is a description of my Jewishness,” ?she said. “This is America, all of us are hybrids to a point.”

Unlike Conaway, Robin Washington was raised Jewish, the son of a white Jewish mother and an African American father. He displayed the symbol of his dual worlds, a yarmulke made from traditional African material.

Washington, who also makes documentaries, was lighthearted about his upbringing, saying that every seder. He joked about being the first black family in his Chicago neighborhood and, years later, the last white family.

“A good deal I am told: it must have been hard, it must have been terrible,” he said. “I don’t have a lot to Judge that against. I’ve always been black and Jewish.”

Washington, who said there are an estimated 200,000 black Jews in America, insisted that he never realized his upbringing was unique. As a child, protest marches seemed like field trips and integrating a restaurant was considered a family outing.

“I was blessed,” he said of his childhood. “I was very fortunate.”

A well-respected scholar, Thomas said he has confronted numerous stereotypes, particularly that being a Jew means you are intellectually gifted,” while being black is “a mark of inferiority.”

He spoke of walking into a synagogue and having people assume he was unintelligent. He said he would watch for their reaction when they discovered otherwise. The stereotypes demonstrate how much each group distrusts the other, he said.

“I wrestled with my blackness,” Thomas said. “I wrestled with my Judaism.”

But Thomas also pointed out that being from two worlds gives him a special vantage point. “I have an additional set of lenses.”?

The symposium was sponsored by the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies. It also featured a panel discussion with Walter Anthony, assistant dean of academic affairs; Sylvia Barack Fishman, assistant professor of contemporary Jewry and American Civilization and politics; State Sen. Dianne Wilkerson (Mass.); and Leonad Zakim, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of New England.

It was supported by Martin Weiner Fund for Distinguished Lecturers and co-sponsored by the Department of American Studies, the ADL of B’nai B’rith, the Nathan Perlmutter Institute for Jewish Advocacy, the Department of African and Afro-American Studies, and the American Jewish Historical Society.

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