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Diverse Jews Gave Us Joy, Pride During Difficult Year

Looking back on some of the feel-good stories from 2020.

Clockwise from top left: Raquel Montoya-Lewis, Daveed Diggs, Eden Alene, Alejandro Mayorkas, Pnina Tamano-Shata, and Nissim Black.

The past year was challenging for so many, but especially for people of color, who were disproportionately affected by Covid-19 and who continue to bear the brunt of racism and police brutality. Yet even as 2020 brought tremendous challenges, ethnically and racially diverse Jews persevered and even thrived in many fields, including politics, the arts, and sports.

Whether it was assuming leadership positions in government, winning championships, or releasing inspiring music, diverse Jews brought us no small amount of joy and pride in the midst of so much pain. Below we look back on some of the feel-good stories from the past year.

Diverse Jews become more visible in the political sphere.

  • Raquel Montoya-Lewis is appointed to the Washington State Supreme Court in January, becoming the state’s first Native American justice. Then in November, the daughter of a Pueblo father and Australian Jewish mother wins election to a six-year term. “I was raised to remember that I come from those who survived,” she says after her appointment. “My ancestors on both sides of my family survived genocide, survived institutional boarding schools, survived attempts to eradicate their cultures, and yet as my father reminded me often ‘we survived.’ I am here because of their resilience, their courage, their intelligence, and their deep commitment to what is just.”
  • Pnina Tamano-Shata becomes the first Ethiopian-born minister in Israel’s Knesset in May. She arrived in Israel at age three via Operation Moses. Fittingly, her portfolio covers immigration and absorption.
  • Attorney Annamie Paul is elected head of Canada’s Green party in October, becoming the first Black person and the second Jew to assume leadership of a major political party. She converted to Judaism while studying at Princeton. “It’s a faith that has really spoken to me: the universality, the humanistic values … I’m very much guided by the idea that if you save one person, you save the world,” she tells JTA.
  • Myrna Melgar becomes the first Jewish Latina elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in November. Melgar, who grew up in El Salvador, embraced her Jewish heritage as a young adult. “When I started exploring Judaism, it just sort of fell into place,” she tells J. “I don’t know how to explain it, but it just felt so right.”
  • U.S. President-elect Joe Biden chooses Alejandro Mayorkas, the son of Cuban Jews, to lead the Department of Homeland Security. If confirmed by the Senate, he will be the first immigrant and first Latinx American to lead DHS. (Biden is also reportedly considering Darrell Blocker, who is Black and Jewish, to head the CIA.)

Diverse Jewish artists warm our hearts and produce some of the most exciting Jewish music this year.

  • Taika Waititi wins an Oscar for best adapted screenplay for Jojo Rabbit in February. A “Polynesian Jew” from New Zealand, Waititi dedicates his award “to all the Indigenous kids in the world who want to do art and dance and write stories.”
  • Rapper Nissim Black drops a serious bop, “Mothaland Bounce,” in which he talks about being Black and Jewish, i.e. “Hitler’s worst nightmare.” (The video has been streamed more than 4 million times.) Later in the year, after recovering from Covid-19, he releases a remake of Hava Nagila, called “The Hava Song.” We can’t wait to see what he does in 2021.
  • Singer Eden Alene becomes the first Ethiopian Israeli to be chosen to represent Israel in the 2020 Eurovision Song Contest. The contest was cancelled due to the pandemic, but she is expected to participate in the 2021 contest. The song she was to perform includes lyrics in Amharic, Hebrew, and English.
  • Around the High Holidays, 6-year-old Bibi Shapiro goes viral when a video of him passionately singing “Avinu Malkeinu” in his living room finds its way to social media. Adopted by a Jewish family in South Africa, Bibi now lives in Perth, Australia. According to JTA, “Jewish viewers around the world, including some prominent rabbis, praised Bibi’s performance for channeling the kind of spirit they only aspire to feel or elicit in their synagogues.”
  • Daveed Diggs wins Hanukkah with his instant-classic song, “Puppy for Hanukkah.” The music video features Jewish children of color, about which he tells NPR: “What I really like about how this came out is that…there’s no comment on it at all. These are just kids trying to get a puppy, and they also happen to be Jewish, you know?” Meanwhile, fellow Hamilton star Leslie Odom, Jr. records a gorgeous rendition of “Maoz Tzur” with his Black Jewish wife, Nicolette Robinson.

Diverse Jews dominate in the sports world.

  • Former NBA All-Star Amar’e Stoudemire leads Maccabi Tel Aviv to an Israeli league championship in July, earning MVP honors. Shortly thereafter, he completes his conversion to Judaism. He takes the Hebrew name Yahoshafat Ben Avraham.
  • WNBA player Alysha Clark wins her second WNBA championship with the Seattle Storm in October. Clark was raised Christian but has Jewish heritage and holds Israeli citizenship. She played for three Israeli teams between 2010 and 2016.
  • MMA and kickboxing champion Obed Hrangchal moves to Israel from India. Hrangchal belongs to the Bnei Menashe community, whose members claim descent from the tribe of Menashe. He plans to represent Israel in international competitions.

We don’t know what 2021 holds, but we are confident that diverse Jews will continue to be leaders and trendsetters in the Jewish world and beyond.