Humor and My Authentically Black Jewish Self
“How does Moses make his tea? Hebrews it. Happy Passover y’all.”
This was the caption that I wrote on one of my most recent Facebook profile pictures. The photo featured my smiling face some with poorly edited-on Jewish and Passover-themed animations (matzah, a torah, etc). My profile picture update was a fun and humorous way to spread holiday cheer to my Jewish Facebook friends. And it also served as a reminder to all of my friends and family online that I am, in fact, Jewish.
Being a black Jew, I have been asked to explain and verify the extent of my Jewishness more times than I can count. Even in predominantly (and exclusively) Jewish spaces like synagogues and URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) summer camps, my faith has been questioned by my peers, younger children, and adults alike. “Are you Jewish? Like really Jewish?” they ask. “How exactly are you Jewish?”
And I know what they’re really trying to figure out: “How can you be black and Jewish? Are you related to a white person in some way?”
I’ve grown up in a biracial family. I have a black father and a white mother, and my brother and I have brown skin. We are lighter than a lot of black people, but could never pass as white. Our white mother is Jewish, and as Judaism is traditionally carried down through the mother, by many standards, my brother and I are Jews.
In the past, when people have asked me how I am Jewish, I would explain the racial identities of my family members. As soon as I would say “my mom is white,” people instantaneously understood. They would nod or smile or say “oh okay.” No further questions were asked. Many times, I never even had to say that my white mother is Jewish. Her whiteness was enough.
And while that response satisfies my askers, it makes me uncomfortable. Saying that I am Jewish because of my white mother makes my Judaism dependent on my connection to someone else’s whiteness. There is a detrimental assumption that Judaism is inherently white, and thus without the whiteness of my mother, my Judaism is somehow invalid. But my faith does not exist because of my mother’s whiteness. It exists because of my devotion towards G-d. It exists because I feel something indescribable when I sing the Sh’ma. My Judaism is something incredibly personal and special to me. I do not want it to be interrogated or invalidated.
I talk about being Jewish frequently, and I constantly make jokes about it. I make Jewish puns, like the one in my profile picture caption. And this is not because I think my Judaism is a joke. Rather, my humorous (and at times over-the-top) projection of my Judaism is my attempt of providing validity to my identity. Laughter is affirmation. In fact, it’s close to the only affirmation I receive towards my Jewish identity.
Many members of marginalized groups use humor. For some, it’s a defense mechanism. For others, it’s a way to avoid dealing with and talking seriously about the oppression surrounding their own identities. For me, it’s probably a mixture of those two, and it’s also a way for me to find affirmation. Through humor, I am able to transform other people’s criticism of my identity into validation and affirmation. And that is nothing to laugh at.