There’s not a “look” to Jewish, you just are. This is what I was raised to believe in the Jewish family that adopted me. So why is being Jewish equated with race, with a skin color and ethnicity? I am multiracial. While I’m still in the midst of DNA testing, so far I’ve learned I’m part Taiwanese, Greek, a possible thread from East Africa, and more. I check the “Other” box on forms.
When my parents took our family to temple every year for the High Holidays, all I wanted to do was crawl under the chair in the sanctuary and hide. When my brother had his bar mitzvah, I wanted to hide, too. When my mother sent me to Sunday school and Hebrew class while she volunteered, I wanted to hide. And throughout my early adulthood, I actually did hide that fact that I was raised in a Jewish home.
Why do people stare I wondered in temple? “You’re exotic,” my parents told me in their desire to help. It didn’t though. Nothing helped my non-Jewish features and caramel skin color look more Jewish.
But wait. What is that look? Is Muslim a color, or does Christianity have a skin color? Israelis have olive skin, and some even look like they could be from Latin America, or India. Some of my friends are atheist Jews, which is something I adore about the religion. One can be atheist and still considered Jewish. Judaism is as much a cultural practice as it is a religion, and culture is important in shaping identity.
When I entered motherhood and began to raise my daughters, I reconnected with Judaism. As with much else, “I take what I like, and leave the rest.” I sought out the meditations and music and beliefs of Judaism that I felt would support our family in a spiritual journey.
I knew the implication: she’d assumed I married into the faith, or I converted. In my case, it’s through adoption. And I identify as Jewish even though people don’t see it. We are a mixed Asian Jewish family, and the values of Judaism teach us to include everyone. “There is not one face of Judaism, but many,” one of my daughters once said when she was in grade school.
Another piece of my own identity gives me an insight into the acceptance of Jews of color. Before my adoption, I was in foster care, and before that, I was born in a prison. While I no longer hold any shame or stigma about my roots, there’s an unspoken aspect of secrecy I sense in the Jewish culture, a sense of a need for secrecy and shrouding of the wounds and pain of the past. I’ve seen it in the hesitancy of the offspring of Holocaust survivors to hide the deep pain of those inhumane atrocities. Yet, as the younger generation, we need to witness the pain and share it so that we can tell the stories and make sure we triumph over future anti-Semitism, racism, and other persecutions and cultural malfunctions and viciousness.
This topic of secrecy can hit a raw nerve in the Jewish community. It’s also reflected in other cultures that come out of persecution, to keep the in-talk “amongst ourselves.” Why is that? Is it out of a history of persecution, where safety is threatened if “outsiders” know “insider info?”
But I think raising our voices will strengthen us, not weaken us.
These days, when a (most likely) Eastern European Jew casts an inquisitive glance in my direction, I bear any off-putting look by keeping in mind the history: Jews were once slaves in Egypt and strangers in another land. You’d think the web of acceptance would cast wide for The Other.
The wave of Jews of color is flooding mainstream Judaism and I hope raising awareness in communities of all colors and religions, non-Jews and Jews alike.
I’m raising my children to include the stranger, to reach out to those who may feel the outsider. And we are not strangers, as the Torah makes clear —all are invited and obligated to be included.
These days when I encounter the comment, “But you don’t look Jewish” I use it as a teaching moment, to look that person in the eye and voice the truth: “But this is what a Jew looks like.”
Moved by this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
Though the Ethiopian sun beat down on our necks as we layed mortar and brick for the school’s foundation in Gondar, Ethiopia, no suntan lotion could prevent the mark our ancient discovery would bring us as we made our way through buried past of our Jewish family, the Jews of Ethiopia…
Last winter I had the distinct pleasure of joining the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) cohort of twenty-five young professionals on a journey to Ethiopia. Charged with passion for social justice, and a commitment to peoples in need, each of us brought a unique perspective on Judaism, Ethiopians and the world of poverty. Each of us came with stories; each longed to heal the fractured world, but none shared the perspective of being an Orthodox Jewish rabbinical student who is empowered by his dual heritage of both African and European descent; who proudly identifies as a Jew of Color. None, that is, except me.
I was captured in a state of knowing that a part of my family once originated just west of Ethiopia, I was entangled in a state of feeling that I was among the few who were lucky enough to explore the story of the African Jews of yesteryear, and I was saddened by the living conditions of the “Third World,” and wondered how it got this way.
After an entire day of supplying medication to dozens of shifts of schoolchildren who get repeatedly sick because of the disease infested water, our JDC cohort began a new and uncharted journey through the tall grass on the outskirts of the Gondar village. Soon we saw a large enclosed area in the middle of the field. We hopped in. Dan, a member of the JDC year-long fellowship was the first one in, I was the second. “I’m pretty sure this is the Jewish cemetery,” he murmured as we took our first steps. Dumbstruck, I stammered “wh-where?…” He turned around to look at me, and then at the ground, then back at me and said sharply “right. here.” I felt lost for a moment, and then notice a rectangular formation of rocks and realized we were walking over graves.
After coming to my senses, I called for the group to go around the enclosed field and meet us at the other side. Dan, myself, and the few others plowed through until we were at the peripheral area. As we reached the end of the field, there were four tombstones standing strong with Amharic chalked onto the stone. Maybe they were wealthy Jews? A rabbinic family? Recent deaths (within the last 200 years)? we had no idea. Like Jacob in the Torah (Genesis 28:17), we did not know the greatness of this place… it struck me.
Standing around these graves we looked to one another. I realized no matter how far the cultural and religious ties from the reality of most of our current communities, as a future rabbi, as the only clergy on the trip, I knew words must be shared, and the silence had to be broken.
“One of the most vicious ways to go to war against a people is through destroying their culture and way of life. Many cultures would bury total cities to erase their opponents from history, and yet, the very fact that there is knowledge that there is a Jewish cemetery shows the intense commitment of our ancestors before us. Despite religious practice, wealth or pressures from the outside world, these Jews in their hundreds, stuck together. Child after child, parent after parent joined in life and as we see, in death with their Jewish roots.
“In a world of so much fragmentation, we must not mistake that brokenness will not find itself in the strongest of families. As we the Jewish people engage in the struggle unify our communities, let this experience remind us that if our ancestors died together, through all the troubles of exile, then we, the living, must live together despite all that challenges to do otherwise.”
We recited King David’s Pslams 23 “The Lord is my Shepherd I shall lack nothing…” and we began our walk back to the center where our Jeeps and JDC personnel took us back to civilization. As the cohort was in the distance, I walked slowly and I took one last glance at the graves of my people, and said “thank you, thank you, thank you.”
So the sun may wane, and the mark may fade, but the blessing in the Amidah to “gather the exiles from the four corners of the earth,” will forever include not just those close to my community, but also our Jewish brothers and sisters in Ethiopia, thousands of years old.
How much money is enough?
“$35,” he said from the front-row pews of Adath Jeshurun Congregation in suburban Minneapolis.
Although I had been encouraging call-and-response in my Dvar Torah in January, I didn’t quite understand what he meant (which I’ll get to it in a bit) and went on talking about the concept of Dayenu. The impetus was the Parshat Beshalach, which deals with the liberation from Egypt and the crossing into Sinai, though Dayenu isn’t in it.
“It’s a much later poem first appearing in the 9th century,” Rabbi David Steinberg of Temple Israel in Duluth told me.
However it got into the liturgy, would it really have been dayenu — good enough — to have been freed from slavery only to die in the desert?
It also conflicts with a passage that says the children of Israel celebrated their liberation with a song — Shirat HaYam — before kvetching to Moses about life in the desert. And a concept that seems almost sacrilegious to me are the verses stating it would have been good enough to have been fed on manna for 40 years and led to the Promised Land but not to have gotten the Torah.
What kind of religion is that — where you get tons of good stuff but don’t have any obligations in return? That’s even better than getting permission from a Bet Din to have a beer at Target Field on Pesach.
None of this is to say I don’t appreciate the fundamental value of liberation, which the late James Brown explained as cogently as the rabbis who stayed up all night:
“We’d rather die on our feet than live on our knees,” he sang in “Say it Loud!” (rhyming the line with “the birds and the bees.”)
That too was call and response, and a key word in both his song and Dayenu is “we” — a personalization of affliction, past and today.
So I get it, though to truly understand good enough, you also have to deconstruct “good” and “enough.” Was manna good? It’s described as being tasty, though interpretations suggest it could have been anything from mushrooms to bird droppings. Regardless, the passage says the people tired of it after a while. Maybe it was more than enough of a good thing.
As for “enough,” exactly how much is enough — especially when it comes to money?
Fortunately, Josh was paying attention, and gave the $35 answer to the $64,000 question. The amount, his grandmother explained afterward, was the remaining cash he needed to buy an iPod.
Good answer. And enough said.
Passover is a time for people to gather around tables, share stories, food, and rituals. It can be joyous and exciting. But like with any communal setting, it can also be complicated to navigate the different needs and agendas people bring to the table. Still, if we follow Jewish tradition, we will find Passover can be a model for how to create positive diverse communal connections. It’s rituals and structures teach us to talk across differences and celebrate commonalities.
Passover is about story telling. And good communication is based on the ability to tell our own stories. Before we gather to celebrate our common identity, we must each own our personal story. Judaism has an oral history, and we have survived by telling those stories and passing them down through the generations. Passover brings us together to celebrate a universal experience of slavery to freedom, a concept everyone can relate to in some way or another. This is the theme around which the story telling takes place on this particular evening. Having a common theme around which to tell stories, a theme with which people from different places or times can identify, is one of the ways in which people can connect across differences.
Passover encourages us to invite strangers into our home so that we remember that we too were once strangers in a strange land. We are supposed to open the door and include the stranger—the unfamiliar—into our familiar Passover ceremony. We can only build strong community when we view the prospect of engaging others as a positive opportunity. Recognize that perhaps some of the people at our table may feel like strangers or that people already sitting at your table may be a stranger to your personal Passover story. We welcome others into our experience and learn about ourselves when we share our stories and hear other people’s experiences and perspectives.
Passover is all about asking questions; so is bridging differences. Ask questions of the people whom share you share your table. Diversity is not about trying to understand somebody else’s experience as your own or listening politely while they speak. It is about engaging and learning so that you both might learn from your curiosity about their life. Sometimes it is difficult to ask questions about that which makes us different. Asking questions in a well structured and thought out way can help us navigate what can feel like difficult and unfamiliar territory.
There are many ways to ask questions. Like the four children, we can be intentional about how we engage with one another, and need to recognize and celebrate that we all have different levels of skill and capacity when it comes to asking. Some of us are wise, some wicked, some ignorant, and some don’t even know how to ask. Regardless of how we may ask or be asked, it is our engagement with one another that will ensure we continue to grow as individuals and as a people.
The traditional Seder is supposed to be a raucous affair, with food, song, ritual and debate. This historic framework provides a wonderful space for all of us to engage across differences.
Passover is a time for storytelling. One of the main purposes of the holiday is to allow one generation to tell the next generation the story of how we came out of Egypt and journeyed from slavery to freedom. There are many children’s books that engage young minds by going beyond the telling found in the traditional Passover haggadah. In choosing among the possible additions the Seder, we have focused on books that celebrate the diversity of Jewish families and those that introduce the themes of Passover in new or particularly engaging ways:
A relatively newcomer to the Passover scene is the colorfully appealing Afikomen Mambo, by Joe Black and illustrated by Linda Prater. Sold together with the book is a CD with performance by Black, who is well known for his music. Geared to the 3–7 set, this playful combination of illustration and song, do exactly what the Afikomen is meant to do — pique the interest and engagement of the younger set so they stay awake until the end of the Seder. Somewhat puzzling is the plethora of children and the paucity of adults seated around the table. From the looks of it, one set of parents has invited a whole brood of young ones to join in the Passover fun. But at least everyone looks happy doing the Afiokmen Mambo.
The theme of grandparents passing on traditions to grandchildren is a familiar part of Passover; less familiar is the twist it takes in Abuelita’s Secret Matzahs, by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso and illustrated by Diana Bryer. Jacob loves to prepare for Easter with his grandmother, but one day she tells him a secret. Like many others whose Jewish ancestors who were forced to convert to Catholicism in Spain in the 14th and 15th centuries, this family of anusim continued to practice Judaism their Judaism in secret. For the 4–8 set, this is a wonderful introduction to an element of Jewish history that still plays out today. We love that this story brings attention to the stories of individuals who are now, after hundreds of years, finding their way back to their Jewish heritage.
Mindy Avra Portnoy’s A Tale of Two Seders, also offers a different take on the classic family themes of the holiday. The story follows a little girl who after her parents divorce spends one Seder at her mother’s and one at her fathers. Over the years the Seders vary and as Valeria Cis’s illustrations highlight how the people attending the two Seders are themselves varied. Adding to our sense of possibilities are the four recipes for charoset that are included. This book acknowledges the difficulties that the young protagonist faces, without presenting her situation as a tragedy.
The diversity of Passover observances around the world take center stage in two different celebrations of global Jewish life. From the National Geographic Holidays Around the World series comes Celebrate Passover and from Tami Lehman-Wilzig, Passover Around the World. As one expects from National Geographic, there are bold, beautiful photos depicting Jews from Africa to China, from Budapest to Ohio. Lehman-Wilzig’s book moves from place to place as it goes through the Seder, beginning in America and ending in Morroco; the journey is depicted in softly colored illustrations by Elizabeth Wolf.
Elements of the Exodus story can be frightening for children ages 4–8, but in this telling of a traditional tale, facing fears pays off. Nachson, Who Was Afraid to Swim: A Passover Story, by Deborah Bodin Cohen and illustrated by Jago, is a retelling of the rabbinic story of Nachshon ben Aminadav, who had to wade into the Red Sea until the water was up to his neck, in order to make the waters part and let the Israelites to escape the Egyptians on dry land. In the gentle illustrations, the characters’ features and skin tones blend and shift with the background, giving the book warmth and no clear racial focus.
Children ages 9–12 who are reading on their own may enjoy Private Joel and the Swell Mountain Seder, by Bryna J. Fireside and illustrated by Shawn Costello. Set in the Civil War, it tells the story of how Union soldiers improvise to make their Seder happen, even in the midst of a war. While not raising the possibility that there are Jews with dark skin and of African decent, the story does highlight the parallels between the African American experience of slavery and the ancient Israelite experience. The book shines a light on the possibility of sharing stories and traditions.
Charoset is the star of the seder plate. Amidst the parsley leafs and lamb shanks, this sweet sticky treat teases and tantalizes as we make our way through the story telling. Charoset recalls the mortar used by the Israelites when they were slaves. Jews, spread over the four corner of the earth, and brought the story of the Exodus and the celebration of Passover to every land.
With time, the recipes for Charoset reflected local ingredients and tastes. Whether you make one, two or all of the seven classic and modern recipes we have collected, we doubt that you will be able to wait until the seder to taste these outstanding Charoset!
Uganda: Tziporah Sizomu’s Charoset Recipe
Tziporah Sizomu is a leader in the Abayudaya community in Uganda. Passover is an especially meaningful holiday for the Abayudaya. Her husband Gershom is the community rabbi and Tziporah is responsible for the Shabbat and holiday meals that are eaten together by the Abayudaya as a community. Apples are expensive, as they must be imported from South Africa, while peanuts, known as groundnuts, are local to Uganda. This Charoset makes a fabulous spread for Matzah all week long! (Note: peanuts are legumes and there are some Jews who do not eat them during Passover. They can be replaced them with cashews.)
4 cups roasted peanuts
3 apples, chopped fine
2 bananas, chopped into small pieces
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup sweet wine
Grind the peanuts in a blender and place them in a medium-sized bowl. Rural Ugandans use a mortar and pestle. They don’t have blenders as very few have electricity.
Mix with the chopped apples and bananas.
Add the wine and stir.
Add the honey and mix everything together. (If it isn’t thick enough, add more peanuts)
Syria: Meil Family Recipe, Charoset Halebieh
Originally from Philadelphia, Heather and Jason Meil have been living in the Bay Area for the past 10 years and are active members at Oakland’s Temple Sinai. This recipe was passed down from Jason’s great-grandmother, Jammila Dweck Marcus who was born in Allepo, Syria to his grandmother, Leah (born in the Sudan) to his mother, Joan. It has been in the family for generations and makes an appearance yearly at the Meil seder.
3 pounds pitted dates
1 cup sweet red wine
1 t ground cinnamon (optional)
1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
Put the dates in a medium saucepan with enough water to cover.
Bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer.
Stir frequently, until the dates are soft.
Pass the date mixture through a strainer or a rotary grader. A food processor may also be used.
Before serving, add the wine, cinnamon and walnuts and mix thoroughly.
Greece: Traditional Greek Recipe
Sarah Aroeste’s familial roots in Greece trace all the way back to the expulsion of Jews from Spain. A vocal artist, she has dedicated her career to modernizing Ladino classics and creating new music that captures the vibrancy of the Sephardic experience. For Passover, she draws on traditional Greek customs and makes this fruity recipe that gets its punch from a variety of spices.
1 cup black currants, finely chopped
1 cup raisins, finely chopped
1 cup dates, finely chopped and then mashed (if they are very dry soak them in boiling water for 10 minutes)
Pinch of grated orange rind
Cinnamon, allspice, cloves, nutmeg to taste
Sweet red wine
Chop all the ingredients as fine as possible.
Mash them into a paste in a mortar and pestle. Or briefly process in food processor.
Moisten as necessary with the red wine.
Makes 3 cups
Guatemala, Two Ways: Modern Twist
The members of Adat Shalom, Guatemala’s only Reform community have created a unique take on Charoset. It was a big hit at last year’s seder in Guatemala City and it will be at yours too.
4 apples, peeled, cored, and finely chopped
1/2 cup sweet red wine (such as Manischewitz)
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3 tablespoon maple syrup
5 oz of refried red beans
4 oz of chopped almonds
Chop the apples by hand as finely as possible and press them with a fork.
Add the rest of the ingredients. mixing everything well.
Beans should be added at the end, depending on how juicy the apple is so that the charoset thicken.
After plating, add a little of the almonds as decoration.
Brenda Rosenbaum’s Charoset
Brenda Rosenbaum, is the founder of Mayan Hands. She grew up in Guatemala and left as a young adult due to the civil war. Her family is half Ashkenazi and half Sephardic. Her mother lives in Guatemala City and this is her recipe. This recipe came via Ilana Schatz of Fair Trade Judaica.
1 pound dates
2 granny smith apples
1 cup chopped nuts (macadamia nuts are native to Guatemala)
Soak dates in hot water for a few hours.
Drain the dates but put them in the food processor but don’t process them completely, leave some chunks in it.
Peal and cut apples into one inch chunks.
Put apple pieces in pan, and bring to boil with a bit of water. Simmer until they become puree.
Mix dates and apples.
Add cinnamon to taste, sweet wine.
Just prior to serving add chopped nuts.
Cuba: Mango and Pineapple Charoset Balls
For Jennifer “The Cuban Reuben” Stempel blogging about food allows her to explore her twin Jewish and Cuban heritages. This Cuban Charoset is her own invention inspired by the island flavors that influence so much of her cooking. While most Charoset is served as a paste, Stempel drew on the Sephardic tradition of making Charoset into small balls for this unique take on a classic dish.
5oz dried unsweetened mango, coarsely chopped
8oz dried unsweetened pineapple, coarsely chopped
½ cup almond slivers, toasted
2 cups shredded coconut, toasted and separated
In a small bowl, soak the mango in hot water for ½ hour.
Drain well, and add to a food processor. Add pineapple, almonds, and 1 cup of the coconut to the mango in the food processor, and pulse only until the mixture starts to form a ball. There should still be some visible chunks.
Form the mixture into bite-sized balls, and set atop a pan lined with wax paper.
In a small bowl, add the last cup of shredded coconut. Roll the balls in the coconut until they are lightly coated, and return them to the wax paper.
Refrigerate the balls for 1 hour or until set.
United States: Rabbi Ruth’s Charoset Recipe
One of the joys of Jewish life in America is the diversity not only of the community but also of the ingredients from around the world that are at our fingertips. This recipe draws on traditional as well as exotic flavors. Sweet with a touch of the sour with a red tinge which reminds us of the mixed emotions with which we greet our freedom, always recalling the hard work and suffering that preceded the Exodus.
1 cup dried figs
1 cup dried apricots
1 cup roasted hazelnuts
1 large or 2 small whole blood oranges
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses (available at Middle Eastern markets)
Additional orange juice as needed
Cut blood oranges into quarters or chunks depending on size.
Place all the ingredients except the orange juice in food processor
Pulse until mixture resembles a paste.
If mixture is too dry add a tablespoon of additional orange juice and pulse again.
Repeat until the mixture is moist.