Jewish& is a blog by Be’chol Lashon, which gives voice to the racial, ethnic and cultural diversity of Jewish identity and experience. The original multicultural people, Jews have lived around the world for millennia. Today, with globalism and inclusion so key in making choices about engaging in Jewish life,Jewish& provides a forum for personal reflection, discussion, and debate.
What could be funnier than a black man marrying a white woman?
Before you say “Loving v. Virginia,” hold on, there’s more: Make that a white Jewish woman. Isn’t that a stitch?
If same-sex marriage in Alabama hasn’t convinced you we might actually be in 2015, the premiere of the Lifetime reality show, Kosher Soul, arrives Feb. 25 to dutifully turn back the clock.
“Opposites attract,” the show’s promos blare, suggesting the protagonists might just be different species. A freelance stylist, Miriam Sternoff, 38, grew up Jewish in Seattle. O’Neal McKnight, 39, her stand-up comedian fiancé, is African American from Lynchburg, S.C. With cameras following their every antic, the pair slapstick their cultures together on the way to their wedding day.
“The fact that I’m wearing a yarmulke, it shouldn’t be a problem for Miriam to wear a grill,” McKnight says, explaining the bejeweled dental appliance’s deep spiritual significance to black America by declaring: “Martin Luther King had a grill.”
He didn’t mention Justin Bieber. But it goes on.
“When you marry a man like O’Neal, you gotta make certain sacrifices,” Sternoff says in her concession to preparing unkosher food. “If he wants me to fry up some catfish real quick, I’m going to fry it up because he has made huge compromises for me.”
One of those is McKnight’s conversion to Judaism, including an adult bris (symbolic circumcision), done to prove his love for her and appease his mother-in-law. In return, she accompanies his family to church and actually buys the grill, though secretly vows never to wear it.
All the while, he calls her white and gives her lectures on black culture (black people don’t go to the beach), punctuated with jokes about Stevie Wonder driving and starving kids in Africa with flies on their faces.
Is this offensive?
Yes, but not for its unfunny attempts at humor. Nor am I the only one suggesting the show is just more of the same old black and Jewish stereotypes, packaged as a “docu-sitcom.” To a person, those in my circle of African American Jews who’ve heard of the show have questioned its portrayal of the match as a freak show oddity.
It wasn’t news 65 years ago, when my mother of Western European Jewish descent married my Baptist (though atheist) African American father. It’s barely a blip on the post-racial radar screen today. According to Be’chol Lashon, 20 percent of American Jews are of color or of similarly diverse heritage.
As anyone who says “blacks and Jews” should be reminded, the two terms aren’t mutually exclusive. Judaism knows no race and black people come in every religion, and to be both is to be 100 percent of each.
Surprisingly, and off-camera, the couple agrees.
“I like that,” Sternoff says of the duality that describes her husband and hoped-for children, echoed by McKnight: “I like that a lot.”
In the real world of a cross-country phone interview to Los Angeles, where they now live, the couple departs from their reality-show personas, with McKnight clarifying he did not convert solely for her. In South Carolina, he’d never met a Jew or spoken to an Asian person, he says, a cloistered world that changed when he moved to New York.
“I was around a lot of different cultures, a lot of different people, and I just really was drawn into Judaism,” he says. “For me, the thing about Judaism, it’s mostly a tug of war between you and God. You’re supposed to ask questions. You’re supposed to be intrigued and curious. And the way I was brought up (as Methodist) was ‘this is what it is, you don’t doubt it, you don’t question it.’”
That intrigue led him to consider converting before even meeting his future wife, he says.
For her part, with skin Kardashian tan or a shade darker (and virtually the same as McKnight’s black former girlfriend), Sternoff has also examined her identity.
“When people ask me what’s my nationality, it’s because I look more ethnic,” she says. “The first thing I say is ‘I’m Jewish.’ And then people say, ‘Yeah, I get it, but you look like you’re Hispanic or something else.’ So I always then follow it up with my background is Russian.”
Depending on who’s asking and their level of persistence, she may say she’s white. “It’s a tricky thing,” she says. “Jews, we think of ourselves as kind of a whole separate entity.”
So if she’s perceived as “other” and they’re both practicing Jews (his conversion was Conservative), is there a story here without playing to stereotypes? Two Jews get married. So what?
“I would dispute that it is stereotypes. I think that Miriam and O’Neal are who they are,” Michael Hirschorn, the show’s executive producer, says from New York, acknowledging dialogue like “I want to have Shabbat dinner with my Jewish husband”/“But she’s going to have sex with a black man.”
“Saying ‘this is a stereotype’ and ‘this is not a stereotype’ gets you into kind of a Talmudic cul-de-sac,” he argued.
Perhaps, but there are guides for the perplexed, the obvious being other Black Jews who can clearly tell you what’s over the top. Hollywood has many — from director Chris Erskin to rapper Drake to actress Rashida Jones — though Hirschorn (who is Jewish and not black, and has a co-producer who is black and not Jewish) says he doesn’t know any.
Still, he concedes that Kosher Soul and its “opposites attract” tagline capitalize on seemingly incompatible differences.
“I don’t want to be too coy because obviously that is the name of the show and that’s the way it’s being pushed,” he says. “I think that (when you) watch the show, there’s just a lot of pleasure in it.”
There certainly is in the story of how the couple met, in New York nine years ago when McKnight was a personal stylist to Sean “Puffy” Combs and Sternoff was freelancing in the same field.
It was in an elevator. He was impressed by her pixie cut. She could not help but notice him.
“I literally was holding two little poodles under my arms,” McKnight explains, dogs belonging to Combs that he’d been asked to retrieve.
Or so he says.
“Right!” Sternoff responds, laughing at the suggestion that maybe it was a ploy. “He was riding, literally up and down, up and down, waiting for the perfect girl to come on. You know, I have to say, if that’s what he was doing, I’m glad he was there.”
It’s a wonderfully charming story but it’s nowhere in the show. Not surprising: It’s reality, not reality TV.
Pronounced: briss, Origin: Yiddish, Jewish circumcision ceremony for an 8-day-old boy, marking the covenant between God and the Jews. This term is short (and uses the Yiddish pronunciation) for brit milah, which means covenant of circumcision.
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.