Author Archives: Robin Washington

Robin Washington

About Robin Washington

Robin Washington is Be'chol Lashon Research Fellow living in Duluth, Minnesota. Born in Chicago to a family of African American and Jewish civil rights activists, he was the first recipient of the Be'chol Lashon Media Award and has received numerous other journalism honors, including for his landmark documentary on the origins of the Civil Rights Movement.

How Kosher is “Kosher Soul?”

©2015 A&E Television Networks, LLC. All rights reserved. Photo Credit: Richard Knapp

©2015 A&E Television Networks, LLC. All rights reserved.
Photo Credit: Richard Knapp

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.

©2015 A&E Television Networks, LLC. All rights reserved. Photo Credit: Richard Knapp

©2015 A&E Television Networks, LLC. All rights reserved.
Photo Credit: Richard Knapp

“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.

©2015 A&E Television Networks, LLC. All rights reserved. Photo Credit: Richard Knapp

©2015 A&E Television Networks, LLC. All rights reserved.
Photo Credit: Richard Knapp

Posted on February 23, 2015

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Does “Selma” Deserve an Oscar? Ask Butch and Sundance

butchWith the Wild West fading and the railway men closing in, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid head for the untamed terrain of Bolivia to continue a string of bank and payroll robberies, (spoiler alert) only to meet their end when an entire army descends on them

Except it didn’t happen that way. It was Argentina, not Bolivia, where they lived as comfortable ranchers for a few years until Pinkerton’s finally caught up with them, leading to a single, less-than-successful jaunt to Bolivia for a holdup that culminated in a murder-suicide at their own hands.

I cite that from among thousands of kinda-based-on-a-true-story movies because it’s history we all think we know that’s accepted as close enough. Yet the controversy over the historical retelling du jour, Selma, isn’t going away — not with the Oscar ceremony on Feb. 22, six remaining days of Black History Month after that, and the 50th anniversary of the actual Selma marches on March 7, 9 and 21-25 yet to come.

Among outrages that have poured in so far are that it improperly depicted an adversarial relationship between President Johnson and Martin Luther King, that Jewish participation in the Selma voting rights campaign was airbrushed out, and that Coretta Scott King was portrayed as something less than a strong, powerful partner to her husband.

Historians do treat Johnson kinder than director Ava DuVernay did. It’s a bit hard, though, to buy the assertion by former LBJ aide Joseph Califano in a Washington Post commentary that the president, not King, hand-picked Selma as a Neanderthal outpost guaranteed to deliver televised violence against blacks trying to register to vote. It’s possible Johnson believed he did; one tactic used by Jim Farmer and George Houser, King’s predecessors in the movement, was that a sure-fire way to get buy-in on a campaign was to let others think it was their idea.

The film’s failure to clearly depict Jewish activists is a curious omission, particularly in leaving out Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who walked side-by-side with King in Selma. That’s particularly noticeable because it goes out of its way to show King greeting Greek Orthodox Archbishop Iakovos, though not by name. Actually, I applaud that scene. Elsewhere in the movie, the dialogue is painfully stilted when characters introduce themselves by slowly pronouncing their credentials or affiliations, like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — far better known as SNCC (pronounced snick) to anyone remotely familiar with the movement.

And if no kippot are shown gracing the heads of background characters, I can deal with that. It hardly means Jews weren’t there — or for that matter, that they were exclusively among the white marchers. A major leader of SNCC leading up to the Selma campaign was Charles McDew, described by fellow activist Bob Moses as “black by birth, a Jew by choice and a revolutionary by necessity.”

So movie history is spoon-fed and facts moved around. Why does Selma spark such calls for accuracy and inclusion?

In part, it’s because this history is recent, with many of the participants still alive. It’s also because Selma is an ultimate good-and-evil battle, and everyone whose group was anywhere near the good side demands recognition. Even the son of segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace has complained that Dad didn’t really want his state troopers to bash anyone’s head in as they’re shown doing with glee.

To that, DuVernay did well to ignore the revisionists, and go with the artistic license of movie-making, just as a thousand other directors have before her.

If you want a more historically accurate, and harrowing, account of Selma told through primary source interviews of the people who lived it — including segregationists Sheriff Jim Clark and Mayor Joseph Smitherman — find a copy or download “Eyes on the Prize Episode 6: Bridge to Freedom,” (as of this writing on youtube, though likely to be removed for copyright issues.) Every bit as compelling as the movie, it too received an Academy Award nomination, for Best Documentary in 1988, though producers Callie Crossley and James A. DeVinney fell short of taking home an Oscar.

And if you want an accurate telling of Butch and Sundance, check out the excellent American Experience documentary by the same name that aired last year, though it didn’t make the Oscar hunt.

The Butch Cassidy movie did win several in 1970, including for best original screenplay — a perfectly appropriate honor for a Hollywood rewrite of history.

Best picture for Selma? That’s not a stretch, either.

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Posted on February 9, 2015

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Lessons from Catholic Mass for Rosh Hashanah

Mass4

Growing up in a very Reform household, I was never completely comfortable at the prospect of being called to the bima for an honor.

Until I attended Mass. Most every Sunday, for more than a year.

washington_03_72dpiThe reason wasn’t religious, but journalistic; as part of the Boston Herald’s “God Squad” a dozen years ago, covering the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal. I was initially hesitant, not wanting to encroach on the sacred space of the then-archbishop, Bernard Cardinal Law, regardless of his misdeeds. But I soon became familiar with the liturgy, including parts that might yield news—such as when he failed to annunciate “the victims of clergy sexual abuse” among those for whom he offered intentions.

I established my own rhythm for the flow of the service, determining when appropriate to sit or stand (but never kneeling.) One instance was comical: Law had just said something interesting before the Eucharistic Prayer and I hurriedly completed my notes while sitting, then jumped up. The press gallery, by that point used to following my lead, all rose with me.

And then there was the time when a TV reporter who shared my first name took the pew next to me. We were two Robins watching a cardinal.

Most extraordinary was the Sunday that Law departed from what I would presume to be Catholic orthodoxy to articulate a very familiar passage: That for transgressions against God, the gates of repentance are always open, but for sins against your fellow human, you must seek forgiveness from that person.

Huh? I thought—that’s straight out of the High Holiday prayer book, and not quite consistent with the concept of priestly confession.

Abuse victims who regularly protested outside the cathedral heard word of it too, some immediately getting in line to be served the Eucharist by Law. “Forgive me,” he said as he recognized each.

It was a moving moment, though not enough to undo the years of pain and trauma, nor keep it from continuing throughout the church today.

If Law had gone rogue religiously, it wasn’t the only time the service went off-script. I noticed minor differences on occasion, including once when chimes didn’t sound as the wafer was broken.

“Does that mean transubstantiation didn’t occur?” I asked a priest friend afterward, not at all in jest or meant to insult.

“It’s just for show,” he said with a wink—referring to the chimes, I assume, not the transformation.

In that spirit I began to notice we too made mistakes in shul. Despite being in one of the colder places on Earth, Duluth’s Temple Israel is the warmest I’ve ever been a part of, and its small congregation is quite willing to inform the rabbi—lovingly so—if he’s on the wrong page, or if the gabbai has passed someone by.

So it’s easy to stand on the bima now, knowing any worship is anything but perfect. What matters is not how beautifully you say words or prayers, but how real you make them in the rest of your life; through actions to repair the world, for love and peace, justice and life.

My honor this year is calling the shofar sounds, and I’ll be thinking of those aspirations as I say tekiah, shevarim, teruah, tekiah gedolah, even if there are other, more accurate interpretations.

I’ll try to pronounce them right. But if not, it’s no cardinal sin.

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Posted on September 4, 2014

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Tikkun Olam on Juneteenth

juneteenth

African American Men’s Group members Carl Crawford, left, and Phil Allen prepare burgers for a free meal for 400 as part of Duluth, Minnesota’s annual Juneteenth celebration. The event commemorates the emancipation of American slaves but also marks the delay in telling them of their freedom. Photo by Ivy Vainio.

Despite the fact that it’s a celebration, I have bittersweet feelings about Juneteenth.

Its origins are traced to Union troops arriving in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, bringing the news of freedom to that region’s slaves—months after the South’s surrender and 2-1/2 years past the Emancipation Proclamation.

That our ancestors were freed from slavery is wonderful. But that they toiled and lived, if they were lucky enough to, a bonus round in bondage because no one got around to telling them the news is horrible. Cynical. Sad.

My own experience for 10 years running is with the African American Men’s Group in Duluth. Every year, we cook and serve more than 400 free meals at the city’s public commemoration of the day.

We’re there because we want to be, the value of our volunteering made ever clear by the heart-rending encounters—especially when the day is marred by rain or unseasonable cold—of those who wait in line a half-hour or more, who are there because they have to be, to eat.

For me, another part of Juneteenth is planning of the event—should we do chicken this year or burgers and brats? — and when the day comes, the priceless faces of preschoolers when asked if they want baked beans or corn. The thank-yous we get in return are payment enough.

Add in singing groups and family activities and a bouncy castle, how could you not have fun? Still, what tinges the day with sadness for me is not its commemoration but its origin, best summed up in two words of black vernacular guaranteed to give any wannabe Chris Rock a field day:

“We free?”

It’s not the embarrassment of the language but the concept of its truth that depresses me. It wasn’t the first time slaves were deceived about their freedom, and not just in the South. Here in Minnesota, as far North as you can get, Dred Scott summered with his so-called master, only to be told by others after returning to Missouri: “Hey—did you know you were free when you were up there?”

That’s what the whole case was about. Look it up.

We free yet, boss?

Maybe I’m just a stick in the mud, or over-internalizing long-ago oppression. Of course freedom is worth celebrating, even if slavery ended with a whimper instead of a bang. That, after all, is what Passover is about, and there’s no question that holiday is a celebration and should be.

But the Jewish liberation theology had a liberator—Moses—let alone God, “with a mighty hand and outstretched sword.” Freed African Americans had only weary Union soldiers mustering out, an assassinated Great Emancipator, and Radical Republicans thwarted by a racist and intransigent Supreme Court. And instead of reaching the Promised Land, black former slaves arrived in the land of Jim Crow, with continued state-sponsored dehumanization.

The result? It’s in the faces of hungry people today, in food lines like ours, where I celebrate freedom and try to repair the world by taking my place in a serving line.

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Posted on June 16, 2014

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How Much is Dayenu? $35

DayenuIt was at his older brother’s bar mitzvah that 9-year-old Josh Levy gave the answer to a question we all wanted to know:

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.

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Posted on April 14, 2014

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Esther’s Secret Identity

Robin Washington

Robin Washington

Several years ago, I started a new job in a new city and wanted to check out a local synagogue. A co-worker, Francine, also Jewish though less practicing than me, came along for the ride.

“One thing,” I told her before we went in. “Don’t tell them we’re Jewish.”

She agreed. Then promptly blew it.

“Hi. We’re both Jewish and my friend just moved to town, and…”

What I had wanted to know was how they would perceive me: bi-racial and not easily ethnically identifiable, and with a surname rapidly becoming recognized as the blackest in America. (I also thought a covert operation might help in finding out if new members were to be socked with a building fund.)

Jews have been traveling incognito centuries, though not necessarily undercover from other Jews. From Crypto-Jews to escapees from the pogroms and the Holocaust, it’s a story of survival that encompasses every permutation of identity, secret or otherwise. Clark Kent may not have been Jewish, but who can say about Superman?

And then there’s Esther, whose beauty so strikes King Ahasuerus of Persia that he marries her without even asking what religion she is (who performed that ceremony?) Though her cousin and legal guardian Mordecai seems to be the most public Jew in Persia, the king never connects those dots, and Mordecai instructs her to stay mum. Full disclosure comes only after Haman plots to kill all Jews, including, he learns too late, the king’s beloved wife.

I’ve never been sure what to make of the Purim story. It and the Song of Songs are the only two books in the Torah in which God doesn’t make an appearance. Maybe it’s something about kings falling in love with beautiful women.

More likely the message is “don’t be prejudiced,” with which I agree, and “or else,” which I find more troubling: The hanging of Haman, his 10 sons, and the slaying of 75,000 others is more than a little excessive. Sounding a noisemaker is one thing. Decimating a population the size of Evanston, Ill., is another.

All this, and the Jews’ subsequent good fortune under Ahasuerus, is made possible by Esther’s timing in outing herself. Had she made that revelation earlier, Haman — if he had exercised more opportunism than racism — could have done away with Mordecai and not the rest of the Jews. But because she waited we saw his true colors.

I’ve experienced something like that: white people saying the n-word in front of me, and Jews using schwartze, not knowing I’m black; blacks speaking derisively of Jews unaware of that part of my heritage. I’m happy to say it happens infrequently these days, but maybe less because of improved racial understanding than the way I pre-empt it by introducing myself: “Hi, I’m Robin Washington. I’m a Black Jew.”

Still, there are other times when it’s best to let my ethnic ambiguity speak for itself. Not to hide anything, just not volunteering; and with race an illusion created by humans, letting people draw whatever conclusion they want.

That also works with my name, by the way. A surefire sign that someone doesn’t know me is when I get a letter or email addressed to “Ms. Robin Washington.”

She sounds lovely, but I doubt as beautiful as Esther.

Posted on March 11, 2014

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