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:
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.
For many, Father’s Day is a time to honor our fathers, and this year, it has particular significance to my family. After my dad, Alan Skobin, survived an emotional battle with a rare form of pancreatic cancer, I am thrilled we get another opportunity to celebrate such an extraordinary man.
When life gives my dad lemons, he isn’t the type to make the tried-and-true lemonade you can get anywhere. He’s the one who turns them into world-class lemon meringue pie. He’s always reaching for the next level, his motto being, “Above and beyond.” He began his involvement with law enforcement as a teenager in the police explorers program, and continued to show his commitment to protecting and serving our community by ultimately finishing as police commissioner. My dad takes this philosophy when it comes to parenting, too. When I attended Northwestern University, he nearly bought out every Northwestern retailer, so he could sport purple pride from every inch of his body, every corner of his office, and every crevice of our home. That’s how proud he was.
This is why he has so many friends. In fact, my dad is a professional friend collector. Everywhere we go, he either makes new friends or runs into old ones. Once, while walking down the streets of Amsterdam, my dad heard someone in the distance shouting, “Hey, Alan!” Even clear across the world, people look for opportunities to call him out as a friend. His old friends, like my father-in-law, Larry, know that he does anything to bring them joy. Since Larry loves all things Chicago Cubs, my dad once arranged for Larry’s favorite ballplayer, Ernie Banks, to come for dinner, just to see the grin on Larry’s face.
I am never more thankful for my dad’s army of friends than when he is sick, because they play a significant role in his recovery. I remember one of the earlier times we dealt with a medical obstacle. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and if he survived, we were to expect a completely different man than we knew and loved. Before surgery, the phone rang off the hook and the doorbell chimed endlessly, as all his friends shared their prayers for a speedy recovery. Regardless of differing religious beliefs, “We’re praying for you, Alan” replaced good-bye as the normal send off. I’m not certain that G-d heard these prayers, but my dad did, and at recovery’s toughest moments, they reminded him that he was important to many. Miraculously, he recovered with minimal side effects. This year, as my dad fought pancreatic cancer, my brother and I used social media to update his community. With every post, the support was astounding. As my dad awakened from surgery, amazed that he had survived, he groggily exclaimed to my mom, “Can you imagine the power of prayer?” Afterwards, while he rested in bed, we read him the online responses, and his spirits lifted as he drifted to sleep.
It takes a village to battle serious health issues, and sometimes those of us who acutely support the sick need lifting, too. My mother’s devotion to my dad never waned, and she stayed with him in the hospital even when it was unclear how long his stay would be. She never left his side, and would advocate for him when he wasn’t able to do so for himself. This type of support takes both physical and emotional strength, and as my dad found his through the prayers of his supporters, so did my mom. Stoically, I comforted my family, voicing confidence in our doctors, as we remained publicly optimistic, but privately feared the worst. I learned quickly that the way to excellent post-operative care was through the stomachs of the nursing staff, and I stopped at our favorite Cuban bakery for some treats.
I also prayed. Seeking comfort in the traditions of Judaism, I never missed a Shabbat service. One of the most poignant moments of Shabbat for me is when the rabbi circles the room during the mi shebeirach, or prayer for healing, and the congregants voice the names of the ill. At one particular service, I was ready to say my dad’s name, but before the rabbi reached me, I heard his name called by someone across the room. I felt the power of the prayers reaching me, and for the first time, I cried.
Because of my dad’s army, I understand that his significance goes above and beyond his role as father to my brother and me. He is also a loving husband, a wise grandfather, a giving mentor, and most of all, a good friend. This father’s day, as I reflect on the lives my dad has touched, I will include the other men who have influenced me, and send them a meaningful prayer. After all, you never know who’s listening.
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What makes a fish taste Jewish?
For some, the immediate answer will be pickling and a former home in freshwater. For others, the fish must be salmon-colored and, of course, smoked. For others still, Jewish fish is carp—poached, sweet, and served cold. For Jews in Jamaica, however, the fish will be whole and therefore small. Lightly fried, it will then soak in vinegar with thin slices of white onion and habanero peppers, grated carrot, sprigs of thyme, whole coriander seeds, and allspice balls. For the Jewish Colombians, add lemon.
What accounts for the range?
When describing how Jewish communities have embraced or resisted being changed when making homes in new and different circumstances, commentators typically turn to the metaphor of the bubble or the sponge.
In the first, a fragile and transparent but definite outer boundary insulates the (singular) Jewish community. It can see out and be seen but moves intact through a range of times and places. The bubble would burst if it actually landed and so Jewish people remain Jewish by avoiding becoming like others in their midst.
In the second model, we Jews are defined by our porousness, by unqualifiedly absorbing whatever is in proximity to us. The absence of any outer boundary amounts to an essential orientation of assimilation and openness. Who we are, in terms of any specific content, necessarily shifts with the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
But there is and has been another alternative, one evident in the range of ways to make your fish taste Jewish and in cookbooks like Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York.
Called creolization, it offers a more accurate account of how Jewish communities have remained distinctively Jewish as they have become local to a variety of different parts of the globe. As my husband, Lewis Gordon, often emphasizes: for non-Eastern European Jews, Eastern European Jews seem very Eastern European. For non-Indian Jews, Cochim appear very Indian. But these ways of being local are salient precisely because we also recognize the Jewishness of and in each.
For those who understand Jewish strength as purity and any break from how things were done as dilution or pollution, the historical range of ways of being Jewish is a liability. For them, to be Jewish is to carry on the one, most familiar branch of a far vaster Jewish genealogical tree—to taste Jewish, the fish will be poached and served cold.
But there is also a way of being who we are in and through our relations with others. We might best express core Jewish values by adopting symbols and elements of ritual local to Istanbul, Albuquerque, or Kaifeng, Prague, Mbale, or Santiago. These might offer us the possibility of continuing who we have been through what is new.
Products of creolization typically pose a fundamental challenge to our previous self-understandings. They unsettle us because while they implicate us as Jews—they too are expressions of who we are—they take forms and suggest future trajectories that our standard conceptions of our people’s past and present would not have anticipated.
What is novel is the opportunity to look into the refracted mirror of our 21st-century community and to grapple with what it means for who we want to become. We would do well to add to the models of the bubble and sponge, the creolizing quality of our Jewish past and present.
According to Jewish tradition, the Torah has seventy “faces,” but is still one, unified Torah. On Shavuot, we celebrate the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai with customs that celebrate the gift of Torah, and show the same diverse presentation of a few unifying core ideas. Each Jewish culture is unique, and at the same time, integrated with the worldwide Jewish community.
There are many special foods for Shavuot, in different Jewish cultures. Dairy is popular because, when the Israelites in the desert received the Torah, including the kosher laws, there was no kosher meat yet available. Torah is compared to honey, so many traditional Shavuot foods are sweet, as well. Persian Jews make “Polao mastin” a dish made of rice and milk, and “koltcha shiri,” a dairy cake, while in Greece there is a special dairy porridge made with cinnamon called “sutlag.” In Poland, cheesecake is the traditional Shavuot dessert. Libyan Jews make necklaces strung with cookies or pretzels in symbolic shapes for their children. Iraqi Jews make “sambusak,” a savory pastry filled with cheese. The exact details of the menu are fluid—any interpretation of a dairy meal and dessert would be appropriate. This is an excellent opportunity to try out a new recipe, symbolic of our renewed relationship with Torah, or to take the time for an old family favorite, to celebrate your roots.
It is common for communities to prepare their synagogues for Shavuot with natural decorations. Greek Jews historically decorated their synagogues with green branches and a variety of flowers. Even today Bukharan Jews use red roses. In Poland, synagogues were decorated with flowers, branches, and paper cuttings called “reizelach,” or roses, in Yiddish. German Jews would place two flowering branches on either side of the Ark, as a symbol that Torah is our Tree of Life. Consider decorating your synagogue or home with local, in season, flowers and greenery.
Traditional communities hold a “Tikkun Leil Shavuot,” a nighttime Torah study session which can last anywhere from a couple of hours to all night long. In some communities this is held in the synagogue, while in others, it is located private homes. People may recite specific passages from different traditional texts, while others prepare different topics, which change from year to year. Study is a potent way of renewing our understanding of Torah.
Shavuot is full of opportunities for communal gatherings and fun. Libyan and Moroccan Jews spray water onto passersby, because the Torah is compared to water, and our reconnection to Torah is a source of blessing. Ethiopian Jews gather together, bringing bread and other grains for the Kes, their religious leader, to bless, after which the entire community eats together. On some Israeli Kibbutzim, people have revived the agrarian side of Shavuot and have a parade with baskets of the first produce of the season. Whether you want to make a meal with seasonal produce, or have a picnic and water balloon fight, you will be in good company among the global Jewish community.
Around the world, Jews celebrate Shavuot in a variety of ways—but at their root, they come back to the same sources and the same ideas. It celebrates the diverse ways in which we relate to Torah, all of which are true, just as we have diverse ways of celebrating, all of which are the real Jewish way to do things. One thing is for certain—whichever way you choose to celebrate Shavuot this year, you will meet one of Torah’s seventy faces.
Mom. Mommy. Ima. Madre. Mother. No matter how many ways I say it, the concept still catches me by surprise sometimes. I am a mother now. Up until 7 months ago when someone would ask me a defining attribute of myself, I would have said I’m a Ladino singer. That’s what I do; that’s what I am.
Being a Ladino singer has always been more than an occupation for me—it’s the fabric of my identity. Its roots run deeply through me—it’s a responsibility I have to my Sephardic ancestors to keep their traditions and stories alive and to make sure they get passed on to future generations. And now I am responsible for a member of that future generation. I am a Ladino singer, and a mother.
As I look at my beautiful daughter now, I have been asking myself how I want to transmit my family tradition to her. What part of my Sephardic heritage do I want to pass down? Do I try to speak to her in Ladino, aware that she will have few people to speak it with as she grows older? Do I sing her Ladino songs each night so they get planted into her subconscious?
There is no doubt being a mother has already changed my performance repertoire. Although I pride myself on writing original music in Ladino, I have recently added a song into my sets that hails from the traditional canon. “Durme, Durme” is a song about how your heart actually aches when you watch over a loved one as (s)he sleep, because all you want now is to protect him/her from ever feeling sorrow.
Sleep, sleep beautiful one
Sleep without worry or sorrow.
Here is your slave whose only desire is
To watch over your sleep with the greatest of love
As time goes by my heart aches
With the love I have for you
Listen, listen my love
Listen to the song of my heartache.
“Durme, Durme” has quickly become one of my favorite, and defining, songs for me. Performing this beloved Sephardic song connects me firmly to my tradition, and now that I picture my baby girl as I sing it, also lets me think about my future. I want my daughter to sleep without worry or sorrow that she will feel disconnected to her past. I want her always to know the beauty of her heritage. And of course, I want her to know that I, her mother, will always be there for her with love and song.
It’s hard to kvetch about being a Japanese Jew when you’re being spoiled by ladles of chicken schmaltz spoon-fed to you by your father, while your mother asks if you would like some more teriyaki sauce on your beef yakitori.
And did I mention my parents arguing about whether both challah and rice should be served at every meal?
Let’s just say they both usually got their way, which was a good thing. What’s not to love about a dinner table with both borscht soup and miso soup, alongside beef brisket, sashimi and some latkes just for good measure?
While that may sound like an overly-exotic combination for some, the sharing of cultural recipes passed down from both cultural sides is what brought us closer together as a family.
As a kid, I assumed everyone had parents who debated whether lox or sautéed salmon was the healthier choice well before “Omega-3 Fatty acids” was ever a religion, while I enjoyed both macaroons and mochi balls for dessert.
And the generation of food-love didn’t end with my parents. My Jewish grandfather “Booby” made a hearty feast of sweet and sour cabbage stew. And my Japanese grandma “Hatsuyo” was known for her Sukiyaki, also known as “steamboat cooking,” made with beef, vegetables, soy sauce, sugar and sake.
Not so shabby.
You can bet my house was popular in my all-Jewish neighborhood. And I thought kids liked me for me. Who was I kidding? They just wanted to get closer to my mom’s home-cooking.
Word got around alright, and I couldn’t blame friends for wanting charoset and mandelbrodt served alongside chicken gyoza and udon noodles. And to make things brighter, my father was the resident stand-up comic with his borsht-belt humor and one-liners we awaited each night.
Dinnertime was “the time” we felt most connected; a moment when we could forget about the angst we often felt as a culturally blended family, in the days when interfaith families were far from being accepted.
Comedian Milton Berle once observed, “Any time a person goes into a delicatessen and orders a pastrami on white bread, somewhere a Jew dies.”
Uncle Milty, perhaps that once “seemed” to be the case, but today there are Jews who enjoy a much more diverse palette. For example, at a Japanese restaurant last week, there were more Jewish patrons who knew varieties of California rolls than I did.
Soy vey, this is a great thing.
Today, I am blessed with daughters of my own who I can lavish with tasty dishes that have been passed down from both sides of my food-obsessed family.
And yes, I will admit that I have officially become both my mother and my father, which used to be my greatest fear.
I recently guilted my older daughter when she wouldn’t eat my larger than usual matzah balls. Under my breath I muttered, “Is it too much to ask that you should want to eat your own mother’s food I spent all day cooking?”
And I channeled my father today when I asked my younger shayna maidel to tell jokes for people at the market, bribing her with some tasty knishes..
“Oh, don’t be such a nudge,” she said to me as she gave me a quick hug and prepared to deliver a joke that could rival my father’s.
This is bashert, I thought. Each generation carrying on traditions that can only be described as poignant and even sweeter than my famous babkas.
Below you will find two favorite family recipes. May you serve and enjoy eating them with your family and friends.
And if you don’t, no worries. I’ll just sit here in my kimono in the dark, eating a knish or two.
3 chicken thighs, or more if you’re real hungry, and cut into 1/2 inch pieces
3 packages of Udon noodles, preferable thawed
5 green onions, chopped fine on cut diagonally
2 Tbsp of soy sauce
1 teaspoon Table salt
4 cups Dashi, Japanese cooking stock
2 Tbsp Sake, if you’re on the wagon, you can omit!
A sprinkle or two of shichimi to taste, hot pepper condiment
2 Tbsp Mirin, a white rice wine
Fishcake, as many thin slices as your appetite suggests
Cooking preparations & instructions:
Lovingly gather a large pot, like you would for a hearty chicken noodle soup. Add Dashi to pot and bring to a hearty boil and add sake, salt, Mirin, soy sauce, and some words like “This is going to be the best Udon ever, because I made it.”
Bring to a simmer and slowly add chicken so as not to burn your hand, let simmer for 3 to four minutes.
Next, add all of the green onions for a zesty flavor, and the udon noodles as well.
For beauty and a delicious subtle flavor, add the pink and white fishcake to garnish each individual serving,
Now, happily call about four people in the house for a great dinner that will have them asking for more!
Grandfather Booby’s Sweet and Sour Cabbage Stew
2 pounds beef brisket
2 onions, chopped fine
1-quart broth (beef)
2 cups tomatoes
1-cup tomato sauce
1½ – 2 pounds cabbage, shredded fine
1 teaspoon salt
1-teaspoon ground pepper
2 tablespoons sugar
Extra ingredients such as potatoes, peas, and other vegetables can be added as well for variety.
Combine water, broth, and brisket in a large pot and bring to a boil, watching over carefully.
Simmer and add other ingredients, stir as needed and simmer with cover for two and a half to three hours until meat is tender and soft.
Happily sample the stew and add additional seasoning to taste. The stew is best when accompanied by bread, potatoes, rice, and sides of horseradish and salads.
Grandmother Hatsuyo’s Easy & Delicious Sukiyaki
1 cup water
2 pounds tender stew meat
1 teaspoon salt
¼-cup soy sauce
½-pound baby carrots
½-cup Japanese sake
3 potatoes, peeled and chopped
Extra ingredients such as peas, cabbage, and fish are delicious too!
Simply put all ingredients into crock-pot on high for 4-6 hours or on low for 10-12. Can also be cooked on low heat in a large pot or skillet on stove.
Great for freezing and reheating for all hungry family members and guests for both lunch and dinner.
I am remembering a Jewish Universal mother. This woman was small in stature yet grand in her effect. A mother of three boys, she was an extraordinarily beautiful, dark-skin Black Jewish woman who left the island of Jamaica in the late 1960s. She had only $5 in her pocket, but she was rich with perseverance. After spending some time with relatives, she found work and then secured a modest one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx, where she managed to reunite with her boys, and over the years, in several other apartments and then a small two-bedroom townhouse, the only home she ever owned, took care of many relatives, friends, and their children.
Always facing the brutality from those who saw a young black woman as there for the taking, she fought hard to maintain her dignity and that of others. She became a union representative at her job; an organizer for the Democratic Party; a fighter for community resources here and there; and so much more for so many. She was so proud the day she became a U.S. citizen. She was well aware of the nation’s racial and class contradictions. But she saw the best of what the country promised as something worth fighting for. She was not only a mother of three boys and then eventually a boy and girl whom she adopted but also a community’s mother. As Sinead O’Connor would say: a universal mother.
So many people reached to her in times of need. Her closest friend, who I also consider to be a universal mother, twenty years ago faced every mother’s greatest fear: Her son on his deathbed. He held on because he wanted to see his mother’s best friend, whom he called his aunt, before he passed. It was in the midst of a snowstorm, and although his aunt was afraid of flying and most flights were grounded, she managed to secure a chartered flight that took her to him a thousand miles away. He died in her arms within an hour of her arrival.
We could think of such mothers all across the globe who held together otherwise devastated communities. They embrace so many in arms that although comforting and empowering are also fragile and mortal. The woman to whom I dedicate this mother’s day died in an automobile accident en route to a birthday celebration for her eldest grandson. She received a funeral audience of nearly 2,000 people on short notice. Every one of them had a story of how she uniquely affected their life. Many called her their mother. Yet I knew this universal mother in a special way; I am one of the children from her womb.
There is no explanation for the loss of someone so spiritually powerful that we expected her to live forever. It shakes the soul to lose someone who seemed invulnerable. To my mother, Yvonne Patricia Solomon, I love you. I miss you. A thousand years with you would have still been too short. I thank G-d, in spite of my anger and sorrow at my family’s loss, for all you gave to so many in the little under 61 years you spent in this world.
A video circulating on the interwebs features Ms. Perry dressed up in a variety of intentionally ridiculous getups, from an aged Las Vegas showgirl to an animal farm operator, each character ranging from odd to creepy. This is fine for abstract characters, but her depiction of a Jewish Bar Mitzvah DJ willing to do anything for money among her cast of characters raises a host of questions, not just about the diva herself, but about prejudice and power in America today.
Katy is no Sacha. She displayed all of the base offensive aspects of risky humor without any of the brilliant subtext that can make racially, ethnically and religiously oriented humor funny and, at times, poignant. In fact, Perry’s Jewish stereotype was so devoid of any redeeming quality, it makes one question whether she even understands the difference between ridiculing a rodeo clown and a Jew. Maybe she doesn’t.
This is not Katy Perry’s first foray into racial politics. She was widely lambasted for a video that many argued used offensive stereotypes about Asians. One might have expected that the backlash would have made Katy and her handlers a tad more careful. The introduction of “Yosef Shulem,” (who doesn’t do funeral’s… but will for the right price) seems to indicate otherwise.
So what’s the deal? Is Katy Perry a bigot? Does she feel similarly free to caricature other races, ethnicities and religions? Or does she feel uniquely emboldened vis-à-vis Jews and Asians? The truth is that we don’t know for sure what Perry’s personal views are, there is something else going on here.
Jews and Asians share a precarious place in American society. They are the “model minorities,” still differentiated from general American society by their racial, ethnic and cultural attributes, but simultaneously regarded as having “made it.” The politics of prejudice in America are closely tied to perceptions of power and barriers against bigotry diminish for groups that are seen as privileged. In a sense, minority success brings with it a decreasing ability for the minority group in question to dictate what is or is not offensive.
No matter Perry’s true personal views of Jews or Asians, it is very unlikely that these two groups were selected by happenstance. Katy is cultivating, like her contemporaries, a risqué reputation. Instead of wagging her tongue and twerking like Miley Cyrus, she is playing with cultural taboos. Unfortunately for her, she does not have the cultural bandwidth to intelligently, and humorously, riff off of racial and ethnic stereotypes. We do not see her bravely representing anti-Black, anti-Latino, anti-Muslim or anti-LGBTQ characters for a reason. She can’t do it in a way that would not simply be offensive. Instead we see her picking the low hanging fruit, dabbling in anti-Semitism and Orientalism without much thought about what it means, either in the context of general society, or in her shows. But given her cultural influence, such disregard has broad implications. We have every right to expect better.
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For more perspectives, check out “Why Jews Should Care About The Donald Sterling Controversy” and “Sterling NBA Ban: So It’s Finished?” on Rabbis Without Borders.
Donald Sterling’s conversation with his former girlfriend is a veritable cornucopia of dysfunction. Bubbling to the top is the obvious racism, no doubt bolstered by a long history of discrimination in his real estate holdings. But intermixed with his bigotry, Sterling displays a host of other character flaws, from elitism to vanity to hypocrisy. It takes a special type of racist to tell his half-Latino half-black, less-than-half-his-age girlfriend not to be photographed with black men. But what many overlook is the near crippling fear that Sterling is operating under.
For the purposes of National Basketball Association, or most of American society for that matter, it is not particularly important why Sterling holds the views he does, only that he be reprimanded. In the Jewish community, however, it matters a great deal. You see Sterling is not simply expressing hatred toward black people. He is doing that, undoubtedly. But what seems to be motivating him is his fear of what association with black people could mean for his girlfriend and by extension, himself. He is operating according to a worldview in which racial or ethnic identity is the determinant factor in whether one succeeds or fails in life, and it seems very much as if he is afraid of being ousted as a fraud.
Why would a man who arguably faces no barriers to entry in all walks of life, with enough money to do as he wishes, be afraid of what others think of him? Enter the complex dynamics of a once pitiful and oppressed minority operating within the racial construct of the United States. Jews came to America for opportunity, as did many. Jews were not alone in seeking legitimacy in America, but perhaps differently than other peoples who were differentiated by the color of their skin, Jews were able to attain acceptance, in part, by passing as, and eventually, becoming white.
American Jews owe no apologies for embracing their dominant European identity. The security to choose how we want to live our lives regardless of the social realities around us is a newly found luxury. However, this does not absolve us of recognizing the ways in which the transition to “whiteness” in America has impacts our community. Part of becoming white in America has meant becoming embroiled in the racial politics, and while Jews have often been on the right side of the fight against racism, pretending that racism hasn’t crept in would be folly. Racism is not dead yet, neither in general American society, nor within the Jewish community.
It is dying, however—at least in its current incarnation. The changing demographics of the American population make it all but a foregone conclusion that the America that Donald Sterling lives in will end as a more multicultural America takes its place. As people of color become the majority of the country’s population over the next few decades, a transition that’s already happened among the nation’s youngest residents, it is important for the Jewish community to understand what this means for us.
The Jewish community, tragically, risks irrelevancy if it remains stuck in a past where whiteness is perceived as necessary for survival. Tragic, because whiteness, or any form of mono-culturalism is foreign to the long history of Jewish identity. The American future portends a dramatic reversal, where groups stuck in a racialized past, unable to embrace multiculturalism in America, and more importantly, within their own communities, become relics. The good news is that multiculturalism is natural to Judaism. Jews represent perhaps the most culturally, ethnically, and racially mixed people on the planet. It is this narrative of the Jewish people that the American Jewish community must embrace while sloughing off the fear-based perspective clung to by the Donald Sterlings of the world.
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.”