Tag Archives: African-American

Meaningful Conversations about Difference at Passover

Sarah_Passover3Passover 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.

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Posted on April 10, 2014

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

Children’s Passover Books

afikomen1Passover 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.

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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.

51NfItCkJpL._SX258_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_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.

9780822587651fcElements 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.

Posted on April 8, 2014

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

My Interracial Marriage Isn’t That Exotic

Alex and Camille Barnett

Alex and Camille Barnett

Those of you who follow my comedy know that my wife is a Black woman who converted to Judaism. What you also know is that we have a young son who is Biracial and Jewish. As a result, I can tell you that Black-Jewish relations in our family are at an all-time high.

But, we are not an anomaly. Since time immemorial, there has been a connection, a bond, between Black and Jewish people.  Perhaps it’s our respective histories of oppression. Perhaps it’s because of our mothers, who are overbearing, intrusive and force us to eat. Perhaps it’s because without us, there would be no music industry. Whatever the reason, the simple fact is that there is a bond between Blacks and Jews.

My wife and I are not the first mixed-race couple ever. Far from it. Nor will we be the last. Our union is not even particularly ground-breaking. Neither of our families threatened to disown us if we got married. Crazy people in sheets didn’t commit violence against us. Racist law enforcement officials didn’t threaten us with jail-time if we, in fact, got married.

No, we just got married one Sunday morning. Then, we went home from the synagogue, and, as our honeymoon, we took a nap. The world kept spinning on its axis. The Sun rose and set that day, and everyone more or less went about their business. No one had a conniption fit (except for our families because we didn’t invite any family members to the ceremony).

Like I said, uneventful.

But, in retrospect, I realize it was not so uneventful. While the number of mixed-race families (and, indeed, mixed-race people) is growing all the time, mixed-race couples still are not so common as to be the norm. Admit it, when you see a Black person with a White person, you notice. How can you not? It’s different. It’s Black skin juxtaposed with White skin. There is a contrast. It is not, as my fashion designer wife would say, “so matchy-matchy.”shutterstock_179390312

So, being in a mixed-race couple still is different. It still engenders looks, still raises eyebrows, still causes people to stop, look, point, stare and/or comment.  And, by the way, I’m not simply accusing others. I do it myself.  If I see a mixed-race couple when I’m walking around, I notice them too. (Then, I usually offer them a subtle head nod, as if to say, “yep, me too.  Peace.”).

And I’m okay with that. I’m okay with being noticed. Who wants to be the same as everyone else? That’s so Scandinavian.

So, yes, it’s fine that people look. But, while they are noticing that we may look a little different than an “average” or “normal” couple (whatever that may mean), they shouldn’t assume that we are any different. But, they do. People are convinced there’s something afoot. They cannot believe it’s possible that we could just love each other. Surely, there must be a story. Surely something must be up. Surely I must be trying to rebel against my parents. Rebel against my parents?! I waited until I was 44 years old to get married. That was the rebellion, and I won. At this point, the only way left for me to rebel would be to steal their Social Security checks.

Or people think we got married because we find each other exotic. My wife is not exotic. Exotic is a woman, whose father is a wealthy, French diplomat and whose mother is an artist from a Third World Country. Exotic is a woman who is a beauty pageant winner turned political dissident who’s in the U.S. because she’s seeking political asylum. Exotic is a woman who speaks three languages besides English.  Exotic is a woman who gives up the fame and riches of her modeling career to work in an orphanage in a place where the median wage is 50 cents a day. My wife is not those things. My wife is just a person. She just happens to be a Black person. Don’t get me wrong. My wife is beautiful, intelligent and independent, but she’s not exotic. Her favorite outfit to wear around the house is jeans and a sweatshirt or sweatpants and a hand-knitted cardigan sweater. In short, my wife is a special person (especially to our son and me), but she’s not a Ninja-slash-runway model.

Oprah is more exotic than my wife because Oprah is a Black, female billionaire, and there’s only about 1 of those in the whole World.  If I were married to Oprah, then, yeah, you could say I’m looking for something exotic. You could also say I’m incredibly lucky because I just became a billionaire by marriage. But, I’m not married to Oprah.  I’m married to my wife, who I love, but who is about as exotic as the oatmeal that she eats for breakfast everyday.

And, I’m only exotic if you’re a home-schooled, evangelical Christian from Kansas who’s never met a neurotic Jewish hypochondriac before. I’m only exotic if you’ve never seen an episode of Seinfeld.

Point is, what my wife and I have done by getting married is not yet commonplace, but it’s not otherworldly. We are an interracial couple, not inter-species.  Neither of us has a tail or a ridged forehead. She’s a Black woman, not a Klingon. And, I’m White. I’m not Casper. Not transparent.  Not see-through.

So the next time you see us (or a couple like us, by which I mean a couple where the partners have different skin colors but who are otherwise remarkably human in their appearance), feel free to wave and say “hi” or just ignore us like you ignore everyone else while you’re busy with your day.  Because remember, we’re just like you . . . except much, much cooler.

 

Posted on March 18, 2014

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

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

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

My People, My Birthright

Street SignThis summer Lindsey Newman and Josh Rothstein are going to be leading the first free Taglit Birthright Israel trip with a focus on diversity. We asked Lindsey what draws her to Israel.

Israel is a place where I learned about diversity– before I could articulate what diversity meant, I was able to see it and live it.   As a Jew of color growing up in a mostly white community in New York City, it was sometimes hard to find diversity and diverse role models to look up to. But when I first arrived in Israel at age 7, my sense of what Jewish looked like expanded immediately.

My family returned to Israel the next summer, when I was 8, this time staying for two months and living in Jerusalem.  I was among an international contingent of American, Israeli and Israeli Arab children all enjoying the best that summer camp has to offer.  Most of what I knew of Israel at that time was watermelon ice pops, flying kites on the Jerusalem promenade, and Bisli. For a Jew of color, from a mixed race background and multiracial family, it was one of the first times in my life that I felt I fully belong among the rich tapestry of Jewish life.

Group photoLater I returned as a teen, for a summer program that brought together participants from all across the US and Israel, I became friends with Jews whose parents and/or grandparents were born in Yemen, Ethiopia, Iran, Russia, France, Greece and elsewhere.  While I still have a soft spot for brisket, the traditional meal I had at my friend’s Iraqi-Algerian home is still the best Rosh Hashanah meal I’ve ever had.  (Although I must admit, I passed when the fish head was offered to me even though it’s good luck.)

Through art, travel, study and just getting to know each other, we wrestled with what it means to be Jewish, what it means to us personally to be a Jew, and what it means to live with other Jews.  We tested each other, and we learned from each other. We were reminded that Judaism is not a singular experience– we are a diverse global people with different customs, complexions and experiences.

Israel was one of my first positive experiences with Jewish diversity in all its iterations.  Of course, with diversity comes complexity, and exploring Israel meant coming face to face with its triumphs and its challenges.  But facing this complexity can be incredibly valuable, for out of struggle can come strength.

These Israel experiences inspired me to create a Birthright trip with a focus on diversity. Diversity is a universal issue but it is also a Jewish issue and in my experience there is no better place to experience it than Israel. I’m looking forward to sharing the many flavors, sounds, and customs of Israel’s many multicultural communities and individuals. I’m looking forward to discussing and debating the challenges of diversity and identity –in a setting that deals with these issues all the time. I’m looking forward to getting to know a bus filled with Jews from all over the United States who represent the many ethnic, racial and cultural heritages that are the contemporary community. And of course I’m looking forward to Bisli and just hanging out by the pool.

Posted on February 19, 2014

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

Diversity and Pride at My Jewish Summer Camp

Aviva_Camp2

Carrying the Torah at Camp Be’chol Lashon

Judaism has been a part of my life since I was born. My mother snuck Shabbat candles into the hospital in preparation for my birth and I was born on Shabbos afternoon surrounded by my family and future friends, all welcoming Shabbat and my existence. As a child, I was raised primarily by my Jewish, African-American mother, Denise. I am honored to say that she converted to this amazing religion and that I am 100% Jewish.

As soon as I turned five, she signed me up for Hebrew school. For seven years, I studied the Hebrew alphabet and dozens of prayers. By the time my Bat Mitzvah rolled around last year, I had memorized every prayer I had studied, but I was nervous. So I used my Bat Mitzvah folder as a memory tool and looking down helped avoid the stares of the 200 guests!

For as long as both my mother and I can remember, I have been attending Be’chol Lashon; a place where I immediately feel at home, surrounded by my fellow Jews of all colors. At Be’chol Lashon, I am free to be who I am: an energetic, fun-loving, Black, White, and Jewish teenager. About five years ago, I, along with a few other young Be’chol Lashon regulars were asked by my mother, Denise Davis, and a co-founder of Camp Be’chol Lashon, Diane Tobin, whether we would enjoy a Judaism-based summer camp for us, the kids. We all replied “yes” immediately. The first year of Camp Be’chol Lashon in 2009 was a blast. It is amazing to see the intense diversity of our community. We explore this diversity by “traveling” to different countries where Jews live, and we examine the culture of those countries through art and cooking projects and dancing.

Camp Be'chol Lashon

Camp Be’chol Lashon

My Jewish summer camp loyalties are divided. In 2011, I began attending a month-long Judaism-based overnight camp in Ojai called Ramah. Every day, teachers inform us campers about Israel and Judaism. Every morning, we participate in Shacharit services, the morning service, before breakfast. This is a challenge, but after services, food tastes even better. On Friday evening, everyone on the campgrounds cleanses themselves and changes their clothes to welcome Shabbat with songs, a service, and the best part; food.

However, Ramah and Be’chol Lashon are not the only places I stay connected to my Jewish heritage; I celebrate Shabbat every week with dinner on Friday nights and by attending services on Saturdays. I love celebrating Shabbat with my friends and family because it reminds me that I am surrounded by such a wonderful community. Though, with my busy schedule, I do not attend synagogue every week, I do my best to drag myself out of bed in time for the service. As I continue to grow and mature, Judaism will continue to be a large part of my identity and heritage.

 

Posted on February 12, 2014

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

African American Jews on the Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Across the country next week, Americans of all faiths and ethnicities will remember and celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Be’chol Lashon asked seven African American Jewish leaders, of all ages, backgrounds, religious affiliations, geographic regions and sexual orientations, to share short impressions of what Dr. King’s legacy means to them.

Dr. Lewis Gordon, an international scholar and teacher, is a professor of Africana philosophy, politics and religion at the University of Connecticut. His roots are in Jamaica and he is a frequent social commentator.

Twenty years ago my eldest son and I had a conversation on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. As I recounted Dr. King’s many great deeds, I mentioned his incarceration in Birmingham where he wrote his famous letter, “Why We Can’t Wait.”

My son was shaken. “Wasn’t Dr. King a good man?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Why, then, was he in jail?”

Forced to explain that unjust societies punish people who stand up for what is right, I found myself engaged in one of the great lessons of Torah continued through the ages and illuminated by the courage of Dr. King: the revolutionary idea that ethics is the face of G-d, and dignity demands commitment to that extraordinary responsibility.

 

Sandra Lawson, a military veteran and social activist, calls Atlanta home. She is currently a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

I grew up in a pretty typical black family in the 1980’s. We had a picture of King on our wall and my parents had records of a few of his speeches. My parents were not activists. They grew up poor, as sharecroppers in the South, but they instilled in me a black pride that one could hear in the song from James Brown’s “Say it Loud! I’m Black and I’m Proud.” King helped my parents see a better future, not just for me and my brother but for themselves as well.

As a rabbinical student, and a child of southern sharecroppers, I see King as one of the most prophetic voices ever and he reminds me of why I want to be a rabbi which is to help to make the world a better place for all.

 

Rabbi Capers Funnye is the Rabbi of Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago, Illinois.

In 1966 Dr. King came to the Marquette neighborhood where there was vitriolic expressions of hatred as African Americans moved in. Just four blocks from my synagogue was the headquarters of the Nazi Party. Dr. King said, “he had never seen anything so hostile and hateful,” as he did in Chicago. The Rabbi of this shul, Rabbi Schultz, was only 5’3,” but he stood up against the hatred. He let Dr. King know that if there was need to take sanctuary during a planned protest march, Rabbi Schultz would gladly welcome them and provide a safe haven. The violence stopped the march after two blocks. But the circumstance of this synagogue and this rabbi were some of the fantastic elements in the Jewish community that Martin Luther King touched and they reciprocated. I am proud to know men who worked with Dr. King and the representation they gave of Judaism enlivens me every day.

 

Dr. Denise Davis lives in the Bay Area where she practices medicine. She is a co-founder of Camp Be’chol Lashon.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday is yom tov, a holy day reminding me that a prophetic voice can change the world. It is day of awe, recalling both oppression and courage. As a girl I was barred from enrolling in a segregated ballet school, but King’s transcendent oratories, and the principled commitment of Heschel  made a change; these heroes are my heroes. I am an African American Jew. On MLK Day, I celebrate the power of transformation, and the resilience of human dignity. I celebrate a man and a movement close to the Divine.

 

Robin Washington is the editor of the Duluth News Tribune in Minnesota. Born in Chicago to a family of African American and Jewish civil rights activists, his journalism and activism are nationally acclaimed.

For me, King is an unfinished story; largely because the Civil Rights Movement was over-identified with him to the exclusion of unsung others equally significant. That focus nearly took the movement with him with the widespread belief that it died when he died.

Indeed, no true successor has ever emerged; even President Obama would claim to be more of an inheritor than an architect of social justice.

But I refuse to bury the movement, and maybe that’s King’s legacy: Because he didn’t get there with us, the longing for his Promised Land remains, and his sacrifice demands we strive for it with all our being.

 

Lindsey Newman lives and works in New York. She is spearheading and leading Be’chol Lashon’s first Birthright Israel trip.

I most admire Martin Luther King, Jr. as a seeker of justice and a lover of humanity. When King says that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” I am reminded that I am responsible for the world that I live in, whether I have caused harm or have merely witnessed it.  Similarly, when the Torah insists “Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue,” it is this pursuit of justice which is at the core of my identity as a Jew and a human being.  King embodied this calling in his life and work, and his legacy is a reminder of this eternal struggle.

 

Michael “Kosher Soul” Twitty, is a world-renowned scholar of African American foodways and a Jewish educator living in Washington DC.

The most stunning moment of the Civil Rights era to me was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Dr. King in Alabama. That iconic image and conversation is part of my spiritual genealogy, they are my ideological ancestors. Their souls were the parchment, the electrifying oratory and moral suasion their ink, their living Torah was a new covenant with the American dream, without which my dreams would be impossible.

Posted on January 14, 2014

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

Becoming a Jewish Ethiopian American Family

FamilyIt is an incredible responsibility to raise a child. In choosing foreign adoption, we have become parents to a beautiful daughter and added a new culture to our family life.

Our daughter, Eliyana Bracha Nuhamin, became legally ours on Nov 18th, 2013. As part of our adoption hearing we promised to bring her up with pride in her Ethiopian heritage. This was a joyful promise to make as we have fallen in love with the beauty of our daughter’s homeland. However, the reality of making it happen must go beyond clothing and food and reach the core of Ethiopian values and pride.

The first time we met our daughter at the Ethiopian orphanage the nanny told us what a good baby she was. She was polite. “Polite” is the highest praise for children in Ethiopian culture. It means they are not demanding. They are patient. They are accepting. Eliyana Nuhamin is a pretty happy and content baby. When she is not laughing, a quiet serenity emanates from her.

I have always prided myself on my Jewish inquisitiveness. Questioning is talmudic value. How will this mesh with the Ethiopian values of patience and quiet acceptance? We will have to keep our eyes open as we navigate these waters.

The depth of poverty in Ethiopia is truly shocking. In America, where we have so much: It is a blessing but it spoils us. If we are to be true to our daughter’s roots, to the values of her country of birth, we will have to guard our daughter’s precious Ethiopian politeness and learn from her .

Love in Ethiopia is given to children with cuddles and caresses and layers upon layers of clothing. (Bundling children in clothing is a sign of love.) A school child often receives new clothing as a reward for school work. There are few toy varieties. Storytelling, singing, and dancing are the main entertainment and for children they always hold lessons of cultural value. The Jewish parallel here warms my heart.

Family togetherness is highly valued. Farm village children are still excused from school to help the harvest. Women wear their babies wrapped on their backs so that they are always together.

The Ethiopians are a beautiful people, very polite, usually smiling. Haggling in the market is just as often done with smiles and giggles as it is with serious concentration. Traditional meals are communal: Injera bread, coverered with stew is placed in the center of the group for all to enjoy. Time is taken every day to meet with neighbors and family over coffee and popcorn in the traditional coffee ceremony. Hospitality is important. These too are Jewish values.

These are a people of deep pride. Dinknesh, meaning “you are lovely,” is the Ethiopian name given to the 4 million year old remains of the first human. (The English world calls her Lucy.) Seeing her tiny skeleton surrounded by the tremendous pride of the Ethiopian people was very moving. This is the country from which emanated humanity.

Ethiopia, birthplace of coffee, is the only African country never to have been colonized. The Italians tried in 1935 but were ousted by 1940. The royal family traced it’s ancestry to King Solomon of Jerusalem and the Ethiopian church claims guardianship of the lost ark of the covenant. They are a people of deep pride and beauty. There are over 70 different Ethnic groups in the country each with their own distinct language. When I asked someone why the children of Ethiopia are so beautiful, he answered it was the blending of all that was best of these different groups.. then he smile and said, but mostly it is God.

Beauty and dignity are everywhere in Ethiopia. A church holiday gave us the treat of watching lines of Ethiopians in traditional white robes walking along the road to church carrying colorful umbrellas. The farm homes may have been quiet mud huts but the churches and mosques were elegant colorful buildings announcing their congregations joy. I loved the many groups of animals we passed in the countryside: cattle with desert humps on their back, spotted goats and sheep and donkeys driving carts of farm produce behind them. Often it was the children moving the animals from one place to another.

I know it pains the Ethiopian people to see their children adopted out of country. These children lose the blessings of belonging wholly to this beautiful country. But I also know that our longing for a child is matched equally by the orphan’s longing for parents. I pray that God’s holiness rest in this match: a mother from Toronto, a father from Brooklyn, a baby from Addis Ababa. May our cultures of Ethiopia, Judaism, and American blend in love and Torah.

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Posted on December 31, 2013

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The Poetry of Jewish Black Identity

Samels_AaronI became Bar Mitzvah on April 20th, 2002, the 130th anniversary of Hitler’s birth. My dad’s side of the family wore West African dashikis. The only other time my temple had held that many Black people was Bingo night. We did not have the money to rent a hotel or hire a live band like many of my Jewish classmates, but the small venue where we hosted my after party happened to be directly across the street from Brown University’s spring weekend concert.  I became a man in my Jewish community while my family wore dashikis on Hitler’s birthday and inhaled second-hand weed smoke while watching The Roots (arguably the best hip hop band of all time) play a concert 100 feet away.

Sixty years prior, the world watched as my mother’s ancestors were shuffled into train cars and transported to their deaths. My father’s great-grandmother was born a slave and died a free woman. My truth is that for as much of history as I know, people have been inventing ways to enslave, manipulate, and exterminate my family. And yet I am privileged to have lived a life of Bar Mitzvahs and rap concerts. I exist because of a series of improbable survivals and I believe that, as part of a legacy of both Black writers and Jewish writers, I am compelled to tell my story.

I am a poet. I am a story teller. I am part of a legacy of survivors. As a writer, I believe I am at its best when I am telling the truth. I think this is because when I express my own lived experience, it is so ridiculous and so specific that it reads as an untruth, a history so unfathomable it must be a lie.  I think that is what it means to be Jewish; I think that is what it means to be black—to know the truth so well, even when the rest of the world denies its existence. And yet, we still find time to celebrate.  We find time to dance, and drink, and love, even when we are surrounded by a vortex of impossible.

For me the processes of writing and identity exploration are inseparable, just as my journey to understand Blackness will always be inextricably tied to my journey to understand my Jewishness.  Writing poetry is what helps me tell my story, to dive into the tangle of truth and untruth and suffering and magic and ridiculous improbability that is the bricolage of my history.

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Posted on December 17, 2013

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

From Hail Mary to Hail Miriam

avi (2)At 6’2”, 210-pound Avi Rosenblum has tattoos that reflect his religious faith and cultural heritage. He stands out. Some might be astounded that this typical African American football player is the adopted son of a Caucasian, Jewish couple that keep a kosher home and who have never allowed their son to slip through the cracks.

Avi is a new breed of Jew, and I am proud of the path he’s walked. He has been my friend for more than a dozen years. We have been on the field together and in the pews. It’s hard to say farewell, so instead I’ll say “Welcome Home.”

Avi just recently moved from his home in Albany, California and headed off to Jerusalem, Israel to play wide-receiver and defensive back for the Tel Aviv Sabres, a team within the Israeli Football League. I’ve watched Avi since his early childhood grow into the strong and charismatic young man he is today. Be’chol Lashon introduced to the two of us to one another in a space where we were looking for others with common identities. Hannukah Bazaars, where else would one find an East Bay Area, African-American, Jewish football player?

Avi_Rosenblum_family

I’ve played with fellow Jews (Ben Liepman, I see you big guy!), coached them (yeah Jake Schnur, I’m talking about you!), but Avi is the first I’ve mentored and worked with within the confines of coaching, taking him under my wing as an assistant coach at El Cerito High. To see him teach, connect, and lead a group of young men the way he did was inspiring, and to the naked eye  was a typical sketch in our football  community.

A big shout-out, mazel-tov, and good luck goes out to my man Avi Rosenblum, a local kid pursuing his dream of playing professional football.

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Posted on December 12, 2013

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

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