My wife and I are an interracial couple. I am a White, Ashkenazi Jewish man from New York. She is a Black woman from Detroit, raised in the Lutheran faith, who converted (to Jewish, not to White. She’s still Black). Our 3 year old Biracial son is Jewish.
When I talk about my wife’s conversion, rather than saying she converted I like to say that she’s Jewish by choice. I do this because conversion sounds like the process by which a sofa becomes an uncomfortable bed. Or it sounds like something that happens by magic. I wave my magic wand and “poof” you’re Jewish. Whereas being a Jewish person by choice requires a conscious affirmative decision.
And make no mistake, being Jewish is a choice, whether you were born into our Tribe or whether you joined us midway through the show. Because being Jewish isn’t easy. For starters, there’s the fact that lots of people hate us. Then, there’s the fact that in this nation and the world we’re outsiders. Yes, we manage to assimilate wherever we reside, but as history shows us, Jews, no matter how much a part of the society in which we live, are still always a bit on the outside. And, of course, there are all the rules. Don’t eat this. Don’t eat that. Don’t eat at all. Love the stranger, but don’t intermarry with them. Don’t wear wool and linen together. Wear a tiny hat that’s exactly the right size to never stay on your head. Sit outside during football season in a shed that has porous walls and no roof. Pursue justice, but by the same token, it’s not a problem to have slaves if you’re generally nice to them. Count the Omer (once you figure out what the Omer is). Read, study and love this book that’s inconveniently not provided on an iPad but is in the form of a giant, heavy scroll. And, if you drop that book, you’re not allowed to eat for a day (or 40).
Given these inherent challenges to leading a Jewish life, why did my wife choose to be Jewish. Well, obviously, it’s because being a Black woman in America was just way too easy, and she needed a challenge.
In America, as we know from demographic data (and from walking into synagogue on Saturday mornings . . . that is, for those of us who wake up early enough to do that), there aren’t that many Jews “of color” in America. There are some, and the numbers are growing all the time. But, if you walk into any Congregation Bet Something or Temple Something Shalom and for sure if you walk into Agudath Something (the Orthodox shul) on any given Saturday, even in New York City, you’re not going to see that many Black people.
And, that’s unfortunate for any number of reasons. First of all, given where Jews—Hebrews—originated (just a stone’s throw from North and East Africa), it’s a good bet that many of us were Black (or to use a modern phrase “Blackish”). Did Abraham or Moses look like Denzel Washington? Maybe not. But, it’s likely that they looked more like him (or maybe Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia) than they looked like your Uncle Sol or your Grandpa Murray. Which means somewhere along the way we lost some color.
Second, there is a parallel between the Jewish experience in Egypt (and the Exodus therefrom) and the history of African-Americans. Indeed, as we approach the Passover holiday, it is apt to remember that the struggle for freedom and self-determination in Ancient Egypt and in this country are stories with similar narratives. In fact, the parallels are so strong, that because of my wife’s (and our son’s) background, and to make her family feel more at home when they celebrate the holiday with us, we’ve modified our Seder to create a fusion of these two stories and created a Haggadah that reflects the flight to freedom of both cultures:
“When we were slaves in Egypt . . . and the Southern United States. Moses . . . and Dr. King said, “let my people go.” When they were refused, God . . . and the NAACP, set forth 10 plagues . . . and many lawsuits. And, the people went out, and they searched for years, till they could find a homeland where they could be free and enjoy self determination. We speak of course of the land of Brooklyn. Where Blacks and Jews roam free, even to this day.”
Then we eat matzah and play the game “guess which Biracial Hollywood actor is Black and Jewish.”
We don’t actually say all that, but I do think it. Because our family isn’t just Jewish. It’s Black and Jewish, and it’s important to remember the history of both those cultures and how much they sync up.
So, why did my wife choose Judaism? Well, I like to think it’s because she loved me and becoming Jewish was just a small price to pay to be able to spend a lifetime with me and my neuroses.
More importantly, though, I think it’s because she saw in the story of the Jewish people a story that she already knew from her vantage point as a Black person, and that story was comfortable and familiar and filled with the same themes of exodus and freedom.
But, most importantly of all, I think it’s because choosing is at the very core of what it means to live a fulfilling life, especially a fulfilling Jewish life. Indeed, to my mind, that we are the “Chosen People” refers not to the fact that we were chosen for some special status so much as it refers to the fact that each day, each Jewish person must affirmatively choose whether they will follow the mitzvot or not.
So, why did my wife choose Judaism? For the same reason the slaves of Egypt chose it—she wanted to be free to live life on terms she consciously agreed to rather than those that had been selected and mandated for her.
Why do you choose?
What could be funnier than a black man marrying a white woman?
Before you say “Loving v. Virginia,” hold on, there’s more: Make that a white Jewish woman. Isn’t that a stitch?
If same-sex marriage in Alabama hasn’t convinced you we might actually be in 2015, the premiere of the Lifetime reality show, Kosher Soul, arrives Feb. 25 to dutifully turn back the clock.
“Opposites attract,” the show’s promos blare, suggesting the protagonists might just be different species. A freelance stylist, Miriam Sternoff, 38, grew up Jewish in Seattle. O’Neal McKnight, 39, her stand-up comedian fiancé, is African American from Lynchburg, S.C. With cameras following their every antic, the pair slapstick their cultures together on the way to their wedding day.
“The fact that I’m wearing a yarmulke, it shouldn’t be a problem for Miriam to wear a grill,” McKnight says, explaining the bejeweled dental appliance’s deep spiritual significance to black America by declaring: “Martin Luther King had a grill.”
He didn’t mention Justin Bieber. But it goes on.
“When you marry a man like O’Neal, you gotta make certain sacrifices,” Sternoff says in her concession to preparing unkosher food. “If he wants me to fry up some catfish real quick, I’m going to fry it up because he has made huge compromises for me.”
One of those is McKnight’s conversion to Judaism, including an adult bris (symbolic circumcision), done to prove his love for her and appease his mother-in-law. In return, she accompanies his family to church and actually buys the grill, though secretly vows never to wear it.
All the while, he calls her white and gives her lectures on black culture (black people don’t go to the beach), punctuated with jokes about Stevie Wonder driving and starving kids in Africa with flies on their faces.
Is this offensive?
Yes, but not for its unfunny attempts at humor. Nor am I the only one suggesting the show is just more of the same old black and Jewish stereotypes, packaged as a “docu-sitcom.” To a person, those in my circle of African American Jews who’ve heard of the show have questioned its portrayal of the match as a freak show oddity.
It wasn’t news 65 years ago, when my mother of Western European Jewish descent married my Baptist (though atheist) African American father. It’s barely a blip on the post-racial radar screen today. According to Be’chol Lashon, 20 percent of American Jews are of color or of similarly diverse heritage.
As anyone who says “blacks and Jews” should be reminded, the two terms aren’t mutually exclusive. Judaism knows no race and black people come in every religion, and to be both is to be 100 percent of each.
Surprisingly, and off-camera, the couple agrees.
“I like that,” Sternoff says of the duality that describes her husband and hoped-for children, echoed by McKnight: “I like that a lot.”
In the real world of a cross-country phone interview to Los Angeles, where they now live, the couple departs from their reality-show personas, with McKnight clarifying he did not convert solely for her. In South Carolina, he’d never met a Jew or spoken to an Asian person, he says, a cloistered world that changed when he moved to New York.
“I was around a lot of different cultures, a lot of different people, and I just really was drawn into Judaism,” he says. “For me, the thing about Judaism, it’s mostly a tug of war between you and God. You’re supposed to ask questions. You’re supposed to be intrigued and curious. And the way I was brought up (as Methodist) was ‘this is what it is, you don’t doubt it, you don’t question it.’”
That intrigue led him to consider converting before even meeting his future wife, he says.
For her part, with skin Kardashian tan or a shade darker (and virtually the same as McKnight’s black former girlfriend), Sternoff has also examined her identity.
“When people ask me what’s my nationality, it’s because I look more ethnic,” she says. “The first thing I say is ‘I’m Jewish.’ And then people say, ‘Yeah, I get it, but you look like you’re Hispanic or something else.’ So I always then follow it up with my background is Russian.”
Depending on who’s asking and their level of persistence, she may say she’s white. “It’s a tricky thing,” she says. “Jews, we think of ourselves as kind of a whole separate entity.”
So if she’s perceived as “other” and they’re both practicing Jews (his conversion was Conservative), is there a story here without playing to stereotypes? Two Jews get married. So what?
“I would dispute that it is stereotypes. I think that Miriam and O’Neal are who they are,” Michael Hirschorn, the show’s executive producer, says from New York, acknowledging dialogue like “I want to have Shabbat dinner with my Jewish husband”/“But she’s going to have sex with a black man.”
“Saying ‘this is a stereotype’ and ‘this is not a stereotype’ gets you into kind of a Talmudic cul-de-sac,” he argued.
Perhaps, but there are guides for the perplexed, the obvious being other Black Jews who can clearly tell you what’s over the top. Hollywood has many — from director Chris Erskin to rapper Drake to actress Rashida Jones — though Hirschorn (who is Jewish and not black, and has a co-producer who is black and not Jewish) says he doesn’t know any.
Still, he concedes that Kosher Soul and its “opposites attract” tagline capitalize on seemingly incompatible differences.
“I don’t want to be too coy because obviously that is the name of the show and that’s the way it’s being pushed,” he says. “I think that (when you) watch the show, there’s just a lot of pleasure in it.”
There certainly is in the story of how the couple met, in New York nine years ago when McKnight was a personal stylist to Sean “Puffy” Combs and Sternoff was freelancing in the same field.
It was in an elevator. He was impressed by her pixie cut. She could not help but notice him.
“I literally was holding two little poodles under my arms,” McKnight explains, dogs belonging to Combs that he’d been asked to retrieve.
Or so he says.
“Right!” Sternoff responds, laughing at the suggestion that maybe it was a ploy. “He was riding, literally up and down, up and down, waiting for the perfect girl to come on. You know, I have to say, if that’s what he was doing, I’m glad he was there.”
It’s a wonderfully charming story but it’s nowhere in the show. Not surprising: It’s reality, not reality TV.
With 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.
L’chaim- to life, but to celebrate without knowing, would merely divert those from seeing my true being. You see, what you see is nothing short of brilliance, of strength, of success and triumph. But that is something that took decades to discover.
My entire life has been surrounded by the question, what are you? Rather than who are you? And though they say your past makes your present it was never a present hearing that question.
My personal favorite, are you like actually Jewish? Because we were just wondering what you are because I mean, obviously you don’t look Jewish.
I stared blankly, suddenly overcome with true emptiness. I responded with … Nothing, because an answer would mean just that, nothing. Because I would never look Jewish enough and I would never sound authentic enough because to them I wasn’t enough. But I felt like I should have been more than enough.
My life consisted of not black enough, not white enough, not Jewish enough. Hair not straight enough, not curly enough. Skin not light enough not tan enough. Hips not small enough, nose not big enough. Lips well … Lips … just shut enough to never utter a word about how I felt.
How I felt hearing the phrases nigger, kike, schvartse, dirty Jew, Oreo, mullato, outcast, different, rare and exotic.
Lips just shut enough to never tell anyone how it felt to be me. How it felt to see your mouth drop when my black father attended events at my all white elementary school. How it felt to hear you say that I was just another money hungry Jew. How it felt to see you cringe and clench at the sight of a black man walking down the street. How it felt to hear your forced apology after making a sick Holocaust joke.
And how it felt to hear you deny me of myself, deny the very essence and make-up of my being.
Now, here I am. And from this point forward I will not, and can not be silenced! I am here to give voice to the voiceless. To speak for those who never got the chance. For those who were disregarded, beaten, and forced into slavery. For those who were stripped of their family, dignity, and life, in the Holocaust.
I am here, and I am proud because I am mixed with the two races whom experienced the most hatred, bigotry, discrimination, and racism in the world, but still manage to be here.
I know what it’s like to hate everything about yourself. I know what it’s like to pray to Hashem, my G-d, to make me like everyone else. I know what it’s like to have my own relatives make excuses for my racial identity. I know what it’s like to stand out, and to be the outcasted other. I know what it’s like to hear your closets friends make slurs and remarks that could kill, about who you are. I know what it’s like to want to run and hide from the world.
But I also know what it’s like to discover that all of that gave me the strength I needed to share this with you.
Now, I smile at the reflection in the mirror. Now, I thank G-d everyday for making me who I am. Now, I couldn’t wish to be anything less than what I am. And now I pray, in the words of my Hebrew brothers and sisters.
ברוך אתה ה’ אלוקנו מלך העולם שעשני כרצונו Baruch Atah Adonai, Alohaynu melech Ha’Olam, sha-asani keertsono. Blessed are you Lord our G-d, king of the universe, who made me according to his will.
ותודה לה’ שנתת לי כוח V’ Todah L’Hashem shenatata li koach.
And thank you G-d for giving me strength.
When William Faulkner wrote these words in Requiem for a Nun, I’m pretty certain he didn’t have a formerly opera-singing African-American performer of Yiddish in mind. Nonetheless, for me Faulkner’s words still manage to apply.
I spend most of my time dealing with one past or another. There’s my ethnic past and present as an African-American. There’s my acquired past as a convert to Judaism and a Jewish educator. And finally, there’s the past in my work as artist: previously as an opera singer and presently as a performer of Yiddish. In my professional life, I’ve impersonated everything from an 18th-century Spanish peasant to a Union soldier to a shtetl shames calling Jews to prayer. My future seems firmly rooted in the past, and I thoroughly enjoy it.
Singing in Yiddish really brought this stuff we all so dismissively call “the past” sharply into focus. I didn’t have to imagine the lives and customs of the Hasidic world my repertoire often describes. I just took a train one Shushan Purim to Brooklyn and experienced it for myself. I didn’t have to pull out a library card to find artists and critics who worked in Yiddish. I just had to stop by a bar to hear Sarah Gordon perform and wait for Rokhl Kafrissen to accept my Facebook friend request. (She totally did, by the way).
Last Slichos, I picked up an old book from a used book sale at a synagogue I was performing at in Irvine, CA. When I first cracked it open, it struck me as a little odd. First the book was in Yiddish. Then it was in English. And then Yiddish again.
The title page read in Yiddish and English, “Key to the Exercises of Ollendorff’s Method by Alexander Harkavy.” The Yiddish inscription differed from the English by stating that it was Ollendorff’s Method “tsulernen english”—”to learn English.” The English stated that it was published in New York by the Hebrew Publishing Company in 1908. In 2014 I took it home and started using it to improve my reading in Yiddish.
I used the book backwards (undoubtedly to the horror of Ollendorff and Harkavy), the English giving way to English words and phrases transliterated into Hebrew letters and then, eventually, instructions on the rudimentary elements of the English language written in Yiddish. It was in this last (first if you read in the other direction) section that the past popped up to declare itself, well…not past. A brown, very fragile scrap of paper was between pages 88 and 89. It had been there so long that the acid from the paper had left dark impressions on the pages. In a beautiful cursive hand, it read: “Mrs. Silberstern 1018 E. 163 St Bronx.”
I instantly went to Google Maps street view in order to look up the address and there it was: an old, pre-war-looking building with three people—a young black boy, a young black girl down the block and, perhaps, their mother, caught in a blur of movement—exiting the building. This was the place where Mrs. Silberstern lived.
Was the book hers? Or somebody who knew her? Was the owner of the book teaching another Yiddish-speaker English, perhaps Mrs. Silberstern? Or maybe Mrs. Silberstern was teaching herself English? And how in the world did the book get from the Bronx to Irvine, CA? How did Mrs. Silberstern get to the Bronx?
I’ll probably never find the answers to these questions. Between this scrap of paper, this book and Faulkner’s statement, I just find more questions.
Is the past ever really past?
This week I had the privilege of viewing an early showing of Selma, a movie about the historical events that took place in Alabama during the summer of 1965. The bombing of the 16th St. Church, in which 4 young girls were killed in 1963 and the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were not far from the public consciousness then. And the battle between hate and rights that unfolded that summer in Selma changed the course of American history in profound and essential ways.
There are those who will and have already begun to quibble with the historicity of “Selma” but as a white rabbi who trained as a historian and has devoted the last five years to civil right in the Jewish community through my work at Be’chol Lashon, it is my hope that ALL Americans, no matter race or religion go to see the film.
Telling the story of a movement set in the context of 200 years of history, in 127 minutes means that inevitably some of the lines between history and myth will be blurred. But do not underestimate the power in the cinemagraphic telling of history. Color returns dimensionality to images that we know only in shades of black and white. Camera angles bring out the intimacies and tensions that go into the small moments that make up epic events. In the rabbinic tradition we call filling in of the official narrative, midrash, or interpretation. And midrash is one of most powerful tools we have to teach us about the past, remind us of our values and focus our actions for the future.
Copyright limitations, for example, mean that the words spoken by the fictional Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are not direct quotations. Nonetheless, the power with which David Oyelowo delivers his portrayal of Dr. King provide us not only with the inspirational Moses figure to whom a monument stands in Washington DC but also the flesh and blood man who struggled with frailty and doubt even as he rose to the challenges of leadership. These nuances encourage us to reach beyond our failing and to see the possibilities of action.
Watching, it was hard at times for me to engage with Oprah Winfrey’s portrayal Annie Lee Cooper. In contrast to the real life powerhouse and billionaire Winfrey, Cooper was a middle school dropout and worked in an old age home. Cooper came to fame after her repeated attempts to register to vote led to a confrontation with the county Sheriff and her punching him. On the one hand I was too aware of Winfrey’s sophisticated real world persona to fully embrace the portrayal. But on the other hand, I saw the casting as a tribute to the extraordinary power of the everyday African Americans who, in standing up to Jim Crow white power, were no less regal than the real life Ms. Winfrey.
Within the Jewish community I hope that white Jews will look beyond the desire to have Jewish contributions to the historic Civil Rights movement recognized. Past involvement is no free pass for present day obligations. This movie should inspire white Jews to take a look within our synagogues, schools, picture books, and organization and to consider how to engage with African Americans and other Jews of Color not as the “other” but as members of our own communities. Are white Jews able to say that we do not question their membership? Their right to vote? Or legitimacy? There are many tools and approaches that we can incorporate into daily Jewish life that can and will make a profound difference, now, today and for the future for how Jews think and act around race and ethnicity.
Our sage Hillel, one taught that the entire Torah can be summed up in the maxim, we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves. The rest he assured is commentary, but it is commentary that we are obligated to learn. If the movie Selma does not fulfill all the historical details faithfully, or speak to all of our needs, it does present us with a strong case for the importance how we treat our neighbors. If we walk away inspired to aim higher in creating a more fair and inclusive world, to learn and do more, then we have achieve something momentous.
My daughter Maya and I had been walking along 125th Street in Harlem, past the larger-than-life statue of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., pastor, politician, and Civil Rights activist; the Studio Museum of contemporary African art; and the landmark Apollo Theater that launched so many careers. Somewhere along the way, we saw an enormous American flag, all in red, green, and black, the African American colors.
“Hey wouldn’t it be cool if the stars were six-point stars?” my biracial daughter said as she fingered the silver Jewish Star pendant she always wore.”That would be me.”
Realizing that Maya did not consider herself to be a large rectangular piece of fabric flapping in the wind, I thought about what the colors represent. They come from the flag adopted by the UNIA (United Negro Improvement Association) in 1920. Red signifies the blood that unites people of Black African ancestry – and that they shed for liberation; black represents the Black people; and green color represents the natural wealth of the continent of Africa.
Combine that with a Magen David, so named because the design adorned King David’s shield when he led the Israelites into battle, and you have an unnecessarily militaristic mash-up. These days, though, both images are really more cultural symbols than anything else.
So when it came time to get a gift for Maya, I thought that a Star of David necklace with the UNIA colors would be perfect.
Easier said than done, though, as it turned out.
I searched a myriad of stores and pawed through countless street hawkers’ tables all over New York City. I waded through innumerable online venues getting seasick by the frightening quantity of options, none of which quite fit the bill. I even considered making a necklace for my kid, but a quick trip to the local crafts store put an end to that whim. I wanted something she would be proud, not embarrassed, to wear.
“There’s such a thing as trying too hard,” a friend told me. But, honestly, I like a good treasure hunt, especially one with nothing serious riding on it; life would go on if Maya didn’t get a necklace that she didn’t even know was out there. Or, perhaps I should say, a necklace that didn’t yet exist.
Then, one evening, I was determinedly scrolling through more online options and saw a vendor who offered Star of David pendants in a variety of pastel shades. Not exactly what I had in mind. But I figured if she could offer different color options, perhaps she could create the design with the hues I had in mind?
I emailed the artist and asked; she was happy to give it a shot. Her first attempt involved a mint green that didn’t quite fit the bill. I sent her a Google image of the Black Liberation Flag – and she came back with two beautiful options. I had it in my hands in just a few days.
When Maya unwrapped her gift, she gasped. (It’s not easy to surprise a teenager.) She took off the silver pendant she’d chosen herself in Jerusalem, put on the mash-up jewelry – and has worn it ever since.
Black Lives Matter, on the first night of Hanukkah and also on the second night, the third night and every other night and day of the year.
On the first light of Hanukkah, some in the Jewish community are taking the opportunity to express the sentiment that “Black Lives Matter.” We at Be’chol Lashon could not agree more. We dedicate ourselves to making the Jewish commitment to racial equality part of the everyday fabric of American Jewish life.
We believe strongly in society’s potential for transformation, but simultaneously know that protests alone are not enough. Real change requires long-term day-to-day work in the streets as well as in our synagogues, schools, camps and organizations.
First and foremost, as Jews we need to recognize that when we talk about Black lives, we are not talking about “them.” Studies show that 20% of the Jewish community identifies as something other than white or Askenazi. Unfortunately, our organizations, our narrative and the boundaries of our community do not always reflect this reality.
In order to affect change at the American societal level, we must begin at home. Be’chol Lashon has identified sustainable options to help the Jewish community be the change they wish to see in America.
First person stories and exposure are essential to helping people understand unfamiliar points of view. It is important to open ourselves to the plurality of voices and experiences that exist in the Jewish community. Jews of color, like all Jews, have a range of experiences and points of view. Be’chol Lashon’s media and speakers, such as recent documentary Little White Lie, are powerful tools to engage in discussions about race, identity and family. Get to know these stories, bring them to your communities to encourage proactive, positive conversations about race with Americans of all backgrounds.
Combating prejudice and racism starts with teaching children to
connect across differences, navigating diverse cultures with curiosity, sensitivity and confidence. Our curriculum—Passport to Peoplehood—expands children’s awareness of themselves in relation to the racial diversity of Jews and others around the world. Partnering with camps, JCCs, and schools we foster an understanding of the historic and contemporary reality of the Jewish people. Youth readily internalize new patterns of thinking and race and diversity must play a core part of Jewish education at every level.
Most people struggle when it comes to talking about race but true progress lies in our ability to broaden discussions beyond events such as Ferguson. The Race Project provides trainings to actively engage in crucial conversations and unravel race as a social construct. Just as we have come to realize that conversations about Israel are more productive when people are trained to listen or have facilitators assist the process, so too when it comes to race.
Outrage is understandable, but it is not a solution. Sustainable change needs time, work and commitment. Be’chol Lashon is devoted to bringing these kinds of opportunities to the Jewish community, because black lives matter both within and beyond the Jewish community.
When I think about Ferguson, Missouri I think about the Star Wars Trilogy. I spent every summer between the ages of 10 and 25 in Ferguson; and, I also spent a few weeks over the winter holiday there as well. So, I always waited with baited breath for summer, and the next movie in the trilogy. Every Saturday during those times, we ate Faraci’s pizza. When the riots first happened, I remember thinking, “I hope they leave Faraci’s alone because I really want some when I go back”…and I was grateful to see Faraci’s still standing when I went back to Ferguson for my mother’s 85 birthday party.
I also remember trudging to Schnucks grocery store during the “great blizzard” and I got my very first job bagging groceries at that same store. The summer I turned 24, I spent jogging the streets of Ferguson as I prepared for the physical agility part of the police application process.
Having grown up spending time in Ferguson, served as a police officer in Columbia, Missouri, and a career as a criminal defense attorney, I had lots of personal reactions to the death of Michael Brown. After the news broke about his death the inevitable media rush to the bottom began to occur. Everything about Ferguson, the citizens, the population, the police was fodder for debate and commentary. I began to wonder if I lived in a Ferguson vacuum. I never, ever heard my family talk about racism, racists cops anything that suggested things were as bad and one sided as the media suggested. None of my family ever told me, “hey be careful, you know the cops will harass you if they see you jogging down the street”; no one ever said, “hey be careful while you’re driving”. They alerted me to speed traps but nothing about bad cops. But then I realized…that was literally 25 years ago. My, how things have apparently changed.
One week before Michael Brown was killed, I was stopped for speeding in Calverton Park, Missouri, just around the corner from Ferguson. I was stopped by a young, white cop. I was driving a 2014 SUV with Florida license plates (a rental) and I was speeding. The cop was young, but professional and friendly. He did not approach with his hands on his gun and did not approach with an attitude of fear. I believe it is because I go through the same ritual when stopped by the police for any reason: I turn the car off, put it in park, roll down my window, and stick my hand out the window. If it is night time, I turn on my dome light to illuminate the interior. It is these “Hey, I’m not armed” rituals that dictate how the cop approaches me. It is these little things people of color have to do that Anglos do not have to do in order to survive police encounters.
Racial profiling does exist. It can be very dangerous. And so much went horribly wrong in the case of Michael Brown.
With my personal and professional experience both of the St. Louis area and the criminal justice system, I could write volumes about the specifics of this case and that Eric Garner. Every piece is complex and worthy of analysis, from the way Michael Brown’s body lay uncovered for hours in the street, to the media sympathy for Darren Wilson, to intricacies of the Grand Jury system. In the both the Brown and Garner cases, the Grand Juries decided after all they heard there was not enough to charge the officer(s) with a crime. But what were they told? Did they have the information to do their job? The tools—or lack thereof—they were given to arrive at that answer is the real injustice.
But let me leave you with a few thoughts, while black men are killed by cops disproportionately, people fail to realize and remember police also kill white men without punishment. The fact is that they can apparently kill anyone regardless of race and/or color makes this a misuse of power and authority issue, not necessarily a racial issue. I think this is why many people of all races should be concerned: the police can kill their children too and not be held accountable.
Here are 3 facts I want you to remember about these incidents and the rest of the incidents that will follow:
Just because something is unjust, does not mean it was illegal or against the law; secondly, just because a death event has been labeled a homicide, does not mean it was murder. Lastly, the purpose of a grand jury is to answer one question, and one question only: Is there enough evidence to charge this person with a crime. Period. Guilt/Innocence is not the question or the issue.
Over the last few weeks, as America waited for the Grand Jury decisions in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, we have been touring with our documentary, Little White Lie, encouraging proactive, positive conversations about race and identity with Americans of all backgrounds. The outrage expressed at the grand jury decisions tells us two things. One, race remains a volatile and potentially dangerous third rail in American society and two, so long as we continue to wait for moments of crisis to talk about race, it will remain so. It is difficult for us as Americans to talk about race, and even harder to do so when we do not have to. As the mother of a Black teenager, I know that in the current racial climate, no matter how much my son individualizes, he will be forced to deal with the harsh reality of toxic racial dynamics.
When I adopted my son Jonah in 1997, one of my primary concerns was that he would not see himself reflected in the American Jewish community—that his Jewish identity and his Black identity would be in conflict. I am gratified that after attending Jewish day school and growing up participating in Be’chol Lashon programs, he knows many other racially diverse Jews and takes his Jewish identity for granted. Now that Jonah is 17, I am aware that my concern has shifted and that in everyday life, the unique identity Jonah has developed will often be disregarded in favor of assumptions about his skin color.
Recently, Jonah came home and announced, “Mom, the supermarket security guy just asked for my receipt and took all the things out of my bag. I was racially profiled.” I realize that I must have conversations that I did not have with his white siblings—like making sure his hands are visible at all times if he happens to be stopped by the police. It is unsettling to instill distrust in my son for police officers. While it may be a necessary defensive measure, it reinforces how important it is to proactively work to reduce racial tension.
The racial dynamics on display recently present more than a physical danger—they threaten to derail the identity development of millions of young people of color. In middle school, Jonah was encouraged to write about himself in anticipation of applying to high school. In a particularly poignant poem he wrote, “I am not Jordan or Malik, I am Jonah. Why don’t people ‘see‘ that I am part of my family? Why do they only see ‘difference’?” Good question and one being asked by the growing population from mixed racial, religious, cultural and ethnic backgrounds who identify beyond the boundaries of America’s racial divide. Teaching our children to keep their hands visible around police does little to answer this question. The safety of our children, both physical and emotional, lies in our ability as a society to broaden the discussion abut race beyond events such as Ferguson.
Jeff Chang insightfully articulates in his latest book, Who We Be, (http://whowebe.net/) that, “We can all agree that race is not a question of biology. Instead it is a question of culture and it begins as a visual problem, one of vision and visuality.” Race was created as a social construct and as such it can only be unraveled through social engagement and discussion. Who We Be chronicles racial progress through cultural commentary. In one example from the early 60s, cartoonist Morrie Turner drew kids having profound discussions about race and community. In Wee Pals, Oliver, a white kid, introduced the neighborhood kids to each other—Peter “the Mexican-American,” George “the Oriental,” 11 Rocky “the full- blooded American Indian,” and Randy, who, Oliver paused to note, was “a Afro- American, Negro, Black, Colored, Soul Brother.” “And what are you?” Peter asked Oliver. “Very careful!” Oliver replied.
A half-century later, even though Americans have elected their first Black president and are in the midst of dramatic demographic and cultural shifts, works similar to Turner’s groundbreaking cartoons are no less important. Fortunately, the torch is being carried and with the revolution in social media, the opportunity to impact Americans through pointed social commentary is greater than ever.
Notable contemporary efforts include Kenya Barris’ new sit-com Black-ish and Justin Simien’s film Dear White People which, although rife with stereotypes, manage to be humorous while authentic and compelling, putting questions about race front and center. Journalist and NYU professor Liel Leibovitz comments, “We laugh because…the conversation about race is one enough of us are eager to have honestly and openly.” He suggests that these conversations are not just about race, but are about self, community, traditions, and history.
As an organization that celebrates multicultural traditions and history of Jewish communities around the world, we executive produced Lacey Schwartz’s touching tour de force documentary about her family hiding a Little White Lie and her journey to come to terms with her mixed black and Jewish heritage. It offers a unique and compelling personal narrative that speaks directly to the changes in American demographics and Jewish identity. Little White Lie is a powerful and timely educational tool to engage in necessary conversations about race, a crucial step in an effort to make sure our children will be “seen” as who they are.
The tragedy highlighted by both the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases is that we still live in a world where Black men are seen as in fundamental conflict with law enforcement. This is a dangerous juxtaposition that underlines the fact that racial tension in America remains volatile and potentially violent. It pushes back directly against my desire to raise my son with a sense of agency over his own life. I will do my best to teach Jonah how to manage the perceptions of others and how to stay safe in a dangerous world. And I will continue to work daily to change the way the Jewish community talks and thinks about race. But Jonah’s safety, like that of many others, depends upon our collective ability as Americans and as Jews to push the conversation about race forward, even when there are no grand jury decisions to spur us on.