My daughter is wise beyond her years. She teaches me. Recently a family with older children handed down to us a plastic toy kitchen set. My 15-month-old was delighted. As she happily played, I “Facetimed” my parents so they could join me in watching her fun. However as soon as Bubie and Zada’s faces appeared on the iPhone screen, my daughter lost all interest in her toys. She had eyes only for the grandparents she loves and engaged them in a rousing game of peek-a-boo.
Watching Eliyana’s developmental leaps is wonderful. Just yesterday she was grabbing the iPad and looking behind it for the people. Today she understood she could interact with the people on the screen, that she could initiate play with them. I learned too. I learned that she values relationship far more than “things.”
When my husband and I first arrived in Ethiopia to meet our beautiful child, I was appalled by the starkness of her orphanage. There were no colors to brighten the walls. There were less than half a dozen toys, and no books. Our daughter was happy and thriving, perhaps because of her inner strength and love of life, perhaps because the nannies there carried the babies in their arms as much as possible. The gifts of board books and games I brought on my second trip were received politely but with puzzlement. “Of what use could these possibly be to a baby?” I read on the faces of the nannies.
When we brought our daughter home, we filled it with love, toys, and many many books. We made the rounds of doctors, each marveling at Eliyana’s sociability and her easy smile. “This child has been loved” they each said to us. We would discuss this concern or worry and the doctors would repeat “She has received love and attention. That is the most important ingredient to her development.” We settled into becoming a family and Eliyana thrived.
Many of my fellow Ethiopian adoption parents tell me their children did beautifully in daycare, having been socialized to being around other children and waiting their turn already in the orphanage. My daughter was miserable. No one would play with her. At first I wondered if there was racism involved. Finally I realized it was culture. The room was filled to the brim with every kind of wonderful toy and the expectation was that the children would play independently with the toys. My child wanted relationship but was instead offered Western materialism. With help and support I came to understand I was allowed to listen to the needs my daughter was broadcasting loudly for me on all frequencies. She wanted people, not things. We found a way to provide this while I work. Happiness has been restored.
Martin Buber wrote, counter to the psychology of his time, that identity begins in relationship, not in individuality. In Ethiopia, this was understood. I wonder now at my Western arrogance, my shock at an Ethiopian orphanage’s lack of toys and books. Here in the West, where we have everything, we have much to learn about what is important. I am learning every day.
Moved by this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
As summer approaches and we gear up for another terrific session of Camp Be’chol Lashon, I keep thinking about all the kids who—regardless of the camp they are heading to— are worried they might not feel like they “belong.” I relate.My own commitment to Jewish camping comes in part from my childhood experience where I was usually the only Black camper at a variety of Jewish camps. As a camp director, I am committed to making sure that all those in my charge feel connected. And recently, I got a real life reminder of just how important reaching out and connecting can be.
This winter I was honored to attend the Jewish Camp Leaders Assembly in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Attending “Leaders” opened my eyes to the vast world of Jewish camping, meeting and greeting numerous Jewish camp professionals invested in the varying interests and needs of our Jewish youth.
As exciting as this was, I once again had that familiar feeling of being on the outside looking in. I am a fairly new West Coast camp director of a small camp with a strong but still budding reputation. I was out on the East Coast by myself and knew only a handful of people heading into this largely regional powerhouse of Jewish camp staff. And, of course, the most superficial reason of all being that I am a man of color who, among his Jewish peers, looks out of place or invites inquiry as to the validity of my Jewish roots.
After our welcome dinner and schmooze time, like many of the participants I headed toward the hotel watering hole for some group reminiscing. Being new, after a round of small talk, I found myself with a tumbler of whiskey on the rocks playing a game of ‘one-on-none’ at the pool table behind the bar.
A gentleman whom I recognized from dinner approached the table.
He had spoken to the entire group in attendance regarding “Leaders,” touching on the overarching theme of the conference; one field, moving forward. He spoke about his previous work with Campbell Soups and how transitioning to the Jewish camp community allowed him to invest in a community that provided so much, not only to him but also to his loved ones. I had shed my name tag but he approached me and with familiarity said “Kenny, it’s great to have you out here from the West Coast. I get your monthly newsletter and enjoy reading it from top to bottom. I love the work you and your organization and camp are doing collectively.” He hung back and played with me for a bit before heading out. As I placed my empty glass on the counter, as newcomers I got the feeling that we shared a sense of being on the outside. Maybe not, but by coming over he had made me feel so welcome.
I finished my second round of libations and billiards on the solo and made my way to my sleeping quarters. I soon realized I forgot to pay for my drink, and to remove any potential stigma of the Jew of color not covering his bill, I headed back only to find that my tab was covered. I suspected my new friend had something to do with this and went to find him in the program.
It turned out that the same gentlemen who went out of his way to check in and give kudos for the work I do is none other than Jeremy Fingerman, chief executive officer of the Foundation for Jewish Camping. He is one of the greater movers and shakers in the field of Jewish camping.
The following morning at breakfast I sat with one of my former campers who now directs Camp Kee Tov in Berkeley, California. As Zach and I sat among a few familiar faces, I felt a gentle pat on my shoulder followed by “’Morning Ken, it was great talking with you last night!” from Jeremy as he headed to his table up front. Zach’s look of bewilderment, as he questioned how on earth the Foundation for Jewish Camping CEO and I were on a first name basis so quickly, if at all made me realize that now I was an insider. Even though they say it’s lonely at the top, one could argue the same on the side or down through to the bottom
Experiences like this remind me that in today’s Jewish community we each have a responsibility to advocate for one another, take interest in happenings beyond our initial scope, and welcome the idea of making new connections. Diversity and inclusion was more than a topic of conversation or presentation. It is at the heart of what we build as programmers, lay-leaders, directors, staff and campers. We build life-long memories and experiences, where each member leaves camp eager to return the following year and often with companions eager to engage and become members too.
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 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.
Moved by this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
Though the Ethiopian sun beat down on our necks as we layed mortar and brick for the school’s foundation in Gondar, Ethiopia, no suntan lotion could prevent the mark our ancient discovery would bring us as we made our way through buried past of our Jewish family, the Jews of Ethiopia…
Last winter I had the distinct pleasure of joining the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) cohort of twenty-five young professionals on a journey to Ethiopia. Charged with passion for social justice, and a commitment to peoples in need, each of us brought a unique perspective on Judaism, Ethiopians and the world of poverty. Each of us came with stories; each longed to heal the fractured world, but none shared the perspective of being an Orthodox Jewish rabbinical student who is empowered by his dual heritage of both African and European descent; who proudly identifies as a Jew of Color. None, that is, except me.
I was captured in a state of knowing that a part of my family once originated just west of Ethiopia, I was entangled in a state of feeling that I was among the few who were lucky enough to explore the story of the African Jews of yesteryear, and I was saddened by the living conditions of the “Third World,” and wondered how it got this way.
After an entire day of supplying medication to dozens of shifts of schoolchildren who get repeatedly sick because of the disease infested water, our JDC cohort began a new and uncharted journey through the tall grass on the outskirts of the Gondar village. Soon we saw a large enclosed area in the middle of the field. We hopped in. Dan, a member of the JDC year-long fellowship was the first one in, I was the second. “I’m pretty sure this is the Jewish cemetery,” he murmured as we took our first steps. Dumbstruck, I stammered “wh-where?…” He turned around to look at me, and then at the ground, then back at me and said sharply “right. here.” I felt lost for a moment, and then notice a rectangular formation of rocks and realized we were walking over graves.
After coming to my senses, I called for the group to go around the enclosed field and meet us at the other side. Dan, myself, and the few others plowed through until we were at the peripheral area. As we reached the end of the field, there were four tombstones standing strong with Amharic chalked onto the stone. Maybe they were wealthy Jews? A rabbinic family? Recent deaths (within the last 200 years)? we had no idea. Like Jacob in the Torah (Genesis 28:17), we did not know the greatness of this place… it struck me.
Standing around these graves we looked to one another. I realized no matter how far the cultural and religious ties from the reality of most of our current communities, as a future rabbi, as the only clergy on the trip, I knew words must be shared, and the silence had to be broken.
“One of the most vicious ways to go to war against a people is through destroying their culture and way of life. Many cultures would bury total cities to erase their opponents from history, and yet, the very fact that there is knowledge that there is a Jewish cemetery shows the intense commitment of our ancestors before us. Despite religious practice, wealth or pressures from the outside world, these Jews in their hundreds, stuck together. Child after child, parent after parent joined in life and as we see, in death with their Jewish roots.
“In a world of so much fragmentation, we must not mistake that brokenness will not find itself in the strongest of families. As we the Jewish people engage in the struggle unify our communities, let this experience remind us that if our ancestors died together, through all the troubles of exile, then we, the living, must live together despite all that challenges to do otherwise.”
We recited King David’s Pslams 23 “The Lord is my Shepherd I shall lack nothing…” and we began our walk back to the center where our Jeeps and JDC personnel took us back to civilization. As the cohort was in the distance, I walked slowly and I took one last glance at the graves of my people, and said “thank you, thank you, thank you.”
So the sun may wane, and the mark may fade, but the blessing in the Amidah to “gather the exiles from the four corners of the earth,” will forever include not just those close to my community, but also our Jewish brothers and sisters in Ethiopia, thousands of years old.
How much money is enough?
“$35,” he said from the front-row pews of Adath Jeshurun Congregation in suburban Minneapolis.
Although I had been encouraging call-and-response in my Dvar Torah in January, I didn’t quite understand what he meant (which I’ll get to it in a bit) and went on talking about the concept of Dayenu. The impetus was the Parshat Beshalach, which deals with the liberation from Egypt and the crossing into Sinai, though Dayenu isn’t in it.
“It’s a much later poem first appearing in the 9th century,” Rabbi David Steinberg of Temple Israel in Duluth told me.
However it got into the liturgy, would it really have been dayenu — good enough — to have been freed from slavery only to die in the desert?
It also conflicts with a passage that says the children of Israel celebrated their liberation with a song — Shirat HaYam — before kvetching to Moses about life in the desert. And a concept that seems almost sacrilegious to me are the verses stating it would have been good enough to have been fed on manna for 40 years and led to the Promised Land but not to have gotten the Torah.
What kind of religion is that — where you get tons of good stuff but don’t have any obligations in return? That’s even better than getting permission from a Bet Din to have a beer at Target Field on Pesach.
None of this is to say I don’t appreciate the fundamental value of liberation, which the late James Brown explained as cogently as the rabbis who stayed up all night:
“We’d rather die on our feet than live on our knees,” he sang in “Say it Loud!” (rhyming the line with “the birds and the bees.”)
That too was call and response, and a key word in both his song and Dayenu is “we” — a personalization of affliction, past and today.
So I get it, though to truly understand good enough, you also have to deconstruct “good” and “enough.” Was manna good? It’s described as being tasty, though interpretations suggest it could have been anything from mushrooms to bird droppings. Regardless, the passage says the people tired of it after a while. Maybe it was more than enough of a good thing.
As for “enough,” exactly how much is enough — especially when it comes to money?
Fortunately, Josh was paying attention, and gave the $35 answer to the $64,000 question. The amount, his grandmother explained afterward, was the remaining cash he needed to buy an iPod.
Good answer. And enough said.
Passover 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.
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.
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.
Elements 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.
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.”
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.
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.
This 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.
Later 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.