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.
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.
Beatrice W. Hudson, known to me as Be Be, was my great-grandmother. She was one of the strongest, and most caring people I have ever met. Born May 10, 1918 in Suffolk, Virginia, she was the oldest of 13, and played a major part in raising her many siblings. Being a Black woman in the racially divided South presented many obstacles. Everyday, the Black minority experienced segregation and daily oppression by the White majority, yet my great-grandmother never strayed from her religion. She attended church every Sunday, celebrated every holiday, and said a prayer before going to bed each night.
Growing up as a bi-racial Jew, I struggle(d) with my identity on a daily basis. I was raised in a predominantly white town, and attended a Jewish day school and synagogue with little diversity. “Are you Jewish,” and “what are you?” were questions I was asked far too often. People’s doubts and confusion about my religious identity made it hard to feel accepted in the Jewish community. Knowing that my great-grandmother was able to live through times where being Black resulted in beatings and deaths, yet still maintain such strong religious beliefs inspired me to be proud of my Jewish heritage. Though the puzzled glares and questions still persist, my doubts have been extinguished. Judaism is an important part of who I am, and my great-grandmother understood and respected that. She knew who I was: her great-grandson.
Though we were of different faiths, she attended almost every religious event I was part of. In fact, the picture we took on my Bar Mitzvah became one of her favorites. Every time I came to visit, there it was on the table, housed in a beautiful frame. She would often tell people amusedly, “look at my handsome husband,” and smile. At the time, I was outwardly abashed hearing this so often, but internally, I was happy to have gotten this title. I could truly be myself around her; she loved me unconditionally. She was so proud to be my great-grandmother. She was Christian, I was Jewish, but we were family.
As her age began to take its toll, she struggled to remember who I was. On my final visit with her, I sat next to her bed, holding her hand for about an hour. She liked when people held her hand. Though the TV was playing in the background, she still wanted to make conversation. She would fluctuate between thinking I was Michael, or another family member. From time to time she would have me remind her who I was, and where she was. Interestingly, she was never startled when she didn’t recognize me. She still saw me as a member of her family. She often asked how are we were related. When I explained the connection, the expression on her face was like that of a child being presented with a trip to Disneyworld. She was so happy she was a great-grandmother and that she had, “such a good looking family.” It was very hard for me when my great-grandmother did not know who I was. The woman to whom I felt so connected, who loved and accepted me unconditionally, who would inspired me, did not know me for me. Yet, there was comfort in knowing that she sensed a familiarity with me. I was her great grandson, her husband, her brother, her cousin…her family, her future.
Some people want to find the nearest fresh fruit and veggie stand. Other people seek out good, fast take-out Chinese. When my family showed up in New York City—a white woman, an African American man, and two biracial children—we went shul shopping.
I was looking for diversity, though fully aware that most American Jews are white. Most of us are, like me, Ashkenazi, immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe. Yet according to Be’chol Lashon’s numbers, about 20% of Jews in America are non-White or non-Ashkenazi. Less than ten percent of American People of the Book are non-white (which is actually more than I’d thought before I looked it up). Some are historically Jewish, other joined the Jewish people from international adoptions, and there is a small but growing group of biracial marriages and mixed-race children.
So I tried to temper my expectations. After all, this may have been NYC, but it was still the USA. And, in fact, we saw diversity in terms of congregation size, clothing fashion, and number of women wrapped in talitot, but we were pretty much looking at white faces.
We decided, instead, to seek out a friendly environment and were busy on Friday nights, checking out services at Reform and Conservative synagogues.
We had thought Reform was our best bet, but it was actually a Conservative synagogue where the rabbi hopped down off the bimah while the cantor was leading a prayer, to say hello. He was very friendly and very genuine and made us feel right at home, if a little singled out. We introduced each other and he promised to chat during the oneg, which we did.
OK, this was a place where we might integrate the congregation but at least we felt welcomed. There was a smattering of diversity; I was sure I saw an Asian face.
When we signed up for Hebrew School, though, it turned out that we had hit the jackpot. Maya would be in the third grade class with a bunch of boys, which was her preference at that stage. But, somehow, Ari entered a preschool Hebrew class with four other children: one with two black parents, one from a single-mother-by-choice family, and another with an Asian mother. And one plain old double-Caucasian girl.
The older generations at the synagogue were all white, but Ari’s class gave us hope that the future would be more colorful and that our children wouldn’t be alone in ushering in that changing demographic. Maybe when they go shul shopping they won’t need to look so hard.
The Jewish month of Elul is a month of contemplation and introspection leading up to Rosh Hashanah. For Victoria Washington it has meant coming to grips with loss and learning to forgive herself. Her inspiring story reminds us all that generosity and love are essential for renewal. -Be’chol Lashon
My parents divorced when I was six and my mother remarried the man who would raise me. I consider this man my father in every single sense of the word. My biological father was still very much a part of my life, but he did not raise me per se. He died of complications from Multiple Sclerosis when I was 25.
My dad, the man who raised me, was the strong and quiet type. He was also dedicated to preparing me for the world I would face as a black, gay woman. He once told me he knew I was gay when I was 5 years old. He let me buy jeans and sweaters and sneakers for back to school, whereas my mother tried to dress me less “tomboyish.” On more than one occasion, I eavesdropped as he told my mother alternately to “leave that girl alone” or “let her make her own decisions.”
He was everything to me growing up. He always said, “excuse me” if he cussed in front of me, never failed to take my hand when we crossed the street even when I was an adult. He taught me what it meant to be valued as a person. In short, he was the perfect father. Although we weren’t blood, when he and my mother were having marriage problems and divorce seemed a possibility my mother related that he told her, “you can walk out that door, but you are NOT taking my child.” Me. He loved and valued me just that much.
My mother once told me, “although I carried you, God created you for him”.
Two years ago, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. March, 2012. April 12th he fell and broke his hip. He went downhill very, very quickly and hospice was called in to help us. He wouldn’t take food or medicine from anyone but me. I would just sit by his bed and read or hold his hand.
May 4th, 2012 I was holding his hand, his grip tightened, he took one last breath and his grip slackened. The man who never, EVER let go of my hand did. I haven’t forgiven him for letting my hand go and leaving me here without him. Without his steadiness, his calmness, his confidence in me; leaving me without his buffer between me and a “challenging” mother.
When he died my mother looked at me and said, “please ask him to breathe. He will breathe for you. He will breathe for you. Please ask him to breathe.” I told her, “I can’t mom. I can’t.” I don’t think she has forgiven me for not asking him to breathe.
Some days I haven’t forgiven myself for not asking him to breathe, but then I realize that I loved him more than enough NOT to ask.
From black-eyed pea hummus spiked with homemade horseradish harissa to matzoh-meal fried chicken cooked in shmaltz, to peach noodle kugels touched with garam masala, Afro-Ashkefardi is my way of cooking Jewish. While some of my DNA goes back to old Jewish genes, I converted to Judaism in 2002. For 14 years I’ve been working on creating a working Jewish identity grounded in my love of being African American and the African Diaspora melded with my love and appreciation for the Jewish people, my other Jewish family. Around my table, only kashrut fences me in. On my plates there are no limits!
Front and center is sorghum. I love sorghum, it’s a gluten-free grain that can be crushed to produce a sweet syrup that doesn’t crystallize. Domesticated in Africa thousands of years ago, it was once grown across the South and Midwest as a cheap sweetening agent. Today in the new Southern cooking based on local ingredients and traditional flavors, sorghum has made a comeback.
In honor of Rosh Hashanah and in hopes for a sweet year to come, I offer these geshmakht sorghum chicken wings, so good your Ima, Umi, or Mameleh will have to run for cover (to avoid the obligatory mama-smacking). As I begin writing my forthcoming food and family memoir, The Cooking Gene, I hope for more discoveries linking my table with the past and stories to share that will inspire us all to nourish our stomachs and family trees.
Wishing you all a Shanah Tovah U’mitukah, a sweet New Year and a tasty one too!
5 pounds chicken wings, separated at the joints into drummettes and flats, (wing tips reserved for other use such as soup)
1 tablespoon kosher powdered chicken broth or bullion
2 tablespoons of vegetable or canola oil
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 clove of minced garlic
2 tablespoons of minced onion—yellow or red
1 tablespoon of vegetable or canola oil
¼ cup of water seasoned with 1 ½ teaspoons of powdered kosher chicken broth
2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons of prepared chrain or red horseradish
¼ cup of sorghum molasses
In a large bowl, season the chicken wings with the broth powder, oil and black pepper, tossing to coat well. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F and line two baking sheets with 1-inch sides with aluminum foil. Place cooking racks on foiled sheets and spread chicken and roast for 45 minutes.
While the wings are baking, in a medium pot, saute the garlic and onion in the oil. Add the broth-water, vinegar, chrain and sorghum molasses. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to a low simmer, stirring frequently for about 7-10 minutes or until the sauce reduces significantly or coats the back of a spoon. Remove from heat, and allow it to thicken for 20 minutes. Remove the roasted wings from the oven and reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees F.
Place the roasted wings in a large metal or ceramic bowl. Drizzle half the prepared sauce over the wings, reserving the other half for dipping, and stir several times to coat well. Place the wings on a new set of racks with and allow them to glaze in the oven for another 15 minutes.
Growing up in a very Reform household, I was never completely comfortable at the prospect of being called to the bima for an honor.
Until I attended Mass. Most every Sunday, for more than a year.
The reason wasn’t religious, but journalistic; as part of the Boston Herald’s “God Squad” a dozen years ago, covering the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal. I was initially hesitant, not wanting to encroach on the sacred space of the then-archbishop, Bernard Cardinal Law, regardless of his misdeeds. But I soon became familiar with the liturgy, including parts that might yield news—such as when he failed to annunciate “the victims of clergy sexual abuse” among those for whom he offered intentions.
I established my own rhythm for the flow of the service, determining when appropriate to sit or stand (but never kneeling.) One instance was comical: Law had just said something interesting before the Eucharistic Prayer and I hurriedly completed my notes while sitting, then jumped up. The press gallery, by that point used to following my lead, all rose with me.
And then there was the time when a TV reporter who shared my first name took the pew next to me. We were two Robins watching a cardinal.
Most extraordinary was the Sunday that Law departed from what I would presume to be Catholic orthodoxy to articulate a very familiar passage: That for transgressions against God, the gates of repentance are always open, but for sins against your fellow human, you must seek forgiveness from that person.
Huh? I thought—that’s straight out of the High Holiday prayer book, and not quite consistent with the concept of priestly confession.
Abuse victims who regularly protested outside the cathedral heard word of it too, some immediately getting in line to be served the Eucharist by Law. “Forgive me,” he said as he recognized each.
It was a moving moment, though not enough to undo the years of pain and trauma, nor keep it from continuing throughout the church today.
If Law had gone rogue religiously, it wasn’t the only time the service went off-script. I noticed minor differences on occasion, including once when chimes didn’t sound as the wafer was broken.
“Does that mean transubstantiation didn’t occur?” I asked a priest friend afterward, not at all in jest or meant to insult.
“It’s just for show,” he said with a wink—referring to the chimes, I assume, not the transformation.
In that spirit I began to notice we too made mistakes in shul. Despite being in one of the colder places on Earth, Duluth’s Temple Israel is the warmest I’ve ever been a part of, and its small congregation is quite willing to inform the rabbi—lovingly so—if he’s on the wrong page, or if the gabbai has passed someone by.
So it’s easy to stand on the bima now, knowing any worship is anything but perfect. What matters is not how beautifully you say words or prayers, but how real you make them in the rest of your life; through actions to repair the world, for love and peace, justice and life.
My honor this year is calling the shofar sounds, and I’ll be thinking of those aspirations as I say tekiah, shevarim, teruah, tekiah gedolah, even if there are other, more accurate interpretations.
I’ll try to pronounce them right. But if not, it’s no cardinal sin.
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.
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.