Tag Archives: Black

My Christian Great-Grandmother, My Jewish Inspiration

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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.

Posted on November 18, 2014

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Shul Shopping for Diversity

Making Challah, photo credit Town & Village Synagogue

Making Challah, photo credit Town & Village Synagogue

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 Citya white woman, an African American man, and two biracial childrenwe 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.

photo curtesy of Town & Village Synagogue

photo curtesy of Town & Village Synagogue

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.

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Posted on November 11, 2014

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Honoring Dad, Forgiving Myself for Rosh Hashanah

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

Washington_VictoriaphotoMy 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.

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Posted on September 16, 2014

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An Afro-Ashkefardi Recipe For Rosh Hashanah

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!Sorghum-chicken

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!

Ingredients:

Chicken:

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

Sorghum Glaze:

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

Directions:

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.

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Posted on September 9, 2014

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Lessons from Catholic Mass for Rosh Hashanah

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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.

washington_03_72dpiThe 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.

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Posted on September 4, 2014

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Cross-Cultural Parenting: Materialism vs Relationship

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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.

eliyanaWhen 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.

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Posted on August 19, 2014

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Breaking Barriers to Create Community

Foundation For Jewish Camp CEO Jeremy Fingerman

Foundation For Jewish Camp CEO Jeremy Fingerman

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.

Camp Be'chol Lashon Co-Director Kenny Kahn

Camp Be’chol Lashon Co-Director Kenny Kahn

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.

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Posted on June 24, 2014

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Tikkun Olam on Juneteenth

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African American Men’s Group members Carl Crawford, left, and Phil Allen prepare burgers for a free meal for 400 as part of Duluth, Minnesota’s annual Juneteenth celebration. The event commemorates the emancipation of American slaves but also marks the delay in telling them of their freedom. Photo by Ivy Vainio.

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:

“We free?”

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.

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Posted on June 16, 2014

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Tarnished Sterling: The Moral of the Story

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.

SterlingDonald 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.

Posted on May 2, 2014

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Our Jewish African Roots

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…

isaiah_girl2Last 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. 

cemetaryAfter 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.

 

Posted on April 24, 2014

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