Black Lives Matter, on the first night of Hanukkah and also on the second night, the third night and every other night and day of the year.
On the first light of Hanukkah, some in the Jewish community are taking the opportunity to express the sentiment that “Black Lives Matter.” We at Be’chol Lashon could not agree more. We dedicate ourselves to making the Jewish commitment to racial equality part of the everyday fabric of American Jewish life.
We believe strongly in society’s potential for transformation, but simultaneously know that protests alone are not enough. Real change requires long-term day-to-day work in the streets as well as in our synagogues, schools, camps and organizations.
First and foremost, as Jews we need to recognize that when we talk about Black lives, we are not talking about “them.” Studies show that 20% of the Jewish community identifies as something other than white or Askenazi, with approximately 10% identifying as people of color. Unfortunately, our organizations, our narrative and the boundaries of our community do not always reflect this reality.
In order to affect change at the American societal level, we must begin at home. Be’chol Lashon has identified sustainable options to help the Jewish community be the change they wish to see in America.
First person stories and exposure are essential to helping people understand unfamiliar points of view. It is important to open ourselves to the plurality of voices and experiences that exist in the Jewish community. Jews of color, like all Jews, have a range of experiences and points of view. Be’chol Lashon’s media and speakers, such as recent documentary Little White Lie, are powerful tools to engage in discussions about race, identity and family. Get to know these stories, bring them to your communities to encourage proactive, positive conversations about race with Americans of all backgrounds.
Combating prejudice and racism starts with teaching children to
connect across differences, navigating diverse cultures with curiosity, sensitivity and confidence. Our curriculum—Passport to Peoplehood—expands children’s awareness of themselves in relation to the racial diversity of Jews and others around the world. Partnering with camps, JCCs, and schools we foster an understanding of the historic and contemporary reality of the Jewish people. Youth readily internalize new patterns of thinking and race and diversity must play a core part of Jewish education at every level.
Most people struggle when it comes to talking about race but true progress lies in our ability to broaden discussions beyond events such as Ferguson. The Race Project provides trainings to actively engage in crucial conversations and unravel race as a social construct. Just as we have come to realize that conversations about Israel are more productive when people are trained to listen or have facilitators assist the process, so too when it comes to race.
Outrage is understandable, but it is not a solution. Sustainable change needs time, work and commitment. Be’chol Lashon is devoted to bringing these kinds of opportunities to the Jewish community, because black lives matter IN the Jewish community.
When I think about Ferguson, Missouri I think about the Star Wars Trilogy. I spent every summer between the ages of 10 and 25 in Ferguson; and, I also spent a few weeks over the winter holiday there as well. So, I always waited with baited breath for summer, and the next movie in the trilogy. Every Saturday during those times, we ate Faraci’s pizza. When the riots first happened, I remember thinking, “I hope they leave Faraci’s alone because I really want some when I go back”…and I was grateful to see Faraci’s still standing when I went back to Ferguson for my mother’s 85 birthday party.
I also remember trudging to Schnucks grocery store during the “great blizzard” and I got my very first job bagging groceries at that same store. The summer I turned 24, I spent jogging the streets of Ferguson as I prepared for the physical agility part of the police application process.
Having grown up spending time in Ferguson, served as a police officer in Columbia, Missouri, and a career as a criminal defense attorney, I had lots of personal reactions to the death of Michael Brown. After the news broke about his death the inevitable media rush to the bottom began to occur. Everything about Ferguson, the citizens, the population, the police was fodder for debate and commentary. I began to wonder if I lived in a Ferguson vacuum. I never, ever heard my family talk about racism, racists cops anything that suggested things were as bad and one sided as the media suggested. None of my family ever told me, “hey be careful, you know the cops will harass you if they see you jogging down the street”; no one ever said, “hey be careful while you’re driving”. They alerted me to speed traps but nothing about bad cops. But then I realized…that was literally 25 years ago. My, how things have apparently changed.
One week before Michael Brown was killed, I was stopped for speeding in Calverton Park, Missouri, just around the corner from Ferguson. I was stopped by a young, white cop. I was driving a 2014 SUV with Florida license plates (a rental) and I was speeding. The cop was young, but professional and friendly. He did not approach with his hands on his gun and did not approach with an attitude of fear. I believe it is because I go through the same ritual when stopped by the police for any reason: I turn the car off, put it in park, roll down my window, and stick my hand out the window. If it is night time, I turn on my dome light to illuminate the interior. It is these “Hey, I’m not armed” rituals that dictate how the cop approaches me. It is these little things people of color have to do that Anglos do not have to do in order to survive police encounters.
Racial profiling does exist. It can be very dangerous. And so much went horribly wrong in the case of Michael Brown.
With my personal and professional experience both of the St. Louis area and the criminal justice system, I could write volumes about the specifics of this case and that Eric Garner. Every piece is complex and worthy of analysis, from the way Michael Brown’s body lay uncovered for hours in the street, to the media sympathy for Darren Wilson, to intricacies of the Grand Jury system. In the both the Brown and Garner cases, the Grand Juries decided after all they heard there was not enough to charge the officer(s) with a crime. But what were they told? Did they have the information to do their job? The tools—or lack thereof—they were given to arrive at that answer is the real injustice.
But let me leave you with a few thoughts, while black men are killed by cops disproportionately, people fail to realize and remember police also kill white men without punishment. The fact is that they can apparently kill anyone regardless of race and/or color makes this a misuse of power and authority issue, not necessarily a racial issue. I think this is why many people of all races should be concerned: the police can kill their children too and not be held accountable.
Here are 3 facts I want you to remember about these incidents and the rest of the incidents that will follow:
Just because something is unjust, does not mean it was illegal or against the law; secondly, just because a death event has been labeled a homicide, does not mean it was murder. Lastly, the purpose of a grand jury is to answer one question, and one question only: Is there enough evidence to charge this person with a crime. Period. Guilt/Innocence is not the question or the issue.
Over the last few weeks, as America waited for the Grand Jury decisions in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, we have been touring with our documentary, Little White Lie, encouraging proactive, positive conversations about race and identity with Americans of all backgrounds. The outrage expressed at the grand jury decisions tells us two things. One, race remains a volatile and potentially dangerous third rail in American society and two, so long as we continue to wait for moments of crisis to talk about race, it will remain so. It is difficult for us as Americans to talk about race, and even harder to do so when we do not have to. As the mother of a Black teenager, I know that in the current racial climate, no matter how much my son individualizes, he will be forced to deal with the harsh reality of toxic racial dynamics.
When I adopted my son Jonah in 1997, one of my primary concerns was that he would not see himself reflected in the American Jewish community—that his Jewish identity and his Black identity would be in conflict. I am gratified that after attending Jewish day school and growing up participating in Be’chol Lashon programs, he knows many other racially diverse Jews and takes his Jewish identity for granted. Now that Jonah is 17, I am aware that my concern has shifted and that in everyday life, the unique identity Jonah has developed will often be disregarded in favor of assumptions about his skin color.
Recently, Jonah came home and announced, “Mom, the supermarket security guy just asked for my receipt and took all the things out of my bag. I was racially profiled.” I realize that I must have conversations that I did not have with his white siblings—like making sure his hands are visible at all times if he happens to be stopped by the police. It is unsettling to instill distrust in my son for police officers. While it may be a necessary defensive measure, it reinforces how important it is to proactively work to reduce racial tension.
The racial dynamics on display recently present more than a physical danger—they threaten to derail the identity development of millions of young people of color. In middle school, Jonah was encouraged to write about himself in anticipation of applying to high school. In a particularly poignant poem he wrote, “I am not Jordan or Malik, I am Jonah. Why don’t people ‘see‘ that I am part of my family? Why do they only see ‘difference’?” Good question and one being asked by the growing population from mixed racial, religious, cultural and ethnic backgrounds who identify beyond the boundaries of America’s racial divide. Teaching our children to keep their hands visible around police does little to answer this question. The safety of our children, both physical and emotional, lies in our ability as a society to broaden the discussion abut race beyond events such as Ferguson.
Jeff Chang insightfully articulates in his latest book, Who We Be, (http://whowebe.net/) that, “We can all agree that race is not a question of biology. Instead it is a question of culture and it begins as a visual problem, one of vision and visuality.” Race was created as a social construct and as such it can only be unraveled through social engagement and discussion. Who We Be chronicles racial progress through cultural commentary. In one example from the early 60s, cartoonist Morrie Turner drew kids having profound discussions about race and community. In Wee Pals, Oliver, a white kid, introduced the neighborhood kids to each other—Peter “the Mexican-American,” George “the Oriental,” 11 Rocky “the full- blooded American Indian,” and Randy, who, Oliver paused to note, was “a Afro- American, Negro, Black, Colored, Soul Brother.” “And what are you?” Peter asked Oliver. “Very careful!” Oliver replied.
A half-century later, even though Americans have elected their first Black president and are in the midst of dramatic demographic and cultural shifts, works similar to Turner’s groundbreaking cartoons are no less important. Fortunately, the torch is being carried and with the revolution in social media, the opportunity to impact Americans through pointed social commentary is greater than ever.
Notable contemporary efforts include Kenya Barris’ new sit-com Black-ish and Justin Simien’s film Dear White People which, although rife with stereotypes, manage to be humorous while authentic and compelling, putting questions about race front and center. Journalist and NYU professor Liel Leibovitz comments, “We laugh because…the conversation about race is one enough of us are eager to have honestly and openly.” He suggests that these conversations are not just about race, but are about self, community, traditions, and history.
As an organization that celebrates multicultural traditions and history of Jewish communities around the world, we executive produced Lacey Schwartz’s touching tour de force documentary about her family hiding a Little White Lie and her journey to come to terms with her mixed black and Jewish heritage. It offers a unique and compelling personal narrative that speaks directly to the changes in American demographics and Jewish identity. Little White Lie is a powerful and timely educational tool to engage in necessary conversations about race, a crucial step in an effort to make sure our children will be “seen” as who they are.
The tragedy highlighted by both the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases is that we still live in a world where Black men are seen as in fundamental conflict with law enforcement. This is a dangerous juxtaposition that underlines the fact that racial tension in America remains volatile and potentially violent. It pushes back directly against my desire to raise my son with a sense of agency over his own life. I will do my best to teach Jonah how to manage the perceptions of others and how to stay safe in a dangerous world. And I will continue to work daily to change the way the Jewish community talks and thinks about race. But Jonah’s safety, like that of many others, depends upon our collective ability as Americans and as Jews to push the conversation about race forward, even when there are no grand jury decisions to spur us on.
Most of the Jewish kids I knew growing up partook in a handful of familiar traditions during the holiday season. They would light their menorahs, eat latkes and jelly doughnuts, and squeal in delight of the gelt they’d win from a few festive rounds of dreidel before bedtime. In my house, the traditions were very similar, except we sometimes swapped Cuban-style malanga fritters for potato pancakes. Despite the fact that my extended family represents many different religions, my parents made it clear from the start that in our Jewish home, we celebrate Hanukkah.
Conversely, my abuelos, or grandparents, native Cubans and devout Catholics, hosted an annual Christmas party. As it was the one time in the year where every single member of my large extended family would be in attendance, my parents felt strongly that we accept the invitation, as well. These parties boasted beautiful decorations ornamenting the entire house, piles of colorful gifts for the grandkids under the tree, and echoes of laughter and warmth from family members reuniting. Of course, these elements were certainly a big draw, but the main event was always the food. Oh, the food! My abuela, the original culinary matriarch of the family, made sure nobody left hungry, and always had enough food for everyone to take home leftovers of the scrumptious Cuban feast she’d make. Her Christmas parties offered the all-star dishes from her culinary arsenal: succulent roasts, creamy black beans spooned over white rice, a variety of seasonal vegetables, and just like our Hanukkah dinners, Abuela’s Christmas parties would not be complete without malanga fritters.
As dinner ended, my abuela found immense joy in passing out the Christmas gifts, and she went to great lengths to make sure that her Jewish grandchildren were not overlooked. She always had a little something for my brother and me under her tree, and unlike the gifts for my cousins, ours were always wrapped in Hanukkah paper. This small gesture not only made my brother and me feel extra special, but it was an expression of the support she showed my mother about her decision to convert to Judaism.
Through the years, I’ve attended countless family Christmas parties, baptisms, first communions, and so on, just as my family has shown their support at my traditionally Jewish life-cycle events. I’ve always loved learning about my family’s different religions, and fondly remember many a time when I stayed up late with my cousins, explaining the significance of some of the Jewish traditions I practiced. I took great pride in being the authority on all things Jewish, and made sure my explanations were always as authentic as possible. As an adult, I have a deep-rooted fascination with the world’s major religions, mentally noting the similarities and differences between them and my native Judaism every chance I get. This fascination, coupled with my early exposure to other religions, has only helped to foster my strong identity as a Jew.
I recognize that I am incredibly lucky to have been born into such a supportive and engaged, albeit religiously diverse, family. This spring, as my husband and I welcome the newest member of the tribe to our family, I hope to teach our child not only of our Jewish traditions, but to encourage respect and admiration for others’ traditions, as well.
Frituras de Malanga (Malanga Fritters)
By the TheCubenReuben.com
Prep time: 10 mins
Cook time: 25 mins
Total time: 35 mins
Recipe type: Appetizer
Serves: 35 fritters
1 lb. malanga, peeled and coarsely chopped
½ lb. yucca (also known as cassava), peeled and coarsely chopped
3 cloves fresh garlic
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
2 tsp baking powder
2 large eggs
2 tsp chopped Italian parsley
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
3 cups vegetable oil (for frying)
1. Heat oil in a large frying pan over medium heat.
2. In a food processor, grind together the malanga, yuca, and garlic. Transfer to a medium bowl.
3.Add lemon juice, baking powder, eggs, parsley, salt and pepper to the mixture, and stir until well combined.
4. Test the oil with a tiny drop of the mixture. If oil bubbles, it is ready to fry.
5. Using two kitchen spoons, drop one spoonful of the mixture into the hot oil, and fry for two minutes or until the bottom side starts to brown. Turn the fritter over, and continue to fry until golden brown throughout.
6. Taste fritter to determine if it has enough salt and pepper for your liking. Adjust batter accordingly, and continue frying. Be careful not to overcrowd the pan.
7. Remove the cooked fritters from the oil, and drain on a platter lined with paper towel.
8. Serve immediately.
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As a Jew, do I respond to the needs of the stranger as I am repeatedly commanded to do so? As a Jew, have I fought to recruit a jury and politicians that stands for equality and justice? As Jew, should my voice be raised high, discontented and repetitive until justice is met?
For me, as I recall the anti-Semitic struggle of my European ancestors, and as I seek to understand how my grandfather’s grandmother, Lucille Mcgruder, was born enslaved in West Virginia during a segment of America’s darkest times, these questions burn in my mind. But as we learn from the story of how Jacob became Israel, these questions are fundamental to all Jews.
In Genesis 32: 25-29 we read:
“And Jacob was left alone, and a man (some say angel) wrestled with him until morning…and he (man/angel) said ‘let me go because it is the morning, and he (Jacob) said I will not let you go unless you bless me, and he (angel/man) said to him ‘what is your name?’ he said ‘Jacob.’ And he (angel/man) said, ‘no longer shall your name be Jacob, but rather Israel, because you struggled with God (for the sake of the Divine), and with men (for the sake of man) and were triumphant.’”
Later in the Bible, in his final message to our nation, Moses reminds the people of Israel as they get ready to enter the land of Israel, that the Israelites are who they are because they seek justice from below and above. Fundamental to being Jews was the agreement with God to make the physical world free of spiritual and moral blemish. We were “chosen” to elevate the stranger the orphan and the widow, and to build a world of moral courage and freedoms for all. We were “chosen” to be Israel, to struggle with the Divine and with Men, to fight for the Divine when Men fall low, and to Fight with God, when men cant “pull it together.” As we learn about Jacob in the Torah, we were not “chosen,” to stay in the walls of our synagogue (tent), because the plight of the world is too great to stay concealed in the warmth of the soul.
We are called Israel, because we made a decision to scream out when corruption is rampant. (Numbers 25:11)
We are called Israel, because we are not afraid to say that truth should reign in the place of folly. (Joseph the Righteous, 41:42)
We are called Israel, because of people like Louis Isaac Jaffe who condemned American whites for lynching American Blacks.
We are called Israel, because of people like Gili Rosenberg who reasoned “because they are our brothers” when asked why she joined the Kurdish fighters against ISIS.
We are called Israel, because even when my twin brother plots evil schemes against me, I will still attempt to appease him (Genesis 33:3)
We are named Israel, because when she comes, we know her well, when the stranger is without refuge, we defend and embrace her without hesitation.
Jacob wrestled with the angel and the battle left him with a limp and a new name. Jews collectively embrace the name Israel, because we will wrestle, even when it means that we may leave limping.
“And the boys ran about inside her, and she [Rebecca] said, If this is so, then why am I? and she went to seek God. And God said to her ‘two nations are in your womb, and two are in your insides, and one nation will be stronger than the other and the older shall serve the younger (26:27).”
Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (France, 12th century) notes that Rebecca expected to mother just the Jewish people and have a singleton birth from which would come the Jewish people. Instead two separate entities grew within her, two powers, two forms of kingship.
But what forms of kingships exactly?
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches (Ukraine, 18th century) that “there are two forms of kingship in the world: one that is hidden for our sake, and one that is revealed for the sake of the world.”
Esau is called “the man who knows game, the man of the field.” While YJacob aakov is called the “simple man who dwelt in the tents.” Esau was called the revealed kingship, with billboards and banners, while Jacob is perceived as modest, without complexity, “a simple man.” Total opposites. An extrovert and an introvert. One of words, and one of action, one voice, and the other of hands.
But it is Rebekah’s vision to bring these two oppositional forces together. And she does so covertly and with implicit intentions. When Jacob, approached Isaac his father, he touched him. His father then states: “the voice is the voice of Jacob, and the hands are the hands of Esau (27:22).” Both sides come together, Rebekah’s vision was complete.
At last, Jacob must leave his tent, and learn about the second kind of kingship, the one of the field, the one of subjectivity Jacob must embrace the world of difference. Who did Jacob become? As the verse states “the voice of Jacob with the hands of Esau.” This verse teaches us the ability to know when to use our words softly, as if in a tent, but also to know when to scream as if in a field was what made Jacob a worldly and appropriate individual to father the Jewish nation. To have the splendor of multiple realities existing simultaneously.
Very often we are presented with difficulties that are out of our reach. We call them problems. We complain, we sigh, we scoff, and we cry because we believe the problem to be an outside influence, and not something that is a part of me and my experience. When such a struggle surfaces, how do I react, do I embrace the conflict as an opportunity like Rebekah, do I encourage fusion of ideas or perspectives? Or do I run? Do I allow for conflict to remain for always? Do I even try?
And Esau ran toward him and embraced him, and he fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. (33:4)
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.
Diversity is like a pizza pie. When I get my slice of pizza, I may feel as if no one is about to take part in this mouth watering experience, this mushroom-onion slice is mine, and mine alone. But as I finish, pay and make my way towards the door, I notice others, with a slice almost identical to my own. I pause, and I realize I am seeing double. And as I look at the pizza tray behind the closed glass, I take note, at times against my will, that the pizza others eat comes from the same place mine did. My experience is my own but is it also connected to theirs.
Parashat Chayei Sarah, is a portion of doubles and seeming contradictions, distancing and connecting: While Abraham claims his identity as a “resident” during his negotiation process of Sarah’s burial plot, he also identifies himself as a “stranger” amongst them. Similarly, Rebecca, our second matriarch, was a righteous woman, who carried the weight of living with “Laban the Deceitful,” but was able to remain true to herself. A conflict for some, possible for Rebecca. Finally, Isaac too brings together two things that often are seen as opposite. When he standardizes the afternoon, Mincha prayer, he connects day and night.
We humans have a proclivity for individualism. It helps us determine our own self-image, and define who we are in any situation. We carry this instinct to compartmentalize and differentiate from that which is other than the self. I may share the same pie of pizza with four strangers, but struggle to identify with them and their experience.
As the Torah states in Genesis (23:19): “and after this (the sale of the plot of land) Avraham buried his wife Sarah in the Machpeila cave in the fields, opposite Mamre, Hebron, in the land of Canaan. And the field and the cave transaction became established for Avraham as a burial place.” Avraham purchases a cave to preserve the life of Sarah and their legacy together. But also the field which can be planted, allowing him to begin to fulfill the destiny of the Jewish nation in the Land of Israel.
Later in the same portion, we read of Rebecca. Her opening scene points to her enthusiasm and personal responsibility to connect at every moment to HaShem. “She (Rivka) finished giving him drink, she said, I will draw water even for your camels until they have finished drinking.” So she hurried and emptied her jug into the trough and kept running to the well to draw water, and she drew for all his camels.” The word Rivka (Rebecca) means to link. In addition, the Hebrew letters R.V.K.H are the same letters as H.B.K.R (the morning). And just as her husband linked day to night with twilight, she connected night to day.
As we navigate a world filled with complex paradoxes and certain ambiguity, this portion teaches us we should embrace dualities and reach out to connect with that which is beyond our selves and personal experience. Just as Avraham created a connection through the generations and Rebecca created spiritual connections. We cannot be consumed by our own experiences, whether mundane like eating pizza or grand like loosing loved ones, but rather like our fore-parents we need see our experiences as opportunities to connect.
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.
This week, I’d like to focus on the self, not as the observer, but as the observed. Not when we felt comfortable enough to notice the difference in the other, but more the moment my insides pinch from when realizing everything we believe ourselves to be, is called into question. It is because in those moments that my identity has been threatened that I not only retreat inwardly, but fend off all potential opposition—losing not only myself, but connection to a community and lifestyle.
Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, teaches us that in order to reach the goal of the self-actualization, a person must feel comfortable in their environment and develop a sense of identity. This need, or the “esteem need” is bedrock of the human experience. In his work, A Theory of Human Motivation, Maslow explores this need, and what happens when it goes unmet:
“All people in our society (with a few pathological exceptions) have a need or desire for a stable, firmly based, (usually) high evaluation of themselves, for self respect, or self-esteem, and from the esteem of others…the desire for strength, for achievement, for adequacy, for confidence in the face of the world, for independence for freedom.”
We need people to see us in a positive light, and we do things constantly in order to be perceived the way in which seems fitting in our own eyes for their eyes.
How difficult the journey when I am the stranger in a world that does not welcome me? How sad the setting that causes me to feel so estranged that my basic human need, values, beliefs and my very identity is lost?
In Genesis 21:6, on the surface, we read of barren woman without a child to call her own, but with a deeper look, we see a woman barren of identity, lost within an environment that belittles her for her inability to give birth. Sarah, caught in a net of self-estrangement and difference, cannot believe that at her old age of ninety that she would give birth.
“And Sarah Said: ‘God has made laughter for me; everyone that will hear, will laugh because of me.’ And she said: ‘who would have said to Avraham that Sarah could breast-feed.’ ‘For I have bore him a son in his old age?’”
In the social jungle of the human experience, there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity. When I am incapable of adapting to a setting, I am left with few options or coping strategies. Some people laugh and some disengage. Some stay in the corner, and others leave, but here we learn of our Matriarch, a woman with enough confidence to leave her entire life behind for a new one, but loses herself when she realizes it is her who does not fit in.
As our world grows further apart and closer together, as we get thirstier for connection in a desperate kind of way, the opportunity is upon us to welcome in the other, to tolerate ritual and spiritual expression in its many facets. To proclaim loud, “I know you are different, but come closer…I’m different too!” For without doing so, diversity is rejected, and our Jewish identities will remain a far cry from being our own.