Despite its air of frivolity, or perhaps because of it, the upcoming Jewish holiday of Purim offers the opportunity to explore the challenges we face when it comes to identity inclusion and race. Both the story of Purim and the rituals of the holiday speak directly to a contemporary sensibility and provide us with some important lessons for living in a diverse multicultural world.
The king of the story of Purim, Achashverosh lived in the city of Shusan in ancient Persia. But his kingdom was vast, stretching over 70 nations from India to Africa. People of many backgrounds and religions came under his rule, including Jews and he was glad to host all at his palace. According to the legends of the Indian and Ethiopian Jewish communities, Jews had lived in those lands even before the Purim story era. The king had a Jewish advisor, named Mordechai (Esther’s uncle and guardian) but that did not mean he was aware of the value of the Jews as part of his multicultural empire. The king allowed Haman to threaten to destroy the Jews.
Ultimately redemption of the Jews serves not only as an omen of Jewish good fortune but also as a reminder of the folly of any society that does not value all its people. Among the many nations, the Jews as a group were singled out because of one element of their identity. By contrast, we need to be able to see people for who they are and not judge them negatively for being different; otherwise we will be no better than Haman.
Esther, the heroine for whom the biblical story is named, is a complex character. Born to a prominent Jewish family, she hides her Jewish identity to become queen. There is no record of what she looked like but her look must not have stood out as distinctly Jewish to others, allowing her to ‘pass’ undetected as a Jew. All of us have elements of our identities that are immediately visible to others and elements of our identities that are hidden. Esther’s ability to conceal her Judaism allowed her to navigate the politics of the palace community.
Every one of us, to greater and lesser degrees, learns to navigate different social and cultural settings, putting forward or concealing elements of who we are. At the same time, we often are seen as who we are on the surface, which can be misleading or not tell the full story. Haman, might have been more strategic about his approach to the Jews had he understood that one of the king’s favorite wives was a Jew. Living in a diverse society demands both the capacity to navigate elements of our own identity as well as be aware of our biases and assumptions about others.
And as everyone knows, the customary costumes provide a real life opportunity kids and adults alike to try on different identities. But even the foods, hamantaschen cookies filled with sweets, the raviolis that Italian Jews eat, or the kreplach of Eastern European Purim tradition, all have a hidden element, challenging us to look beyond the surface.
Purim is a festive holiday with much fun and good food. But concealed in the story and in the rituals of the day are a series of complex and meaningful issues that demand our attention in an increasingly global world.
This summer Lindsey Newman and Josh Rothstein are going to be leading the first free Taglit Birthright Israel trip with a focus on diversity. We asked Lindsey what draws her to Israel.
Israel is a place where I learned about diversity– before I could articulate what diversity meant, I was able to see it and live it. As a Jew of color growing up in a mostly white community in New York City, it was sometimes hard to find diversity and diverse role models to look up to. But when I first arrived in Israel at age 7, my sense of what Jewish looked like expanded immediately.
My family returned to Israel the next summer, when I was 8, this time staying for two months and living in Jerusalem. I was among an international contingent of American, Israeli and Israeli Arab children all enjoying the best that summer camp has to offer. Most of what I knew of Israel at that time was watermelon ice pops, flying kites on the Jerusalem promenade, and Bisli. For a Jew of color, from a mixed race background and multiracial family, it was one of the first times in my life that I felt I fully belong among the rich tapestry of Jewish life.
Later I returned as a teen, for a summer program that brought together participants from all across the US and Israel, I became friends with Jews whose parents and/or grandparents were born in Yemen, Ethiopia, Iran, Russia, France, Greece and elsewhere. While I still have a soft spot for brisket, the traditional meal I had at my friend’s Iraqi-Algerian home is still the best Rosh Hashanah meal I’ve ever had. (Although I must admit, I passed when the fish head was offered to me even though it’s good luck.)
Through art, travel, study and just getting to know each other, we wrestled with what it means to be Jewish, what it means to us personally to be a Jew, and what it means to live with other Jews. We tested each other, and we learned from each other. We were reminded that Judaism is not a singular experience– we are a diverse global people with different customs, complexions and experiences.
Israel was one of my first positive experiences with Jewish diversity in all its iterations. Of course, with diversity comes complexity, and exploring Israel meant coming face to face with its triumphs and its challenges. But facing this complexity can be incredibly valuable, for out of struggle can come strength.
These Israel experiences inspired me to create a Birthright trip with a focus on diversity. Diversity is a universal issue but it is also a Jewish issue and in my experience there is no better place to experience it than Israel. I’m looking forward to sharing the many flavors, sounds, and customs of Israel’s many multicultural communities and individuals. I’m looking forward to discussing and debating the challenges of diversity and identity –in a setting that deals with these issues all the time. I’m looking forward to getting to know a bus filled with Jews from all over the United States who represent the many ethnic, racial and cultural heritages that are the contemporary community. And of course I’m looking forward to Bisli and just hanging out by the pool.
My husband, Grant and I have worked together to rear our children in the Jewish faith. We made a conscious effort to place our family in diverse cities: New York, Los Angeles and now the Bay Area – to expose them to a variety of cultures and ethnicities.
What challenges have I really faced? What have I done to remind our children that they aren’t just Jewish but Filipino. What have I done to help them embrace the culture that I grew up in?
Filipino culture is rooted – for the most part – in three major areas: religion, family and food.
I grew up Catholic. Went to Catholic school from high school through college and even after graduating and living in San Francisco I would still attend mass every Sunday. Partly because I knew my Mom would ask if I went and I couldn’t be dishonest with her.
I remember big dinners on Sundays or celebrations where everyone came together and there was always a table filled with almost every traditional Filipino dish you could imagine. Every get together had its share of both family drama and laughter.
So when I think about what I have done to make an effort to infuse my Filipino background with our family – I don’t see challenges – if anything I see similarities.
We stress the importance of our Judaism, especially in a world where we try to explain to our children why we don’t celebrate Christmas when one set of grandparents do, that the Easter bunny will never come hopping by our home, and that matzoh for a whole week can be rather tasty – you just have to know how to bring out the flavor.
We are doing our very best to give our children the strongest foundation we can. With that foundation we stress the importance of being true to who you are – embracing the beauty and traditions of our religion and the legacy of all the Jewish people before us.
We light the candles every Friday and have family Shabbat dinner. We spend time with family and friends over the Jewish holidays – surrounded by food and laughter – creating memories.
A perfect example of how we have effortlessly combined Filipino and Jewish tradition happened on the night of Yom Kippur. I asked the family what they would like for Shabbat dinner and the unanimous vote was chicken adobo – a traditional Filipino dish – with green beans and garlic, rice and of course, a challah.
One would immediately think, “What an interesting pairing…” but it showcases our family off perfectly.
This is who we are.
We are Jewish and Filipino. The integration of both cultures has been a seamless one because we have adopted the same value system from each one. We value our religion. We value our family. And. We love food.
We celebrate our diversity and feel so blessed that our children will grow up being proud of not only being Jewish but being Filipino.
This piece was first shared from the bimah at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos, California.
Drake’s recent SNL skit (see below), perhaps unwittingly but then again perhaps not, highlighted how a bar or bat mitzvah can deeply impact how a young person views his or her Jewish identity in the context of other identities. A bar or bat Mitzvah can be a defining moment in the development of one’s Jewish identity, but it can also feel like prioritizing one identity over others. Especially for the growing population of Jews from mixed racial, ethnic, religious and other backgrounds, the bar or bat mitzvah may be the first setting where the varied familial and sometimes non-familial influences of a young Jew come together under Jewish auspices. It can be a valuable opportunity to celebrate and honor the multiple elements of a child’s identity. One need not leave heritage at the door when stepping forward as a Jew. On the contrary, it is perhaps the best time to reassure young Jews that participation in Jewish life does not diminish any other aspects of one’s self.
Below is a list of some general suggestions on how a family or community might create multicultural b’nai mitzvah celebrations. These are general in nature and we would love to hear from families, clergy and communities that have found their own ways to engage multiple heritages.
Music: Jewish services rely on music and even the Torah is chanted. Most American synagogues rely on music that is either American, or European in origin. However, there are multitude of rich Jewish musical traditions representing the myriad of places there have been or are currently Jewish communities. Ask about learning to chant Torah in a different nusach or tune, or bring in piyyutim or prayers that represent a different Jewish cultural heritage. There is a long tradition of adapting secular tunes to sacred words. This can similarly be done to connect the songs of one culture with the prayers of Judaism.
Torah Study: Bar and Bat Mitzvah students usually share some insights into the weekly Torah portion. If your family traces origins to Spain, for example, ask your rabbi if there are any sources he or she can recommend that are Spanish or descended from Spanish Jews. Indian? Then draw on the wisdom of Indian Jewish tradition. Throughout the generations, rabbis have learned from the wisdom that lies beyond the Jewish community. Not specifically Jewish sources of wisdom can also be consulted in helping to shape or answer questions that will be addressed by the child in question.
Dress: Nowhere is it written that one must wear a suit or a dress and heels on the bimah. Kimonos, saris, or kilts are all perfectly acceptable for the child and the family members. Kippot can be made from any kind of material and look great in tartan, African cloth or Thai Batik. Similarly, tallitot, prayer shawls, can be made from any cloth as long as there are four corners with proper tzitzit knotted on each.
Language: English is not a sacred Jewish language. American Jews use English because it helps us understand the Hebrew -which is a sacred language, which most of us don’t know. So if your family speaks Korean, Amharic, or Flemish, send out multilingual invites or consider sharing some of the blessings in that language. Worried your guests won’t understand? Don’t be. Many don’t get the Hebrew either but we know from experience that they can find that meaningful.
Food: There is nothing holy about lox and cream cheese. Kimchi or Jerk chicken are just as appropriate for a Kiddush or for your party. If your caterer is unfamiliar with a dish that you hold dear, consider sharing some family recipes. Just check in with the synagogue that to be sure that what you are serving accords with the dietary policies.
Artwork: Art from another culture can be incorporated into the celebration in a variety of ways, on the invitation, the insert in the prayer books, as decorations in the synagogue or celebration hall. I attended a celebration at an Orthodox synagogue recently to find Japanese origami garlands festooned in the sanctuary to honor the mother’s culture. Let the creativity extend to flower or table arrangements as well.
Mitzvah Project: Many communities have made doing good works, Tikkun Olam, a part of the process of preparing for becoming bar or bat mitzvah. From collecting money for a project in a distant land to volunteering to help new immigrants from a familial country of origin, there are countless ways the bar or bat mitzvah can use their Mitzvah project to bridge the components of their identities.
Across the country next week, Americans of all faiths and ethnicities will remember and celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Be’chol Lashon asked seven African American Jewish leaders, of all ages, backgrounds, religious affiliations, geographic regions and sexual orientations, to share short impressions of what Dr. King’s legacy means to them.
Dr. Lewis Gordon, an international scholar and teacher, is a professor of Africana philosophy, politics and religion at the University of Connecticut. His roots are in Jamaica and he is a frequent social commentator.
Twenty years ago my eldest son and I had a conversation on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. As I recounted Dr. King’s many great deeds, I mentioned his incarceration in Birmingham where he wrote his famous letter, “Why We Can’t Wait.”
My son was shaken. “Wasn’t Dr. King a good man?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Why, then, was he in jail?”
Forced to explain that unjust societies punish people who stand up for what is right, I found myself engaged in one of the great lessons of Torah continued through the ages and illuminated by the courage of Dr. King: the revolutionary idea that ethics is the face of G-d, and dignity demands commitment to that extraordinary responsibility.
I grew up in a pretty typical black family in the 1980’s. We had a picture of King on our wall and my parents had records of a few of his speeches. My parents were not activists. They grew up poor, as sharecroppers in the South, but they instilled in me a black pride that one could hear in the song from James Brown’s “Say it Loud! I’m Black and I’m Proud.” King helped my parents see a better future, not just for me and my brother but for themselves as well.
As a rabbinical student, and a child of southern sharecroppers, I see King as one of the most prophetic voices ever and he reminds me of why I want to be a rabbi which is to help to make the world a better place for all.
Rabbi Capers Funnye is the Rabbi of Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago, Illinois.
In 1966 Dr. King came to the Marquette neighborhood where there was vitriolic expressions of hatred as African Americans moved in. Just four blocks from my synagogue was the headquarters of the Nazi Party. Dr. King said, “he had never seen anything so hostile and hateful,” as he did in Chicago. The Rabbi of this shul, Rabbi Schultz, was only 5’3,” but he stood up against the hatred. He let Dr. King know that if there was need to take sanctuary during a planned protest march, Rabbi Schultz would gladly welcome them and provide a safe haven. The violence stopped the march after two blocks. But the circumstance of this synagogue and this rabbi were some of the fantastic elements in the Jewish community that Martin Luther King touched and they reciprocated. I am proud to know men who worked with Dr. King and the representation they gave of Judaism enlivens me every day.
Dr. Denise Davis lives in the Bay Area where she practices medicine. She is a co-founder of Camp Be’chol Lashon.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday is yom tov, a holy day reminding me that a prophetic voice can change the world. It is day of awe, recalling both oppression and courage. As a girl I was barred from enrolling in a segregated ballet school, but King’s transcendent oratories, and the principled commitment of Heschel made a change; these heroes are my heroes. I am an African American Jew. On MLK Day, I celebrate the power of transformation, and the resilience of human dignity. I celebrate a man and a movement close to the Divine.
Robin Washington is the editor of the Duluth News Tribune in Minnesota. Born in Chicago to a family of African American and Jewish civil rights activists, his journalism and activism are nationally acclaimed.
For me, King is an unfinished story; largely because the Civil Rights Movement was over-identified with him to the exclusion of unsung others equally significant. That focus nearly took the movement with him with the widespread belief that it died when he died.
Indeed, no true successor has ever emerged; even President Obama would claim to be more of an inheritor than an architect of social justice.
But I refuse to bury the movement, and maybe that’s King’s legacy: Because he didn’t get there with us, the longing for his Promised Land remains, and his sacrifice demands we strive for it with all our being.
Lindsey Newman lives and works in New York. She is spearheading and leading Be’chol Lashon’s first Birthright Israel trip.
I most admire Martin Luther King, Jr. as a seeker of justice and a lover of humanity. When King says that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” I am reminded that I am responsible for the world that I live in, whether I have caused harm or have merely witnessed it. Similarly, when the Torah insists “Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue,” it is this pursuit of justice which is at the core of my identity as a Jew and a human being. King embodied this calling in his life and work, and his legacy is a reminder of this eternal struggle.
The most stunning moment of the Civil Rights era to me was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Dr. King in Alabama. That iconic image and conversation is part of my spiritual genealogy, they are my ideological ancestors. Their souls were the parchment, the electrifying oratory and moral suasion their ink, their living Torah was a new covenant with the American dream, without which my dreams would be impossible.
I became Bar Mitzvah on April 20th, 2002, the 130th anniversary of Hitler’s birth. My dad’s side of the family wore West African dashikis. The only other time my temple had held that many Black people was Bingo night. We did not have the money to rent a hotel or hire a live band like many of my Jewish classmates, but the small venue where we hosted my after party happened to be directly across the street from Brown University’s spring weekend concert. I became a man in my Jewish community while my family wore dashikis on Hitler’s birthday and inhaled second-hand weed smoke while watching The Roots (arguably the best hip hop band of all time) play a concert 100 feet away.
Sixty years prior, the world watched as my mother’s ancestors were shuffled into train cars and transported to their deaths. My father’s great-grandmother was born a slave and died a free woman. My truth is that for as much of history as I know, people have been inventing ways to enslave, manipulate, and exterminate my family. And yet I am privileged to have lived a life of Bar Mitzvahs and rap concerts. I exist because of a series of improbable survivals and I believe that, as part of a legacy of both Black writers and Jewish writers, I am compelled to tell my story.
I am a poet. I am a story teller. I am part of a legacy of survivors. As a writer, I believe I am at its best when I am telling the truth. I think this is because when I express my own lived experience, it is so ridiculous and so specific that it reads as an untruth, a history so unfathomable it must be a lie. I think that is what it means to be Jewish; I think that is what it means to be black—to know the truth so well, even when the rest of the world denies its existence. And yet, we still find time to celebrate. We find time to dance, and drink, and love, even when we are surrounded by a vortex of impossible.
For me the processes of writing and identity exploration are inseparable, just as my journey to understand Blackness will always be inextricably tied to my journey to understand my Jewishness. Writing poetry is what helps me tell my story, to dive into the tangle of truth and untruth and suffering and magic and ridiculous improbability that is the bricolage of my history.
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At 6’2”, 210-pound Avi Rosenblum has tattoos that reflect his religious faith and cultural heritage. He stands out. Some might be astounded that this typical African American football player is the adopted son of a Caucasian, Jewish couple that keep a kosher home and who have never allowed their son to slip through the cracks.
Avi is a new breed of Jew, and I am proud of the path he’s walked. He has been my friend for more than a dozen years. We have been on the field together and in the pews. It’s hard to say farewell, so instead I’ll say “Welcome Home.”
Avi just recently moved from his home in Albany, California and headed off to Jerusalem, Israel to play wide-receiver and defensive back for the Tel Aviv Sabres, a team within the Israeli Football League. I’ve watched Avi since his early childhood grow into the strong and charismatic young man he is today. Be’chol Lashon introduced to the two of us to one another in a space where we were looking for others with common identities. Hannukah Bazaars, where else would one find an East Bay Area, African-American, Jewish football player?
I’ve played with fellow Jews (Ben Liepman, I see you big guy!), coached them (yeah Jake Schnur, I’m talking about you!), but Avi is the first I’ve mentored and worked with within the confines of coaching, taking him under my wing as an assistant coach at El Cerito High. To see him teach, connect, and lead a group of young men the way he did was inspiring, and to the naked eye was a typical sketch in our football community.
A big shout-out, mazel-tov, and good luck goes out to my man Avi Rosenblum, a local kid pursuing his dream of playing professional football.
Young Jews today are growing up in a hyper-connected, globalized world. That means they must contend with challenging viewpoints, contrary experiences and differing values. They must not only deal with the multitude of identities to which they are exposed, they must deal with the fact that they, themselves, are developing multiple identities. No Jew is “Just Jewish.” Jews sport all sorts of identities, the ways they express and identify are countless; all Jews are “Jewish&”—hyphenated identities are the norm.
But this is nothing new. The original multicultural people, Jews have lived around the world for millennia. The center of Jewish life has shifted through massive migrations—the Crusades, Inquisition, the Holocaust and other persecutions. Not only is Jewish practice compelling and relevant, Jews are also skilled at adapting to changing circumstances.
Today, Jewish communities are highly dispersed. Even in communities with significant Jewish populations, people are more likely to be scattered among the general population than in previous generations. Jews act like other Americans. And whether through birth, intermarriage, conversion or adoption, we are more diverse than many assume. Approximately 20% of American Jews identify as either non-white or non-Ashkenazi. Race and ethnicity are important elements in shaping Jewish identity and expression.
My son Jonah is a high school student, the youngest of six siblings; he is an avid lacrosse player, who likes to skateboard and hang out with friends & he is African American. When my husband Gary Tobin, of blessed memory, and I adopted Jonah we wanted to find other African American Jewish role models for our son. What started as a research project became Be’chol Lashon, an internationally active growing organization dedicated to celebrating the historic and contemporary diversity that is the global Jewish community.
Young Jews develop and embrace global identities and diverse friendship circles. Diversity and inclusion are important components of the value system of most young people today, and a key lens through which they make choices about engagement in Jewish life. Cultural competence, the ability to interact with, learn from, navigate and incorporate different cultures, is no longer a luxury, but a necessity.
Like Jonah, many Jews simply do not fit into single categories. And this isn’t new. Many of us never have. Peoplehood involves taking seriously the diversity of Jews and the complexity of our history. Jewish& provides an enriched understanding of the many rivers, as Langston Hughes put it, flowing through our veins and into our family’s collective memory. My son Jonah has many elements to his identity, he is Jewish&. In launching this blog, Be’chol Lashon hopes to share some of the many stories and takes on what it means to be Jewish.
More than at any time in the past, we live in a global world. Judaism looks different in different places. We know that there are many Jewish tales to tell and in telling them we will learn and grow together. Stay tuned as we meet Jews who live around the corner and around the world. Join us as we explore the challenges of building an inclusive Jewish community. Take some time to get to know Be’chol Lashon and the work we do. Let us know if you have a story idea, an issue to cover, or a Jewish& experience to share.