There’s not a “look” to Jewish, you just are. This is what I was raised to believe in the Jewish family that adopted me. So why is being Jewish equated with race, with a skin color and ethnicity? I am multiracial. While I’m still in the midst of DNA testing, so far I’ve learned I’m part Taiwanese, Greek, a possible thread from East Africa, and more. I check the “Other” box on forms.
When my parents took our family to temple every year for the High Holidays, all I wanted to do was crawl under the chair in the sanctuary and hide. When my brother had his bar mitzvah, I wanted to hide, too. When my mother sent me to Sunday school and Hebrew class while she volunteered, I wanted to hide. And throughout my early adulthood, I actually did hide that fact that I was raised in a Jewish home.
Why do people stare I wondered in temple? “You’re exotic,” my parents told me in their desire to help. It didn’t though. Nothing helped my non-Jewish features and caramel skin color look more Jewish.
But wait. What is that look? Is Muslim a color, or does Christianity have a skin color? Israelis have olive skin, and some even look like they could be from Latin America, or India. Some of my friends are atheist Jews, which is something I adore about the religion. One can be atheist and still considered Jewish. Judaism is as much a cultural practice as it is a religion, and culture is important in shaping identity.
When I entered motherhood and began to raise my daughters, I reconnected with Judaism. As with much else, “I take what I like, and leave the rest.” I sought out the meditations and music and beliefs of Judaism that I felt would support our family in a spiritual journey.
I knew the implication: she’d assumed I married into the faith, or I converted. In my case, it’s through adoption. And I identify as Jewish even though people don’t see it. We are a mixed Asian Jewish family, and the values of Judaism teach us to include everyone. “There is not one face of Judaism, but many,” one of my daughters once said when she was in grade school.
Another piece of my own identity gives me an insight into the acceptance of Jews of color. Before my adoption, I was in foster care, and before that, I was born in a prison. While I no longer hold any shame or stigma about my roots, there’s an unspoken aspect of secrecy I sense in the Jewish culture, a sense of a need for secrecy and shrouding of the wounds and pain of the past. I’ve seen it in the hesitancy of the offspring of Holocaust survivors to hide the deep pain of those inhumane atrocities. Yet, as the younger generation, we need to witness the pain and share it so that we can tell the stories and make sure we triumph over future anti-Semitism, racism, and other persecutions and cultural malfunctions and viciousness.
This topic of secrecy can hit a raw nerve in the Jewish community. It’s also reflected in other cultures that come out of persecution, to keep the in-talk “amongst ourselves.” Why is that? Is it out of a history of persecution, where safety is threatened if “outsiders” know “insider info?”
But I think raising our voices will strengthen us, not weaken us.
These days, when a (most likely) Eastern European Jew casts an inquisitive glance in my direction, I bear any off-putting look by keeping in mind the history: Jews were once slaves in Egypt and strangers in another land. You’d think the web of acceptance would cast wide for The Other.
The wave of Jews of color is flooding mainstream Judaism and I hope raising awareness in communities of all colors and religions, non-Jews and Jews alike.
I’m raising my children to include the stranger, to reach out to those who may feel the outsider. And we are not strangers, as the Torah makes clear —all are invited and obligated to be included.
These days when I encounter the comment, “But you don’t look Jewish” I use it as a teaching moment, to look that person in the eye and voice the truth: “But this is what a Jew looks like.”
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Those of you who follow my comedy know that my wife is a Black woman who converted to Judaism. What you also know is that we have a young son who is Biracial and Jewish. As a result, I can tell you that Black-Jewish relations in our family are at an all-time high.
But, we are not an anomaly. Since time immemorial, there has been a connection, a bond, between Black and Jewish people. Perhaps it’s our respective histories of oppression. Perhaps it’s because of our mothers, who are overbearing, intrusive and force us to eat. Perhaps it’s because without us, there would be no music industry. Whatever the reason, the simple fact is that there is a bond between Blacks and Jews.
My wife and I are not the first mixed-race couple ever. Far from it. Nor will we be the last. Our union is not even particularly ground-breaking. Neither of our families threatened to disown us if we got married. Crazy people in sheets didn’t commit violence against us. Racist law enforcement officials didn’t threaten us with jail-time if we, in fact, got married.
No, we just got married one Sunday morning. Then, we went home from the synagogue, and, as our honeymoon, we took a nap. The world kept spinning on its axis. The Sun rose and set that day, and everyone more or less went about their business. No one had a conniption fit (except for our families because we didn’t invite any family members to the ceremony).
Like I said, uneventful.
But, in retrospect, I realize it was not so uneventful. While the number of mixed-race families (and, indeed, mixed-race people) is growing all the time, mixed-race couples still are not so common as to be the norm. Admit it, when you see a Black person with a White person, you notice. How can you not? It’s different. It’s Black skin juxtaposed with White skin. There is a contrast. It is not, as my fashion designer wife would say, “so matchy-matchy.”
So, being in a mixed-race couple still is different. It still engenders looks, still raises eyebrows, still causes people to stop, look, point, stare and/or comment. And, by the way, I’m not simply accusing others. I do it myself. If I see a mixed-race couple when I’m walking around, I notice them too. (Then, I usually offer them a subtle head nod, as if to say, “yep, me too. Peace.”).
And I’m okay with that. I’m okay with being noticed. Who wants to be the same as everyone else? That’s so Scandinavian.
So, yes, it’s fine that people look. But, while they are noticing that we may look a little different than an “average” or “normal” couple (whatever that may mean), they shouldn’t assume that we are any different. But, they do. People are convinced there’s something afoot. They cannot believe it’s possible that we could just love each other. Surely, there must be a story. Surely something must be up. Surely I must be trying to rebel against my parents. Rebel against my parents?! I waited until I was 44 years old to get married. That was the rebellion, and I won. At this point, the only way left for me to rebel would be to steal their Social Security checks.
Or people think we got married because we find each other exotic. My wife is not exotic. Exotic is a woman, whose father is a wealthy, French diplomat and whose mother is an artist from a Third World Country. Exotic is a woman who is a beauty pageant winner turned political dissident who’s in the U.S. because she’s seeking political asylum. Exotic is a woman who speaks three languages besides English. Exotic is a woman who gives up the fame and riches of her modeling career to work in an orphanage in a place where the median wage is 50 cents a day. My wife is not those things. My wife is just a person. She just happens to be a Black person. Don’t get me wrong. My wife is beautiful, intelligent and independent, but she’s not exotic. Her favorite outfit to wear around the house is jeans and a sweatshirt or sweatpants and a hand-knitted cardigan sweater. In short, my wife is a special person (especially to our son and me), but she’s not a Ninja-slash-runway model.
Oprah is more exotic than my wife because Oprah is a Black, female billionaire, and there’s only about 1 of those in the whole World. If I were married to Oprah, then, yeah, you could say I’m looking for something exotic. You could also say I’m incredibly lucky because I just became a billionaire by marriage. But, I’m not married to Oprah. I’m married to my wife, who I love, but who is about as exotic as the oatmeal that she eats for breakfast everyday.
And, I’m only exotic if you’re a home-schooled, evangelical Christian from Kansas who’s never met a neurotic Jewish hypochondriac before. I’m only exotic if you’ve never seen an episode of Seinfeld.
Point is, what my wife and I have done by getting married is not yet commonplace, but it’s not otherworldly. We are an interracial couple, not inter-species. Neither of us has a tail or a ridged forehead. She’s a Black woman, not a Klingon. And, I’m White. I’m not Casper. Not transparent. Not see-through.
So the next time you see us (or a couple like us, by which I mean a couple where the partners have different skin colors but who are otherwise remarkably human in their appearance), feel free to wave and say “hi” or just ignore us like you ignore everyone else while you’re busy with your day. Because remember, we’re just like you . . . except much, much cooler.