They were older than me, by at least five years, and I was afraid. Though my Satmar Hasidic neighbors were my friends, their cousins usually approached me with disdain whenever I’d go over for a playdate. On one occasion, they bullied me and lifted my shirt up. He asked “where are your tzitzis?” feeling uncomfortable I stammered, they said “you call yourself a yid!? Gai ahein you goy!” I tripped as I begged my feet to carry me towards the door, but then it got worse, they poured cold water on me, and repeated the abusive slurs. I walked home crying to never tell a soul until over a decade later. –How?!
I learned, from a very young age, how complicated modern Jews and Judaism are. I grew up in a mixed-race Chabad-Lubavitch family in Monsey, New York, where I was exposed to all walks of Orthodox Jewish life. My mother, a convert into the Orthodox community, my father a “Ba’al Teshuva” someone who sees themselves as a returnee to higher levels of spiritual consciousness and Jewish practice, made a point to educate us on our rich Jewish and African history, and always encouraged us to be Dorshei Chochmah, those who see the deep wisdom, Chochmah, the diverse wisdom, found in our world.
To this day, I wonder how could society have produced teenagers who saw it as their right to put me down for how I looked or dressed? Was this race related, though I pass for white? Was this due to the homogeneous reality of my ZIP code? Maybe it is because my family background challenged the assumptions of what a Jew looks like…I don’t have answers.
What I do know is that they were not what Rabbi Sid Schwarz would call “seekers of wisdom (dorshei chochmah), seekers of social justice (dorshei tzedek), seekers of community (dorshei kehillah), and seekers of lives of sacred purpose (dorshei kedushah).” On a good day, I see my neighbor’s cousin’s as those who were a product of a society that did not see me in my Jewishness, and because of their upbringing, it would be hard for them to see my Jewishness and my family history as a form of wisdom worth exploring.