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Five Things Not to Ask a Jew of Color

Tips from a Black Jew who’s heard it all.

I’m a Black Jew. No, I’m not from Ethiopia, and no, I’m not related to Whoopi Goldberg or the late Sammy Davis Jr. And no, I’m not adopted. Nonetheless, throughout my life, when people find out I’m Jewish, I often receive a barrage of questions, forcing me to overshare about my religious, personal and family life.

I know it’s not every day one meets a Jew of color, especially a Black Jew. But in fact, one percent of Jews in the U.S. identify as Black and 8% identify as non-White. So maybe it’s time to stop being so surprised. You can alleviate awkward, uncomfortable conversations with Jews of color you just met by avoiding these five overly personal or unnecessarily challenging questions:

1. Were you adopted?

This question can be offensive for many reasons, starting with the fact that what it really is saying is: “You don’t look Jewish.” Yes, a 2012 survey conducted by the Adoption & Jewish Identity Project found that 66% of adoptions by Jewish parents are transracial. Further, Jews adopt children at a higher rate than the general population. So yes, some Jews of color are adopted. However, many more are not. Asking someone about their adoption status, especially someone you may have just met, is very personal. Let them volunteer their familial relationships if and when they are comfortable.

2. Are you from Ethiopian or Sephardi?

Yes, some Black Jews come from Ethiopia. But some people mistakenly think all Black Jews come from Ethiopia. In fact, Black Jews hail from around the globe, from Northern Africa to Southern Africa, from Southern Europe to the United States. (Bonus tip: If you know someone is a Jew from Ethiopia, please don’t call them a falasha — it means outsider and is considered derogatory.) Wondering if your new friend is a Sephardi Jew with roots in Spain, Portugal, North Africa or the Middle East? It’s definitely possible. Just make sure your motivation is not a misplaced attempt to validate their Jewishness.

3. Can you speak Hebrew?

Hebrew is a language that connects all Jews, because it is the language of our shared sacred texts. But not all Jews speak fluent Hebrew, including the average American Jew. So be careful with this question: Instead of trying to express your excitement around the possibility of speaking the same language together, it may seem like you’re looking for them to prove their Jewishness.

4. Did you convert?

According to Beyond the Count: Perspectives and Lived Experiences of Jews of Color, a study commissioned by Jews of Color Initiative, 40% of Jews of color are converts. While this is a large proportion, it is short of the majority. One shouldn’t presume a Jew of color wasn’t, in fact, born Jewish. The same 2021 study found that 64% of Jews of color have one Jewish parent, and 22% have two Jewish parents. Instead of asking if a person has converted, allow them to volunteer the story behind their religious journey. 

5. Do you know my friend who is also a Jew of color?

Yes, Jews like to play Jewish geography. But that’s for all Jews. While the world is getting smaller thanks to the internet and social media, odds are that one Black Jew doesn’t know the next. If they don’t attend the same synagogue, or live in the same neighborhood, chances are the answer is no.

It’s exciting to meet new friends, especially when you share something special — Judaism — in common. Being inquisitive is the only way to get to know someone better, but one is also obligated to exercise derech eretz, or common decency. When starting a conversation with a Jewish person of color, make sure your conversation is aimed at getting to know them and doesn’t unintentionally make them feel like they don’t belong or fit in. Over time, you may be privileged to learn about their lived experience and be asked to share yours, too. 

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