a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

Shalom/Salaam/Peace

Posted on: July 23, 2014

IsraelPalestine“And among the people of Moses is a community which guides by truth and by it establishes justice.”

- Qur’an 7:159

For over three weeks I’ve been sending prayers to Gaza, Israel and Palestine.

~~~

According to my  Facebook and Twitter feed (which is getting thinner and thinner the more I unfriend and unfollow) it would seem that all of the problems in the world are because of the Jews (or the Arabs) depending on which banner you’re camped under. While I’m still hanging out somewhere in the middle, I find it incredibly interesting that with the rest of the horrors happening in the world people aren’t out protesting other embassies or joining rally cries against other countries, even our own.

For instance, this weekend over 700 people were killed this weekend in Syria in what activists are calling the deadliest 48 hours to date. As Syrians fight on either side of the conflict hundreds of people are dying each day. 700 people, and it’s not even a blip … because Jews aren’t involved?

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Where is Gd? Part Two

Posted on: July 20, 2014

Make Peace, Not WarWhen I sat before my beit din, before going to the mikvah, one of the rabbis asked me if my views on Israel had changed. I told her that they had not; I still thought Israel was a horrible place, that Israelis were racist, that Jews were treating Palestinians like southern (and northern and western and eastern) whites treated blacks in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s (today). I even compared Israel to Nazi Germany. I was “educated” by western papers and news media outlets. I’d never met an Israeli or a Palestinian for that matter, but I had a lot of Muslim friends and felt a sort of allegiance to the people of Palestine.

All of these thoughts came to my head when she asked me if my views on Israel had changed and I answered her honestly, they had not. She then asked if I could learn to think more holistically about Israel, if I would do some learning on my own and then make a decision on how I felt. I told her I could, because I was still learning so much and that is what I did.

A few months later I found myself getting off of a plane in Israel. I looked around Ben Gurion airport, it looked the same as any other airport, but then I noticed a mezzuzah at the end of the corridor I was walking down, and another and another and it hit me, I was in a Jewish country. The only place in the world where I was with my chosen people, where the language was that of my people, where the customs were the customs of my people. I saw women in hijab looking for bags next to women in shietels and tichels. Men with large-brimmed hats and men wearing keffiyeh. As I gathered my things and looked for my Israeli friend who had opened her home to me, it all clicked. The need and right for Israel to exist.

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Where is Gd? Part One

Posted on: July 19, 2014

It’s a question I’ve been asking myself for the past few months and especially in the past few weeks.

When trying to have a baby turned into one of the hardest, most expensive, and most disappointing thing I’ve experienced with my body I asked.

When I lost my job and went on interviews with several Jewish non-profits, and interviewed with several friends and acquaintances and never got so much as an email response afterwards I asked.

When my only sibling died I asked.

I still don’t have an answer, but it felt like a long time that Gd stopped listening to me.

Some people say that when you allow yourself to truly become quiet you can hear the sound of Gd’s voice. I’ve heard that people find Gd in the faces of friends, children and family members. Some people find Gd when they’re alone, surrounded by nature. And still others find Gd after they come out on the other side of something tragic. I hoped the later would be where I found Gd, but without an answer to infertility and the knowledge that no amount of prayer will bring my sister back, I’m still struggling to figure out where Gd is and how Gd fits into my life.

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About two weeks ago I got an email from an AG-identified Lesbian from Jersey interested in conversion to Judaism. J asked a few questions, which I happily answered, but if you’re a queer person of color who converted to Judaism and have some pointers for J, please share them in the comments.

I’ve been following your blog for the last year in admiration and although late, I’d like to congratulate you on seeing your calling through to completion (or at least the conversion process through to completion as I don’t believe it ends there). Two weeks ago, I met with a Reform Rabbi discussing my interest in Judaism and last Friday I attended service for the first time. Outside of needing people of color the experience was awesome as they were very friendly and inviting. However is it strange that I left the service still wanting…now what am I wanting that’s still unclear. It would have been nice to see people wearing Kippot and Tallitot; it came across like a Catholic Mass. By no means should this be perceived as judgement as this was my first experience and I really didn’t know what to expect. Is it typical to only have Friday service and no Shabbat service on Saturday? I am not sure if they have morning and evening services during the week. I’ve been leaning towards attending a Conservative Synagogue however my concern is that being a black, aggressive lesbian could be an issue. You’ve mentioned in recent blogs that you’ve switched to a Conservative Synagogue. Can you speak on your experience? Do you attend Saturday services and weekday prayers? Do you wear a Kippah, Tallit or Tefillin? Do other woman wear them? How was the environment? Last, do you still feel as drawn to Judaism post-conversion or has the struggle changed things?

Thanks for reading and your thoughts,
J

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A Woman of Valor Who Can Find?

Posted on: June 1, 2014

Julie Geller’s version of Eishet Chayil is still my absolute favorite version of this ancient song traditionally sung by a husband (and sometimes children) to his wife to honor her role in the house. Because it comes from Torah verses, to say that it’s a bit archaic is putting it lightly. And while I absolutely love Julie’s version I really can’t imagine Mirs singing this to me and if I sang it to her, I think she might throw up her hands and run away from Jewish practice for good. (If you remember, my fiancee loves being a Jew, she just doesn’t need to do Jewish … until children, that was our agreement.) If Eishet Chayil makes it way to our big, gay, black &  Jewish Shabbat table it will be sung as a family and Julie’s version will be what we sing.

But babies are still painfully far away and for now the only Woman of Valor-ness happening in my life is this amazing project by a woman called Gracey Levine  from Portland who reached out to me. I get a lot of requests from people who read the blog and sadly, I can’t respond or help out with them all because of time commitments or people’s fascination with conversion as the only path towards multiracial, multi-ethnic Jewish experiences. So when Gracey simply asked to interview me for a project she’s doing portraying the lives of Jewish women of today I said yes and that I would help spread the word.

Gracey isn’t interested in exploiting Jewish women of Color, she’s not out there to ask us “how” we’re Jewish, she took a look at her project and realized that if she was going to portray Jewish women of today, that she would be remiss to not include Jewish women of Color.

Take a look at her website and follow her on Twitter and Facebook, where you can find her planned travel itinerary. If she’s in a city near you, reach out to her and tell her I sent you.

Shavua Tov!

 

“You are the sum total of everything you’ve ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot — it’s all there. Everything influences each of us, and because of that, I try to make sure my experiences are positive.” — Maya Angelou

My first experience of Maya Angelou, who died this week at the age of 86, happened in high school. We weren’t required to read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” in a literature class and my all-girl’s private Catholic school definitely didn’t have a Black History course. No, the first time I heard Maya Angelou’s words was out of the mouth of young black women about my age performing “Phenomenal Woman” at an event for the black social organization I was a member of, Jack and Jill. I’d definitely heard poems read and recited aloud, but this was the first time I felt the words of a poet come to life. We were in our teens, so the material was a bit mature, but the fact that the artist put her own spin on Ms. Angelou’s timeless words of black female empowerment and an awareness and pride of the female body left an impression on me.

As I watched quotes and memories of Ms. Angelou pepper my Facebook feed yesterday, it became clear that her words — honest, poignant and clearly evocative of her own experience — are also universal and have touched many generations of men and women from a variety of races, religions and cultural backgrounds. Born as Marguerite Johnson in April 1928, Maya Angelou is best known for her works of literature and her activism, though she was also a Tony-nominated actress, dancer and performer as well as a professor of American History at Wake Forest University.

Read more: http://blogs.forward.com/sisterhood-blog/199167/maya-angelou-my-sister-and-me/?#ixzz33CTVaK3I

I’m excited about this video for a lot of reasons. Yes, the fact that I shot and edited is one of the reasons. I am, by no means, a videographer and I’m actually quite pleased with how it turned out. The real reason I’m excited about it is because I’m excited about the work that JMN has done in the Jewish community for the past 17 years and I’m super excited about all of the amazing and wonderful things we have planned.

I hope you enjoy the video. Please share it far and wide and have a fabulous Shabbat!

Hello, readers!

The past month and two weeks have been really, really intense and full of a lot of seen an unforeseen challenges. It’s left me a bit shell shocked, but with a more clear and better appreciation for the things that matter most in life; like the people who truly care for me. I find that death, especially death for folks in their 20s and 30s, is a hard thing to navigate. As a woman in my  mid-thirties, I always assumed I’d mourn the passing of a parent before the passing of my sibling. It’s incredibly hard for me, and I’ve found that for some friends, dealing with me and this death is also hard. I’ve been shocked, disappointed and saddened by how hard it is for some people to relate to me like the “old Erika.” Of course, I’m not the old Erika and in some conversation I can’t help bringing up my sister’s death. And it has been my closest friends that have been able to hold space with me, listen to me, and try to understand my unimaginable and still very raw pain. I realized this weekend, sitting in the park with two women I consider good friends, that I’m too old to worry about people who don’t care for me.

So while I haven’t cleared the physical chametz in the way that we normally do, I’m using this season of new growth, new beginnings and freedom to clear the mental chametz in my life. The things, people, and toxic thoughts that occupy too much of my space and time.

Thankfully, we don’t keep gluten in our house, so we’ll not be eating chametz-y things, but at least for this year we won’t be hosting a seder and we didn’t do a floor-to-ceiling cleaning and I have to be okay with that.

I wish all of you an amazing Pesach!

 

#BlogExodus-10 Nissan; Leave

Posted on: April 10, 2014

#blogExodusI’m a little late to the game, but so excited about this project.

Leave: verb  1. go away from. 2. allow to remain.

It’s interesting that the two definitions of leave are opposites. Even more interesting as I think about where I am in my Jewish life. On one hand things will remain and on the other I am going away from parts.

For almost three years I’ve worked in Jewish non-profit. A choice I made soon after I converted to Judaism. I knew that the community that I converted in, while absolutely lovely, wasn’t my community. It was too far away for starters and as it turns out, I’m really not a Reform Jew, I’m a Conservative Jew. This realization took some time and I wanted to really live out my new religious values so I looked for a job in the world of Jewish non-profit.

It took a long time, much longer than I anticipated. I was jobless and on SNAP benefits and unemployment insurance before being offered a temporary position at a large Jewish non-profit. It was there that I got my feet wet, met an amazing group of inspirational women (yes, all women). That job served as a stepping stone for the job I’ve had for the past two years at a mid-sized Jewish non-profit. Yet, because of budget woes I, once again, find myself facing unemployment and I had a choice to make. To stay in the Jewish non-profit world or to leave it.

There are many things that I’ve gleaned from the world of Jewish non-profit; an appreciation for hard work, the ability to make amazing things happen with small budgets, amazing friends I hope to keep for my life, and a deeper appreciation for Judaism. In my current positions we’d have discussions as varied as whether or not placenta is kosher (it is according the the rabbis in our office) and whether or not women should don tefillin. Speakers have come to discuss the true nature of original Zionism (turns out I’m an original Zionist) and how non-profits can use social media to impact mission. Not to mention actual Torah and Talmud study on lunch breaks and taking an hour break to learn Hebrew with a colleague. It’s been truly wonderful and truly magical and it’s helped me to realize that I don’t necessarily need to work in the Jewish non-profit world to make an impact in the Jewish community.

I’ve joined the Board of the Jewish Multiracial Network (you should follow us on Twitter and Facebook) and have been working hard to create lasting changes for the full inclusion of Jews of Color in Jewish communities since joining the board. It’s a mission that I’m passionate about, it’s been another part-time job (albeit unpaid) and it’s the most fulfilled that I’ve felt in a really long time.  It begs the question, is it time to leave the Jewish community in this capacity?

The honest answer is that I’m not sure. There’s so much I love about it, and let’s be honest-having days off for chaggim is amazing. We’ll see and only time will tell. I’ve applied for a few awesome jobs, but I’ve left it to G-d.

 

 

This post is part of #blogExodus, a daily carnival of posts / tweets / status updates relating to themes of Passover and Exodus, created by ImaBima. Find other posts via the #blogExodus hashtag.

 

Photo by Keith W. Medley

Photo by Keith W. Medley

This was originally posted on Brassy Brown.

December of 2013 found me in San Diego, California this year, attending the fiftieth Biennial of the Women of Reform Judaism. Although, this was the organization’s centennial, WRJ actually began at my synagogue in 1900 as “the Sisterhood”, the name still used by most members. When I look at our official history, I find that the Sisterhood began as a ladies auxiliary. In 1900, they took on the task of selecting the furnishings for the synagogue and maintaining the new synagogue building. In later years, they did everything from comforting the sick, funding the purchase of an organ, preparing holiday synagogue meals, and sponsoring scholarships at the rabbinical college in Cincinnati. WRJ, The Sisterhood, is still the critical heart of the synagogue. They ensure that things get done. The President of each synagogue chapter is responsible for representing the chapter on the synagogue board and responsible for defining what tasks the chapter will accept.

This was my third biennial but my first as the President of my synagogue chapter. Each time that I’ve attended these national gatherings, there are more jews of color (JOC) participants than the prior time. I attended many small panel discussions where I was the only non-white woman in the room, but when I attended the group discussions with more than one hundred attendees that was never the case. Many of our blended identities were present, from Jewish and African-American, Jewish and Asian-American, Jewish and Latina, et. al. While I was there to find out how to increase membership in my own synagogue Sisterhood, I was interested to listen as the hierarchy of both the women’s organization and the Reform movement wrestled with the recognition of the diversity of Reform Judaism and jewish life in general. I see evidence of that struggle in my life in New Orleans.

For example, I sat in one seminar where the Rabbi was describing the development of the synagogue itself. The synagogue as an assembly may have begun during the Babylonian exile, but he traced the growth of synagogues as edifices to Napoleon: the creator of French identity. He turned to the Jews of France and asked: Is Judaism a religion? Or are Jews a people? If Jews were a people, then he was prepared to expel them. If they were merely Frenchmen practicing a different religion, they could stay. Very quickly, the Jews of France decided that they were practicing a religion. This was the pattern established across western Europe. According to the Rabbi, the Jews of eastern Europe were not offered this choice; they maintained their cultural definition that Jews are a people. (For example, it was not until 1997 that Russian identity papers eliminated “Jewish” as the nationality of Russian jews.) The stage was now set for the migration to the United States. The Jews of the West became Americans and adopted the practices of their new country. They built Jewish houses of worship and emulated their neighbors. They became Americans first and Jews second. The Jews of the East also became Americans, but the cultural identity of Jewish remained central to their character. (And yes—this is a vast simplification.) My synagogue was founded by western Jews, therefore, of course, a Black woman could become president of her synagogue’s women’s group. Via JMN, Jewish Multiracial Network, I know of at least two Black Rabbis, one Rabbi in training and numerous other Jews of color in the U.S.

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