a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

George Santayana said that. I don’t know much about George, but I do remember the first time I heard that phrase. It was on a grade school trip, we were at a monument or a park or maybe neither of those places, but I took a picture of the words etched into marble because even at just 10 or 11 years old, the words were powerful.

There are a lot of complexities to my identity as a black person, as a woman, as a Jew, as a lesbian. And if I look to the past I am flooded with a history of oppression, segregation, discrimination, death and unjust laws meant to keep me and my identities down and separate from the mainstream. So, my heart strings are plucked when crisis exists in the world and an oppressed person or persons are criminalized simply for being who they are.

Because of the terror attacks in Paris, Facebook and other social media has been flooded with some of the most vile responses that I have read. I’ve steadily unfriended and unfollowed many of my “friends” because I don’t have time (or the desire) to engage their hate speech. I use my Facebook page, this blog and my Twitter accounts as my own personal Erikaland where what I say goes. I invite folks to engage in conversation, but won’t tolerate over simplifications and problematic language like “radical Muslims” or “Islamic terrorists.”

When a white man walked into a black church and opened fire the media didn’t call him a “Christian terrorist” or a “radical Christian”. So why does our media insist on using Muslim and Islam when speaking of attacks of terror carried out by psychopaths?

Since 9/11 American media has portrayed a religion of peace as a religion of hatred. And before you write a comment quoting some verse in the Quran that says otherwise, I ask you to open your Tanach or your King James Bible and you will find just as much violence and death. Our holy books aren’t perfect, they were written by men who lived in different times. And if we all followed our holiest of books to the letter, well, the world would be a different place. (Not a better place, mind you. A place where you could sell your daughter for goats) Yet, we’ve allowed a handful of very violent, very confused terrorist hiding under the name of Islam to paint broad strokes on a brother faith. Nevermind the fact that the vast majority of ISIS-related attacks and threats in the U.S weren’t carryied out by Syrians, but by Americans.

And while that fact pains me, it pains me even more that Jewish people cannot or do not want to see the Syrian refugee crisis as an eerily familiar and detrimental crisis that changed the very fabric of the Jewish people. Leading up to the WWII Europeans wondered what were to do with their “Jewish problem”. Pogroms terrorized communities, lucky ones escaped, and the unlucky ones died at the hands of the hatred of the Nazi party, but also by their neighbors and the neighboring countries who turned their backs on refugees fleeing the terror and violence of Europe. Jews say, Never Forget and Never Again, yet fall into the same verbal rhetoric that countries (including the United States) used as excusesô to turn away Jews and prevent them from entering their shores.

Saying that Syrian refugees deserve asylum in my country does not make me a bad Jew. It makes me a good Jew, because the idea of Tikkun Olam isn’t just Tikkun Olam for the Jews, it’s for the world.

L’Shanah Tovah! Ketivah v’chatima tovah!

Posted on: September 13, 2015

L’Shanah Tovah, BGJ readers! It’s so hard to believe that the year has already come and gone.

I hate to admit it, but I’ve become a Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur Jew. I’ve only been to shul three times in 5775!

5775 has been a rough year with the move, adjusting to a new Jewish community and our miscarriage. It’s hard to get excited about a new year, but there are a few things that I hope will happen in 5776

To be more involved in the Jewish community in either Seattle or Tacoma

To become a mother

To continue to be a good Jewish Diversity Advocate for JMN and in my personal life.

A few weeks ago I did a podcast for Treyf, a podcast based in Canada. I talked about race and racism and ways we as Jews can combat it in our own communities. Take a listen and be sure to like Treyf on Twitter and Facebook!

The Problem With Jewish Media

Posted on: August 8, 2015

About two years ago I was a regular writer for a major Jewish publication. I wrote roughly once or twice a month, mostly on the topics of race and racism, but also about my experience being a black Jewish lesbian woman. At the time I was the only black writer for the publication, and I’m pretty sure there hasn’t been a regular black writer since. While the money was decent, I scaled back my writing for the publication, not wanting to be their token black writer. Before I left, I pitched my editor on an idea for a series about Jews of Color. I wanted to use this publication’s popularity and reach to educate the mainstream Jewish community about the many experiences of Jews of Color, particularly Jews of Color that had a different narrative than mine (as mine was the only reality discussed in the publication). Jews of Color who were straight, Orthodox, born Jewish. Jews of Color who were trying to find homes in Jewish communities, educating their children in Jewish schools, living in smaller Jewish communities, leading and creating Jewish college organizations, and/or participating in national social justice movements.

The publication wanted conversion stories. I reminded my editor a series about Jews of Color that focused solely on conversion further inflamed issues that JOCs face, and cements the assumption that we’re all converts. And while I am a convert, most of the folks I know who are JOCs are not (also, who the fuck cares if we’ve converted!?)

I pushed hard. While I was happy to share my conversion story, using conversion as the guide post for a series of Jews of Color would be counter-productive, I argued. While it was my story, it wasn’t everyone’s story. She told me that she would talk to the editor-in-chief and get back to me at the beginning of 2014.

I thanked her, letting her know that I would contact several Jews of Color groups I was a part of, and reach out to friends and acquaintances who I thought had strong voices and would be interested in lending them to the piece. I kept her informed of my progress from time to time, when I inquired again, I was told that the editor-in-chief wanted more of a hook, and without the conversion angle, it wouldn’t work.

I was hurt, confused, and furious. I’d been asked to give comment on everything from Trayvon Martin to the death of Maya Angelou, but to spearhead a series written for and by Jews of Color wasn’t significant because it didn’t have a hook? I reached out to the Jews of Color I’d been in contact with to let them know that the series wouldn’t be moving forward. I stopped writing for the publication and focused more on my personal blog and volunteering for the Jewish Multiracial Network.

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So excited that I can call Ilana Kaufman not just a colleague in this work of making the Jewish world a more inclusive space for Jews of Color, but a friend! #kvelling watching this and getting my black lady in church on with a few “mmhmms”

I woke up suddenly in the wee hours of the morning on March 5, 2014. It wasn’t my alarm that had woken me or my cell phone, which was next to my head and on vibrate. It was a feeling.

I believe that if you ask a doula or birth worker, most will tell you that they feel when their clients are in labor, even without knowing. Sure enough, when I checked my phone my clients had called several times.

I crept out of the room to not wake my partner and learned that my clients, who were weeks away from their estimated due date were, indeed, in the hospital and in active labor. I rushed to be with them and turned off my phone, as I do with all of my births. We watched the sun rise over Manhattan and as my clients continued settling into the rhythms of labor, I decided to check my phone. There were at least a dozen calls from my mother and I knew in an instant the urgent calls were about my sister.

The conversation I had with my mother is a blur. So is whatever I told my clients. All I knew is that I needed to get to Ohio and everything else just happened: the arrival of my back-up doula, the birth, packing, the flight.

The next day, March 6th, my partner and I joined my parents to say goodbye to my sister. Most of the day is a buried memory. The way she looked. The way her body heaved as she breathed through life-support machines. The sounds. The smells. My father crying. My mother holding her hand. The way everyone spoke to us in a whisper.

The hospital chaplain, a Catholic (I asked), was of little help to our family. Try as he may, his words didn’t seem to provide comfort. Instead, we found some solace in our family pastor who came to pray with us.

Keep reading on Ritualwell

Not only is Chava one of my best friends, she’s one the President of the Jewish Multiracial Network (JMN), the organization I am an active volunteer for.

Below is an expert of the candid piece that Chava wrote for JTA about racism in the Orthodox Jewish community. I often hear that these experiences are to be “expected” of the Orthodox because they’re “backwards” or “insular”. But, the fact remains that all of the racism and micro-aggressions I have experienced have happened in “progressive” Jewish communal spaces. Being mistaken for the help, being asked to share my story at an oneg, stopped by security while others walk freely in, sitting alone in a pew at a shul on erev Shabbat. These things happened to me in Reform synagogues. 

Obviously not all Jews are racist, just like not all white folks are racist. Yet, it is our responsibility as Jews to call out our peers when we hear racist things being said in our presence. We need to call out our leaders when literature doesn’t reflect community. And we need to bite our tongues, resisting the urge to ask someone how they are Jewish and simply wish them a Gut Shabbos if they’re new to your community.

At JMN we don’t make movies, we don’t host variety shows and we don’t highlight brown Jews in other countries. Instead, we have a dedicated group of volunteers, Chava and I included, as well as dozens of Jews who care passionately about making their communities welcoming and inclusive places for Jews of Color and Multiracial Jewish families. We don’t have a big budget and we’re often passed over for other organizations that show movies and host shows when grant making season comes around. Valid work, for sure, but we’d rather get our hands dirty, work in our communities and create change in a grass-roots fashion. Help JMN do this work by making a donation, volunteering your time or liking us on Facebook.

Shabbat Shalom.

Chava Shervington says the Orthodox Jewish community is beautiful, and better than its racism suggests. (Courtesy: Chava Shervington)

NEW YORK (JTA) – When I was 24, an Orthodox matchmaker tried to set me up on a date with a man older than my parents. When I objected, she told me, “Stop being so picky. Not many guys are willing to consider a black girl.”

As an African-American Orthodox Jew, this was hardly my first encounter with the questionable treatment I and my fellow Jews of color endure.

“Why is the goy here?” one black Jewish parent overheard when taking her child to a Jewish children’s event.

At one yeshiva in Brooklyn, the mother of a biracial student was asked to stay away from the school because it made the other parents uncomfortable.

An African-American acquaintance told me he overheard a worshiper at morning minyan talk about how he didn’t want to daven with a “shvartze” – while my acquaintance was putting on his tefillin.

Orthodox society is a beautiful community dedicated to charity, Torah learning and growth through observance of mitzvahs – and I believe we’re better than this racism suggests.

As a racial minority, it’s possible to be an integrated member of the Orthodox community, find your spouse and successfully educate your children in yeshivas – but it requires an abundance of self-confidence, tact and tenacity.

It takes confidence to keep going to synagogues when every time you show up to a new minyan you’re not sure if they’ll count you for the required quorum. It takes tact to politely rebuff yet another inquiry about your “journey to Judaism” or “why you read Hebrew so well.” It takes tenacity to keep going to kosher restaurants and Orthodox-run stores when all eyes gravitate toward you the moment you walk through the door (and stay there).

Orthodox Jews of color constantly have to demonstrate our authenticity and belonging. It’s frustrating, exhausting and, frankly, heartbreaking.

keep reading. 

GIRL Friend ARE you preggo?

Posted on: July 14, 2015

pregnancy loss helenabbot.comThat was the Facebook message I got from a friend on April 27th. I was pregnant, about 6 weeks along, and while I wasn’t telling anyone, I wasn’t exactly hiding it either. Well, at least not on Pinterest.

I’ve always posted about birth, nursing, doulas, etc. because of my work as a doula. But I also started pinning best cloth diapers, best foods to eat, best ways to stave off morning sickness, best yoga and low-impact exercised to do while pregnant. I only told a few close friends, and of course my mother, but I was aching to let the entire world know.

Nearly one year of TTC had passed, and while we didn’t try for 12 months straight, it felt like a miracle that we were finally pregnant after praying and pleading to G-d for our miracle.

Now I sit, at what would be the half way mark of my first pregnancy. My stomach is not swollen, I’ve not purchased any maternity wear and I’m not having a baby. The month-long miscarriage process was hell on earth and the month that has passed since then, while better, has not been a cake walk. I am feeling a bit more like myself; I laugh and smile easily now, I’ve started running again, and my G-d summer rosé is pretty amazing. Every once in a while I’ll get sad; My first period was rough, as was the confusion of my fertility app. Did I have a miscarriage, it asked clearly confused I was marking a period again. Sympathy from an app, yay technology! My sadness doesn’t come from seeing babies, which I thought would be the case, but from swollen bellies.

Perhaps it’s because of my birth work experience that I don’t blame myself for the miscarriage. Of course, in my darkest moments, I did wonder what I’d done wrong; Was it the glass of wine I had before realizing I was pregnant? Was it the feta cheese in that salad? Did the salad dressing have raw eggs in it? Maybe there’s just something wrong with me and I’m not supposed to be a mother. Maybe it’s because I made a registry and Jews don’t do things like that. 

It wasn’t my fault. It happened. It happens to more women than most know. And it could happen again. For now it’s about figuring out what my future will be like, how I can shape it, and remembering the lessons I’ve learned and continue to learn during this process.

Like my sister’s death, my miscarriage has shaken my center. I’m no longer interested in simply existing in this life, I want to live it wholly and fully and without fear. Birth work, adding a nursing degree to my doula certification, is my driving motivation. And I also want to continue to be more vocal about pregnancy loss and miscarriage, even provide doula support for women who lose their pregnancies because while it’s 100% necessary to have a doula by your side when you bring life into the world, it’s possibly more important to have a doula by your side when you realize the life you were growing isn’t.

My partner did the best she could when we lost our baby, but miscarriage is hard, possibly harder in different ways, on partners. Our doctors and nurses did a rather shitty job providing comfort. There were forced hugs, diagnostic works that lacked emotion, a need to remain professional, rather than personal when all I needed was someone to look me in the eyes, hold my hands, give me a hug and tell me how incredibly sorry they were for the loss of my child.

The first step in this journey is science. Lots of science courses in subjects I loathed as a lazy undergraduate. But as an adult woman who has seen glimpses of what life is like when you don’t live it fully, I’m pretty confident that I can kick Chemistry (and bioChem, and Biology, and Anatomy)’s ass!

I don’t know what this means for the blog, we shall see as it goes. But, thanks for reading and for support.

It’s VITALLY important to the continuity of the Jewish community to not only have conversations with Jews of Color, but to hire Jews of Color to Boards of organizations, leadership teams, as consultants, and as part of staff. Bravo to the URJ for this amazing hire!

July 8, 2015, New York, NY – Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) President Rabbi Rick Jacobs announced today that April Baskin will join the URJ’s executive leadership team as Vice President of Audacious Hospitality. Baskin’s role is crucial to the ongoing implementation of the URJ’s strategic 2020 Vision plan, and the final staffing decision within a realignment of executive roles that is structured around the 2020 Vision’s core priorities of Strengthening Congregations, Audacious Hospitality and Tikkun Olam (social justice).

April Baskin, URJ Vice President of Audacious HospitalityAudacious Hospitality is the URJ’s focused effort to engage seekers – Jews who are unaffiliated, under-engaged and in some cases uninspired – in the sacred work of creating a world of wholeness, compassion, and justice. Congregations and other Reform institutions can play an indispensable role in attracting and serving those looking for ways to connect with their Jewish identity. As URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs put it recently, “No more than 50% of North American Jews are members of synagogues at any one time. Unless we change our approach, there is little chance that Jews in their twenties and thirties will even enter the revolving door of synagogue affiliation. Hoping is not a strategy; the Jewish world needs new approaches for engaging the future. Together we will shape the strategies that will broaden and deepen our movement.”

keep reading

Yay, Gay Marriage!

Posted on: June 26, 2015

KeshetFlag2_0Today the Supreme Court of the United States declared gay marriage legal in all 50 states. I’ve spent the day looking at friends and strangers wedding photos, crying happy tears. Which feels great after the bitter and angry tears I’ve been crying lately.

Yet, just as much as my Facebook feed is overflowing with happiness and relief that friends and family members marriages are now protected under the U.S constitution, I’m also seeing people complaining that it’s just one thing, that it doesn’t apply to others, that it was only a few days ago when the President (fucking call him the President, and not “Obama” people!) kicked a heckler out of the White House.

And I get it.

In case you haven’t  noticed, in many ways our country is circling the shitter. On the same day that the SCOTUS decision was brought down, a community in Charleston mourned their loved ones killed by hate. Black folks are being killed and incarcerated at alarming rates. Undocumented immigrants are being deported. Racism, while never dead, is boldly re-emerging in violent ways. Not to mention that women still make less money than men, that parental leave is non-existent and that I will be paying off student loan debts until the day that I die. And folks have a right to grumble; this decision doesn’t help queer homeless youth, doesn’t end work place discrimination, doesn’t help the trans folks who are abused while awaiting deportation or the countless trans folks of color who are targeted and beaten regularly.

It’s fucked up. The world is fucked up. In many ways our country is fucked up. And in many (many) ways, like today, it’s really awesome. So today I celebrate this victory because for me and my family it is a victory. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have an immense amount of work to still do to get our country out of the shitter, but it’s a win. So let’s celebrate it!

Shabbat Shalom.


Miscarriage and Judaism

Posted on: June 25, 2015

pregnacy lossMy wonderful partner and I have been together going on 8 years. And for the last year or so we’ve been quietly trying to conceive, or TTC as us TTCers call it (oh the abbreviations). A bit over one month ago our first successful pregnancy ended in a miscarriage at 8 weeks and 6 days. To say that I was heartbroken is to put it lightly.





(slightly) Suicidal.



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