a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

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.

Devastated.

Depressed.

Angry.

Sad.

(slightly) Suicidal.

Alone.

Scared.

Read the rest of this entry »

I’m not an Anti-Zionist!

Posted on: June 24, 2015

boycottI’m not a Zionist either, well at least not in the modern view of the word.

Do I think Israel should exist? Yes.

Do I think Israel is a country void of problems? No.

~

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve received email and Facebook messages inviting me to “lefty-Jewish” events. Everything from Shabbat dinners to Havdalah celebrations. And in these emails it is presumed that I, too, am a lefty-Jewish queer anti-Zionist, radical activist. These invitations are often linked to articles about anti-Zionism and pink washing. If they would have caught me about 4 years ago, I would’ve been game, but today I’m a bit more hesitant.

(also, they’re clearly not reading my blog)

Read the rest of this entry »

Ask Erika-Do You Miss Jesus?

Posted on: February 23, 2015

 I got the following email over on Facebook and have permission from the author to share it with all of ya’ll!

Hi Erika I’m considering conversion. I was raised Christian but have since stopped attending a Christian church. I went to a Orthodox temple but found it too rigid. Now I am attending a Reform synagogue and feel very happy there. I’m learning Torah and even starting to learn the Jewish holidays. I feel like I belong here and have been told I have Jewish soul. Still not sure what that means.

Sorry for long intro but wanted you to know why I’m asking you this question. What advice could u give me on “Jesus” giving up I guess. I mean if u were a new testament believer did u just stop or did u find more truth in the Torah? Oh and how did u feel about the mikvah. Was it strange I’m not thete yet but hopefully one day I will. Have an awesome rest of your day.

-K

Dear K.

Thanks so much for reaching out to me and congrats on the decision to consider a Jewish conversion. To answer your questions, I never had a “personal relationship with Jesus” as Christians say. As a kid, I did, but as a teenager and an adult I did not. For me, it was easy to forgo the idea of Jesus as G-d or the son of G-d because I felt that I didn’t need a go-between figure separating me and my relationship with G-d.

I think the stories of the Christian Bible are fascinating accounts of Jesus the man, and of the newly formed Jewish sect he formed-because they weren’t yet Christians at that point, but rather just an off-shoot of Judaism.

Honestly, I think every person is different and letting go of Jesus will depend on the individual. The bottom line is that to be a Jew is to give up Jesus as the son of G-d. Jesus was a Jew, and I think if you ask most Jewish folks, they would acknowledge that. But was Jesus the messiah? A Jewish person will tell you absolutely no and that the Messiah has not yet come. Which is why you’ll often find Chabad on the streets during holidays encouraging Jews to fulfill mitzvot. 

In terms of the mikvah-it was awesome! and crazy and scary and underwhelming. I write a lot about the mikvah on my blog and recently wrote a post about it for RitualWell. You can also read some mikvah posts here on my blog.

Feel free to drop me a line anytime and best of luck!

Erika

 

Thoughts, readers? Anyone else have advice for K?

If you have a question to ask, send me an email at blackgayandjewish@gmail.com

What Do I Wear on My Head?-A Cross-Post

Posted on: February 21, 2015

When I was still in the process of converting to Judaism I found Jew in the City and her post about why Orthodox Jewish women cover their hair. The vlog didn’t speak to me. I don’t have a husband and I don’t find hair to be particularly sexual. Yet, I was intrigued and clicked my way through her channel to Wrapunzel to hajibis. All the while fascinated and in awe at the reverence to religion these women exhibited. And while I loved them all (and watched them ALL) I still couldn’t quite picture myself converting to Orthodox Judaism and because it was clear that Reform Jews didn’t cover, I shelved it.

As I started to meet women who wore pants and wore head covering I started to ask questions. It was this time that I realized that covering wasn’t (or didn’t have to be about a sexual thing, but rather a connection to G-d and the realization that putting something on my head could, perhaps, remind me that there was something above me. I reconsidered the idea and have tentatively decided that when M and I tie the knot that I will cover my head both wigs (who doesn’t want straight hair they don’t have to straighten) scarves.

Below is the piece I wrote for RitualWell about head covering.

A few days ago while wasting a rainy Seattle day indoors, I flipped to E!, one of my guilty pleasure channels. The show Christina Milian Turned Up was on. It is not something I normally watch, but I was intrigued when Liz Milian, Christina’s younger sister, mentioned Judaism. She was preparing for the rabbi to come to her house to help her kasher the home she shares with her family.

I was, of course, instantly drawn and quickly Googled my way to her Facebook and Instagram pages which I am now enthusiastically enjoying.

It is not just that Liz Milian is a woman of color in the public eye converting to Orthodox Judaism, it’s that she’s doing so in a real, passionate, and committed way.

I’ve always been drawn to Orthodox Judaism; there’s a level of commitment to mitzvot, to be sure, but what really piques my interest is the tradition, joy in Jewish life and practice, and the communal norms and expectations. There are aspects of Orthodox Judaism, specifically hair covering and ideas of modest dressing, that are intriguing and seemingly easy mitzvot for me to introduce into my life.

In Orthodox Jewish communities it’s expected that when a woman is married that she will cover her hair. What she covers her hair with varies from community to community. Some favor long, amazing (albeit expensive) wigs, while others favor shorter wigs and still other communities use scarves and hats. These head coverings mark a woman as married, and it’s also presumed that when a woman (or man for that matter) wears something on their head that they’re probably a bit more religious than the person who’s head remains naked. This presumption may or not be true, but it’s been my experience that a person who covers their hair and dresses modestly is likely to be living a more halakhically observant Jewish life.

So what happens when you’re a Jew like me—a Jew who doesn’t identify with any particular religious denomination and instead picks and chooses?

Read more here. 

Who is a Jew of Color?

Posted on: February 19, 2015

PopChassidA few years ago I sent out a tweet looking for Jews of Color for a project I wanted to pursue. I got a Twitter response from Elad Nehori, the author of one of my favorite blogs, Pop Chassid. He asked, I think I’m a Jew of Color, am I? And I replied, if you think you’re a person of Color, and identify as such in the world, then you’re a Jew of Color. He published a piece down the line about how his skin color always makes him feel like an other which you should read. Feeling like an other simply for the color or hue of your skin, is a good indication that you are a Jew of Color.

Specifically speaking, a Jew of Color is someone who in non-Jewish environments would be considered a person of Color. Someone who is black, African American, bi-racial, Asian, Indian, Latin or of bi-racial or multi-ethnic heritage. While Mizrahi Jews and Sephardic Jews may not be Ashkenazi, I don’t think that most would consider themselves to be people of Color, therefore it is my opinion that they are not Jews of Color. Side note, if you are Mizrahi or Sephardic and consider yourself to be a Jew of Color, please comment below!

Lastly, if you’re stopped before entering a synagogue, if your Jewish identity has even been questioned, if you’ve had a difficult time finding a Jewish partner, if you’ve had a difficult time getting your children into religious schools, if you’re asked if you were raised Jewish, if you’re constantly asked to tell “your story”, if you hear, “you don’t look Jewish“, if you’re mistaken for the help rather than a member of a Jewish community, if you’re a member of a bi-racial relationship and it’s assumed that you have converted for your partner -you’re a Jew of Color. It should be noted that with the exception of religious school-I have experienced all of these things.

Jews of Color have always been and will always be members of the Jewish community, and while I am a Jew of Color who chose Judaism, historically Jews have always been multi-ethnic and multiracial. For the Torah tells us so.

So how is it that when someone thinks of who a Jew is or what a Jew looks like my face is the last image that comes to mind?

 

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