a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

On erev Shabbat last week I gave the below (sermon?) on MLK Day, #blacklivesmatter and Jewish responsibility. As I sat on the bimah with the rabbinical staff at Congregation Rodeph Sholom I started to feel uneasy. The congregation, from what I could see from my vantage point, was comprised of mostly white adults in their mid-thirties to mid-sixties. I wondered if my message would be heard and if it would be understood. I also wondered if they did hear me, would the words that I had to say “stick.”

I’ve been fretting over the evening since I stepped out of the synagogue into the cool (okay really effing cold) night that erev Shabbat with some of my friends; three Jews of Color, one who knows me and my point of view well.

“You were really … nice,” she said taking a long pause before saying the word nice.

“Nice?” I asked her as we walked down W83rd Street

“Yeah, nice. You could’ve been a lot more direct, you said everything you needed to say in the nicest way possible.”

This friend and I agreed that for the audience my message did it’s job and an email I received from the rabbi and friend who invited me agreed. The words that I said that night were powerful and effective. There’s already buzzing in the synagogue about “what’s next” and that makes me happy.

MLK Day, The Civil Rights Movement and Jewish Responsibility 

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Shabbat in NYC-MLK Service

Posted on: January 9, 2015

I’m so excited to be returning to the congregation I converted at for MLK Shabbat next Erev Shabbat!

If you’re in the NYC Area, it would be amazing to see your smiling and supportive faces at Congregation Rodeph Sholom 

I’m actually really, really nervous. I studied speech and theater in high school and took some classes in college, but I always get nervous right before addressing a group of people. Especially when the addressing sometimes difficult subject matter. But, it’s important and I’m so thrilled and nervous to be doing it!

Hope to see you there and Shabbat Shalom!

 

 

When I walk in the world I am seen first as black and second as a woman. I don’t necessarily “present” as a lesbian and when I identify myself as a Jew, I’m met with disbelief. Once the shock of being a black, lesbian Jew has settled people feel entitled to my story and want me to tell it to them. As a friend recently posted in a blog I’ll cross-post later, it’s exhausting.

It’s exhausting being the black Jew reminding white Jews to stop being racist. It’s exhausting to call out people on their crap. And it’s exhausting infuriating for folks to demand I tell them “story”. 

As a Jew of Color, I knew that I would be faced with adversity from within my own community. Before converting I read the book From Ghetto to Ghetto by Ernest H. Adams, I spoke with other JOCs and I prepared myself for an uphill battle of ignorance, and yes, racism. I don’t think that all Jews are racist. In fact, I think that most Jews consider themselves to be, and are, quite liberal and open-minded. But liberal open-mindedness doesn’t mean that subtle and not-so-subtle forms of racism and assumptions based on race exist.

We have a lot of work to do as a Jewish Community (here comes a plug for The Jewish Multiracial Network). As Ilana Kaufman points out in the piece below Federations are pouring millions of dollars into research on how to engage Jews, but why are they not also reaching out to work with Jews of Color and organizations like JMN to help them talk with, engage with and realize a Jewish community model that includes Jews of Color and Multiracial Jewish families.

Ilana’s piece is outstanding and thought provoking for sure, but like all pieces I write or share having to do with race in relation to Judaism I ask those of you who are white and Jewish to ask questions of your leadership, push for more inclusive programing, invite organizations in to help your communities be the best and most inclusive communities they can be.

by Ilana Kaufman

It was early fall and my friend’s daughter Gabi had just started a new religious school program. Gabi was excited; bunches of friends from her public school, and piles of pals from Jewish summer camp were also in her religious school classes. Gabi’s mom, a member of the religious school’s Shul arrived a few minutes before 6:00 pm to pick up her daughter. Swarms of kids and parents milled about looking for one another. Some of the teachers were also out and strolling, trying to meet parents for the first time.
“Are you Gabi’s Mom?” sailed a voice from across the courtyard and over the heads of dozens and dozens of other parents in between the teacher and the destination of the teacher’s question. My friend looked around. “Who is this lady yelling at?” she wondered. Again, from across the expanse came the question, “Excuse me. Are you Gabi’s Mom?” My friend ignored the teacher. Sure, she was Gabi’s mom, but she didn’t know this woman, and was perplexed by the teacher’s approach to meeting her for the first time. Yelling across a courtyard seemed a bit rude to Gabi’s mom, and didn’t exactly make her want to respond to the teacher. There was Gabi’s mom – the only African American adult in the courtyard, looking for her daughter who also happened to be Black. And the teacher, using visual cues made an assumption about who belonged to whom. In this case, the teacher happened to be right. But what if the teacher’s race-based assumption had been wrong? What if my friend had been someone else’s mom?

Keep reading on E. Jewish Philosophy

Please note that when I say “the Problem with Jews” I’m trying to wake you up, call attention to something, make you think. If you continue to read and still don’t “get” it and want to kvetch in the comments, please do so politely. Otherwise, your comment won’t get approved. 

selma-movieI haven’t seen the movie Selma yet, but I can’t wait to. I remember the first time I learned about Dr. Martin Luther King. I was probably around 7 or 8 and my parents introduced us to King and the Civil Rights Movement through a picture book I read with my mother. I flipped the pages and listened to my mother’s soothing voice as she said words like “Jim Crow” “Racism” and “Civil Rights”. And as I looked at the pages, I realized a few things; it was the first time I saw a person who looked like me in the pages of a book I was reading. Even my picture Bible showed pales skinned Egyptians (still happening almost 30 years later.) The second was that it was the first time a book gave me a peek into the life my mother lived in the Jim Crow South.

“Mama, why does that water fountain say ‘whites only’? “What does ‘Colored’ mean?” “Was it like that when  you were a girl?” “Why?”

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Christmas Missing II

Posted on: December 24, 2014

Now that Hanukkah is behind us, well almost, and it’s Christmas Eve I’m experiencing a new kind of Christmas missing. Which has less to do with being Jewish in a city that’s more difficult to be a Jew, and more to do with memories of Christmas’ past, my family, my sister and feeling so far away from the people I love the most.

Brutal honesty, I, like nearly everyone, took my family and specifically my sister for granted. When we were little girls and we would quarrel try to kill one another my father would always have us make up and remind us that we only had one sister. We’d scowl at each other in still simmering anger and I would think, G-d I wish I had another sister, cause this one sure was sucky. After those fights, I’m sure Patrice felt the same way.

Our high school years were slightly tumultuous. I entered two years before her and had established myself and she showed up my junior year as the annoying younger sister. It wasn’t until I left for college that we actually became friends. And when I returned after freshman year we actually became really good friends. I watched as she experimented with drugs and when those experiments became habitual and then a full-blown addiction we drifted apart again.

And when we’d fight and say incredibly ugly things to one another during these dark times of our relationship my father would still remind me that I only had one sister and that I should treat her as such. Except now we were adults and my simmering anger was steeped in worry and a feeling of helplessness. As her older sister, I felt responsibility for the woman she was now and wondered if I had been nicer to her when we were girls and teens that things would some how have turned out differently.

Last Christmas I joined my parents and the boys in Florida for warm weather and family time. I spoke to Patrice on the phone on Christmas day and like I’d done so many times I mumbled, “I love you.” to her sort of out of obligation because that’s what you say to your loved ones on Christmas Day. I was angry with her, of course, and wished naively, as I’d done for the past few years, that she’d just snap out of it. But, every psychologist, doctor and expert in addiction knows that an addict can’t just “snap out of it.”

It was infuriating to hear at the time of her death and at her memorial, but I truly believe that my sister is in a better place and while it would be great to call her tomorrow and to force an angry “I love you” out because it’s Christmas and that’s what you do at Christmas, I can say it to her from my heart and know that wherever her soul is in which ever plane it exists, that she not only hears it, but feels it.

So, it’s Christmas Eve and I’m here in Seattle. Tomorrow I’ll talk to the boys, which seems to make me both cry and laugh at the same time this season. I’ll talk to my parents, which will also be hard. And, or but, most importantly my I loves you will be filled with meaning and purpose.

To my readers who celebrate Christmas, I wish you a very happy one. I hope you have an amazing day filled with meaning. Don’t forget to tell your family members and friends that you love them, even when it’s hard.

Christmas Missing Part One

A Cross-Post from Ritualwell

I was supposed to write about my continued transition to Jewish life in Seattle. I was putting the finishing touches on this, my second blog post for Ritualwell, when I saw via Facebook that the Staten Island Grand Jury in yet another case about excessive force and police violence against black men in this country came back without an indictment.

From the comfort of my couch I watched while my friends and acquaintances stepped toe-to-toe with police officers in riot gear while they protested. I reposted and offered prayers of strength, solidarity and courage. I wonder if I will have to teach the children I (B’H) will have to watch their back, and mistrust the police officers whose job it is to serve communities. I wonder how many more lives will be lost before the rest of the country wakes up. I wonder what it will take for the Jewish community to not just speak the word צדק—justice, but also to work towards it.

Read the rest of my blog on Ritualwell.

Christmas Missing I

Posted on: December 16, 2014

This is how excited I was to find a Chabad menorah in Pioneer Square

This is how excited I was to find a Chabad menorah in Pioneer Square

For the first time in over 4 years I actually miss Christmas.

Living in New York, Christmas comes in with a bang. Between the windows at Saks Fifth Avenue, the tree at Rockefeller Center and the lights strung up in neighborhoods, Christmas is all around you. The music gets stuck in your head as you shop and without realizing it, you’re singing “Frosty the Snowman” or “Jingle Bells” on your walk home, dodging Christmas tree sellers on the street corners. And just when it feels like you’re Christmased out -“Excuse me, are you Jewish?” “Hello, sir, are you Jewish?” “Do you have Hanukkah candles?”

Oh Chabad. Those really friendly, mitzvah-pushing guys in the black hats. I could always count on them to ignore me, but to remind me that the cold winter months aren’t just about Santa, but also Hanukkah.

Back in our old neighborhood in Brooklyn, M and I would bundle up and take a walk through through the Victorian section of Ditmas Park and in about every other house we’d pass, we’d spot  the light of a hanukkiah glowing in the light of a window.

Giant menorahs stand throughout the city and to unfortunately quote Adam Sandler, when you felt like the only kid in town without a Christmas tree, those Chabadniks, and giant menorah, and the glow of candles in the windows reminded me that there was something very Jewish about the winter.

Here in Seattle, it feels even more bleak. This afternoon, in search for an electric menorah for my store, I went into four different shops in search for a Hanukkah section. In my neighborhood grocery store I was directed to the kosher food aisle, at the Target in downtown Seattle I was offered a silver Christmas Tree and some blue ornaments, and in at the Bartells I was simply told that there wasn’t a Hanukkah section.

M and I always discussed having a firm line when it came to Christmas vs. Hanukkah-our children would celebrate Christmas with their Nana, but in our home there would be no tree, no Santa, no green or red. And as I’ve realized, yet again, the world is a different place when you’re a Jew outside of New York. Which I’m going to start calling Little Israel (L.I. for short) from here on out.

I was scolded in a comment for kvetching about Seattle and the Pacific Northwest and encouraged to stop comparing my new city to New York, but when being a New York Jew is all I know, it’s all I know. And it’s not just Hanukkah, it’s everything. After Shabbat service last week I was talking about needing another mezuzah for my door and my friend asked where I could get one. I joked that there was this amazing place where you could walk down the street and pop into not one, not two, but at least a half dozen shops for all things Judaica. You could purchase new mezuzahs or find an antique one.

“Where?” my excited friend asked.

My response-Avenue J. In Brooklyn.

She couldn’t imagine it, a place where you could go to find everything you needed to be Jewish. And, honestly, I can barely believe it either. In one afternoon I could visit two-three kosher grocery stores and shop elbow-to-elbow with the most frum Jews and a Jewish woman wearing a short skirt-all because we needed Kosher for Pesach ingredients. You can find entire kosher wine/liquor stores, not to mention some of the best challah in the city. All of this, mere blocks from our apartment. And while there are some things that are okay to buy online-like Shabbos candles, others I like, like a new mezuzah, I want to touch and feel.

I’ve never felt such a sense of defeat, anger and frustration looking for a simple electric menorah as I felt today. And while I don’t miss Christmas or wish that I could celebrate it (or be a “Holiday Tree”/Hanukkah bush Jew) I, again, realized how effortless being Jewish and celebrating Jewishness is when you’re in a Jewish city.

~~

Now, kvetching aside, on tonight, the first night of Chanukah, I encourage everyone to seek out a Chanukah Action in your area. I will be working, unfortunately, but there is a lot of amazing things happening all over the world. Let our Hanukkah candles not only remind us of the miracle, but be a reminder of our duty as Jews to be a light unto the world. We have a lot to work on in this world, I’m afraid. And we have a duty to work towards צדק, justice, in our time.

www.chanukahaction.org

 

Stay tuned for my RitualWell piece about Jewish responsibility and racial justice.

I can't breatheLast Tuesday was a hard one for me.

When the Grand Jury in Staten Island returned a non-indictment verdict in the choking death of Eric Garner, another black man in a long line of black men who have died at the hands of police, was enraged. My responsibilities for the day were pushed aside and a vacillated between extreme anger and extreme sadness. And disbelief that we lived in a society not much different from that of the Jim Crow south.

It sounds strange, but could “see” how the Grand Jury in the Michael Brown case could have reached their decision. This is not to say that I agree with it, at all, the decision not to indict was injustice at it’s finest. I was livid that Michael Brown’s life wasn’t worth a trial, but I could see how a Grand Jury, faced with conflicting evidence and persuasive attorneys could have come up with their decision. I was furious, I felt defeated, but for some reason I didn’t feel moved, and in fact felt quite removed from the entire thing.

I reposted prayers from friends who were on the front lines in Missouri and like everyone else I noticed the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter start to trend on social media, come out of the mouths of news casters and protesters alike.

Perhaps about a week later a new hashtag started popping up on my Facebook and Twitter feeds; #alllivesmatter. I had lots of feelings about it, but couldn’t quite put my finger on it until the decision about Eric Garner came down. The feeling I pin pointed was anger.

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Not So Special

Posted on: December 3, 2014

There’s something quite precious about naivety. There’s an innocence that sometimes boarders on delusion, but it’s sweet. Well, that’s at least how I like to think about my own naivety in relation to becoming Jewish. I had so many questions; first and foremost was how I, a black, gay woman, could be a Jew. I named my blog, Black, Gay and Jews partially because I love Rebecca Walker, partially because I thought it fit me perfectly, and partially because I thought I was special. Thinking I was special is the naivety. 

Of course, I am not special. Or rather, there’s nothing inherently special about being a black, Gay Jew. In fact I know a lot of black gay, trans, bi Jews that I almost (not really) think my blog name should be “One Woman Who is Black, Gay and Jewish.”

I had the opportunity to speak with Ilana Kaufman, another black, gay Jewish woman, about a year ago with my JMN hat on, though we realized we’d spoken via email for some time. She’s been profiled in Haaretz, which is pretty cool in and of itself. It’s also pretty cool that Ilana is pretty amazing.

Photo from JTA.com

Photo from JTA.com

(JTA) — When Ilana Kaufman, a program officer at the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation, arrived at San Quentin State Prison for a meeting with the Jewish chaplain at California’s oldest correctional facility, the chaplain couldn’t seem to find her — even though Kaufman was standing in plain sight.

As Kaufman waited in the receiving area, a security officer by her side, the spiritual leader of the prison community — largely composed of men of color — turned her head left and right trying to locate the federation representative whose name she knew but whose face she had never seen.

“Finally the officer says, ‘Chaplain, this person standing right next to me,’” Kaufman recalled. “And the chaplain says, ‘You know, you are not who I expected.’”

It wasn’t the first time that Kaufman, 42, had heard such a comment.

In her two years as the federation officer responsible for regional grant making in Marin and Sonoma counties, Kaufman had seen her fair share of jaws drop when she walked into a Jewish communal space. Kaufman is black — the daughter of an Ashkenazic Jewish mother and an African-American father.

Keep reading on Haaretz. 

I’m so excited to share my first blog post on RitualWell! This is the first of in a series of blog posts that I will be writing for them. I hope that you will follow along.

Enjoy!

An amazing thing happened a few days ago.

I was enjoying my lunch in the break room of the retail store I help to manage when one of my colleagues came rushing into the room.

“Erika!” he exclaimed, “Come here! Now!”

I was annoyed because I was on my break and protested the entire way to the sales floor.

“Look,” he said gesturing towards a corner of the floor.

I looked and saw an admittedly cute blonde French bulldog, but only responded, “Cute dog.”

“No,” he persisted. “Look” He cocked his head sharply and again looked towards the corner.

I looked and saw a boy in a kippah, his tzitzit hanging at his waist and immediately felt so excited I literally jumped into the air. It was the first time since leaving New York City that I’d seen someone who was outwardly Jewish. When my excitement subsided enough to speak, I approached the woman accompanying the boy to ask them about the Jewish community in Seattle, my new hometown.

Read the rest on RitualWell

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