Posted on: March 2, 2011
A few conversion classes ago the rabbi asked how we thought we, a room full of Jews-to-be, would change Judaism. We all gave answers and today, for some reason, two weeks later I’m still thinking about it. As converts, we are changing Judaism and as a result the “face” of Judaism will be forever changed. Things that I like, foods that I like, music I enjoy will inevitably become Jewish Things, Jewish Food, Jewish Music.
As a black woman, that fact seems clearer, or more obvious, but is it?
When I think of my born-Jewish friends I think they all are making changes to Judaism in their own way. One of my friends is in love with a Catholic man who loves being Catholic. Whenever I see him lately, it is at Shabbat service and he’s wearing a kippah, clapping, singing, chanting. He’s there because he loves her and if they get married they will change what Judaism means. Their children would be Jews because their mother is a Jew but they’d be living in a multi-faith family weaving different traditions into one another-forever changing the fabric of Judaism.
I have another friend who is a born Jew who’s a lesbian (truth be told, I’ve got a lot of lesbian Jewish friends) and we’re all changing the structure of the Jewish family. When two Jewish women make the decision to spend their lives together and create a family together that family will be Jewish-as both mothers are Jews-but that Jewish family is “different” than what the mind thinks of as a Jewish family. The family may be secular or observant but that lesbian (or gay) family changes the face of Judaism.
When Jews adopt children from China, Korea, or black boys and girls those children will be raised as Jews and hopefully they will raise their children as Jews and then the spectrum of color in the Jewish religion in the US would be as varied as the faces of Christians and Muslims. But hasn’t it always looked that way?
I always struggle with the concept of the Jewish race because I’m a religious Jew. When emerge from the mikvah as a Jew and identify with all Jewish people my racial make up will still be black. I’m learning, as I visit synagogues and talk with other black Jews or Jews of Color, that in the US the picture that comes to mind when one says Jew is European. Even when one says Sephardic Jew, the image isn’t one of a black face, or even an Asian face when there are many black Jews and Asian Jews-born and converted.
Part of the reason I want to go to Israel so badly is to see what the faces of non-American Jews look like there. Even now, when I see an Orthodox Jew of Color walking down the streets of Ditmas Park or Midwood I’m shocked, in awe, and I’ll totally admit I’m captivated. I actually tried to stop a woman on Coney Island Avenue late summer to chat her up. She thought I was crazy, of course, and brushed passed me and what could I have expected from her? For her to chat with a woman who was her same color but definitely not of the same faith. I was wearing pants and most definitely sporting a low-cut v-neck shirt, she was frum.
Before I made the formal commitment to going through a conversion I attended a few different synagogues in Manhattan. I was incredibly nervous. I was sure that I’d be the only person of color in the room. I was sure that everyone would turn around a look at me, as if a spot light had shone on me. I was sure that I’d be completely lost. When I walked into the first synagogue some people looked up, most did not and I was completely lost. Even now when I enter a new synagogue I get annoyed at the people who look at me, and do not talk to me. I want to say, “If you have a question, ask” Other times I think, why should they look and stare? I have walked into synagogues where no one seems to notice me and I get paranoid that they’re trying to avoid looking at me and become incensed that they aren’t seeing my blackness.
There was a time when, to be PC, people would say “I don’t see race, I see the person.” That sentiment irked me, and still does today, because I need you to see my race. I need you to see that I am a black woman and try to understand what that means. If you don’t see my race then you don’t see who I am as a person. As a Black Jew, I struggle with identifying as such. Yet, I am a black Jew and I need you to see that the two can be one. I may be a convert, but my future children will be just a Jews who are black.
In the end all of us are changing Judaism’s face. We add to it and take away from it what we will, at the same time strengthening it and dare I say, sometimes weakening it? I like to think that I’m bringing to Judaism my years of Christianity, however faulty they were. I’m bringing my love of Southern cooking and what it means to bring in a New Year (with black eyes and collard greens) I’m bringing my love of singing, clapping, and praising God in a way that brings a “joyful noise”. I’m bringing my questions and doubt, most of all, just me.
This month in Sh’ma, there are great articles on the definitions of Jews along with a beautiful photo essay on what a Jew looks like. I love meeting Jews of Color and born Jews here and in my life. It’s a blessing and joy to know that there are so many of us, small threads, being woven into the larger fabric that is Judaism. I can only hope that our diversity, our ethnicity, and our non-Jewish paths can only enrich the Jewish experience now and in the future.