a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

Guess What?! There are Non-White Jews in NYC!

Posted on: June 12, 2012

No shit.

“The Israelites journeyed from from Raamses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on food, aside from children.  Moreover, a mixed multitude went up with them”-Exodus 12:37-38

I sound like a broken record, but clearly the lessons of history, of Torah, of geography and human migration needs to be continually told and re-learned.

I wrote two pieces about Judaism and race in the past week that should be published by the end of the week.  In both pieces I wrote some of the same tried and true sentences-Jews have always been diverse. To be a Jew has only recently meant to be white. I don’t make these statements to try to prove one thing over another, just to lay out the facts, but I feel like I’m always saying it.

I know my situation isn’t unique. Converts are at the very essence of Judaism. The first Jew, Avraham, was himself a convert and just like our forefather, converts will continue to make up the tapestry of Judaism. Though, converts who are people of color aren’t the way Jews became ethnically and racially diverse. We’ve always been racially and ethnically diverse. If Moses, a key figure in our history, took a wife from Midian, a biblical city some scholars believe is near modern day Sudan, haven’t we always been one shade of brown or another?

No.  Clearly racial diversity in America is a new thing, because  Jews left that gigantic continent where the other black people are from and got to Europe and the U.S without coming into contact with any people who weren’t white. Thing is, the Jews in the Torah most likely looked like this guy.  So why is it that when you say Jew, folks visualize someone who looks like Adam Sandler? And why is this oh wow, Jews aren’t all white phenomenon a “new thing” that’s really basic human history?

This afternoon I happened upon the UJA Community Study of New York 2011 and immediately flipped to the last chapter, the chapter on Diversity.  I’m not even going to discuss the fact that LBGT Jews and JOCs are in the back.  Followed by the pat-on the back from The Jewish Week.  According to these two, things are hunky dory.

To say that I was dismayed is putting it mildly.  I had so many questions: When was this survey conducted? Who did they reach out to? Did they collaborate with Jewish diversity organizations like Be’chol Lashon, Jews in All Hues or JMN?  Why haven’t I heard about this?  Why haven’t any of my friends or peers heard about this?

This study shocks and angers me because I see it being fuel to the fire of the already rampant racism that exists in the Jewish community-especially in NYC.

I’ve been stared at when buying challah, watched and followed in Judaica stores, stopped by security at synagogues while other people walk right in, and told to my face that I’m not a real Jew or that black Jews can’t/don’t exist. I’ve been assumed to be the help, I’ve been given dirty dishes at kiddush, I’ve been referred to as “someone’s nanny” by children playing in the synagogue lobby while waiting to speak to my rabbi and these are just my experiences in the past two years. They don’t begin to account for the racism that people like Manishtana, Y-Love, Jewminicana have shared online nor does it take into account the racism that most JOCs experience in their Jewish lives on a day-to-day basis.

When Jews were able to pass for white, they did.  And when they passed for white they seemed to forget what it’s like to be “non-white.”  The Jews in my life who are of Mexican-American, black American, Puerto Rican, Yemen, Ethiopian, Indian, and multiracial decent don’t have that luxury, and it’s not something we want to give up.  Moreover, we’re not black Jews or Hispanic Jews we’re Jews. It’s time that Jews who are white see us as not an oddity, not exotic, not a group of people who live in Israel, who are from Africa, interlopers with the desire to infiltrate Judaism.  We’re simple Jews, who are not white–just as Jews have been since Torah.

The Jewish community needs to stop shying away from difficult conversations around race and racism that exists within the Jewish community.  The Jewish community needs to insure that leaders are educated in all expressions of Judaism outside of the Askenazi/Sephardi paradigm.  The Jewish community needs to look at its educational materials, its synagogues, its JCCs, it’s Federations and make serious changes-by reaching out to Jews who aren’t white by listening to them.

I decided to take a peek at the two-page Diversity report and interject my thoughts and comments along the way in hopes that it encourages my readers, large Jewish institutions, Jewish leaders and individuals to take a look at their communities, and within themselves.  The diversity of the Jewish people has existed for as long there have been Jews and our leadership is doing a disservice if this diversity isn’t a part of Jewish education.

For many years, American Jews have been seen and characterized as a “white” ethno-religious group, both in terms of their racial classification and in terms of their cultural alignment in American society. Jews have only been seen as “white in America” recently?  I I don’t think so.

Although I respectfully recognize a distinct Jewish identity and culture, I also recognize that Jews are an important part of the more general social construction of whiteness.  The dialogue between Cornel West and Michael Lerner raises and illustrates similar issues. As West says, “Even amidst anti- Semitism, the anti-Black situation confers white-skin privilege on Jews.” In responding to this claim, Lerner argues that “by calling Jews ‘white,’ Blacks are in effect denying [the Jewish] history of oppression.” This social construct places Jews among the beneficiaries of European imperialism. Yet far from benefiting, Lerner responds, “Jews have been the primary ‘Other,’ have been socially and legally discriminated against, have been the subject of racism and genocide, and in those terms Jews are not white.” Outside of the United States, particularly in Europe, Lerner’s point is compelling. It transports less well to the United States, however. Although Jews experienced significant episodes of discrimination and exclusion, they have not been subjected to the experience and legacy of slavery or genocide, and they have not been the primary “Other.” Overt discrimination against Jews in the United States subsided after World War II, in part because of the abhorrence the nation expressed to Hitler’s anti-Semitism and murderous treatment of Jews.  

I do not seek to belittle Jewish oppression. Clearly, there has been quite reprehensible past discrimination against Jews. Nor do I discount anti-Semitic sentiments that still persist in America. I argue, though, that Jews in America have sought and largely attained white-skin privilege, a privilege that advantageously sets the stage for their continued success and achievement as individuals. The stage set for black success and achievement lacks these associated props of privilege that Jews, as with most other whites, often take for granted as neutral and universally available to all, regardless of nonwhite color or history of racist oppression.

Admittedly, the attainment of white-skin color privilege by Jews has not only involved overcoming difficult barriers of anti-Semitism, but has come at substantial psychic costs and loss of identity. As Lerner points out, Jewish whiteness “is the privilege to renounce one’s Judaism. By and large the way to get into this system is to take off your kippah, cut off your beard, hide your fringes; in other words, to reject your entire cultural and religious humanity.” I seek to empathize, here, as my previous discussion of the sociological passing of blacks should indicate. Nonetheless, the Jewish option to be white, however difficult, has been exercised widely. -Jews and the Problem of Whiteness

However, several factors — intermarriage and adoption among them — have been working to alter that nearly all-white imagery and reality to some extent. Saying “have been working to alter…” makes it sound like the whiteness is something that Jews are seeking, a way to separate us from them.  This is hugely problematic because Jews have always been racially and ethnically diverse.  While I realize this study focuses solely on Jews in New York City, to assert that Jews of Color are only now emerging is incorrect. To begin to explore the multiracial character of the New York-area Jewish population, we created a classification of households that in any way includes nonwhite members. Thus, households could qualify if the respondents were Black, Hispanic, Asian, or biracial, or if white respondents with more than one household member reported that their households are bi- or multiracial. What does this mean?  In these households where one person is a person of color-is that person of color the Jewish person?  Is the spouse Jewish?  Are the children Jewish? For convenience’s sake, we will refer to these households as “nonwhite…”for the sake of convenience we’re going to use white as normative and everyone else as abnormal.  For the sake of convenience we’re going to lump all of these races and ethnicities into one, easy for us to swallow word that puts whiteness as a priority and everything else as secondary.  “although as a group they are divided almost equally among four groups: Hispanic respondents, Black respondents, white respondents with biracial households, and biracial respondents, with small numbers of others (for example, Asian-American respondents). In all, 87,000 households qualify as nonwhite in some respect. They contain 254,000 people, of whom 161,000 are Jews.

These households are found less frequently in the three suburban counties than white Jewish households, and somewhat more frequently in the Bronx. In terms of age, respondents are relatively concentrated between ages 25 and 44 (41% versus 22% for all-white households). Accordingly, many more of the nonwhite households have children at home (37% versus 24%), while far fewer are households with senior adults (14% versus 38%). Both men and women in nonwhite households report lower levels of educational attainment than do those in all-white households. About 44% of nonwhite people have earned a bachelor’s degree, as opposed to 56% of those who are white. Employment patterns resemble those for the population at large. Somewhat more nonwhite households report income levels under $50,000 per year (47% versus 41%); accordingly, somewhat more qualify as poor (25% versus 17% for the larger Jewish population).

Respondents in nonwhite households tend to eschew any denominational affiliation. I realize that my group of friends isn’t a scientific correlation to the whole of the city, but when I do a brief browse of my friends who are JOCs I can honestly say that I’m fully aware of all of their religious observance and the vast majority of them are practicing Orthodox Jews.  Those who are not Orthodox are active in their synagogue community-attending services regularly and observing Shabbat in their homes weekly.  The majority of my JOC friends keep kosher or have some kashrut observance. Far more are intermarried (54% versus 18% for all-white Jewish households). What does this mean?  Again, which spouse is the person of color, which spouse is Jewish?  Significantly fewer join synagogues (27% versus 47%); very few have mostly Jewish friends (18% versus 57%). Not surprisingly, their use of day schools is less than half as frequent as among other Jewish households. At the same time, of the children in nonwhite Jewish households, about three times as many have never received any Jewish education (30% for the oldest child in these households versus 10% for the oldest in others). Correlatively, very few biracial and nonwhite households score very high on the Index of Jewish Engagement (just 4% versus 20% for all white households), and a large plurality score very low (41% versus 14%).

The text in italics is the most infuriating of the entire study.  What, exactly is this supposed to mean?  Not surprisingly?  As if Jews of Color don’t want to educate their children Jewishly?  Honestly, I’m not sure that I would subject my child to the racism, lack of diversity, and skewed Jewish education that most Manhattan day schools offer.  I’ve been in day schools and I’ve been hard-pressed to find pictures of Jewish children of color on the walls, I’ve not seen toys that are ethnically diverse, educators that are diverse, learning materials that are diverse. I would have to seriously think about putting my children, Jewish children who will be black Jews with two mothers into a learning environment that lacks diversity.  I wonder if they asked why these Jews of Color don’t put their children into day school, or perhaps “not surprisingly” is an admission to the lack of diversity on the part of our Jewish institutions.

I can’t continue to stress what this study really proves-the need for more education and for Jews of Color to do that education.  I hope that you’re reading this, UJA.  I have a nice curriculum in early draft stages and a non-profit structure I hope to roll out in the next two years-hopefully by then you’ll be ready to take a serious look at making our community accepting and open to all Jews-no matter the color of their skin.



8 Responses to "Guess What?! There are Non-White Jews in NYC!"

It feels like we’re a broken record saying the same thing over and over and over again at a brick wall because the system is broken. But if we stop saying it, then where will we be, where will our children and grandchildren be? Will my grandchildren be stopped be security guards, too, on the High Holidays and turned away even with tickets in hand because “they don’t LOOK Jewish.” Dear G-d, I hope not.

Thank you so much! You are always an inspiration to me. Inshallah/Be’ezrat HaShem our children and grandchildren will not have to go through this. It’s what drives me every day. My partner and I are starting to talk about families and I cannot let my children live in a world where this injustice prevails.

I hear your frustration, and I understand it. I am so sorry that our community continues to be so myopic on this issue. Thank you for your writing and your speaking-out on this issue — I know it’s not your job to educate white folks in the Jewish world about our own racism, and I can imagine how exhausting it is to always have to be saying these things, but I am grateful that your voice is there.

Rabbi Rachel-If all of the rabbis in all of the world were like you the Jewish community would be the vibrant, beautifully accepting and inclusive community I wish for. It’s annoying to keep saying it, but it’s good to keep up the good fight.

Ericka, the only thing that I would add is that the ancient Hebrews would have not only looked like the young man you shared in this article but also some would have had even darker hues and different hair texture than he.

I mean, if you look at it from a scientific standpoint, all of humanity came from the landmass known as Africa. I personally don’t think the creation story is how human existence started on our planet, but I know that science tells us that human existence started on that land.

The geographical home of the Jews lies in between Arab and African lands and the people of Israel spent those many years of Torah traveling throughout the land-to think that we’re an ethnically homogeneous people on either spectrum is problematic. So it definitely makes perfect sense that the ethnic diversity of Jews spans all colors.

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