a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

Guest Post-Reflections on Oprah’s Hidden Culture-Hassidic Brooklyn

Posted on: February 21, 2012

 I have a slight fascination with Orthodox life, especially the Hasidic culture.  I am in awe of the conviction and strong connection to Torah and tradition.  I’m in awe of the honor and reverence shown to living a life that is more Gd-like than most Americans can imagine.  The style of dress intrigues me, the observance intrigues me.  I know that I could never be an Orthodox Jew, but I draw inspiration from traditional Jews and find ways to add small doses wherever I can.

When I started my journey to Judaism I knew that aspects of what I believe and how I chose to live did not and could not fit into the Orthodox lifestyle.  I was also quite certain that there were no Black Orthodox Jews-let alone black Hasidic Orthodox Jews.  Of course this assumption was silly and based on my own misunderstanding of Judaism and who I chose to see as a Jew.

Thankfully, during my conversion process and through organizations I have developed a better of understanding of the types of Orthodox sects and have been blessed to become friends with black Orthodox Jews here in NYC.

I have not seen the show, and probably will not unless it becomes available online.  I’m sure, having zero personal experience of what it is to be a Hasidic Jew, that I would have thought Oprah did a great job in showing what the life of a Hasidic Jew was like.  I’m grateful to my friend for taking the time to write this blog post about her reflections on the OWN Special.  Having the opinion of a black Orthodox Jew is important because it allows me to see past what Oprah and her team wanted me to see.  It allows me to see the flaws within the show and gives me a glimpse of a life and a community that I do not have access to as a liberal Jew.

 

~

Last week, a television special entitled America’s Hidden Culture, A look into the Chassidish World aired on Oprah’s OWN network.  While it has been much debated, both criticized and lauded, I’m going to share what may be a slightly different perspective.

You see, I’ll be honest; I initially wasn’t that interested.  I figured it would be exactly what it was, an idealized version of the Chassidic community, as represented by Lubavitch chassidim.  A defacto Lubavitch infomercial sponsored by HARPO (Oprah’s production company), it served up neat answers about dating and marriage, the mikvah, women’s roles, etc. and avoided any real discussion about anything remotely controversial (yes, I noticed the not so neat and slightly ridiculous attempt to sideswipe a discussion on homosexuality by calling it “theoretical” and “extreme”).  However, none of this surprised me, or should have surprised any other frum viewer.  Given the frum community’s strong desire to avoid anything that could be perceived as a chillul Hashem, it was pretty obvious that any chassidim involved would only participate if it was going to be a positive portrayal of chassidim and Orthodox Judaism.  What the Andy Griffith show was to 1950s America, this special was to chassidim.

Given that intro, why did I bother to watch it, much less write a blog post about it?  Well, not long after I started seeing the initial promotional clips posted on seemingly every friend’s Facebook wall, I saw the clip with the Abrahamson family, the black family in the show.  This immediately turned the Oprah special into must see television.  You see, as a frum black Jew, I’m invisible.  To the vast majority of frum society, much less, the rest of the Jewish and non-Jewish world I don’t exist.  My friends and our families don’t exist.  No matter how many generations of black Jews exist, to many we remain invisible.  So, imagine my surprise and pleasure to see a black Chassidic family in one of the many promotional videos shooting across the internet.

I’ll be honest, I don’t watch much tv, I generally find it to be a waste of time better spent doing just about anything else and full of distasteful material—however, I made a special effort to watch this, as did many of the other black Jews I know.   Like me, other black Jews were excited to see acknowledgement of our existence on such a large and mainstream platform.  So imagine my surprise and profound disappointment when I actually sat down and saw the Abrahamson segment of the special.

Let me say this first and foremost, the following opinion doesn’t come from a place of militancy, but from a place of pride.  My pride comes from knowing the strength and richness that is my cultural inheritance as a black American.  And my disappointment stems from the responsibility you have both as a frum person and a person of color when you are put on a national platform.  I can’t stand in their shoes or their experiences, so instead of accusing, I’m just going to say … “I don’t understand.”

I don’t understand… how when Oprah fetishizes and tokenizes the Abrahamson family as the only black Chassidic family in existence, Dinah Abrahamson allows her to do so.  Why is it difficult to acknowledge that others exist, particularly as they are relatively new to Crown Heights and there have been and still are other Black Lubavitch families that have lived there for decades? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing that she needed to launch into a dissertation about the presence of black Jews in Chassidic sects, a mere “oh we’re not the only ones” would have sufficed.  That small statement would have indicated, we’re not some exotic and rare creature to be fetishized, but are and have been an integrated part of these communities for a long time.

I don’t understand… her willingness to attribute prejudice to the black community, yet absolve the white Jewish community entirely.  Yes, the non-Jewish black community can be mystified by the presence of black Jews.  Unfortunately in America, Jewish is synonymous with white to the general public.  Pop culture defines Jews as white, brunette, neurotic lovers of bagels and maztah ball soup.  American culture hasn’t even discovered Sephardim, so I’m unsurprised that it hasn’t discovered black Jews yet.  I too have been questioned about my Jewishness by members of the black community.  However, it has never come from a critical place, merely curiosity.  Black Jews often present the rest of the black community with a “safe person” to ask all the questions they’ve had about Jews, but never had the opportunity to ask.  I’ve been asked everything from “Why won’t he shake my hand?” to “How do bald men keep the beanie on their heads?”  It’s genuine curiosity and in my experience and the experience of most other black Jews I know it’s rarely antagonistic…so I can’t help but feel the response to Oprah’s question about the black community was loaded with a desire to be seen as something apart from, rather than a wealth of negative experiences from the black community.

I don’t understand…the creation of a false dichotomy when discussing her racial heritage and her Jewish heritage.  She plays neatly into the perception that there is inherently a conflict between “blackness” and being Jewish.  Acknowledging her whole self, does not in any way detract from the separate identities that have joined together to create her as a black Jewish woman.  Why must acknowledgement or knowledge about her African American heritage come at the price of her Jewish heritage?  I was unaware that it was a zero sum game.  For every fact that you know about black history, does a posuk get removed from your memory?  Acknowledging your history doesn’t mean being versed in hip hop lingo, it doesn’t mean having soul music on rotation, voting Democratic, nor does it mean being caught up on every Tyler Perry movie under the sun.  As a frum woman, I understand her choice to avoid certain things that have been deemed “black culture” by mainstream society, especially music, books and movies that are not compatible with a Chassidic lifestyle.  However, that does not mean she gets a free pass to distance herself entirely from her black heritage.

Jewish is not proxy for white, nor is it proxy for Eastern European.  The Jewish people are in galus and have been flung to the four corners of the Earth.  There are Asian Jews, Indian Jews, Caribbean Jews, Latin American Jews, Europeans Jews, Jews from the Middle East and yes, African American Jews.   In her discussion with Oprah, Dinah Abrahamson adamantly refused to deny her mother or her grandmother’s Jewish heritage, because it is rightfully hers to possess, but in the same breath disavowed the rest of her heritage as a black woman in America.  Does she not rightfully inherit that identity as well? It seemed both an earnest plea for other Jews to see her as just another Jew, yet at the same time completely ignored the history and place of race and racism in this country.  Rightly or wrongly, this country’s racial history doesn’t afford black people the privilege of being just a Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, teacher, lawyer or even president.  America is not and odds are never will be a colorblind society.  But what we can hope for is a society and Jewish community accepting and respectful of our various backgrounds.  How can she not understand that her black heritage informs her Jewish practice? Does she not understand that her cavalier attitude about her heritage ignores the role Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, and the Little Rock Nine had on the ability of her kids to attend yeshiva?  Does she not understand that without Freedom Riders and sit-ins, she might not be welcome at any shul regardless of her heritage (as people of color were denied membership to synagogues as a rule, regardless of ancestry)? By doing so, she ignores the black Jewish parents who came before her, who had no choice but to imbue their children with a strong sense of self as a black person and pride in their African American heritage so they could withstand the stares and name calling they had to endure to gain the Jewish education they rightfully deserved as a Jew.  You know, the parents who taught their kids that “black is beautiful”, that their ancestors were freedom fighters, inventors, professors, world renowned doctors, Supreme Court justices, poets and thinkers, not some “shvartza” stereotype of welfare mothers and criminals.   That their skin color and heritage is nothing to be ashamed of and African American heritage does not prevent them from being good Torah observant Jews.

I don’t understand…the pat disavowal when Oprah asked Dinah Abrahamson if she ever feel isolated in the Jewish community.  I want to believe she’s had this idyllic experience wherein she and her family are accepted totally and completely in their community without question or comment.  I want to believe that she’s never felt excluded from any Jewish spaces.  I want to believe it…. but I don’t.  Full disclosure, I consider myself a completely integrated member of the Orthodox community, I’ve always been active in my local synagogues, had a wonderful relationship with my fellow students and rabbis in seminary, taught Hebrew schools, etc.  I’m not sitting at home alone, nor cringing every time I walk into a Jewish space.  I agree that the Jewish community can be very “close knit”–who else lends a cell phone to a stranger, a home for a simcha or even a car for an errand as quickly?  However, there are plenty of times I, my family or my friends or their families have felt isolated in Jewish spaces—when someone drops “shvartza” or “nigger” in the middle of a conversation, then rushes to assure you “but I don’t mean you”, when you’re shopping in a Shabbat robe store and they keep asking you what church you go to even though you’ve mentioned you’re Jewish, when a rabbi goes on a rant about the inferiority of  the black community in a classroom or shiur, when you’re interrogated at the door of a friend’s Shabbat kallah, when fellow shoppers at a kosher grocery store refuse to acknowledge your presence when you ask them to “please move your cart, it’s blocking the aisle”, when a school tells a parent they will accept the lighter skinned children, but the darker skinned children have to stay home, when you’re interrogated about your background at every Shabbat meal or simcha you attend, when people actively stare at you during davening or eating at a kosher restaurant or when people ignore you when it comes to making shiddichum.  Maybe, Dinah Abrahamson has never shared these isolating experiences, maybe because until a few years ago Dinah Abrahamson and her family lived in the bustling Jewish community of Omaha, Nebraska, they were spared these constant slights or small injustices.  Maybe her out-of-town experience and almost immediate celebrity within the Lubavitch sect on her arrival in Crown Heights has shielded her from the tiny acts of isolation most Jews of color experience…maybe.

I don’t understand… her not considering the other black, biracial and multiracial Jews watching her segment…many of them, precious neshamas who feel that being a Torah observant Jew and black person in America are incompatible? She is in a unique position as a person of color with Jewish heritage to know that others like her exist. As a Lubvaticher isn’t she always seeking to bring other Jews closer Torah? Maybe it’s too much to ask of one family, but when someone agrees to participate in a special due to their being a black family, I would expect them not to distance themselves from blackness. Instead of openly accepting her background, she pandered to those who would seek to narrowly define what it means to be Jewish or even Chassidish.  This was a missed opportunity to encourage others to embrace both aspects of their heritage.  Too often black Jews feel they have to choose an identity—black or Jewish, this was an opportunity to show them that no choice is necessary.When Drake, a hip hop artist, is more vocal and proud to be black and Jewish than a Torah observant family, I have to wonder where we as a community went wrong.

Were my expectations too high?  Maybe.  Is it realistic to expect anyone, particularly someone with children of age to be in shidduchim to respond to questions about the frum community in a public forum in any way that’s less than effusive?  I don’t know.  Would I be able to discuss my position in the frum community in a real, honest way if my kids ’futures were on the line?  Would I have uttered a scathing indictment of the frum community, no, but I wouldn’t do so privately either. Could I have responded in a way that was upbeat, yet founded in my reality as both frum Jew and a black woman?  Absolutely.  Do I need to deny one aspect of myself to embrace the other…not at all.  And I think that’s the view of black frum people we need…frankly, maybe nothing is better than what was shown last week.

5 Responses to "Guest Post-Reflections on Oprah’s Hidden Culture-Hassidic Brooklyn"

Excellent piece. Thank you.

I really do wish that there was more, and more nuanced, understanding of Jewish communities and their history, even among Jews. There have been black Jews pretty much since there were Jews. The Venetian Ghetto was a culturally blended community, with black Jews and white Jews and brown Jews all living together, so why on earth should it surprise anyone to find the same in New York?

You write from your heart, Kudos.

This piece isn’t mine, but I will share the compliment with the author.

It would seem that everyone has a perspective on what is seen and shown and in that they all see if a little differently. In this show it would seem to me personally that the Abrahamson family or Ms. Abrahamson was denying being black but in the peace she stated she did not know that side of her culture so she could not take it as her own and took her culture from her mother and grandmother as they imparted it, her Jewish side” to her through observances and there faithful teachings; and while personally searching for more after her divorce she found Chassidic Jewdism to fit her more personally. I appericate you article and did see your points of view to be important and needing to be said, however, in this if showing that both being chassidic and black is both intertwined then take the faithful leap of faith and show the world a different point of view from your perspective whether through Oprah or in a manner that u feel is best, but teach the world another point of view to look at this hidden culture so that we may all learn from your experiences and beliefs so that we can all be inspired and inlightened. Just a thought.

I agree with the writer, #1 and #3. I understand this all too well. It’s very painful!

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