a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

“Jewfro vs. Afro”

Posted on: June 14, 2011

I’m fascinated by the correlations between Black Americans and Jewish Americans.  It’s not just hair.  I’m working on a larger essay that I will never be completely happy with but let me just say this.  We’re not as different as we’d like to think.

1.  Greens and Black Eyed Peas

Ever since I was a little girl the not-so-pleasant smell of collard greens would wake me on January 1st.  My mother would be immersed in her deep-set Black-Southern routines passed down by her Mother, my Grandmother Minnie Miller.  There are only two rules for New Years Day.  The tree had to be down “never bring an old tree into a new year” and you must eat black eyed peas and greens “coins and paper money”.

The hamhocks would be simmering away in both pots and hours later I sat before a plate of brownish greens, soft black eyes, and my favorite buttery old-fashioned skillet corn bread.  Even though I turned my nose up at the brownish meal set before me I ate it while my mother watched satisfied.  I’m a bit ashamed of myself, now as an adult, to admit that I never told my friends of these traditions.  They labeled me black and therefore different from my white friends at school.

Fast forward to my first year with Miriam and imagine my astonishment at her insistence at making a pot of black eyes for New Years day.  We actually went through 2 burned pots of black eyes before we settled on canned peas as January 2nd quickly approached.  I thought, “I guess it’s more of a southern thing than a black thing.”  Mirs family, on both sides, had this tradition of eating black eyes for the New Year.

Last summer, my first Rosh Hashanah,I was even more shocked to find that some Jews, mostly Sephardic, also eat black eyed peas for the New Year.   I opened cookbooks and websites and found recipe upon recipe for black eyes for the New Year.  While they weren’t simmered in ham, they looked delicious and I’m relieved that a part of me that I identified as Southern Black can also be woven into my Jewish identity as an established tradition.

2.  Slavery

I’ve been completely enthralled watching the PBS series ” Black in Latin America” with Henry Gates Jr.  That, combined with just finishing “The Help” and starting Angela Davis’ autobiography has me a little touchy when it comes to the relationship of blacks andwhites in the Americas.  Being raised by parents who lived through the Civil Rights movement I often heard murmurs of white folks this and white folks that.  It was, and still is, complex because I’ve always had white friends, white school teachers, white doctors, etc.  My parents had white friends but every once in a while a story on the news, a comment by a teacher or colleague would send my parents back to the 1960s.

When I was still a toddler I apparently peed on our neighbor’s back porch.  The neighbor brought me back home to my mother to be changed.  I’m told that my mother looked out of her back window to find the neighbor scrubbing her cement porch with bleach trying to rid it of the “black girl’s pee”.  Whenever I bring up that story my mother’s face immediately fills with anger.  I can see the anger and memories in her eyes.  Things I don’t understand still.  I told Mirs yesterday that I’m feeling a little mad at white people.  It happens.  My mother grew up in segregated North Carolina and while she didn’t talk about it a lot, I do remember stories she told me about living in the south in the 50s and 60s.

Both Jews and Blacks have been subject to slavery and both groups referencethe story of the Exodus as one of hope and redemption.  During Pesach I wrote a post about it so I won’t dig too deep.  I still find it ironic and a bit maddening that people choose not to see this similarity and use it to build bridges.

1960-When my mother visited her mother at work she had to use the back entrance.  When Mirs’ Jewish grandparents wanted to join the country club in Texas they were turned away.  That was 50 years ago!

3.  Hair

I’m not sure how we go from Slavery to Hair but we are because in a way it makes since.  Story goes that I got my first relaxer at Troy’s Miracles Salon in Cricket West.  I’m not sure how old I was but I was far too young to have chemicals put on my hair.  My own mother wore a ‘Fro in the 70s (until my grandmother told her she needed to get it relaxed before walking down the aisle.)

From the moment the relaxer went on the market Black women took to it’s promise of giving them “more manageable” “better” hair.  Sometimes I think it’s because we don’t know any better.  Most women don’t know what their real hair looks like.  Am I really blonde?  Is my hair really curly?  I have nappy hair under this weave.

When I started growing out my hair I was fascinated by how it felt.  I would feel the new growth, un-touched by chemicals just peaking out of the folicle and make everyone feel what I felt.  It was soft, much softer than the relaxed hair on the ends.  It’s texture was suprisingly smooth and I loved the way that my fingers felt moving over the curls.  To this day, I’m still obsessed with touching my hair, though I won’t let anyone else touch it.  I still marvel at how it feels and am always a little suprised by it.

Back home last week my mother offered me $500 cash to relax my hair.  This is the second time she’s made this offer, but it was the first time I considered it.  Not because I wanted straight hair again, I actually made my mind up to shave it off when I got back to NYC.  I considered it because, shit, $500 is a lot of money!

I came home still broke with a head full of wonderfully free hair. I was forwarded an article on Facebook about natural hair and got a few comments.  One from one of my rabbis who’d just received a Keratin treatment and I realized that blacks and Jews have one more place of overlapping culture.  Hair.

I have a theory that people alter their appearance so that they will appear more white and therefore, less ethnic.  Hair straightening, hair lightening, color contacts, nose jobs, skin bleaching, eye-lid surgery-all to appear more attractive ie less ethnic.  What’s wrong with having curly hair dark hair, brown eyes, a larger nose, dark skin, or almond-shaped eyes?

One of the most striking things on the Gate’s PBS Special on Brazil is that Brazil has the largest black population in the Americas.  Yet, when Gates looked at a newsstand all of the magazines showed Spanish women.  Light skinned, straight haired, Euros rather than embracing the varying shades of brown that make up Brazil.

Everyone has the right to do what they want with their own bodies from surgery to hair straigthening and the beauty of my blog is that I can write my opinion.  I ask.  What’s so wrong with “looking” Jewish.  Why do black women refer to their hair’s natural state as “nappy.”  Why do Americans still strive for impossible beauty standards.

On one hand, I think this sort of ethnic white-washing is American.  Blacks didn’t arrive to America on their own accord so the status of being less-than human came with the fact that blacks were property rather than human beings.  There is still a struggle for Blacks in America to this day.

Immigrants, though, had a different choice.  They could go on being immigrants or they could assimilate into Americans.  Many immigrants got off the boats to have the “real” Americans spit in their faces.  Manhattan’s Lower East Side is an homage to the Irish, German, Italian and Jewish immigrants of New York City.  If you could pass for white, change your name, leave your customs, speak English you’d made it.  If your child grew up as an American you were home free.

A few weeks ago at CBE the rabbi asked what happened to us, meaning the European Jewish community.  He actually applauded the Orthodoxy and Hasidic communities not for their piousness but for their refusal to give up who they are.  We think they’re sort of crazy.  Our backwards distant cousins but they refused to cut their payis, shave their beards just to fit into America.

About a month ago I got a Facebook message asking why it was important that I identify as a Black woman who is gay and trying to be Jewish.  They asked if I was trying to win a prize as the person with the most minority status.  I thought about answering and even considered keeping that fan but find that most often, those people are wackos.  I deleted their like but the question is always asked.  I give the same answer.  I cannot hide my blackness.  No matter if i try to straighten my hair, if I get a nose job, or I Michael Jackson my skin, I’m black.  I also cannot hide the fact that I’m a woman.  I did, however, hide my homosexuality from the world and myself for a long time.  My parents still think I “decided” to be gay but the fact of the matter is I knew it before I admitted it.  The only thing I did get to choose was to become Jewish.  None of it, though, is worth hiding.  You need to see all of it.

9 Responses to "“Jewfro vs. Afro”"

I love this post. I can’t hide my Jewfro, but I didn’t come out until I was 36…

Don’t hide it, rock it!

Ok, there are a couple serious flaws in your argument towards the end. You mention that “ethnic” people try to straighten their hair to look more white, but a lot of white people don’t have naturally straight hair. Many many white girls have to straighten their hair because it’s naturally curly or wavy. Actually, more Asians have naturally straight hair, so I guess that means everyone, including white people, are actually trying to look more Asian. And, secondly, you mention the Irish, Germans, and Italians as immigrants. And you say that they had to pass as white to be accepted in America, but all three of those groups are white! They are about as white as you can get. Actually, the Irish and Germans are two of the palest European groups as far as skin color goes. (I’m both Irish and German, so I would know. And my mom and sister both have curly hair, while I, unfortunately, have straight hair.) What you should say is that they did not fit into the prevailing American culture at the time, mainly because a lot of them were Catholic. In fact, in many American cities, Blacks were more accepted than the Irish and Italians because most Blacks were at least Protestant and native English speakers. So I guess the question is, who would you consider as white?

Way to make me go back and re-read a post, Samantha. 😉 I’m not sure if you’ve read the entire blog, but I like to remind people that the beauty of a blog dedicated to my musings and progress and journey is that I’m allowed to have opinions. I think if you look at the history if immigrants in the US you will find that a lot of immigrant groups who were able to appear “white” ie. American did. I have two friends I am thinking of specifically who were forbidden to speak their native tongues in their homes and they are in their thirties. I can think of a half dozen other friends who have, in only three generations lost their native language. I wonder if you speak either any Irish dialect or if you grew up speaking German, and if not I wonder why that is. How many immigrants changed their first and last names to erase their native culture? It is a fact that before blacks were brought to the US and the Caribbean the Irish were used as slaves. Any lower east side museum, book or recorded history of the waves of immigrants in New York City, specifically tells the story of groups of people assimilating into US society. I’ve still not read When Jews Became White Folks, but it’s on my list. I wrote the post mainly to talk about similarities of minority groups, not to be a draft for a thesis or dissertation, therefore I’m sure a lot of it is flawed. On the other hand, being a person of color who has been told my entire life, based on media images of what is beautiful, what is acceptable, what is normal it is pretty safe to say that curly hair (my hair) is not beautiful, not acceptable, not normal, not pretty. I mean, Nivea is still trying to dig themselves out of the PR nightmare that was the “Civilize Yourself” campaign. And Chris Rock made a documentary all based on his little girl’s plea, “Why aren’t I good enough?”

Now, I used examples of groups of people coming to the US at the turn of the century to assimilate into US culture, normative culture, “white culture” but I can also argue that the same sort of white-washing continues and still happens today. When did Vogue put a black woman on the cover of the September Issue? How many Black women are on the cover of any magazines. Why are fair-skinned Latina folks on Telumondo and other Spanish-speaking networks as opposed to darker-skinned folks? Why was that radio guy booted from the air? Why do most shampoo commercials feature women with straight, flowing hair. Why do Indian families want their children lighter-skinned or for their children to wed lighter-skinned perspective mates, why are Asian women correcting their eyes? Why do folks with “larger” noses get nose jobs to make them smaller. Why do women starve themselves to make try to appear 14? Why are minorities still under educated and under priviledged? I could keep asking tons of questions and not have answers that satisfy everyone. I can’t define white, just as I can’t define black in terms that will satisfy everyone. All I can do is look at the world from my perspective. I’m lucky enough to have friends of all races so these Whys are not just off the top of my head. I have an Indian friend who is “too dark” I have a friend whose sister got her eyes “fixed” and I know countless women, myself included, who wishes my hips, breasts, ass was smaller.

To say that Blacks were accepted more than the Irish and Italians in the US is simply too hard to comprehend given the history of blacks in the US. I live in a US where when I go into a synagogue or Jewish event NO ONE WILL SIT NEXT TO ME. Is it my curly hair is it the color of my skin? I live in a world that if I walk into a store and am not looking as fashionable as I used to, I get watched and followed. I live in a world that if it’s too late at night and I hail a cab, a few will pass me when they are clearly available. I live in a world where I’m systematically discriminated against because of my race and where people make assumptions of who I am because of the color of my skin. In my experience, few white people can say that.

erika, one big difference you mentioned earlier but didn’t repeat was that most European immigrants from the turn of the century and the 19th century were gladly leaving their former home. Of course they wanted their kids to be American, the old country sucked. I have German ancestry who came in the 1860’s. My great grandmother was born here but spoke German. She was a sweet, hopefilled person while her parents and grandparents were very harsh, sullen people. Of course she wouldn’t try to emulate that, who would, as long as you had other options, which was what America was to European immigrants- a welcomed change.
My mother is from Latin America and I am also grateful she came here and I was born here. There is some harsh stuff in a lot of countries that people in the U.S. have no clue about. The worst thing for me is the rampant sexism and double standard but also many of these countries are extremely classist and racist. Imagine if civil rights never happened at all in the U.S.? Well that’s what you’d see.

BTW, Those Brazilians in mags were probably Portuguese descent and not Spanish.

I think you meant the immigrants were trying to be Anglo and not white.

PS I get my curly hair from my dad who is as white as it gets (he did the DNA thingie)and we’re not Jewish, he’s German and British Isles, even though everyone assumes I get it from my mom.

Heyas Erika! I always thought that Blacks and Jews have so much in common. Not just our tortured past, but our cultures are surprisingly similar. Food is usually commonplace (love the black eyed peas and greens analogy for New Years), family is very important and both cultures have a great sense of camaraderie and fellowship. When I hear hate from either side of the aisle, it’s very upsetting to me.

But the hair… Oh the hair… Somewhere in my early 30s (I’ll be 50 next year), I decided to just go with the unruly curl and work with what I got instead of trying to fight it. I haven’t looked back.

I recently had this hair conversation with a Haitian g/f of mine and got to know a little bit more about Black hair and the pains (and expense) women go through to manage it.

At the time, I had read something on the net about the anger some Black woman had about the “trying to look white” aspect with hair straightening. My g/f got very upset. She’s heard it, too, of course, but said, “What about white women always trying to tan and look darker? What about collagen lip injections, breast AND booty enhancement? Who’s trying to look like who?”

And then I gave her a big ole hug.

Black hair is an area where folks are on either side. The naturals (go Team!) feel like their way is better, while those who relax feel like their way is better. For me, it was sort of like your process, I decided to stop fighting it and let it be. It’s been a LONG rode and it’s definitely hard, but having random women stop me on the train, on the bus, in the grocery store to talk hair is awesome. I spent five minutes yesterday in a local grocery stores talking about my hair care regimen with a woman who was struggling with going “natural”…If you want to straighten it, straighten it, though it’s still hard for me not to cringe when a black woman refers to her hair’s natural state as nappy.

YES! to Food, Family and Fellowship, it’s such a huge common ground. I wish more blacks who are not Jewish and more Jews could see how similar we are. Even Christians and Jews and Muslims and Jews and Muslims and Christians and Jews. Things I grew up learning that Jesus said were just Torah stories and sayings he must have learned from rabbis. We’re much more similar, human beings, than we are different.

Ya ya ya… As you say, beauty is the eyes of the beholder. Personally, I think we do far too much maintenance to catch a man (or hold one) than for anything else. Comment on women looks in general. That’s usually where the surgery steps in. And I know women say they’re doing it for themselves, but I think that’s a load of BS.

You touched on so many great points here, I wish I would have read earlier! Especially immigration and the “Jewish look”. But I’m pooped, so I’ll say, we need folks like you to break down the barriers. So, ok, you DO win the prize, but it’s a great prize 🙂 Those that choose this path are greater in the eyes of Gd. You are Baal Teshuva, Master of the Return. Shana Tovah to you!

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