a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

Jewish Identity {A Cross-Post}

Posted on: August 3, 2013

Sandra LawsonLike many Jews of Color, Sandra Lawson is often questioned about how or why she is Jewish. Despite the fact that Jews have always been a multi-racial, multi-cultural people the idea of who a Jew is (and is not) is often based on how one looks. Many Jews of Color, those born Jewish, those who chose Judaism, and those adopted as children and raised as Jews spend much time explaining and often validating our existence.

I’ve used this blog in a lot of ways; as a space to flush out my own feelings and process of becoming a Jew, to educate others about the diversity that exists in Judaism and to explore the beauty and diversity of Jewish practice.  Through the years I’ve received several emails from other queer, black women and men interested in Judaism or expressing a growing frustration in their Jewish communities who often question them or aren’t open or welcoming.

Sandra’s journey to Judaism is beautiful in that she found a community and rabbi who welcomed her with open arms. We, as a Jewish people, will be lucky to have her as a rabbi.

My Story: My Jewish Path and Rabbinic Path

How Am I Jewish?

Upon meeting me Jews of Ashkenazi decent like to ask me a myriad of  questions, from how are you Jewish, to when did you convert, to don’t you have to be Jewish to go to rabbinical school? These questions never happen in a context of wanting to know me, they are about the questioners on curiosity and trying to see how I fit into Judaism as if by answering these questions it will tell them everything they need to know about me.  When people ask me these questions, I never know how to respond, sometimes I will respond “I’m just Jewish,” but often want to respond with something comical.  I might even remind them that Jews have always been a multi-racial-cultural people. And I try to use my energy to educate other Jews about what it means to be Jewish in today’s society, but sometimes it is really exhausting.

I often never get to tell my story in a way that feels safe, I am often made to feel like I am expected to rattle off a simple yes or no answer as if anyone’s Jewish story is that simple. All Jewish stories are complex, and personal.  I’ve decided to tell my story here, a friend suggested that I use this link as a business card, and the next time someone ask I can just refer them here :D

My Jewish Story

In my Junior year of college I joined the military and I spent most of my twenties in the United States Army as a Military Police Investigator working on cases of child abuse and domestic violence. While in the military I finished my bachelor’s degree, and graduated with honors from St. Leo University. It was at St. Leo University where my first real interest in Judaism arose. I took a class on the Old Testatament, taught by Francis Githieya, Ph.D. I needed a humanities credit and Githieya’s class fulfilled that requirement, so I begrudgingly registered. I still remember to this day the first words Dr. Githieya said. He stated, in his very Kenyan accent, “You must read the textbook, and if you do not read the textbook you will fail my class.” Githieya went on to say that we should not come to class regurgitating words that our preacher told us, and if we did we would fail. He explained that this was a scholarly course and we would be studying the five books of Moses.” I remember thinking that I liked this guy, and that I could get an A out of this class, because I was not a Christian and would be free from any biases. I did exactly as Githieya describe and did get an A out of the class. The class provided my first real introduction to the Torah, and I was fascinated by the stories and the rich history of the text. The class also changed my view of religion.

My father was raised in small black church in Blevins, Arkansas, and my mother never mentioned anything about attending a church or any other religious space when she was a kid. I grew up with very little knowledge of Christianity, I knew very little outside of the Jesus narrative. I was not raised in a religious household and had no formal religious education. My family did not go to church but we would on occasion when invited by neighbors. There were times when we would go more often than other times and then we would stop. Around the age of 12 or 13 I think we started going more often. My parents were having a hard time and I think that my mother saw this as a way to ensure that she retained custody. My mother knew that if they divorced that I would probably go and live with my dad, which would not have been a good thing because my dad was an alcoholic and a drug addict, who cheated on my mother whenever possible. And they had a very volatile relationship. I believe that my mother believed that she had to do whatever she had to do to get custody of my brother and I. At one point she hired a social worker and also she found a minister, who I did not like very much. His name was Rev. Stuart and I saw him as a creepy little man who spouted out homophobic rants, and sexist rants during his sermons. I found it strange as a 13 year old that we went to his church; I always saw my mother as a feminist and could not believed that we had to sit and listen to this guy. She would tell me that she would take the good stuff and leave the bad stuff.

As I got older I learned from my mother that the earliest relative in her family did not come to America as a slave. She told me that he immigrated to this country from Ethiopia and he was a Jew. She later told me that he married a non-Jew and the religion was not passed down. I also vaguely remember her saying that no one believed he was a Jew. This story for my mother and her sisters was a pretty powerful story because it meant to her, that her earliest ancestor was not a slave. We did not eat pork or shellfish and, looking back on it, I’m not really sure why. I asked my mother about this and she would tell me that pork was bad for us. I wonder sometimes: If my mother’s oldest known ancestor had immigrated to this country and found it more hospitable to black people and welcoming to Jews of color, would my story have been different?

Read the rest of Sandra’s story here.

6 Responses to "Jewish Identity {A Cross-Post}"

I want to thank you again for posting this. The response for the most part (a few crazy’s) has been amazing. I feel like I want to do something with the energy that this has created. The only thing that I know I can do is head back to rabbinical school next month with new found energy, excitement and confidence…and maybe a little less guarded 😀

I’m so excited that you’re going to be a rabbi. Reading your journey has sparked (just sparked) the interest in my own rabbinic journey again. The Jewish world needs forward-thinking leaders like you.

I always knew you would do great things. Now I know some of why. Glad to finally know your backstory.
– a very nosey friend who would love to have you over for a Shabbat meal next time you are in Baltimore.

Hi Michelle-

Be sure to leave a comment on Sandra’s blog as well.
All the best,

Erika

Thank you for sharing! I think I saw this somewhere on twitter and meant to sit down and take a read and never did. Somehow this popped up again in my searches and am glad it did 🙂 Really great to see her light-hearted humor and patience, as well as broad education! I can’t say I would have the same amount of patience – but good for her! Love the post 🙂

Hello! I could have sworn I’ve been to this site before but after reading through some of the post I realized it’s new to me. Anyhow, I’m definitely delighted I found it and I’ll be book-marking and checking back frequently!

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