a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

“Latkes” Clarified.

Posted on: December 18, 2011

Whoa, folks are really attached to Latkes.  Again, I get it.  They’re delicious.  I used latkes as a symbol of what is and is not considered “Jewish”.  Latkes are a part of normative Jewish culture for most American Jews, but not all Jews.  My point with my latke post was to say that Jewish culture is as varied as the people who make up the Jewish people.  On one hand we are “one people” united through tradition, our holidays, Torah.  We’re united in our family structures.  Being Jewish, either by conversion or birth, we pass our Jewishness down throughout the generations.  We are a people who have traveled from Biblical lands to every continent in world, with the exception of Antartica.  We are a global people.  To quote Be’chol Lashon, we speak in every tongue.

When you take this global people and make them homogeneous it’s an inaccurate picture of who Jews are.  My problem isn’t the latkes, it’s how what is and isn’t Jewish reflects only one image.   Before going to Catholic schools I went to a nondenominational Christian school.  It was the most diverse environment I’ve ever been in.  I vividly remember what my classmates looked like and I remember thinking nothing much of that diversity.  It was only when I transfered to an all-black school and then to an all-white  school that I realized just how fortunate I was.  My best friend Tamara was black, I had another best friend Julie who was white.  Her best friend Leslie was black.  I had two boyfriends (I know) Jamal and Joey.  They were black and white.  There were biracial girls in my class and Asian kids.  Those grade school  class pictures, from kindergarden through third grade, reflected such racial and ethnic diversity it could’ve been a PC poster to show what diversity looks like.  With all of that diversity in my school life, our picture Bibles told a different story.  The pictures that depicted the story of creation, Noah and his ark, Moses and the split Sea of Reeds didn’t reflect the diversity around me or the diversity that existed in those stories.  All of the illustrations were of white Biblical characters.

When I walk into any Catholic Church, the icons are not accurate, they’re all white.  When I go into any Judaica store (or Barnes and Noble) in Manhattan or Brooklyn and pick up a story book on Hanukkah I see pictures of white Maccabees and white Jewish families eating latkes and doughnuts.  The pictures of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt with the many different peoples we are taught were also freed are all “white” Israelites.  How can this “mixed multitude” look exactly the same?

This is how our children are educated.  Even with all of the diversity education that may be going on in the individual homes of Jews, what kids are taught, what is reflected back to them in their picture books, their illustrated Tanakhs, the cartoon pictures of Jews on the walls of their schools (where they spend the majority of their time)  is Jews looking one way.  If this is how we allow our children to be educated, if this is what we show who we are as Jews we are not working toward tikkun olam.

Of the estimated 6.1 million Jews in the United States, 1.2 million are ethnically and racially diverse.  Jews who are African American, Black, Latino, Hispanic, Native American, Mixed Race, African, South American, Middle Eastern, Carribean, Asian, and Mizrahi…20% of Jews in the United States alone are not white[1].  Is it such a small number that the broader Jewish community feels the need to continue to facilitate the notion that the majority, the white Jews, should remain the majority?

Our heritage as Jews has been and continues to be rittled with anti-Semintism, bigotry, misunderstanding, hatred and fear.  Within our own communities, we need to unite as Jews.  We should be open to the rich and varied diversity that exists within our own communities.  Because of the bigotry that Jews experienced we’ve become insular and closed off to the outside, clutching our culture close to our hearts.  There is still anti-Semitism, to be sure, but we’re not being persecuted.  From where I stand as a new convert to Judaism, as a black gay woman- Jews are either are completely secular with no connection to their religion, remain insular and skeptical of anyone who is not like them, or live this sort of varied life where they strive to do good, but still cannot see their own prejudices.

I don’t claim to be immune from this prejudice.  I fully admit that I go through a million different scenarios in my head when into a new Jewish community.  Are they looking at me, are they avoiding eye contact.  Will they ask me why I’m here, will they think I’m the help.  Will they ask me if I’m a convert.   All of these thoughts are based on my prejudices of mainstream Judaism.  Still, if a new person-whether they are a Jew of Color, or a blonde-haired Jew, or a white Jew with their black child on their hip-comes into your community they shouldn’t have these feelings.  The only thing I should think going into a new community is, is this going to be my new shul?

Diversity is such an important part of American identity, that the Jewish community would be well served by acknowledging and embracing racial and ethnic diversity within its own ranks.

Diversity is also important because through out history-and not just in Europe-Jews have struggled against persecution and discrimination.  Now, sheltered within the safety of the United States, Jews have a moral obligation to fight discrimination of all kinds, including within their communities.  This includes not only racial and ethnic discrimination (against Jews and gentiles alike), but also against unfair standards of who a Jew is.[2]

As Jews we have an obligation of tikkun olam, we have an obligation to treat every human being with dignity and compassion, especially other Jews.  To see Jews as only one way, a way that is familiar or a way that is comfortable doesn’t allow Jews to fully experience the variety that exists in our own walls.

So, it’s not the latke, it’s not even a matzoh ball, it’s not even Ashkenazi Jews.  It’s each and every individual.  It’s what we choose to make our reality.  When there is a person who doesn’t look like us in our community, are we welcoming?  When you notice your child’s school books only teaches him about one way to “look” or eat Jewish, do we bring it up to the administration?  If we send money to help the people of Darfur, do we ignore the black people who are our neighbors?  We stand by the phrase, “I prayed with my feet”, but are we doing the work?

I’m not the Grinch who stole Hanukkah Latkes, I’m the black, gay Jewish woman who has realized what I’m supposed to do in my Jewish community.   I want to make people ask questions, I want to have discussions, I want to educate people.  I’m not trying to cause trouble or threaten the way that people think about their Jewish identity.  Though, if it makes you uncomfortable, it probably (hopefully) has you thinking.


[1]-Statistics from the Institute for Jewish & Community Research, 2004

[2]-In Every Tongue:The Racial and Ethnic Diversity of the Jewish People 

13 Responses to "“Latkes” Clarified."

Thanks for this valuable post. I do love my latkes, but I’m also working on broadening my own (and my students’) sense of what Jewish foods are and can be. (I recently made neyyappam — Chanukah fritters — with my b’nei mitzvah students, and tried in the process to teach them about the Jews of Cochin, India…)

Anyway: fwiw, I’m grateful that you are here, that you are part of our community, that you are making your voice heard. Kol hakavod.

Rabbi Rachel-Thank you so much for your kind words! It really means a lot.

Oh, now I get it. And, dammit, I’d rather not get it. Sister, are we living the same life in different shuls? The past several months of my Jewish life and mine have been about trying to get the message across that klal Yisrael is not all straight, lifelong Jewish, 30-something parents with children. Who don’t understand that a childless, 40-something, Jewish-by-Choice gay couple might have different experiences, expectations, and needs–both religiously and culturally–than longstanding “status quo” members.

At our community Chanukah dinner, someone actually told us they didn’t believe that Jews-by-Choice had any different issues than Jews-by-birth, because everyone is to some extent a Jew-by-Choice. I suppose, you know, like everyone is to some extent a woman, or black, or Asian, or Muslim, or a member of the disabled community. Um, a big, fat NOT on that. Sometimes I feel like Judaism’s modern welcoming of the ger is a lot more welcoming on paper than in practice. (And we’re both talking about it from different denominations, too!)

Chaviva Galatz said this to me recently and I’m now saying it to you. I wish we lived in the same city so I could take you out for a cup of coffee and comiserate. 🙂

I find that a lot of communities are “good on paper”-I feel another blog post coming 🙂 I felt the need to clarify a bit, because I was definitely fired up the first time.

I think that we have more to learn from one another than we’d like to recognize. It’s odd, for the year I studied to become Jewish I felt like my purpose was to get to being Jewish. Then came the NewJew free-fall that you described and I was like, “what am I doing here?” Not spiritually, but physically. What is my physical space doing here. So I found a new synagogue (finally) where I feel like I can be, but it doesn’t mean it’s perfect-it’s not. I don’t think any community really has it right, ‘cept for Michaels 🙂 V

I think we talk a lot of really great talk, but people aren’t ready to walk the walk. We stand on the shoulders of amazing Jewish heros who did the work and now we’re just sort of stuck? I dunno, it’s just frustrating to me how people refuse to see the beauty of diversity.

Another great piece, Erika my dear, and another reminder that Brian and I live in an extraordinary community, one that did very difficult work years before we walked in the door.

Don’t know if I’ve shared this link with you before, but here’s the story: http://reformjudaismmag.org/Articles/index.cfm?id=1563

Miss you!

I miss you! You two are incredibly lucky, who knew all that goodness was happening in the Midwest 🙂 I can’t wait to see you for the double Bar Mitzvah-thanks for the link and for the love.

Erika, we are middle-eastern semitic peole, regardless of where we live. Sure, you can be both black and jewish, same way way as one can be black and italian, but you have to agree there is also an ethnic component

I have to disagree. We were always ethnically diverse.

We are ethnically diverse in a sense that any nation is ethnically diverse. (People intermarry, move to the next village just across the border, etc.) But we are no more ethnically diverse than the greeks/italians/french/pick any nation…

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