a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

Mixed Multitudes Mix Up

Posted on: September 9, 2014

Today Tablet posted an article about Commandment Keepers/Hebrew Israelites/”Black Jews”

I read the first paragraph and was instantly upset, again, that another “mainstream, left-leaning” Jewish online journal was doing sloppy reporting.

I’ve written about why this is problematic a lot. Like a lot. Like, really a lot. And here’s the thing. I really don’t care about Hebrew Israelites or their claim to be or not be Jewish. I would, however, like to remind you that they’re not Jewish and that some Hebrew Israelites feel very strongly that white Jews are basically the devil, but that’s another post. I’d also like to remind everyone that whenever liberal, lefty Jewish publications write about white Messianic Jews they generally agree that they’re not Jewish, because they’re not. Jesus is all right by me, but belief in him (as the son of G-d) makes you not a Jew.

I’m also aware that when talking about race and Judaism some people (read most white people) get very … authoritative. They like to assume that they know who is and who is not Jewish simply based on how someone looks. (See also white guilt. Also white privilege.) It very much opens the door to the very sensitive topic of who is and who is not Jewish, which as a Black Jew who converted under Reform Rabbinical authority, I understand.  It’s a touchy topic and having one’s Jewishness questioned really effing sucks. Of course we can turn to halacha to guide us as to who is and who is not Jewish, and since halacha is law to us Jews the answer of who is and who is not Jewish is pretty clear. It’s also pretty clear how one can become Jewish if one is not a Jew. (See also conversion).

It is not my place to say who is and who is not Jewish and I don’t think that’s why the Tablet article and articles that have been published in the past about the Commandment Keepers and their off-shoot communities is bothersome. What always bothers me is the lack of distinction between who Black Jews are and are not, but mostly about how white Jews view them/Jews of Color/Multiracial Jew/me.

What I see happening, and what I’ve personally experienced is laziness on the part of white, mainstream Judaism.

When you validate communities like these, you’re able to have a place to “put” Jews like me, Black Jews. I have been told by not one or two, but about a half dozen, I assume well-meaning Jews, that there are “places” for Black Jews. They mention places in Harlem, the Bronx and Chicago where “Black Jews are” and encourage me to “check it out.” When these suggestions are made to me and when mainstream Jewish publications validate fringe communities like Commandment Keepers, et. al I interpret it all as, we don’t need to work on our racial diversity or issues of communal racism because there are places for you, black person, to go and that place is not here.

Yesterday, the Jewish Multiracial Network shared a D’var Torah from a Jew of Color named Rafael Forbush. In his D’var he spoke honestly about the racial tension he felt in a Jewish community he’d spent his entire life in. He talked about when he was first marked as an “other” by another Jewish child and painfully aware he has to be of his surroundings when attempting to go to shul. In his kippah. As he’s done his whole life.

Since I am no longer a child, I don’t walk down the street holding onto my mother’s white hand. Now, people know me without seeing the race or religion of my parents. I am no longer afforded that implied aura of protection, or privilege.

When I see police, I feel my blood go cold, regardless of if I’ve done something wrong. My legs start shaking – as if everything below my kneecaps have disappeared. I get a knot in my stomach the size of a cantaloupe.

When I see police at shul, I don’t feel protected, OR served.

So, as I walk into shul on the holiest of days with police cars in the corner of my eye, my mind is racing with nervous energy and “What ifs.”

I think:
What if the officer stops me before I walk into the building?
Will they know that I won’t have my wallet on me for immediate identification?
What if my friends and family try to intervene and it falls on deaf ears?
Or worse, threats of arrest?
What if I didn’t have a community of white people to greet me at the front door to give the officer that thumbs up?

This is Rafael’s truth and it’s the truth of many Black Jews and Jews of Color throughout the U.S and beyond. I’ve told the story and I continue to tell the store of being harassed by security outside of the shul I converted. I’ve sat alone on a pew at a full shul. I’ve been stared at. I’ve been asked intrusive questions about who I am and why I’m in shul and through it all, I continue to work towards Jewish Diversity Awareness because of articles like the one that Tablet published.

More than 5 Jewish organizations/individuals have approached me to help them “build bridges between communities of Color and the Jewish community” and to each of those organizations I’ve responded with the same question; Why not make your organization/community a more welcoming place for Multiracial Jewish families and Jews of Color? There is so much work and understanding that needs to be done within our figurative four wall, why not turn inward instead of looking out? The conversation usually ends there, or if it continues I’m given examples of how their community is doing the work; their Mission Statement says “inclusive” they’ve shown a video, they host a freedom seder.

If we, as Jews, open our eyes, we should be able to see the diversity of Judaism woven throughout our tradition, in Torah. And yes, there are Jewish communities of color all over the world and right here in the United States Yet, most of the liberal, lefty Jews I know who are doing “social justice” work are doing that work outside of their Jewish community. It’s as if a huge divide exists between doing the work of tikkun olam and Jewish tikkun olam.

When I see these friends and acquaintances doing this work, which I know is important, I venture to guess that I am their only black friend, though only a few (the ones I love and have had an opportunity to work with at Hazon) have invited me to their homes for a meal or for a holiday. And when it comes to social justice and racial equality within the Jewish community and in their individual lives the work they do outside of the Jewish community, and in communities of color doesn’t seem to influence their view of who is (and is not a Jew.) For example, at a recent service at my favorite egal minyan (which is super open and wonderful) a lefty Jew who I only know because I’ve seen them around asked me if I was Jewish. I’ve seen this person, granted I don’t know their name, but I’ve seen this person at lefty-Jewy things for poor black folks and they still couldn’t see me as a Jew.

So here we are. We have lefty Jews liking and sharing the hell out of this piece of “journalism” no doubt patting themselves on the back for being “post-racial” and generally feeling better about themselves for getting nuggets of Shabbat table anecdotes to share amongst themselves. And, perhaps, the next time they happen upon a black person in shul their ice breaker might be, “Did you see that piece in Tablet about the new siddur for Black Jews?” And, yes, these things happen. So before you go sharing and liking the Tablet article, before you ask me if I’ve heard of the new siddur for black folks, before you ask if I saw that article on Tablet- I ask you to do some research of your own. Research who Commandment Keepers, et. al are. It is a truly remarkable and fascinating culture of people who really love Judaism.

And then ask yourself the following question: How many Jews of Color do you know? When you see a Jew of Color in your community what is your first thought? Have you asked a Jew of Color how they are Jewish? Do you view your Jewishness as the only way one can be Jewish? When you think of Jews of Color do you think of Ethiopia? Lastly, what are you doing to help bring awareness to Jews of Color?

See also: This gem by Shais. 

2 Responses to "Mixed Multitudes Mix Up"

Excellent article; thank you soooo much for writing!

Thank you, though I can’t take all of the credit since Rafael’s D’var was so amazing!.

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