a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

Riding in the Front Seat

Posted on: June 4, 2016

If there was a hierarchy of Jews of Color (JOCs) I can confidently say that JOCs who are black Americans are at the bottom of the rung of the ladder. Followed next, possibly, by Jews of African heritage, then Jews of Indian heritage and right up on the color line until we get to the top where you can claim the heritage of your ancestors from India or Iran but the paleness of skin or lightness of eyes and overall whiteness doesn’t give anyone else pause or reason to raise the question of Jewishness. It is at this level of whiteness that JOC identity can be or becomes something you decide to acknowledge, celebrate, rejoice in, claim, or something you hide because you can pass for white.

And it seems that if you’re a JOC working to do inclusion and diversity work in the broader Jewish community our choices are to either sit back and let the Jewish world go on around us or dig in our heels and work on making our black and brown selves not only seen, but heard and understood and appreciated. Yet, in either of these cases, it seems that we’re at the whim of the white supremacy of the American Jewish people; a toy to take off the shelf to play with or a trophy to remove from a case to show off to friends when the mood suits. Only to be discarded for the next new thing when the novelty of who we are has faded.

And still we have to prove ourselves to be valid as Jews in order for our organizations to receive a mere fraction of the wealth of our Federations. Meanwhile, other organizations create affinity groups and caucuses and for these “new”, “exciting” efforts are rewarded for their “innovative” ideas, while organizations that have been doing this work for decades are left behind. Well, I’m done sitting in the back seat. Hell, I’m not even riding in the front seat. I’m driving the fucking car.

I’ve been mulling over this pendulum of power in the Jewish community for a while, but as it’s been one month since the JOC Convening came to a close and as articles have been published about the amazing feat that was a half year’s hard work by dedicated volunteers, the articles that have been written and published have been written by the hand of those JOCs at the very top of the hierarchy, I can no longer hold my tongue.

I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked that the majority of the articles written haven’t been from the perspective of black Jews of Color and the glory of this space is that I can share my experience here.

The Convening, while incredibly frustrating at times to help organize, was the the one of the best Jewish experiences I’ve had in my life. Not only was I surrounded by black and brown Jewish faces I knew and loved, I was incredibly grateful to meet several dozen other black and brown Jewish folks who I never met, or only knew through social media. I laughed with people, I listened to common stories of alienation and frustration, sadness and anger and I rejoiced in personal triumphs. The gratitude I feel for being so lucky to have experienced that space made any of the headache of planning dissipate within the first few minutes of the first sessions.

And. It wasn’t always sun and roses.

I watched as white skinned JOCs sequestered themselves together at mealtimes, a very obvious division by color lines.

I witnessed black and biracial Jews of Color be asked to leave a table because the one they chose to sit at was intended for Jews of Puerto Rican decent.

And, I am guilty of this next one, I quickly saw us divide ourselves by color lines and go to sessions that seemed to fit with who were are as JOCs rather than pushing ourselves into others even if it felt uncomfortable.

I experienced colorism from other black and brown Jews of Color.

I witnessed a white skinned JOC approach a black skinned JOC and demand her story.

These experiences, though small in the larger picture of those three days, opened my eyes to the fact that even in a space where we are to be united because of the skin color that alienates us in our larger communities, that the supremacy of whiteness and lightness still prevails. And still, I was and continue to be, incredibly lifted up each day by the people who I met who stepped out of their comfort zones for an embraced, those who were able to check the privilege of their white skin, and those who enveloped me in their embrace not out of solidarity, but out of a deep-seated understanding of what it is to be a black Jewish woman.

While I’ve only had the privilege to call myself a Jewish woman for five years, below the lowest rung on the JOC hierarchy I stand on generations of Jews of Color; my ancestors whose bloodlines reach to the farthest books of Torah and whose feet walked on ancient Biblical lands.

In the Jewish Diversity Organization panel one constant thread among the panelist representing those JOC organizations, most of which have been doing the work of Jewish diversity and inclusion for decades, was the need for the Jewish community at large to support us not just in word, but fiscally invest in Jews of Color and Jewish leaders of Color.

I’m am incredibly humbled to say that my Go Fund Me Campaign was successful (you can still donate to help cover living expenses if you’d like!) and that I will be spending the summer studying at Pardes. I hope to use that knowledge to influence my Jewish community in the Pacific Northwest, and I charge other Jews of Color to take the wheel of their own Jewish lives. We should no longer stand waiting to be invited to the table. The invitation isn’t need it, we help to build the table.



2 Responses to "Riding in the Front Seat"

So happy you’ll be able to go to Pardes!

Me, too!!

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