a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

The Problem With Jewish Media

Posted on: August 8, 2015

About two years ago I was a regular writer for a major Jewish publication. I wrote roughly once or twice a month, mostly on the topics of race and racism, but also about my experience being a black Jewish lesbian woman. At the time I was the only black writer for the publication, and I’m pretty sure there hasn’t been a regular black writer since. While the money was decent, I scaled back my writing for the publication, not wanting to be their token black writer. Before I left, I pitched my editor on an idea for a series about Jews of Color. I wanted to use this publication’s popularity and reach to educate the mainstream Jewish community about the many experiences of Jews of Color, particularly Jews of Color that had a different narrative than mine (as mine was the only reality discussed in the publication). Jews of Color who were straight, Orthodox, born Jewish. Jews of Color who were trying to find homes in Jewish communities, educating their children in Jewish schools, living in smaller Jewish communities, leading and creating Jewish college organizations, and/or participating in national social justice movements.

The publication wanted conversion stories. I reminded my editor a series about Jews of Color that focused solely on conversion further inflamed issues that JOCs face, and cements the assumption that we’re all converts. And while I am a convert, most of the folks I know who are JOCs are not (also, who the fuck cares if we’ve converted!?)

I pushed hard. While I was happy to share my conversion story, using conversion as the guide post for a series of Jews of Color would be counter-productive, I argued. While it was my story, it wasn’t everyone’s story. She told me that she would talk to the editor-in-chief and get back to me at the beginning of 2014.

I thanked her, letting her know that I would contact several Jews of Color groups I was a part of, and reach out to friends and acquaintances who I thought had strong voices and would be interested in lending them to the piece. I kept her informed of my progress from time to time, when I inquired again, I was told that the editor-in-chief wanted more of a hook, and without the conversion angle, it wouldn’t work.

I was hurt, confused, and furious. I’d been asked to give comment on everything from Trayvon Martin to the death of Maya Angelou, but to spearhead a series written for and by Jews of Color wasn’t significant because it didn’t have a hook? I reached out to the Jews of Color I’d been in contact with to let them know that the series wouldn’t be moving forward. I stopped writing for the publication and focused more on my personal blog and volunteering for the Jewish Multiracial Network.

Earlier this year, I wrote a piece about Selma and immediately received an email from the same publication asking that I write something for them on the topic.  I declined, but told this new editor that I’d pitched a series about Jews of Color two years back and if the publication was interested in pursuing it, then I would be happy to talk about it. A series of emails and phone calls resulted in a verbal agreement for the project to move forward and that I, along with the Jewish Multiracial Network, would be contributing partners to the series. We cultivated lists of Jews of Color with strong voices and forwarded them to the editor. I wrote a blog piece that would have served as the introduction to the series. I was excited, not for any personal gain, since I would only be contributing one piece, but because it would allow Jews of Color to share their experiences, their life stories, their insight into the issues of race and racism in the Jewish community. With Jews of Color having a significant voice in the editorial process, contributing to an unprecedented authenticity in story-telling that has not previously existed in Jewish media. I hoped it would move the Jewish community past Freedom Seders and MLK Shabbat talks into a space where Jews of Color and Multiracial Jewish families were “normalized” and their diverse experiences recognized, contributing to a more sophisticated conversation regarding Jewish diversity.

Soon thereafter, the publication informed me that the series couldn’t move forward with myself and the Jewish Multiracial Network as partners, as it violated the publications’ ethics. I again felt duped, used, and furiously angry. I contended that I’d pitched this series in 2013, that it was my idea,that it would be inappropriate for the series to continue. In a phone conversation with the new editor, I was told that she’d been working on the series for some time and that it would move on with or without me (not verbatim).

I sent the following email to the Jewish leaders of Color who had been helping me create a list of Jews of Color:

 

Dear Friends,

 As some of you know, a Jewish publication is currently looking for Jews of Color to write for an upcoming series.

 I wanted to write to you to share my concerns and insights regarding the project.

In November of 2013, when I was an active writer for this publication, I pitched this idea to my editor who pitched it to the Editor-in-Chief. While I waited for a response, I asked many of you to consider writing for the piece and many of you expressed interested in helping.

Initially, the publication was exclusively interested in conversion stories. To which, I responded that doing a series about Jews of Color that exclusively focused on stories of conversion would only marginalize Jews of Color and perpetuate stereotypes that the only way to be a Jew of Color is to convert to Judaism. In the end, my editor wrote, “The editor-in-chief doesn’t think there’s a hook” without the stories being about conversion.

Shortly after this, I scaled back my writing for the publication and hadn’t heard from them until I wrote my blog response to the Selma piece the publication wrote.

Days after my blog went live I got an email from an editor about writing a blog for the publication similar to my own piece. I declined, letting the editor know that I was only usually contacted when they wanted to “trot out their black Jewish writer”. I let her know that I’d pitched a series on Jews of Color to the publication two years prior and that the series was rejected because it didn’t have a “hook.”

 After conversations on the phone and email I was excited that it looked like the publication would finally take up my idea of doing a Jews of Color series, and would partner on it with The Jewish Multiracial Network, an organization I am on the board of which has been a great partner to the JOC community, which would curate the series and make sure it was done with integrity.

Chava Shervington and I once again reached out to many of you in the hopes of not just telling our “stories” but giving insight into our struggles as Jews of Color; everything from dating to enrolling our children school, as was agreed upon after my conversation with the publication

Yet, when the Tweets started coming out and list serves emailed in search of writers, we had not been consulted.  After another talk with the publication I was told that a partnership would be unrealistic. I was offered the opportunity to write the first blog post and to send along people who I think had interesting stories but not to help guide the execution of an idea which I had originally pitched.

 I’m writing to you today because I wanted to let you know where the series stands. It is my understanding that the publication is continuing on with the series. I am hoping to pitch it to another Jewish or non-Jewish publication, if you have any contacts please let me know.

 Would a series about Jews of Color be a bad thing? No, not necessarily. But, to have a series continue without partners who are Jews of Color and leaders of Color seems to veer off course of the greater good-allowing Jews of Color to tell our stories, in our voices in a way that is authentic.

 I will be following up with a blog post (on my personal blog) that echoes the words of Ilana Kaufman and Marjorie Dove Kent urging the broader Jewish community to use it’s Jewish leaders of Color. This isn’t just an issue with the publication, but a broader issue in the Jewish community.

 Thank you so much for taking the time to read my note. I hope you all have a good week.

 Best,

 Erika 

A few weeks ago the editor sent me back my initial blog to be edited for printing. I was shocked to hear from her and honestly pretty angry.

Again I politely declined and didn’t think of it again until I read the first piece of the series. And my heart ached again.

Throughout the process, we’d talked about who was a Jew of Color and who got to say so. While the editor self-identifies as a woman of color, to my eye she looks white. Which would lead me to believe that she is awarded the privileges that come with assumed whiteness. With her dark curly hair and olive skin she can walk into most any shul on any Shabbat or holiday without an upward glance. When it’s time to enroll her children in Jewish schools, if that’s what she choses, she’ll most likely not have her Jewishness questioned. She can shop in a kosher grocery store or peruse the wares and a Judaica shop and no one will follow her around. No one will ask how she reads Hebrew so well, no one will ask her to share her story, no one will ask how she came to Judaism. I respect that she identifies as a Jewish woman of Color, but I cannot imagine that when she walks down the street that she’s seen as anything other than white.

As well-intentioned as this series is, it is still a series controlled and edited and shaped by white Jews. White folks having control over black voices and the voices of Jews of Color. Sure they’re telling their stories, and having read most of them by Jews of Color I know and respect, I’m glad they get to share their truths. But would it be so bad to let black folks tell their stories in their own voices? Or do I need to dance a little jig for ya, massa?

Why do white folks feel the need to control black bodies, black words, black experiences and mold them into easy to swallow morsels that they are comfortable with? And why is it that for a black Jewish woman to be heard she has to play the politics of respectability”coon” in order to gain credibility in the broader Jewish community. As a board member of a Jewish diversity organization I’ve had to edit myself, be careful not offend too many, and not say the “wrong thing” about certain publications and organizations in order to not affect my organization’s ability to receive grants and much needed funding in order to do the work of trying to un-do Judaism’s racism problem.

So what to do? Do I give up on trying to change the Jewish world because it’s not ready for it? Do I give up my role as a Board member for an organization that I love so that I can say what I want without putting them in jeopardy? Do I stop practicing the faith that I’ve chosen, that I love because it won’t accept me for who I am?

While the Jewish world may be becoming more diverse through adoption and conversion of people of color, it’s also losing those Jews of Color, both young and old because of the Jewish communities inability to see its own racism and deal with it.

Every time I post about race or racism in the community, as I experience it, I’m reminded of the Civil Rights work that some Jews did. And every time I remind that Jew the Civil Rights work they’re referencing, while true and important, was 50 years ago, I am told that it’s black folks’ fault that Jews hate blacks.

In order for the Jewish community to move forward and to live the Torah ideals that we preach, we need to take a hard look at our communities, we need to not just invite Jews of Color for a Shabbat evening talk or a workshop, but employ not one, but two or three or four Jews of Color and members of Multiracial Jewish families. We need to collectively listen to the JOCs in our midst and we need to let them (us) speak our own truths.

Many black people watched in dismay as white people tried to co-opt the #BlackLivesMatter Movement, the hashtag #AllLivesMatter soon appeared and back and forth on Twitter and Facebook feeds, in the news and at well-intentioned rallies for justice white folks stood up to tell black folks how they should feel, what they should do to avoid being persecuted by police and ways they could help. Rather than partnering with grass-roots organizers and community members who has been, for centuries, living, fighting and surviving in an American marred by white supremacy. This white supremacy, this white washing, this whiteness is not something the Jewish community is immune to. And until the Jewish community is comfortable releasing control of the Jewish narrative as seen through white eyes, it pains me to say that we’ll never move forward.

 

 

*While I am proudly a member of the JMN Board, this blog post is in now way written from there perspective of the Jewish Multiracial Network. They are my own personal words, thoughts, hopes and dreams for our Jewish future.*

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Responses to "The Problem With Jewish Media"

What about a new Jewish journal specifically JOC oriented? Why do you need permission? Organize, fundraise, launch the platform. Get out ahead of *that* other publication. The Jewish media likes to control the status quo. Why not go make your own status quo? If that journal was going to be able to make this happen on its own, it would have happened already. You know what I mean? You, however, are already a leader and have a constituency. People will follow you. See what I’m saying?

It sounds like a good idea, Michael and I totally hear what you’re saying, but it’s harder than it seems. I know a JOC who has is the proud curator for an online magazine for and by Jews of Color, but it doesn’t have the same readership as some of the big hitters. And I honestly don’t want a segregated Jewish community. I want a Jewish community that allows me to be my authentic self, that is self-reflective and self-aware and let’s Jews of Color be the owners of our own stories and voices.

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