a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

Things You Should Never Ask a Jew of Color

Posted on: June 28, 2011

…or anyone for that matter.

I’m back.  It has been a bit of a whirl wind.  This unemployment thing leaves little to be desired.  I’ve been working my ass off trying to re-write my resume, interviewing and chatting with a lot of great people and great organizations.  Not to mention last weekend was Pride in NYC.  I’ve literally taken 5 showers in the past 48 hours to try to rid my body of the endless amount of gold body glitter I wore.

Back to the matter at hand.  Today I walked into my shul and the security person at the door asked for my ID.  Standard protocol-Especially in Manhattan.  I expect that any place I go I will have to whip out an ID.  I riffled through my bag looking for my passport (on top of EVERYTHING else, I lost my wallet).  As I’m looking he says, “Are you a care-taker?”

ie-Are You a Nanny?

ie-You’re black you can’t be Jewish

ie-You must work here

I jerked my head up and looked directly into his eyes and with the most deliberate voice I could muster I responded, “No, I’m not a caretaker, I’m a MEMBER”  just as I was going to give this man, who was a person of color, a lecture on sterotypes, assumptions, and plain rudeness a face I recognized smiled at me and told me to head right upstairs to my appointment.

it’s me!


Last night I attended a panel discussion on Diversity in Jewish Art at the JCC.  One of the presenters and Be’chol Lashon Outreach director, Lacey Schwartz talked about diversity in the Jewish community and her film.  Afterwards in the Q&A someone asked her a question that I found offensive.  He was trying, quite poorly, to ask Lacey about identity.  I cannot remember what he was saying, exactly, but the more he spoke about “Hispanics and Blacks” the bigger hole he dug for himself.  I silently prayed that he would just hear himself and shut up but he kept on digging.

Another presenter, artist, and Jew of Color Siona Benjamin talked about a project she’s working on.  Born in India, Siona returned home to the shul her parents were married in to talk to the Jews in that community.  She took pictures of the faces of Judaism and plans on manipulating them, duplicating them to make them into beautiful works of art.  I felt honored, as the only visible person of color to be in the room other than the presenters and at the same time the questioners comments stung.

I’m a different kind of Jew of Color in that I am a convert.  Still, as was affirmed once more last night, Jews come in EVERY color.  In my Jewish Circle of Friends that consists of both cyber friends and actual face-to-face friends I would say I know over a dozen Jews of Color who are born Jews.  Not just a generation or so back from a mother who converted in the 1920s but generations of Jews of color.  They are biracial, they are mixed race, they are Asian and they are “Black People.”

I walked from the JCC to Columbus Circle to talk to my friend on the phone but also to think about this step, and as a result burden, I will take on when I convert.  It reminds me a bit of the story of the rabbi Jesus and the burden put on his shoulder that Christians speak of.  I’m not calling myself Jesus or a rabbi, it’s just…a burden.  One that I take on wholeheartedly.  People have commented on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and here asking why I-A Black, Gay Woman would choose to become a Jew.  My answer is always the same.  I didn’t choose to be a woman, I didn’t choose to be black, I didn’t choose to be gay.  Those three minorities were assigned to me at birth and they aren’t assignments I can give back, nor would I choose to.  What I did get a say in was the choice to become Jewish.   It’s not a choice I regret.  It’s not a choice I take for granted.

As I walked from the 80s to the 50s last night I did a lot of thinking. I came to Lincoln Center and noticed a man in a embroidered head covering.  Even though it was night I could tell that his skin was caramel-colored and in his hands he held a beautiful baby about 6 months old.  Besides the beautiful baby, the ornate head covering I noticed the multi-knotted Tzizit hanging from his shirt.  I smiled at him and he at me and I walked away thinking, “See there are so many of us.”  Why then, when African countries are mentioned in Torah dozens of times and Polish/Russian/Ukrainian countries are not, is it so hard?

The reason I wanted to write this post was because of last night and this morning but also because one of the main google searches used to find my blog is “what to do when you see a black person in your synagogue”


So, without further adieu Things You Should Never Ask/Say to a Jew of Color-Erika’s List

Do you work here?

Are you Jewish?

How are you Jewish?

Where are your parents from?

Are You a Convert?*

Where did you do your conversion?

Did you go to the mikveh?

Who was on your beit din?

Did you convert so you could marry a Jewish person?

You do know that your conversion wasn’t really kosher, right?

Are you from Ethiopia?

Can you read Hebrew?

What language do you pray in?

Is this your first time in a synagogue?

Do you understand what’s happening?

Can you take my plate-I’m finished.

Which family do you work for?

Don’t you think it’ll be hard to find a partner?

Don’t you think it’ll be hard for your child to get into a good Hebrew school?

Do you want your child to go to Hebrew school?

It’s odd.  I always have a sick obsession with how people perceive me when I walk into a shul.  On one hand, I get  paranoid that everyone is looking at me.  On the other, I get really annoyed and offended when I perceive that people are ignoring me or avoiding me.  It’s a slippery slope and there is no right or wrong answer.  But if  I may answer the always amusing and slightly alarming google question of what to do when there are black folks in your shul…Say hello at the oneg.  Make conversation about the sermon, perhaps ask if it’s the first time at service in your home shul and ask what they thought.  Carry on conversation as usual and as normal without making assumptions.

*I’m a convert.  While I would be slightly annoyed if anyone asked me, off the bat, if I was a convert, I always identify as such.  Some converts take the stance that when they are converted they are Jews and not converts.  I understand this view but it is not my own.








©Erika K. Davis

12 Responses to "Things You Should Never Ask a Jew of Color"

It’s always the people of color who ask me these crazy questions about how am I Jewish and my family’s nationality/ethnicity. Depending on my mood, I either make up a crazy story about how my family were Black German Jews who fled to North Africa and America during WWII or I just don’t answer.

I hate the convert question, I don’t know why, I just find it annoying when people ask me if I convert, mainly because then it’s followed up with “why?” or “you must have met a Jewish man” then I get angry.

ooo, I like the Black Germans fleeing to North Africa story. Totally going to use that 😉 I do get nice Jewish boy questions to which I always have to explain that I have a nice Jewish girl that is conveniently Jewish but not the reason I am converting.

Conversion questions never bother me, when they come from a place of actual wonder…it’s the “are you the help” assumptions that make me angry

What you wrote just there in your comment, Erika, says so much to me: when people ask a question out of ACTUAL WONDER–that makes all the difference. Nobody asks someone to take their plate out of curiosity. (That one really got me.) And sincerity on this front is a visceral experience.

Here is my question: Where’d you get that t-shirt? 🙂

Thanks for writing.

I stole the shirt from my partner who got it from her brother for Hanukkah 😉

I will answer questions out of genuine curiosity always because I think that it comes from a place that is pure and there is always something for me to teach and something for me to learn in return. When I went to the HIR function about Frum Lesbians some of the initial questions seemed startling and offensive to my partner and I because we’re queer, liberal Jewish folk who tend to hang out with liberal queer folks…after the anger and shock subsided, you could tell that people really didn’t know.

p.s. When I share with people that I came out–people who’ve known me as a married (straight) woman for many years–often their first question is more of a reaction: “Did you always know?” or “Are you sure?” Again, I guess there’s something about gauging both our own reactions and responses to questions, and having that sense of what filters others’ questions are coming through, as there are always many. It’s fascinating to bring awareness to this. Thanks again for your honesty & good food for thought.

I totally get that a lot too. I came out at 28, I was engaged to a man at 21…a lot of my high school and college friends who knew me as the boy-crazy Erika were totally the “are you sure?” or “how can you be gay?” or “Did you always know” folks…The only thing I did know as a high school and college student was that I couldn’t be gay, it wasn’t an option.

[…] Things You Should Never Ask a Jew of Color (Black, Gay & Jewish Blog) […]

[…] Things You Should Never Ask a Jew of Color (Black, Gay & Jewish Blog) […]

Wow, thank you so much for this post!! It really hit home for me especially the feelings of paranoia, avoidance and being ignored. These are the main reasons why I still haven’t attended shul. I did go to a Kabbalat Shabbat service a few weeks back and trust me, it took everything that was in me to go. It was a mixture of curiousity (wanting to see how everyone reacted) and fear. Funny thing is, when I walked in, I saw another Jew of color and headed straight to her, smh (comfort I guess)…I pray I will eventually muster up the courage to attend shul in the near future. Thanks again for posting! 🙂

Over one month later, a reply. Please accept my apologies. Re-reading this post, which is almost a year old my opinions and feelings have definitely changed, though I still stand by my words.

On one hand much of what we fear and over-thinking that happens before entering a new shul is validated. Because of the perception of who Jews are and are not, based on individual communities and individual experiences are why we’re asked absurd things. On the other some of it could very well be in our head.

What state are you in?

[…] wrote a post about this in June of 2011 and the questions are all the same and as a Jew of Color we hear them […]

[…] 2)      that Jews come in every color! 3)      not to ask Jews of color if they have converted, or other exclusionary […]

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