a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

Why Heeb’s Article on Commandment Keepers is Making it Harder to be a Black Jew.

Posted on: May 7, 2012

www.voicesofny.orgA few weeks ago I pitched the below to the editor of a popular Jewish website.  It didn’t get published so I decided to go with my first instinct (always trust ’em) and publish it here.

I’m a little frustrated because I wanted this read by a larger and broader Jewish audience.  I cherish my blog as a safe-space for JBC and JOCs to read about my experiences as a black, gay Jewish woman.  I started writing to chronicle my conversion process and keep writing because I continue to see what can only be described as ignorance when it comes to the wider ethnic varieties of Jews in the U.S.  When I write about Judaism and race I often find that my editors (not just this particular website) are hesitant to publish my words.   When I wrote “Don’t Call me a Jew” for TribeVibe (the link is dead) I got a lot of push back from my editor.  He thought that my words made it sound like Jews were racist, that I was calling Jewish people prejudice, that I would be offending people.  Well, I told him, some Jews are prejudice and racist.  The piece was watered down and published.

Because my blog is read by folks who are converts, LGBTQ Jews or JOCs it doesn’t reach a lot of “main stream” Jews the way that this particular website does.  It’s unfortunate that it didn’t get to be seen by their audience, but I know my readers are great and will spread the word.  For me it’s not just about getting published on big-name Jewish websites, it’s about teaching the broader Jewish community about the diversity of Jews.  So maybe I don’t make a name for myself, at least I’m sharing my truths.

To be perfectly clear.  I am not saying my editor ran away from the piece because of the context-I think she is over-worked and has a lot on her plate. 


Written on Monday April 16

Last Friday afternoon an article on the Heeb newsletter caught my eye: “The New Film Commandment Keepers Explores the History of Black Jews.” Excitedly I clicked the link, thankful Black Jews were being written about for such a broad Jewish audience. My excitement turned to disappointment when I saw the picture—a muscular, topless black man with a Star of David over his crotch – and the phrase “…Indulging in my curiosity (and my love for Black men)” followed by, “after six months I still catch myself testing his Jewishness.”  Really lady?  As much as I was annoyed by the author’s “humorous” writing, I was more annoyed by the assertion that to be a Black Jew is to be a Commandment Keeper.

Reviewing the film Commandment Keepers and calling it Black Judaism is easy, but it’s incorrect. That’s because the film, The Commandment Keepers, doesn’t explore the History of Black Jews, it explores the History of Commandment Keepers, a group with a rich history rooted in Jewish-like traditions-they’re simply not Jewish traditions—by their own assertion.  I appreciate the ability to learn about Commandment Keepers and have great admiration for their history, even if it’s not my history. But painting all Black Jews with this brush does nothing but make the rift between Jews and Jews of Color wider (You can read the article and my response in the comments here).

Yet 92Y proudly showed the film to an audience who, I’m sure,  walked away from the film thinking that they had a better understanding of what it means to be a Black Jew in America.  This, in my opinion, is a grave disservice to the wider population of Black Jews.  My existence as a Black convert to Judaism is an exception, not the norm for Black American Jews.   Putting Commandment Keepers, a group of people who follow an interpretation of “The Old Testement”, in the same box as Black Jews, ie. Jews who are non-white, does nothing but perpetuate the exoticism and anomaly that Black Jews often feel simply by being Black and Jewish. Jews are Black just as Jews are white, Mexican, Indian, Arab, Chinese, Ethiopian, and Korean.  Yet, when people, Jews included, think of what it is to be Jewish it’s hard to look beyond what’s comfortable, what’s personal, what media portrayal of Jews dictate.

The Institute for Jewish and Community Research’s 2005 shows the deep-rooted and varied ethnic diversity of Jews in the United States.  Yet when I’m in a synagogue, enjoying a cookie and some punch at the oneg, someone will without fail ask how I am Jewish.  When I go into a Judaica store to buy a mezuzah I’m given a lesson on what a mezuzah is.  When I visited new synagogues in search for a synagogue to call my home people stared.  Having “backing” by big names like Heeb and 92Y advertise this movie as thee way one is Black and Jewish simply blurs the line and makes being a Black Jew that much harder.

When I made the choice to become Jewish, I started by looking for other Black Jews. Naively, I was convinced that I would be the only Black Jew in existence, since the only outward-representations of Jews that I saw in New York City were white men wearing black hats on the street, white shietl-wearing women pushing strollers in Williamsburg, and white yeshiva boys rushing to shul in Crown Heights. Looking for Jews who looked like me, I Googled “Black Jews.” The first two sites came up were Black Jews and Wikipedia.

The Black Jews site was pretty impressive. I felt like I was coming home. There are old pictures of men who looked just like the men on the streets. They were wearing large stripped tallit, they were holding scrolls, and the site prominently features a gold Magen David. I’d found Black Jews!

To the untrained eye, words like rabbi, bimah, Torah, and mitzvot all seem pretty Jewish. But when you dig deeper you notice that the word Jew or Jewish is pretty hard to find other than in the name of the website. It’s hard to find the history of this Israelite community on the website. It’s hard to find anything. The second site shed a bit more light onto Israelites and Commandment Keepers. By clicking through various links on Wikipedia I quickly realized that if I wanted to be a Jew, I didn’t want to be a Commandment Keeper or an Israelite.

It’s been my experience that some Jews are completely ignorant about what it means to be Jewish outside of their personal identity-and that’s okay.  The problem lies when Jews cannot see beyond the personal or the comfortable.  The saying goes: Ignorance is bliss, but the reality is that ignorance can breed racism.

My identity as a Jew isn’t dependent on anyone’s opinion of what it means to be a Jew, yet simply because of the way that I look my Jewishness is challenged.  If we, as Jews, are interested in making real change when it comes to an integration of different expressions of Judaism we’re going to have to be willing to learn about cultures that are different from our own.  We can’t simply date Black Jewish men with the purpose of curiosity and a desire to test how one can be Black and Jewish.  We can’t simply watch documentaries and compartmentalize people in ways that are comfortable for us, walking away from the theater without a second thought.  We have to dig deeper.

I’ve seen the film 400 Miles to Freedom, the story of an Ethiopian family’s journey from Ethiopia to the Sudan and then Israel in Operation Moses, three times.  On two occasions at film screenings shown to a predominantly white Jewish audience- first at the Sephardic Film Festival and second at an Upper West Side synagogue.  On both occasions I was shocked at the things coming out of people’s mouths both directly towards me and towards the director in Q&A.  I was asked if I was in the film, if I was related to the film maker, if I was Ethiopian.   People made random remarks about having Black friends or knowing this one Black Jew this one time.  People asked the director generalized questions about Ethiopia and Ethiopian Jews, but lacked to listen as he reiterated that Ethiopians are not the only Black Jews in existence.  They didn’t care, or didn’t hear, or chose not to hear and instead continued to ask questions and make generalized comments.

Jeff Lieberman, a dear friend of mine, has an upcoming documentary called Re-Emerging: The Jews of Nigeria, which tells the story of a community of Jews who have been in existence for generations.  The trailer is moving and I can’t wait to see the film because I’m interested in learning about different people’s experiences of Judaism.  But these two films are the stories of Black Jews in other countries—they don’t begin to explore the history of Black Jews who have been living in the U.S. for generations.  I find that documentaries that are meant to show the variety of Jewish culture and ethnic diversity are great, but I that they can be incredibly problematic and potentially harmful in the long run. They’re harmful because they show diversity in Judaism “over there” and don’t explore the diversity of Judaism right here in the U.S.   While the share the experiences of Jews beyond our shores, it further affirms the idea that Jews who are brown are an exception.  Jews who are brown are foreign.  Jews who are brown aren’t real Jews.  Jews who are brown must have converted.  Jews who are brown need to convert.  Jews who are brown are Commandment Keepers/Israelites/Hebrew Israelites and therefore not Jews.  It allows “us” to be separate from “them”.

Looking at the injustice, difficulties, and racism that exists within our families, our own Jewish communities, and in the dark recesses of our minds is tricky, scary and uncomfortable.   We don’t want to admit that we think that way.  We don’t want our Jewish identity challenged in ways that are unfamiliar.  We want to keep the space the between but, if we’re truly interested in exploring the wonderful diversity that exists in Jewish communities in New York City, we must be willing to close that gap, do some work, and fill in the space.  It is only through the willingness to be open to people who are different—and commitment to an honest reflection on our personal prejudices – that true exploration into Jewish history can be found. Learning this history doesn’t work when we try to validate or invalidate a group based on our own history and traditions. We have to be able to hold multiple truths.

I adopted the Jewish history and have melded it perfectly (yet still imperfectly) with my own history of a Black American.  The Jewish history is one that I admire because of its resilience and longevity.  Jews have been spread across the globe and with that travel across space and time our history changed and grew stronger.  I don’t want to limit my Jewish history by only viewing it through one lens.

It should also be noted, that while Rabbi Capers Funnye asserts himself as a Conservative Jew, as this video shows, he is actually an Israelite (and proud of it) serving and Israelite congregation in Chicago.

11 Responses to "Why Heeb’s Article on Commandment Keepers is Making it Harder to be a Black Jew."

Thanks for the link to your friend’s film about the Jews of Nigeria — I’m really psyched to see that.

THIS MUST BE DISCUSSED AT GREATER LENGTH…Bravo to you , for articulating the thoughts of so many JOCS so eloquently!!

Just to let you know, not all your readers are “converts, LGBTQ Jews or JOCs” – I’m a white, straight, Jew by birth and always enjoy reading your blog even when I don’t always agree with it.

I know and I love my non-black, non-gay Jews and non-Jews-especially when they don’t agree with me but continue to share space.

“I adopted the Jewish history and have melded it perfectly (yet still imperfectly) with my own history of a Black American. The Jewish history is one that I admire because of its resilience and longevity. Jews have been spread across the globe and with that travel across space and time our history changed and grew stronger. I don’t want to limit my Jewish history by only viewing it through one lens.” this here is what i am hope to always strive to do in my journey and beyond my this year of study… thank you for this blog post i will use some of this for a paper i am writing. my thesis is african americans who choose Judaism struggle with being seen as Jewish and your article have shed more light on this for me thanks

Thanks Enzi! Just don’t forget to quote me 🙂
Good luck with your thesis and your journey.

of course erica 🙂 i actually meant to ask in reading the first reply it was more of a statement when it should have been a question.

Heeb doesn’t always have the best judgement. Let me leave it at that.

That’s an understatement 🙂

[…] not one, but two pieces about “black Jews.” I have a lot to say about this. In fact, I’ve already said it. Thankfully, I don’t have to say it again-my buddy Shais at MaNishtana has done it for […]

[…] written about Hebrew Israelites before and while I generally think that writing about Messianic Jews and Hebrew Israelites  gives these […]

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