Posted on: October 19, 2011
There ia a documentary about racially and ethnically diverse Jews in which an Asian Jewish woman says something to the effect of, “People always say, ‘You’re the new face of Judaism’ and I say, no I’m the old face of Judaism” (If anyone knows this clip, please let me know so I can link it!) I thought a lot about that sentence this weekend as I sat in a room of Jewish teens. I don’t remember how many there were, a bit grumpy they were sitting at a panel instead of canoeing with the younger campers, but I do know that there were only two or three “white” Jews, out of maybe 15. At that point, our last day at Be’chol Lashon Family Camp, the shock and delight of seeing Jewish children from various ethnic and racial backgrounds seemed normal. I remember thinking, this what Jewish looks like. Though, I knew that when I got home and went to shul this weekend that I wouldn’t get to see this for a really long time, perhaps not for another year.
I often used the imagery of a tapestry in relation to converts to Judaism. Most recently, I used this imagery in my conversion essay. I know that as a convert I bring an ethnic diversity as well as a blended family since my parents are Christian. I still stand by my image of new Jews, especially new Jews of color adding to the tapestry that is the larger Jewish community. This weekend helped me to see that the tapestry is always changing in other ways as well.
The assumption, when you see a “Jew of Color” (ie non-white) in the U.S. is that they converted. The assumption when you see a child who is a Jew of Color is that they are adopted. Being at Family Camp this weekend both proved and disproved these assumptions, but you know what? It doesn’t really matter how one is Jewish, just that they are Jewish. What Color is a Jew remains one of the most popular posts on my blog this week while comments on the article I wrote for TribeVibe continue to challenge my identity as a Black Jewish woman. We talked this weekend about the questions we get as Jews: “How are you Jewish?” “Were you adopted?” and my favorite comment, “You don’t look Jewish” which always has me thinking, what does a Jew look like? This weekend at Camp Be’chol Lashon I got my answer, this is what Jewish looks like.
The fact of the matter is that Jewish doesn’t look just one way. Jewish looks like me and if you’re reading this and you’re Jewish then Jewish looks like you. I remember as a kid wanting to know what God looked like, more specificially what Jesus looked like. Even in my child’s head seeing a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jesus didn’t jive well with me. In James McBride’s The Color of Water-A Black Man’s Tribute to his White Mother, when the child James wants to know what color God is, his mother answers the color of water. I’m a huge advocate of seeing the color in other people, seeing the diversity around you, seeing race, nationality, and ethnicity rather than saying that you are “colorblind”. I’m often accused of being hung up on race and identity when in fact, I think it’s thing that divides us least as people, but most often the most obvious because it’s on our body and we wear it around.
It’s a shame that it happens within our own Jewish communities, that we allow skin color to make assumptions about the people before knowing who they are realizing how they are similar to us. A blonde Jew shouldn’t have to be asked whether or not they are Jewish any more than a Black Jew. As Jews, throughout this holiday season and at every holiday we are reminded that we should welcome the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Sukkot is coming to an end and I wonder how many “strangers” were welcomed into those temporary walls. I wonder now as the sukkahs will start coming down, how many strangers will remain on the outside of the walls of our homes, rather than being invited in for a Shabbat meal.
Spending the weekend with families that looked so different, yet the same as my own family was awe-inspiring. I remember at havdallah service, holding the candle and singing prayers watching this little girl with my skin color passionately davening. She sang with her whole heart and it was like seeing God in her dark brown eyes. I saw God in her dark brown skin and heard God’s voice in her prayers. I kept thinking over and over again, this is what it’s supposed to be like. This is what our synagogues should look like, this is what the books our children read should look like, this is how prayer should feel.
If you are a Jewish educator, I would encourage you to go to Be’chol Lashon’s website and contact them for information on creating truly diverse and inclusive Jewish community in your synagogue or school. If you are a parent looking to give your child an amazing camp experience, I strongly urge you to look into sending them to Summer Camp with Be’chol Lashon. The NY Times published an amazing story about camp and it’s a great way for your children to see Judaism outside of the lens of their home town or home synagogue. Lastly, if you’re a family and you feel like you’re the only person who looks like you in your school, synagogue, or community know that you’re not alone. I wish that I could transport every single Jew to the Be’chol Lashon family camp for even an hour of the experience. It is one that I haven’t fully processed, one that has left me incredibly inspired and incredibly motivated to make Jewish spaces alive with the diversity that exists in our community.