Being Black & Jewish In The U.S.A. – I.

About two weeks ago I purchased and read Chai-Me by Tamar Manasseh, a member of the Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago. It was a good book (my review of it is here) and changed my view of the Black Hebrew Israelite movement; a movement which I used to just “shake my head” at (jeez, Facebook lexicon is infiltrating my blogging even!). I used to wonder at why these people felt a need to separate themselves from the larger Jewish community on the basis of race; especially when Judaism as a religion teaches about unity and love between Jews. Besides, all Jews are subject to persecution…so why should Black Jews feel put out by their White peers? Well after reading about Ms. Manasseh’s struggles with the Jewish community, I could see that they mirrored my own. The exception was that she had her temple as a refuge…and I myself don’t really have that.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no desire to join such a synagogue. However sometimes it just takes experience through life to help open your eyes a bit. I remember how I mentioned at work that my sister was going on a Black college tour. My co-worker, who was born in Japan, marveled at that. She openly wondered at why such colleges were necessary and that it makes no sense to want to voluntarily segregate yourself like that. While I understood exactly what she was saying, I also clearly knew why Black colleges do (and should) exist. Because college for some people is difficult enough. To have the added strain placed on you of being Black, of being poor and being away from home doesn’t contribute to your success. And psychological stress and your peace of mind definitely factors in when it comes to making it through 4 years of college. That support system, institutional pride, and sense of family can help a lot when it comes to college completion and success.

I remember when I was 13 or 14 years old. I was beginning to read all about Judaism and I wanted to take that next step…and go to a synagogue and convert. For me, I wanted nothing more than to visit a real synagogue and connect with real Jews. But something froze me in my tracks…something that I just intuitively knew. Not that it made any sense. I had grown up going to Catholic school where the services were multi-racial; and I had gone to predominantly White churches. So I had no hard and fast ideas that religion needed to be racially segregated. But I just had this gut feeling that as a young Black girl, I would get push back from the Jewish community. I stumbled across some information about a Black Hebrew congregation in Harlem. It took me a couple of tries, but I finally worked up the courage to call them (the internet existed back then….but I didn’t have it). I remember telling the gentlemen on the other end of the line (I don’t remember his name…or even if he was a rabbi) that I desperately wanted to convert, but I had no idea what synagogue to go to. He advised me straight out that a White Jewish congregation may or may not accept me. And unfortunately, there was no Black Israelite presence in Pittsburgh, so he couldn’t give any specific suggestions. In spite of his warning, I went on to convert (obviously), but now, 20 years later, I truly appreciate the love and concern that he had for me in trying to navigate these waters alone.

It’s funny, when I write posts like this, I worry that people will thing that I am obsessed with race and/or that I’m always trying to play the race card. However that is really not the case. I would like nothing more than to just be a Jewish woman…living in the U.S., trying to deal with the struggles of living a Jewish life among a non-Jewish majority. But the reality is more complex than that. I have to manage being Jewish in a gentile nation in addition to finding my place within the Jewish community. That if the Jewish community is even willing to accept me. I wish I could just blow it off and say, “Oh well…I’m a stranger to them. And it’s good to be cautious when it comes to strangers.” But then I witness first-hand the warm welcome of an inter-faith couple (across the Jewish religious spectrum – including the Orthodox) and the patience and tolerance shown towards those who have money.

I do not put this out there as a criticism of my people. Jews are human…just like anyone else, subject to prejudice and unsavory behavior. However it does no good to ignore the issues that exist in regards to racism and the acceptance of Jews of color. And this is what I see:

1) Notions of a “Jewish race” are not just perpetuated by anti-Semites, but believed by Jews themselves. From secular to charedi Jews, there exists this undercurrent of belief that Jewish genes are the key to getting into the Jewish community. In spite of the fact that the Torah dictates exactly what makes a Jew a Jew; as well as be clear that a non-Jew can become a full-fledged Jew. Yet lone, non-Jewish born people, even converts, yearn to be accepted into the larger Jewish family

2) A synagogue is a house of worship, not an exclusive membership club. In spite of the fact that synagogue’s have membership structures and what not, this is because Jewish law dictates you can’t handle money on the Sabbath. Regardless of this, a synagogue should ideally be a house of worship to all people. Yes, Jews have to worry and be mindful of anti-semites. But Black Americans in the south in the 1950s needed to be weary of Whites. That didn’t cause them from barring White freedom fighters from the North from their houses of worship.

3) Jews need to really examine the mitzvah of accepting gerim.  In Exodus 22:20 it says, “You shall not wrong a stranger, nor oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”. Even more so, I convert is not a stranger, but rather your full Jewish kin. Take it from me….I was slow to convert, both times. When people would pose the “Are you Jewish?” question to me back then, I used to think, “Well gee-wiz. Here I am, putting myself in a strange place among strange people, doing my best to show my interest and respect for Judaism. And they’re looking for ways to push me out!” Now when I hear the question I wonder, “Well what would happen if I said I wasn’t?” Would I be called into the kitchen for a private conversation? Like the rabbi’s wife with which I learned with for 2 years decided to say to me with no holds barred, “Don’t ask my husband to sponsor your conversion.” Really? I that what we want to be striving for within the Jewish community?

4) It won’t be the end of the world if someone you know or love falls in love with us. I’ve been through this too…where Jews will move mountains to set you up with some other random Jewish person of the same ethnic background as you….completely ignoring key issues like observance, geographical location, and general compatibility. If we were to intermarry (what a crazy term to even need to use) with you, our children are no less Jewish or confused or handicapped than any other Jewish child. Except for the handicaps and issues that the Jewish people force on them. I don’t have children, but it pained me to no end to read in Ms. Manasseh’s book about the abuse her children received in Jewish Day School.

5) We all need to realize that Jews are diverse, not only ethnically; but economically, politically, socially and culturally. Before meeting me, my boyfriend honestly believed that all Jews were rich (or richer than him at least). I think that some Jews would like to believe the same (or at least most of the poor Jews are overseas). I love how (enter sarcasm here) Jewish strangers love to ask me about where I work or what I do. This question never comes up in Black churches. In fact, I know for sure that there are a good number of people in my Grandmother’s church where she has no idea what their profession is. While on the surface, this may be some sort of misguided Jewish pride in education and success; it really outs those Jews who aren’t so successful in regards to school and career. Take me for instance…I’m completely broke. But the fact that I’m in graduate school saves me (I wonder what my excuse after next semester will be)?

In part II. I’ll talk about what my ideal community would look like and also muse about how we Black Jews can come together and help strengthen our sense of community among each other…as well as pride.