Being Black & Jewish In The U.S.A. II.

In my previous post, I talked about the difficulties and frustrations that come along with being a Black Jew in the United States. In this post, I’ll be more positive and solutions-oriented…I assure you. And most importantly I’ll explain why I have hope for the future.

First, let’s look at some of the demographics regarding the Jewish population in the U.S. today. Of the 5.6 million Jews living in the U.S., 5.4% are non-White or Hispanic. I’ll estimate that the vast majority of these people are just Spanish-speaking Ashkenazi or Sephardic Jews, and will assume that there are 25,000 – 50,000 Jewish Americans who can claim African ancestry. This is pretty significant believe it or not (there would be enough of us to fill up Yankee Stadium, whereas the rest of New York City would represent the remainder of U.S. Jewry). Black Jews, or “Jews of Color” are present in just about every major Jewish community…including New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago. And even if we aren’t physically in close contact, there are a number of ways for us to connect – including Be’chol Lashon and groups on Facebook. So gone are the days where Black Jews feel isolated and that they are the only ones out there, fending alone.

Yet it is still of prime importance that Black Jews be fully accepted by their White Jewish peers. Note that “accepted” is not the same as “tolerated”. We should be regarded and no less Jewish than a Lubavitch chossid from Russia, or a Moroccan Jew in Israel. We should have our own unique culture and contributions to Am Yisrael respected and celebrated as a rich part of the fabric of Jewish diversity. By accepting us, you do not belittle Ashkenazic or any other type of Jewish heritage.

When I go to synagogue, I often walk away wondering about what went so wrong…why do I feel like such an outsider? It’s not that I’m not used to being among non-Black people. It’s not that I don’t know what is going on or that Judaism is strange to me. Nope, most of the time, it is one of the following issues:

1) Denomination – for some reason, Judaism, unlike Christianity, just does not do well with denominational labels…at least I don’t think so. Here is why; the original Judaism, Orthodox Judaism, depended a lot upon the portability of the faith and the performance of mitzvot which defined the life of a Jew. Once formal factions broke off from that, their main way of doing so was to cut out Jewish ritual and minimize Jewish law…in a formal and public way. Therefore Ashkenazi Jews (the majority of the Jewish population in the United States) define themselves in terms of observance. The reality is Jewish observance does not define you as being a Jew. Deep down, they know this too. And the presence of Black Jews, especially devout Black Jews, makes many non-Black Jews affront these notions of Jewishness and validity face-to-face.

2) Minority status – yes Jews are a religious minority; but White Jews today live a life that is a far cry then what their Grandparents had to endure…in this very same country. Yet it isn’t because people have become more tolerant necessarily; but rather Americans in general are not so hung up on religion. There are other minorities (such as gays and Muslims) that occupy their time now. But more importantly, Jews are sort of “secret” minority. It isn’t really easy today to tell who is and who isn’t a Jew. I equate it with the Scarlet Letter. Both Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale were adulters. However Hester’s sin was made public due to her pregnancy while Arthur remained anonymous. In my humble opinion, I believe that if Hester were forced to leave town, Arthur would not have been so tormented. But the fact that he had to see Hester on a regular basis drove him to madness. I think that a much milder case of this occurs when Black Jews try to bond with White Jews. They embrace their minority status…but are secretly glad that it’s not shouted from the rooftops like it is in our case.

3) Insecurity & self-esteem – one mind-boggling question that I used to get all the time was “Why in the world do you want to be Jewish?”; the tone being that of someone who is handicapped, marveling at why someone would want to cut off their leg.