Stereotypes and misconceptions are par for the course when you are talking about a small group of people. By being Jewish and having a Jamaican parent, it is very interesting to hear many of the stereotypes that I hear about both Jamaicans and Jews. It is also interesting how similar the misconceptions are between the two groups.
When I considered blogging about this topic, I thought that I would have to struggle to compile a list. However, to my surprise, it took an entire two minutes to come up with 5 shared misconceptions about Jamaicans and Jews. Here they are:
#1 – There are a lot of Jews/Jamaicans in the world
I once asked a non-Jewish friend of mine how many Jews he thought were in the world. Without too much hesitation, he said 100 million. Ok, well that’s less than 1/3 of the population of the United States. And I did say the “world”, so the figure given wasn’t so insane. Except the reality is that there are only 13-14 million Jews on the planet. If we were to put this in perspective, if you combine the populations of New York City and London, then it would outnumber the entire world population of Jews.
When you look at Jamaicans, the numbers are even smaller. Like way, way smaller. There are 2.7 million people living on the island of Jamaica. But to be fair, there are another 1.8 million Jamaican-born people living in the U.K., United States, and Canada (the 3 most popular countries for Jamaican immigration). To account for every other country in the world, let’s just (unscientifically) round that number up to 2 million. So let’s say that there are 4.7 million Jamaicans in the world. To put this in perspective, the population of Berlin, Germany is higher – with 5.1 million people living there.
So why do both groups of people seem to be so much greater than what they are? Simply put…the media. Both Jamaicans and Jews find themselves featured in film, print, the arts and in the case of Jews, science, many more times than their actual representation in the population. Also both groups tend to gravitate towards the urban centers of the United States, Canada and the U.K. These three countries generate the bulk of what comprises “Western” media, and most certainly English-speaking media.
#2 – All Jews are White and/or all Jamaicans are Black
It is true that the vast majority of Jews are White (or of European ancestry at least), and that the vast majority of Jamaicans are Black (or of African ancestry), you most definitely have Jews and Jamaicans who defy these norms. According to Be’chol Lashon, about 7% of Jews are “Jews of Color”, or of African, Hispanic or Asian background. 8% of Jamaicans consider themselves to either be “mixed” or non-Black. I don’t know about you, but I find it very interesting that the two statistics between the two groups is that similar. 🙂
#3 – Your average Jamaican looks like this:
Or you average (Orthodox) Jew looks like this:
Ok, here’s the reality. About 1% of Jamaicans classify their religion as being “Rastafarian“. On the other hand, 10% classify themselves as Seventh Day Adventists (I have cousins who are this, and they observe the Sabbath on Saturdays too) and 3% say they are Roman Catholic. However the tell-tale look of the Rastafarians, hair worn in dreadlocks, has spread far beyond the Rastafarian community. Any Rastafarian will tell you that having dreadlocks is not a requirement to be a Rastafarian, and every person wearing their hair in dreadlocks is not a Rastafarian.
The number of Orthodox Jews among the world’s Jewish population ranges between 10-15%, depending on what research you consult. The total number of Orthodox Jews in the world is estimated to be about 1.8 million. 30% of the Jews in the New York City metropolitan area are Orthodox however. But being an Orthodox Jew does not mean that you are a chassidic or haredi Jew (the type who dresses like the man in the picture above; whereas an Orthodox Jew can look as unassuming as this). Almost all of these Jews, or what the media likes to call the “Ultra-Orthodox” live in either New York or Israel, with smaller populations scattered throughout Europe and the U.K. It is hard to get hard and fast statistic on how many Orthodox Jews are Ultra-Orthodox. However in New York, they number about 400,000 or so. Worldwide, there are certainly less than a million.
In both situations, it comes down to the commonly stated phrase, “A picture is worth a thousand words”. The unique and eye-catching appearance of both Rastafarians and chassidic Jews make them out to be good eye-candy. Therefore you see way more pictures of them than you do of the larger population of both Jamaicans and Jews.
#4 – There are no Jews in Jamaica, Jamaicans in Israel, or Jamaican Jews
Jamaica has a small, but historic Jewish community. They even have a Chabad. While the island’s Jewish community was much larger when the country was still part of the British Commonwealth (for those who are not so knowledgeable about Jamaican history, it became independent in 1962), Judaism still has several hundred adherents living on the island. One of the county’s best private schools is Hillel Academy. While it is not a parochial school (most of it’s students are not Jewish), it was founded by the Jewish community of Jamaica and still observes the major Jewish holidays in its operating calendar.
Several Jews who were born in Jamaica have made aliyah to Israel, including Aluf Abir Yehoshua Sofer. Israel also has a big reggae fan base. And there are many Jews who are active in the reggae music scene, such as Matisyahu and King Django for example. And of course, there are many Jamaicans with either Jewish ancestry (like Sean Paul) or Jewish family connections (like Ziggy Marley who’s wife is Jewish).
#5 – Jamaican/Jewish culture exists in a vacuum
I’m a far cry from being an anthropologist. However it has been pretty evident to me early on that Jamaican culture isn’t heavily influenced by others; especially African and East Indian cultures. Having a Jamaican grandmother of East Indian origins helped to clue me into this a little earlier than most I guess. Roti and curried chicken are not only Jamaican diet staples, but Indian ones as well. Linguists have found that Jamaican patois has many rhythmic similarities, and even words taken from West African languages. Even the iconic dreadlocks were most likely taken from either the Maasai in Kenya or the Sadhus in India. And of course the heavy British influence on Jamaican culture is probably what really separates Black Jamaicans from Black Americans in particular. Jamaicans tend to abide by these rules of social class and place among themselves much more so than Black Americans have a sense of.
Jewish culture is also heavily influenced by Eastern European, German, Russian, or whatever other country would host them. “Jewish” foods such as latkes, rugalach and falafel are widely made by non-Jewish cultures as well. The distinct dress of the chassidim is actually a approximation of the garb of 18th century Russians. Even the aspects of Jewish religious life, such as the commercialization of Chanukah, has a clearly non-Jewish influence.
As always I hope that you were able to learn a thing or two from this blog post about either Jews or Jamaicans (maybe even both). And of course, I’m always looking to connect with others who have Jamaican and Jewish ties.
This post is dedicated to the memory of Yosef Robinson, z’l (זיכרונו לברכה) ~ may his memory be a blessing!