The world is exploding and I am angry and afraid, and maybe hopeful too. I know I can’t handle being part of the protests in person (because my health won’t allow it, because I’m still afraid of the coronavirus, and because the potential for violence scares the crap out of me, no matter who’s causing it), but I want to do something, or add something, or learn something. But…there is so much information available on racism in general, and police violence towards people of color in particular, and mass incarceration, and how racism impacts educational opportunities and the ability to accumulate wealth, and, and, and…I don’t have the bandwidth to take in all of the books and articles and podcasts and Facebook posts that are out there. So when the cantor at my synagogue took the time to offer a zoom-cast on Jews of color, and what they might need from their Jewish community during this time, I felt like, that’s a lane I could go down.
The cantor showed us a YouTube video of Ilana Kaufman, discussing her goal of counting every Jew of color, so that we can see all the Jews in our communities and recognize and welcome them. As it stands now, she said, Jews of color are experiencing racism out in the world, and then experiencing racism again within their own Jewish communities, where they are seen as “other.”
My own synagogue on Long Island is not especially diverse, especially if you experience the community by going to regular services, or adult education classes, which are often filled with older, Ashkenazi (of eastern European descent) Jews. But if you go to the synagogue school, you start to see the next generation, the children of interfaith and interracial marriage, adoption and conversion. In other communities, the process of integration has been going on longer and now includes the children of adult Jews of color raised in the Jewish community. And in Israel, Jews from China and India and Africa and France and Russia, and all around the world, of all shades and traditions, are trying to create community out of diversity.
Historically, the great fear of intermarriage in the American Jewish community assumed that the children of interfaith and interracial marriage would all disappear from Judaism, but, in fact, a lot of those families have embraced being Jewish (along with being Christian or Moslem or Hindu or Buddhist). We have children in our synagogue school with Asian features or darker skin; and we have children who proudly discuss their Christmas celebrations, or their trips to visit family in India or Greece or Israel. And instead of feeling like our Jewish world is dying out, I’ve started to feel like our world is growing wider and richer, and more people have started to feel like family.
When I watched Ilana Kaufman’s Eli Talk (the Jewish version of a Ted Talk) during the cantor’s zoom-cast, I felt like I knew her, even though she is a multi-racial queer women from San Francisco whom I’ve never met. She spoke my language. I don’t mean simply that she speaks Hebrew, or knows Torah and Jewish history, which she does, but she challenged me, with compassion and patience, to see more than I could see on my own, just like the clergy at my synagogue do. She talked about a young girl named Tova, who wore a Star of David necklace to school every day, and went to her synagogue regularly, and yet her classmates still couldn’t believe that she was Jewish, because of the color of her skin. And Ilana Kaufman warned that children like this will be lost to us if we don’t learn how to deal with our own racism.
And, no, most progressive Jews are not the obvious kinds of racists that that word seems to represent. In fact, many progressive Jews are social justice oriented, and have marched for civil rights and Black Lives Matter and everything in between; but if we continue to see Jews of color as outsiders who need to prove their Jewishness, or if we fail to see them at all, then we are hurting them, and hurting ourselves. It’s a more subtle form of racism than we are used to addressing. It’s a form of racism caused by a natural human tendency to stick to what we know, instead of reaching out to what may be new to us and feel challenging. Ilana Kaufman laid down the gauntlet for Jews-who-are-considered-white to look a little more carefully at our communities and at ourselves, and I want to try to do that.
Approximations vary, but the most common count is that 20% of North American Jews are Jews of color. The counting is complicated because some include Mizrachi Jews (of Middle Eastern and North African Heritage) and some don’t. Some include Jews converted only by Orthodox rabbis and some include conversions by liberal rabbis as well. But right now, many Jews with African American ancestry need their Jewish communities, because watching the murder of George Floyd playing over and over is exhausting, and frightening, and heartbreaking, and enraging, and when you are going through trauma you need your family, and your community, to see you and hear you. So, even though I’m not out on the streets, I wanted to say that I’m listening.
I’m including a list of links to a few articles written by Jews of color, but this is by no means a comprehensive list, so if you have recommendations, please add them in the comments.
For an overview of the current situation: https://www.jta.org/2020/05/31/united-states/believe-us-black-jews-respond-to-the-george-floyd-protests-in-their-own-words
Ilana Kaufman: https://www.schusterman.org/blogs/ilana-kaufman/keeping-our-multiracial-jewish-community-safe, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/eli-talks/who-counts-race-and-the-jewish-future/, https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/waking-up-and-showing-up-for-our-jewish-youth-of-color-because-our-community-is-at-stake/
Orthodox Jewish women of color: https://globaljews.org/articles/identity/frum-women-of-color/
Jewish and Chinese and American: https://forward.com/opinion/355898/what-i-learned-about-being-jewish-and-chinese-on-my-birthright-trip-to-isra/
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?