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Jews of Color

            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.

“Did you say we’re going for a walk?”

            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.

“We like when the community brings food.”

            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.

“We’re listening too. And napping. We’re multi-taskers.”

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

Some background: http://evolve.reconstructingjudaism.org/racism-in-the-jewish-community

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/

Erika Davis: https://www.ritualwell.org/blog/black-gay-and-jewish-east-coast-jew-pacific-northwest, https://www.kveller.com/not-all-jews-look-like-barbra-streisand/

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?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

84 responses »

  1. faithfamilyweaving

    Another awesome post!

    Reply
  2. Thank you for this fascinating post. I never hear about ethnically-diverse Jews, so it was eye-opening for me.

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    • I certainly know you exist, but being a so called Christian I have only experienced it in our communities. I know that from our Scriptures there were Jews in Ethiopia in 1st C Ce. In America it must be so much more horrific. Here it is our Mulims of colour we hear most of. You are the Chosen ones and Hashem has no colour bar.

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  3. Thank you for this fascinating post. I didn’t know about this level of diversity in the Jewish community, so it was eye-opening for me.

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  4. “…create community out of diversity.” Yes!

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  5. Timely post, for sure. We all want to know how we can help. Raising our voices is a start. We can no longer remaoin silent. Stay well Rachel. Allan

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  6. I am trying so hard to understand the rage. Anger I can understand. And fear. But the looting and violence and rioting? It hurts badly! How can we begin to heal when all we do is tear at the wound? Thank you for these links. I will look for them.

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    • I’ve seen so many peaceful protests, marred by a few awful acts of looting. It’s hard to look past violence because it’s so frightening, but I think we have to try very hard in this case, because the majority of the protestors are expressing fear and anger that needs to be heard and addressed.

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    • I agree. I have friends who have never been afraid of anyone who are talking about getting guns to protect themselves. I fear that the violence will cause a backlash. It’s not a few acts of looting, it’s every night – cities are on fire. I understand anger, I don’t understand destruction

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      • I don’t know what to say. I think we must be watching different newscasts.

      • and that’s a huge problem – who do we believe? The ones who say that it’s all peaceful and anyone who says otherwise is lying and a racist, or the ones who say that this is an organized effort by people who don’t even live in the cities that have experienced looting? It’s okay to have 100’s of people together to protest but not to have that same number attend church? Nothing makes sense. And no one knows what’s true or false anymore.

  7. You are so smart and insightful.

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  8. Rachel, I am like your fellow blogger who wrote, “I didn’t know about this level of diversity in the Jewish community, so it was eye-opening for me.” Thank you for this insightful post. I am going to click on some of your references and do a little more learning.Bee well. God bless you! ❤

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  9. Important post with timely advice and reminders. Having travelled extensively, I knew of the diversity in the Jewish community. Glad you are telling others about it.

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    • I wish we had learned more about that diversity in my schools and synagogues growing up, but one of my favorite things about my current synagogue, right from the beginning, was the desire to educate and open the doors. It’s still a long journey and there’s a lot to learn, and I get overwhelmed sometimes, but it’s worth it. I hate making no mistakes and I’ve had to accept the inevitability that I will make a ton of mistakes. I think that’s the hardest part about trying to grow. It hurts.

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  10. You wrote “I don’t know what to say. I think we must be watching different newscasts.” And I say yes, what station because the slant of the news and news casters makes a big difference. The violence is certainly angry and unfortunate but most of the demonstrations are peaceful. And when I say most, I mean a large majority. I live part time in Oakland and have friends whose children are marching in those peaceful demonstrations. 99% of the marchers wear masks, and although not 6 feet apart, they are more apart than is common. And the police have learned that they incite violence and protest, they are staying several blocks away (although they are there if needed). I love the racial integration of Oakland.

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    • It’s been a learning process for both the protesters and the police, and it’s been wonderful to see when people have been willing to learn and change tactics to make the protests safer. I hope that can continue on a larger scale.

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    • I’m pretty sure that the people who have lost their businesses think it’s a great deal more than “unfortunate.”

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  11. Thank you Rachel for opening my eyes and educating this raised Catholic, German-Irish girl from the midwest. Glad to hear about the diversity training. All churches need to have these discussions and training sessions. Regardless of our race, color, or religion, we are all children of God. And, it’s such a big family!

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  12. You can think, so well. I wonder what you could do, if you moved your analysis wider.

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  13. You’re helping in your own way by educating your readers, of whom I am just one of many. This was indeed an awesome, informative and interesting post. Thank you

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  14. Thanks for sharing this informative post Rachel, have a nice Sunday!!!

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  15. Thanks Rachel. In my volunteer work to help folks, people of the faith community have been tremendous volunteers. In particular, members of the Jewish faith have been heavily involved in my community. I am big believer in outreach to help those in need. They see people, not numbers. These are people who walk the talk.

    Back in the 1960s when Loving v. Virginia allowed interracial marriages, it was a 9 to 0 Supreme Court decision during very turbulent times. That is telling. Now, the last statistic I saw noted 13% of Americans are in interracial marriages. That may be too low as it is a couple of years old. My point is if people love each other, they already see the person they love, seeing past his or her race.

    We all need to do that – see past someone’s race. Sorry for the soapbox. Keith

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    • I think the hardest part of dismantling racism in America is learning to see how essential racism has been to our system of government.

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      • Well phrased. To me, it goes beyond racism, which is what Reverend William Barber has pushed starting with “Moral Monday” in Raleigh and Charlotte and now the “Poor People’s Campaign” nationwide. Both are multiracial movements. Blacks and poor whites have long been taken advantage of by the “haves.” In Tavis Smiley and Cornel West’s book “The Rich and the Rest of Us,” they define the elements of poverty in our country. We have long had an increasing divide between the haves and have-nots that started getting worse in the early 1980s until today.

        Then, you layer on the additional denial of opportunity to blacks and the heightened number of killings and jailings relative to whites and elements of the new Jim Crow are apparent.

        So, you are right, racism and poverty are engrained in our system and we must speak to ways to remedy such. Living wages, welcoming schools which double as community centers, providing job opportunities and mentors, and community policing to reduce crime are all part of the solutions. But, the police must do a better job of policing themselves to regain trust. Most police officers do their darnedest to help, but even the best ones can make bad decisions off fear and there are also a small cadre of bad apples, who need to be trained or weeded out.

        I am uplifted by the number of police who have protested along with the civil protests. But, I am disturbed by the violent protestors who give the cause a bad name and the handful of police who have overreacted. As one police chief said, fear leads to bad decisions. So, when a police officer is armed to the hilt, they are more fearful…

        Sorry for the additional soapbox. Keith

  16. You wrote: “…but I want to do something, or add something, or learn something.”

    Well, you sure did. This is a great, thoughtful post. I’m so glad I read it.

    And thanks for all the “likes” on my blog. Now, I really want to know what you think (through a comment maybe) on the ones I write that are not just fluff (intended to lighten things for folks).

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  17. I’m not only outraged at what happened but very angry too. Fearful and afraid. I’m feeling so many emotions right now and none of them good. I just want people to shape up and fly right so to speak. Right now, I keep hoping and praying things will get better way better.

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  18. Good links, Rachel. I’m passing them on to the Rabbi with whom I work to see if she wants to use them. Thanks.

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  19. This is an outstanding post, Rachel. I’m happy to know the richness of diversity in the Jewish community is growing. Christians are aiming for it, too, though there’s a tendency for each group to become a church on its own. I can appreciate that, I guess, though really want the mergings to occur. From what I’ve read, I say you’re an excellent teacher–and providing opportunities for us to learn from you is certainly being involved. I share your proclivities for not protesting, by the way.

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  20. I can’t add anything here that hasn’t already been eloquently executed by another’s response to this post. I’ve been playing an old vinyl record of mine for the past several days, lifting and dropping the needle to replay the same song and singing along. The song is called “One Voice” and it’s by Barry Manilow (yes, my age is showing!). It starts out with, “One voice, singing in the darkness, all it takes is one voice, singing so they hear what’s on your mind, and when you look around, you find there’s more than one voice…” The powerful lyrics tell us that when we band our voices together for a common good, what one voice can’t change, thousands and thousands of voices joining in can. And I, too, have stayed away from protests for health reasons, even though my little borough had a very peaceful one this past weekend with zero problems and zero violence. Your voice, raised in this blog post is, I hope, joined with others to help us all learn to treat others with respect for our diversities, as we want to be treated for ours from them! Excellent, excellent post!

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  21. Systemic racism is the most obvious failure of our democracy. Good for you for making an effort to educate yourself and the rest of us in how it manifests itself in the Jewish community. Excellent.

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  22. Thanks for the in depth post. I was familiar with what you discuss, but from reading the comments I can see that many of your readers were not. As an American Catholic, I sometimes see the same ignorance about African-American Catholics. I am so glad you found a constructive way to address the pain at the moment.

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    • Me too; it gave me a container for some of the angst.

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      • I like the word “container” in this context. Writing can do that.

      • Writing has always been my best way to manage emotions that feel overwhelming. Sometimes it doesn’t work, because the situation or my response to it is so big, but I have to try.

      • I appreciate that your writing manages to contain your feelings by the time it appears in print. A lot of people process on-line and I find myself avoiding their posts. You have a settled way of describing raw feelings if that makes any sense.

      • Ah editing! Everything I post goes through multiple drafts, because the rewriting is the most satisfying and productive part of the process. That’s where the therapy lives.

      • You are wise to just post once a week to get to that polished posting. I am much more conceptual–laying it all out in my mind for a day or so and then putting it down. It used to drive people crazy who demanded a rough draft. Mine was in my brain.

      • I don’t have the visual-thinking strength to do the first draft without writing it down. That’s a great skill to have!

      • It caused me a lot of grief from teachers who thought it didn’t count as a rough draft.

  23. I re-posted this to my Facebook Page.

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  24. Hi Rachel – great post! At an interfaith rally Sunday organized by local African American churches I sat next to Esther & Erin, a mother/daughter duo who came out to represent their synagogue (the only one in our town.) Their rabbi (Rabbi David) gave one of the prayers on behalf of an interfaith consortium of 45 local faith communities. ‘Twas sobering yet inspiring to see so many people united against racism. Blessings…

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    • Sounds wonderful! I think it’s still going to be a while before my synagogue reopens, but there have been a bunch of socially distanced marches in our area. They even had a car parade so that the older congregants could take part.

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  25. I think the most important actor “allyship,” that new buzz phrase, is doing exactly what you are doing — thinking globally and acting locally, to use another cliche. We all have work to do within our own spheres of influence. Bravo!

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  26. Hi Rachel. As a Black woman I commend you as a White woman for wanting to be engaged with what is going on in America right now. Although there is anger (and rightfully so on the part of Black people and other people of color), do not mistake the agitators who are protesting and giving this movement a bad name with the people who are protesting for a positive change. There are a lot of people mixed in with the protesters that want the movement to be tarnished and want to create another civil war to further divide our country. Those individuals do not welcome the melting pot that is America. They see this as a “whites only” country when it comes to privileges, rights and most of all power. Black people were the back bone of building this country and have contributed greatly to it’s success. It is unfortunate that the media, politicians and people on the wrong side of history all have an agenda that is not meant to bring us together but to keep us separate and unequal.

    As long as you support equality and stopping the abuse and brutality inflicted upon Black people, Jewish people of color and others you are have some positive impact on changing our lives as Americans. Do not do anything that makes you too afraid but spread a positive voice to your community. Keep praying for those that are in the streets fighting for true justice and for peace. Blessings to you and your family.

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  27. The Wild Pomegranate

    Thank you. I second all of those emotions. Every single one spoke to my heart and soul.

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  28. Speaking my language here! Thank you for all the links, too.

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  29. Well written and very informative. Thank you.

    Reply
  30. Reblogged this on Coffee Shop Rabbi and commented:
    I’ve got three or four half-finished attempts at an article about the situation of Jews of Color in the present time. Rachel Mankowitz says in this article what I wanted to say, and says it so much better!

    Rachel Mankowitz is a writer and blogger and social worker in New York state. If you aren’t acquainted with her blog and her novel, “Yeshiva Girl” I recommend them both.

    Reply
  31. Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries… and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. – Jeremiah 23:3

    The Jewish world can never “die out”, Rachel. 😊 They have a very important role to play in the last days! 😊 Bless you 🐱💟 ☀🌈🐩🐩

    Reply
  32. Pingback: Jews of Color – Little Strings of Poetry

  33. Both enlightening and encouraging. Thank you.

    Reply
  34. As an ethnically Black Jewess by Choice, it is good to see posts like this and actions like these. This is partly why I wrote Stayed (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/21532511-stayed-on-freedom-s-call) and decided to release the pdf version for free.

    Reply

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