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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?

Assistive Technology for Dogs

I want someone to create a device for me. It needs to be big enough to accommodate paw sized buttons, with pictures on them and maybe even sounds attached. Cricket needs a device like this, next to the front door, so that when she races across the apartment barking her head off, she can press a button to identify the source of horror. Is it the mailman? A neighbor? A leaf in the wind?

“Why don’t you understand me?!

“I am a very articulate barker!”

The device would have to be on the wall, rather than the floor, to avoid the possibility that Butterfly would pee on it.

“You want me to pee on something?”

I read about assistive technologies in a class about exceptional children, by which they meant children with disabilities in vision or hearing or cognition or other physical limitations that required adaptive methods for communication. But what if some of these adaptations could enhance the other kids’ educations as well? What if using pictures as part of education for longer than we do, or concrete objects for examples, or music, would create more thorough and sustaining connections in children’s minds? Just because a child can jump to the theoretical level, and imagine an apple or the color red without seeing it in front of her, doesn’t mean she would no longer benefit from those inputs. What if your understanding of a poem or a story would be richer if you could see a picture of the ocean, or smell the sea air, or hear the sound of the waves that you’re reading about on the page?

I think Cricket would benefit from having these more concrete connections available to help her organize her thoughts. If she hears the mailman, she can run to the front door and press the picture of the mailman with her paw and hear the word “Mailman” ring out. This would also help me, because instead of barking in the abstract, I would hear the word mailman, or “Bird! Neighbor! Leaf! Car passing by!” And I’d have a better idea of what she wanted to communicate, or complain about.

My fear, though, is that we would just replace the incessant barking with a chorus of “Mailman! Mailman! Mailman!” all afternoon long.

“Where’s that mailman?”

I don’t think Butterfly particularly wants to talk, like Cricket, but maybe she could have a little music center so she could press a button to pick a song that matches her mood. One time when we were watching Dancing with the Stars (don’t judge me) Patti Labelle was dancing to “When You Wish upon a Star” and Butterfly was entranced. She likes Princess Songs. But sometimes her mood is darker, so she’d have to have a button to press for punk rock, or singer song writers on acoustic guitar for her sad days.

But really, the only assistive device she wants is one that gets her extra food. Her ideal would be to have a room full of treat dispensers, one for cheese, one for peanut butter, one for chicken, etc. She’d at least get exercise running back and forth between her favorite treats.

“Treats? Where?”

What I really need, more than assistive technology, is another person to take over with the girls when I’m tired, or run out of ideas. Someone to take Cricket for long walks, or bring Butterfly to the zoo, or spend an hour a day teaching them new skills.

This is the level of exhaustion I'm looking for.

This is the level of exhaustion I’m looking for.

Oooh! That’s it! I need a robot to train the girls! I’m sure someone is working on this right now. Would the robot be human sized or dog sized? Maybe a robot in the shape of a golden retriever? The robot could be programmed to take them for walks and maybe have an attached pooper scooper?

Do you think this would work? (not my picture)

Do you think this would work? (not my picture)

“I think Mommy’s gone crazy.”