If a Jew isn’t wearing a visible sign—a kippah or a Magen David—how can we tell if he or she is Jewish? We can’t. We make assumptions based on context. But context is tricky. A white person in a Jewish setting, such as a synagogue, appears Jewish to most people. A person of color in the same setting is often assumed to be an outsider.
I committed this gaffe about ten years ago at my Manhattan shul when, just before Friday night services began, an African American woman I didn’t know took a seat next to me. Schooled to welcome strangers, I offered my hand, spoke to her warmly, indicated the right page in the siddur and, like an idiot, asked her what church she belonged to. “I’m Jewish,” she smiled. “I belong here. But thanks.”
Probably because it had happened to her many times before, the woman seemed to take our exchange in stride, but I wanted to sink into the floor and not come out until Havdalah. Ten years later, the tendency to “see” non-whites as something other than Jewish isn’t just a lazy assumption. Given the increased visibility of our diverse Jewish population, it’s a symptom of a persistent, if unconscious, bias—one that dismisses people as “not like us” before knowing who they are or what they believe.
Of the six million Jews in the U.S., more than 7 percent as of 2005 identified as African American, Asian, Latino/Hispanic, Native American, or mixed-race—a total of around 435,000. The number is probably higher today. Yet many white Jews still think only of celebrity converts when they think of black Jews. The reality is different—and much more varied.
The actress Maya Rudolph calls her father “a pretty adorable Jew,” but she doesn’t practice Judaism. Walter Mosley, the crime novelist, identifies strongly with his dual black-Jewish heritage. Daveed Diggs, who originated the roles of Thomas Jefferson and Lafayette in Hamilton, says, “When I was young I identified with being Jewish, but I embraced my dad’s side, too.” The actress Rashida Jones went to Hebrew school at a Reform synagogue but chose not to have a bat mitzvah. In other words, these black and brown Jews sound like a lot of white Jews you know.
Celebrities are unlikely to end up sitting next to you in shul. But chat with your regular co-congregants of color and you’ll likely discover as many commonalities with them as differences. Listen awhile, and you may also benefit from their unique, often hard-won dual perspectives on Jewish life.
I’m thinking of Bentley Addison, a sophomore at Johns Hopkins, who after the Tree of Life massacre wrote a piece for The Forward called “Guns in Synagogues Will Make Black Jews Less Safe.” Addison calls himself a “Blackity Black Jewy Jew.” He sees and experiences some parallels between racism and anti-Semitism. Yet his dual identity gave him special authority to protest a piece in Haaretz by an Orthodox man with white skin who blithely equated harassment of Hasidim in black hats with the history of virulent racism against people with black skin.
Recent news stories that set my teeth on edge are a gut punch to people like Addison: White nationalism found to be spreading in the Orthodox Jewish community. A Hasidic mob attacks a black Jewish bar mitzvah teacher carrying a Torah. Conservative Jewish columnist Dennis Prager, agreeing with President Trump’s “shithole” comment, casts aspersions on “the moral state of many or most African countries.” The Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel is quoted calling black people “unusual creatures,” “monkeys,” and kushi, the Hebrew equivalent of the N-word.
It’s enough to drive Jews of color out of Judaism, especially when, in their own synagogues, black Jews report white Jews calling them schvartzes, or doubting the authenticity of their conversions, or ostracizing them so their kids won’t cross paths, date or marry each other.
Jews of color are the living, breathing (often stressed and suffering) embodiment of the “intersectionality” you may remember hearing about in connection with January’s Women’s March. Basically, this theory holds that different kinds of oppression can’t be compartmentalized and attacked separately; rather, all forms of persecution and subjugation are interconnected and must be defeated together.
No wonder black Jews were stuck between a rock and a hard place when a dispute broke out among cofounders of the March over the issue of its association with Louis Farrakhan (who calls Jews “termites”). And when arguments festered over whether Jews should be welcome in the March if they identify as Zionists.
Asking a black Jew to take sides in such disputes or to prioritize one aspect of her identity over the other is like asking you to prioritize one of your eyes. Black Jews can’t only protest racism or only speak out against anti-Semitism, because they are not either/or, they are both. And many of them are trying their intersectional best to remind the rest of us that the two “isms” are born of the same hatred and must be fought simultaneously. Instead of reacting with self-righteous defensiveness (“How can I be a racist when I’m a victim myself?”), we need to accept the challenge.
My knee-jerk equation of a decade ago—Jew equals white—won’t pass muster today. Now the job of the majority Jewish population is to climb inside someone else’s skin and listen. Until white members of our tribe repudiate default correlations between religion and race, and until we treat our black and brown brothers and sisters with equal dignity, we can never fulfill the promise of becoming a diverse, welcoming community in which every individual is seen as tzelem elohim, a mirror image of God. I’ll go one step further: If we can’t recognize and honor the inner Jew whatever its outward form, Judaism itself will be a shanda far di goyim, a disgrace in the eyes of the world.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin is currently at work on her twelfth book, Shanda: Family Secrets, Private Shame, Public Disgrace, and the Fear of Being Found Out.