Quick Hit: Minorities Within Minorities

I’ll start writing more substantive posts soon, I promise. Right now I’m working through a backlog of articles I wanted to link to while this blog was just a dream of a wish of a fantasy. Anyway, here are a couple of great pieces on Jews of color:

Black Jews: A Minority Within a Minority

When I was in high school in the 1960s, I found that a black classmate of mine was a Jew. She and I had a number of discussions about it — her love for Judaism was very strong, she always wore a beautiful Star of David, yet people were amazed, and often incredulous, that she was Jewish. Naturally, this bothered her — she wondered why people had any doubts about her Jewishness. Years later, the reaction towards black Jews is often the same.

“My own kids have gone through some of it,” Rabbi Capers Funnye told me. Rabbi Funnye, who is a member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis and a frequent guest speaker on talk shows, recalled how teachers were surprised that his children would be out of school on a Jewish holiday — the existence of black Jews even 15 years ago was still relatively unfamiliar. And in 1995, when a history of the Jews of Chicago was written by a noted historian, the sizable black Jewish community was not even mentioned. (I called the author and asked him about it — he claimed he had never heard of any black Jews in Chicago…)

…Most of the Jewish text books and curricula feature illustrations of only white faces. And black Jews are still asked if they are from Ethiopia or if they converted. Says Rabbi Funnye, “I can understand why some black Jews almost prefer to find an all-black congregation — it’s not a desire for segregation, but a desire to pray without people staring at you because you look different from everyone else.”

For Jews of Every Culture and Color, Identity and Belonging Key Issues

Pele Browner, a 19-year-old Jew of African-American and Native-American heritage, was playing basketball at his local Jewish community center in West Bloomfield, Mich, when one of the other kids on the court asked him if he was Jewish.

“Yes,” he said.

“How does that work out?” they asked.

Adam McKinney, 28, a Jew of African-American, Ashkenazi and Sephardi ancestry, often has fielded similar questions.

People say, “How are you Jewish?” he said. “I say, ‘I’m fine Jewish. How are you Jewish?'”

Linda Jum, a Chinese-American Jewish educator, fully understands Bryant’s reluctance. “I feel like a big wind follows me whenever I walk into a sanctuary because the heads all turn,” she said. “I know where all the restrooms are in every synagogue, because I’m always directed to them, with the comment, ‘The room you’re looking for is that way.'”

Finding Their Voice: Jews of Color Are Slowly Putting Their Concerns on the Communal Agenda

Yolanda Thomas, also an African-American Jew-by-Choice, has been dealing with similar attitudes for as long as she’s been attending the Upper East Side’s Temple Emanu-El, where she is now an active member.

Security guards routinely block her from entering the synagogue because they assume that she doesn’t belong there. Once she gets into the sanctuary, she has to deal with it all over again, when other worshippers presume that she’s not Jewish and is there as a nanny or with a friend.

When Angela Warnick Buchdahl was in college, she often acted as Hillel service song leader. “I would be chanting in Hebrew and wearing a tallit (prayer shawl), and afterwards people would still say ‘Are you Jewish?’ ” says Warnick Buchdahl, whose mother is a Korean Buddhist and whose father is an Ashkenazi American Jew. “I would feel like saying ‘are you blind?'”

“All the clues were there but they couldn’t suspend their stereotypes enough to see me,” says Warnick Buchdahl, who was raised in a Reform synagogue community in Tacoma, Wash. As a young adult she underwent a traditional conversion to Judaism and last year was ordained a rabbi. She now works as assistant rabbi and cantor at Westchester Reform Temple.

This may seem odd, given my defense against charges of racism in yesterday’s post. As I said, though, the best way to deal with racism in the Jewish community is to remember that White Jews are no more racist than other White groups. Call out racism when you see it, and use the same tactics you’d use in other instances. Just don’t walk away thinking, “Man, Jews sure are bigoted!”

And White Jews, please, please, if you see a PoC wearing a tallit, don’t ask them if they’re Jewish. I can tell you right now: Yeah, they’re Jewish. And they’re just as legitimate as you or I.


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