Birkat Hachamah on Colbert!

Funny Colbert clip (via The Black Jewish Experience):

(Seems like I’m never able to embed Comedy Central videos…)—stephen-frees-his-jews

So, uh, quick poll – how many of you knew that, when the Jews came out, they’d be 100% white (looking) men?

Because either I should start telling fortunes for a living, or the kyriarchy is pretty predictable.

Slightly Problematic

From the Forward:

Nabugoye Hill, Uganda – Atop Nabugoye Hill, I joined 1,500 sojourners in the flower-filled green of Eastern Uganda, among banana plantations, maize fields, mango trees and drooping jackfruit.

The crowd was there, overlooking the Mount Elgon foothills, to witness the installation ceremony of Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, who, serenaded by drum and dance ensembles, took his place as the first sub-Saharan African rabbi of the Abayudaya (Lugandan for “Children of Judah”) and chief rabbi of Uganda.

Joined by his wife Tzipporah, and their three children, Igaal, Daphna and Navah, Sizomu spent the past five years in the United States as a student at American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, where he trained to become a Conservative rabbi. Following his ordination this past May in the United States, Sizomu returned home to Nabugoye Hill to serve the 89-year-old Abayudaya community, founded in 1919 by Semei Kakungulu, a local military leader and renowned elephant hunter.

Many Abayudaya members said they are confident that having an “official” rabbi will help them gain greater acceptance by the global Jewish community. Among them is Moses Sebagabo, born and raised on Nabugoye Hill. Sebagabo described Sizomu’s installation as a “unifying moment” offering “new potential to grow and learn.” Sebagabo is married with two children and holds a law degree, but he dreams of someday becoming a rabbi.

I could be wrong here, but I think that in this case, “official” means “Western” in addition to being trained and ordained. The Abayudaya has been a Jewish community since before the 1920s, and its members were officially converted in 2002. It’s telling that “acceptance by the global Jewish community” is still an issue. I’m sure part of it is just the usual moving goalposts of what qualifies as “Jewish enough” (an annoyance with which I’m all too familiar), but I think there’s some racism there, too.

Still, though, mazel tov.

On Being Jewish and White

(This post originally appeared on Feministe. I meant to cross-post it at the time, but that proved too ambitious a goal to accomplish on my lunch break.)

I’ve written before on how angry I was when fellow progressives began to inform me that while some Jews consider themselves white, it’s only because they’ve assimilated into white culture. They never explained what white-looking Jews actually are, if not white, but the message was always clear: if we Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews think we’re white, well, it’s just because we wanted some of that tasty privilege so badly that we suppressed our real identity to get it. I’d known, of course, that many white extremists still considered Jewishness a race, but hearing such comments come from leftists surprised and upset me for a couple of reasons: 1) they were presuming to know more about a Jew’s identity than a Jew would, and 2) those who were people of color were surely familiar with the frustration at having others dictate how they should define themselves.

It was also one of the strongest indicators I got that the Left’s mistrust of Jews goes much deeper than the Palestine/Israel debate.

Before I go on, I should probably explain how the whiteness of American Ashkenazim came into question in the first place. European ethnicities weren’t separated into different races until the early 20th century, when massive immigration (of which my great-grandparents, with two-year-old grandmother in tow, were a part) to the United States caused a scare among the upper classes. Eugenicists like Madison Grant and Charles B. Davenport launched a deliberate campaign to equate class with race, conducting “research” to prove that southern and eastern Europeans, being genetically inferior to northwestern Europeans, were incapable of upward mobility. Jews, Italians, Irish, and other groups who had previously been white – albiet lower class – suddenly found themselves designated as races separate from the “Nordic” upper class.

After World War II, though, a few things shifted in Jews’ favor. More Jews joined the middle class while the idea of multiple European races began to fall out of fashion (although as Karen Brodkin, author of How Jews Became White Folks, points out, it’s impossible to tell which development influenced the other: “Did Jews and other Euro-ethnics become white because they became middle-class?… Or did being incorporated into an expanded version of whiteness open up the economic doors to middle-class status?”) The GI Bill served as Affirmative Action for previously oppressed white groups (while keeping the doors shut to people of color), giving them the means to attend college in greater numbers and enjoy the economic boom. Many Jewish families, terrified by the execution of the Rosenbergs, began to downplay their ethnic identity to avoid harassment and possible arrest. And by the time I was born, anyone from Europe – or, at least, anyone from Europe who looked the part – was white. Easy as pie.

I often hear that Jews “in general” have swarthy or olive skin, but that doesn’t apply to me. I look white. I am white. It’s not what I try to be, or long to be – it’s simply what I am. Whiteness defines my culture, my self-perception, my privilege, and my daily interactions; I’ve never known myself as anything else. My Jewishness has never been at odds with my whiteness. That’s why it’s so frustrating when my race is referred to as a conscious effort rather than a simple state of being. Does my entire culture and identity really mean that little?

To be clear, I know that not all Ashkenazim – especially older generations – identify as white. I’m speaking only for myself (and am not qualified to speak for Sephardim). The question of how members of the same ethnic group can identify as different races could open up some very useful discussions on what separates whiteness from nonwhiteness, the ways that race is constructed, and the many shifting, overlapping, and distinct cultures that are lumped together as white culture (that is, when white people recognize that we have culture). However, since I lack the expertise to do so myself, I’m sticking to my own perspective.

Here’s what’s really toxic about the idea that an Ashkenazi like me isn’t what she says she is: it paints us as infiltrators or spies, sneaking into white society so that we can get our hands on what doesn’t belong to us. From a white point of view, this turns us into something threatening, a presence that has to be identified and dealt with. (I still remember the anecdote a Jewish boyfriend’s mother told me: when they moved, their new neighbor felt it necessary to warn them that the family down the block was Jewish. “Well, we’ll fit right in,” my boyfriend’s mother responded. The neighbor didn’t speak to them again.) From a POC perspective, we suddenly seem like traitors or sellouts. Either way, it makes us seem as if we’re playing a permanent game of dress-up – never belonging, always infringing. You don’t need to be a white supremacist to fall prey to this mode of thinking.

Furthermore, the idea that Jews can’t be white – and its logical conclusion that Jewishness is its own race – completely erases Jews of color. How do you tell a Moroccan or Ethiopian Jew that Jewishness is a race? Which aspect of themselves are they expected to discard? Are people who deny the whiteness of Jews (and it’s always just “Jews” – they never specify Ashkenazim) even aware that Jews of color exist? How can we effectively confront white privilege within Jewish communities when potential allies dismiss that whiteness?

Shouldn’t each individual be allowed to define her/himself? Shouldn’t we trust each person to determine how their own identity is put together? Can you see why it’s so maddening to hear my identity dismissed as something I “consider myself” to be?

For another perspective on this issue, see Matthew Egan’s excellent essay “The Pintele Yid.”

Disappearing the Sephardim

In the interest of full disclosure, I am not Sephardic, so I really would like to apologize in advance for any sort of patronizing tone this post might take on, and for the ignorance I might display on occasion. While no offense is intended, some may be taken for some things missed or unexplained.

One of the alternately sadder and more infuriating aspects of inter-Jewish relations is the hegemonic relationship of the Ashkenazi Jews to Jews of all other varieties – Jews of Kaifeng, India, Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews. By adopting a detached discourse about and casting as archaic the Sephardi Jews, the Ashkenazi have dominated the conversation and allowed their Judaism to win out as the default, and unless you listened to what Sephardic Jews had to say about their own religion and history, you wouldn’t know it to be any different.

One of the major and harder to define ways in which this plays out is in the observation of Jewish religion, especially in Israel: the power having been given to Ashkenazi religious authorities by Ben-Gurion early on, they strongly advocated for a rigid, and severe Judaism which some Sephardi believe misrepresents the Torah and the Talmud:

Sephardi Jewry, like Ashkenazic Jewry, retained Halachah (Jewish laws) as an important religious reference. However, where Ashkenazim have tended to put Halachah above and before local customs, Sephardim have given much more credence to the well-established religious customs in various Jewish communities, customs that often responded to local Muslim and Christian practices.

For example, in the past, if a Sephardi rabbi found a barely perceptible drop of blood on the lung of a kosher animal he removed the blood and, for practical reasons, allowed the meat to be consumed, while an Ashkenazic rabbi would find the meat to be not kosher.

Ashkenazic authorities traditionally have placed a “fence around the Torah,” enlarging restrictions in order to be sure not to risk breaking the original rules. At least in the past, however, Sephardi Jews did not add such extra restrictions, believing it was more important to trust in the intelligence and integrity of Jews to follow the laws as written. In general, Sephardim, as rationalists, tend to believe that individuals who are well-schooled in the tradition should have fairly wide latitude to judge principles for themselves.

In addition, this fine post from JVoices gives a rather personal description of the differences in traditional Sephardic services and how they have become Ashkenazified over the years:

In traditional Mizrahi and Sephardi synagogues, for example, the women generally sat upstairs in the gallery, where they had full view of the service led below, and where they were welcome to sing at full volume along with the male congregants. I vividly remember the passion of women with white lace head coverings and colorful dresses, praying from the bottoms of their hearts and the depths of their souls, closing their eyes while holding their hands open and in front of them, as if to gather the energy being raised by the congregants, then bringing their hands to their faces and kissing them – as if they were kissing G-d.

Today, in most of the Mizrahi and Sephardi synagogues I have attended in Israel, that image has been replaced by one of resigned women silently crumpled in their chairs – some bored and staring into space, others talking, still others holding out their hands – this time behind an energetic layer of fear and a physical barrier to the space below. Not only are women seated in the gallery today (quite enough to keep us separate from the men, thank you very much), but there is a wall blocking our visual connection to the service – purportedly to keep us way, way out of men’s line of sight. Just in case that wall is not enough, there is also a curtain hanging on top of it, one which must not be moved for all but one part of the service. To top it all off, women’s voices must not, under any circumstances, be audible to the men below.

What exactly has caused this shift I cannot specifically say, for certain – all I can do is comment on what has been lost, this idea of Judaism that brought me into the community and the people in the first place, and now angers and outrages me that it sounds to be dying even if Sephardim outnumber the Ashkenazim worldwide!

Which isn’t to say that this drowning out of Sephardic voices confines itself to just religion – Sephardic contributions to the world at large, and the world within Judaism are often downplayed or ignored. Jacques Derrida and Baruch Spinoza, for instance, he of the first biblical criticism and neurology (it turns out his rejection of Descartes’s approach to mind-body duality presaged advances in neurological science by centuries), were born of the rationalist tradition of Sephardic Judaism!

And, as this other article by Zeek points out, even in recent years an anthology of Sephardic literature published by a major Jewish publishing house was edited by a non-Sephardic Jew and at one point veers heavily towards a more European kind of Sephardi rather than a Mediterranean one. You would not appoint a Protestant or Catholic to edit an anthology of Eastern Orthodox Christian literature, so why would anyone think this was a good idea?

The other major way I wanted to discuss about this disappearing act is a great deal more contentious and I must halt my accusatory tone, somewhat – as it turns out that in many cases, the Sephardim too suffered under the Shoah. I mean not to offer any kind of comparison, just quotes and stories:

from Ynet:

The story of North African Jews has until today remained absent from Israeli public discourse regarding World War II and the Holocaust. This might have been the result of the conception that they fared better than European Jews.

But this perception ignores the suffering of Jews who lost family members in labor and detention camps; who were forced to deal with a cruel and brutal reality that included forced labor of children, confiscation of property and other plights; who were forced to wear the yellow Star of David and who in many cases were deported to concentration camps in Europe, from where several hundreds of them (from Libya) continued to their death at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

One of the heaviest losses to the Sephardic world was the loss of the community in Thessaloniki, Greece. Greece is home to world’s oldest Jewish community not originating from Israel, and Greek Jews had history dating back well before the time of Jesus, right from Alexander the Great’s conquest of Judah from the Persians. People versed in Biblical history know that Greek was the first non-Hebraic language used for the Bible, when (tradition holds) the elders of Alexandria created the Septuagint.

From Wikipedia:

On July 11, 1942, the Jews of Thessaloniki were rounded up in preparation for deportation to the German camps. The community paid a fee of 2.5 billion drachmas for their freedom, the effect of which was only to delay deportation until the following March. 46,091 people were sent to Auschwitz. 1,950 returned[2] to find most of their sixty synagogues and schools destroyed.[13] Many survivors emigrated to Israel and the United States.[2] Today the Jewish population of Thessaloniki numbers roughly 1,000, and maintains two synagogues.[13]

So we do have evidence of large numbers of Libyan Jews sent to Bergen-Belsen, and the ancient community in Thessaloniki being devastated – in fact, many stories about the effect of The Shoah on Sephardic communities is just now coming to light. I must clarify that I’m not placing any specific blame on any Jews for this, just noting that it is sad that for decades we’ve known so little of the effects of World War II on all Jewish communities, not just the ones (maybe) most heavily affected.

More information about the community of Thessaloniki can be found here.

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.