Trouble to See #2: Beyond Central Casting

further thoughts and references on Jews and Racial Justice….

from PBS program on Ethiopian Jews
from PBS program on Ethiopian Jews

“Bernie Sanders Looks Like Everyone’s Jewish Grandpa…,” read a headline on the Jewish Daily Forward website earlier this election season. But Sanders doesn’t look anything like these Jewish men, some of whom are probably grandpas, or like many Sephardic grandpas. He doesn’t look like the grandparents of many Jewish children in the United States. Bernie Sanders looks like Jewish grandpas from only one part of the world.

The blurb was meant to be cute, sure, but it still promotes an extremely limited view of who “looks Jewish.” (Sadly, the Forward lets the same sloppy “Jewish looks” idea inform news stories as well.) This, in turn, helps validate widespread challenging of anyone who doesn’t look like “a Jew” Central Casting might send.

Jews of color, in particular, report being frequently singled out and questioned about their background — despite that fact that this is contrary to a number of Jewish teachings.

This is just one way in which Jewish communities have work to do, more than most of us would like to admit,
in the area of racial justice.

(How) Are You Jewish?!

Not all Jews of color are Jews by choice. But the Talmud’s specific stress on not embarrassing a proselyte or child of a proselyte (Baba Metzia 58b) seems apropos. As does Jewish law forbidding differentiating between Jews by choice and Jews by blood (see, e.g., Yebamot 47b).

More generally, Jewish tradition teaches “verbal wrongs”
are more serious than monetary ones
and that shaming a person in public is the same as shedding blood
(Baba Metzia 58b, again).

It is sometimes argued that people are “merely curious” and not attempting to shame a person who looks “different.” But this ignores what Jews of color, and others who don’t necessarily resemble Ashkenazi Jews, have repeatedly said: Being harassed with demands to explain yourself and your connection to Judaism is not welcoming; it is exhausting to be singled out all the time and demoralizing to have one’s identity challenged.

Micah810_53Michael Twitty, an African American Jew, describes how other Jews regularly question his presence in Jewish space and often demand: “Were you born Jewish?” (Jews United for Justice “Racial Justice Seder“)

MaNishtana, “100% Black, 100% Jewish, 0% Safe,” has his identity challenged so often, he says, that he finally penned a book entitled Fine, thanks. How Are You, Jewish?

In her famous poem, “Hebrew Mamita,” Vanessa Hidary speaks about a man complimenting her with, “You don’t look Jewish. You don’t act Jewish.” Eventually, she develops this  response:

Bigging up all people who are a little miffed
‘cuz someone tells you you don’t look like
or act like your people. Impossible.
Because you are your people.
You just tell them they don’t look. period.
listen here

Jewish Diversity and Racial Justice

One organization that has been working for years to “foster an expanding Jewish community that embraces its differences,” is Be’chol Lashon: In Every Tongue. Among their offerings are research, resources, and diversity-celebrating materials.

Recognizing and celebrating diversity within Jewish communities also means addressing the discrimination and risk that fellow Jews face because of their color. See, e.g., “#MyJewish and Why It Matters.” This is another crucial element in the story of Jews and Racial Justice. (more soon)


The same publication has made factual errors in the past based on assumptions about who “looks Jewish.”

The Facts of Jewish Diversity (Beyond 2)

Continuing the theme of “not knowing” as a form of callous, insensitive “moral deficiency,” one we seek to leave behind this Passover season, let’s explore some facts about diversity in the Jewish community.

Upwards of 435,000 Jews — possibly as many as 400,000 in the New York City area alone — identify (also) as African American, Asian, Latino/Hispanic, Native American, or mixed-race, for a total of about 435,000 individuals. (See Be’chol Lashon; Bnai Brith).

And yet, the assumption in too many of our communities remains — even if many of us believe, or would like to believe, otherwise — that Jews mostly look like a Central Casting crew of Eastern European Ashkenazim. Most of us believe our communities are inclusive and welcoming, but the experience of many Jews belies this.

Central Casting Sent the Wrong Type

Jews of lighter hues, such as those of Scandinavian or Celtic background, are regularly assumed to be “other,” addressed as visitors or called out as converts, an attitude that is specifically forbidden in the Talmud: “Do not wrong a proselyte by taunting him with being a stranger to the Jewish people seeing that ye yourselves were strangers in Egypt.” (Baba Metzia 59b)

Jews of color across the country continue to tell stories that shame every Jew:

“Many people who are Jews of color have very painful stories to tell about having not been accepted in their congregations and having the veracity of their Jewishness questioned,” says Rabbi Appell, of the URJ. “Some tell of being shown the kitchen because someone assumed that they worked there.”
— from “Jews of Color,” March 2015

A few years ago, women from Washington, DC found a photo of their Rosh Chodesh service plastered in national media with a caption reading: “A non-Jewish woman is among those at a Torah reading at Adas Israel Congregation.” (See Who is a Jew and How Would the Forward Recognize Her?“) JTA and the Forward pulled the photo after widespread complaint without ever apologizing or explaining whom they assumed was a non-Jew. But it seems that at least several pairs of editorial eyes thought it more likely that a non-Jew was wearing a kippa and tallit [ritual garb] and actively participating in the Torah service at a Conservative synagogue [something the movement does not sanction] than that a Jew might vary from the assumed “look of a Jew.”

At Jews United for Justice‘s recent community seder, Michael Twitty of Afroculinaria spoke of fellow Jews demanding to be told how he came to be there, assuming he would want to share the particulars of his spiritual journey with complete strangers. His story surprised many who assume the relative diversity in the DC area would preclude such behavior, but such stories are common to Jews of color.

Jews Have Work to Do

We have much work to do, to make even our more diversity-assuming Jewish communities welcoming to all.

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb of Adat Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue in suburban Bethesda, Md., who is also the father of two adopted African-American sons, is emphatic that this mindset must change: “We must create the norm where we assume that people belong, and never inadvertently ostracize someone whom you may think ‘doesn’t look Jewish.’ Anyone looks Jewish, potentially.”
–from “Jews of Color” (linked above)

And one step in that work is ensuring that our Jewish organizations, congregations, and schools acknowledge the experiences of all parts of the community:

Jews of color are diverse, multihued and proud of it — proud of our Jewishness and proud of our Blackness. But though our lives are joyous and full, racism forces us down a narrow treacherous path. On the one hand we experience the same oppression that afflicts all people of color in America — racism targets us, our family members, and our friends. On the other hand, the very community that we would turn to for belonging and solidarity — our Jewish community doesn’t acknowledge our experience.
— from JFREJ‘s #BlackLivesMatter Haggadah Supplement

jfrej_blm_croppedBe’chol Lashon offers Diversity Training and Community Conversations through its Race Project. Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and several other organizations offer pertinent learning opportunities. How many of our communities are in need of such organized work?

One way to make this Omer count is to begin necessary conversations to ensure that all experiences within our Jewish communities are acknowledged and honored.

We counted two on the evening of April 5.
Continue reading The Facts of Jewish Diversity (Beyond 2)