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.”

Are (any) Jews White? (Beyond 3)

Yesterday’s focus, in this Omer journey away from oppression, was on how individuals of different hues are viewed within Jewish communities in the United States. But it is impossible to explore that topic very thoroughly without addressing another one limning its edges: Are (any) Jews “White”?

“…and everybody hates the Jews…”

A passage early on in the #BlackLivesMatter Haggadah Supplement from Jews For Racial and Economic Justice begins “White Ashkenazi Jews have a rich history but are only a part of the Jewish story….” At our seder table — and I would imagine many others — the question arose as to whether Ashkenzim are, in fact, “White,” by self-definition or as viewed by others.

VHidaryBookCoverFINALThis called to mind a passage that Vanessa Hidary, Sephardic Jew and author of The Last Kaiser Roll in the Bodega, added to her signature poem after touring beyond her native New York City:

To many we are seen as part of the white majority

From the standpoint of a white racist

we’re considered part of that other party

Don’t get twisted because you might think of New York City

where you can buy knishes at stands for $1.50

We only make up 2.2% of the population. You see,

many other parts of the country are not feeling me.

–from second version of “Hebrew Mamita”

I thought too of the “…and everybody hates the Jews” line in Tom Lehrer’s old, but not necessarily out-dated, “National Brotherhood Week.”

Is Persecution Past?

Returning to the #BlackLivesMatter Haggadah Supplement:

As Jews we share a history that is overburdened with tales of violent oppression. Though different Jewish communities have varying experiences, none of us have escaped painful legacies of persecution, including genocide. This past is real, and part of why we gather today to remember it. But the past is the past.

–Leo Ferguson, a Jew of color and the Leadership Development & Communications Organizer at JFREJ.

As William Faulkner famously said, however: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” (Requiem for a Nun, 1950).

And for Jews with family and friends living outside the United States, risk and threat can be an all too contemporary concern.

Moreover, Dr. Carolivia Herron, educator and author, spoke of anti-Israel sentiment in her “Why I’m not going to say anything about Ferguson” last November:

And I’m not saying anything about Ferguson because my soul aches when you use your support of Big Mike of Ferguson as a way to hate Israel. I don’t understand why you use your love of my people to hate my people. I love my people African American, Ferguson, US American – keep trying to get it right, and I love my people Israel – keep trying to get it right.

In my own experience, anti-Semitism — something deeper and of different tone than politically-based anti-Israel sentiment — appears in some #BLM-related activities, sometimes via black nationalist rhetoric and sometimes from the ANSWER Coalition. Therefore, participation in some racial justice efforts means running with, or up against, groups espousing anti-Semitism.

This forces allies into complex, sometimes untenable, situations. It’s problematic, of course, and many movement leaders are working to address the irony of anti-Semitism in a racial justice movement. Even at its worst, is this, given the power dynamics involved, “oppression” or “persecution”?

Conditional Whiteness

To close out today’s exploration, below is the introduction to “After the Maggid: When We Imagine Ourselves Allies” followed by one of six passages exploring different positions in the shifting desert sands:

Having now told the story of Jews’ Exodus from Mitzrayim we have come to know Miriam, Moses, Pharaoh, Tzipporah and the role each of them played. Sarah Barasch-Hagans & Graie Barasch-Hagans use these roles to help us understand our roles in the fight against oppression — when we are strong allies and when we still struggle to be our best selves.


…If everywhere is a desert then the sand we stand is always shifting, and so is our relationship to each other. Let us take a moment to imagine ourselves thus…

Sometimes we are Miriam…

…hoping our brother Moses survives the river, knowing danger and feeling unsafe in our Jewish skin, knowing what it means to be hated because of who we are. And then we are Miriam who, given time, a few chapters later mocks Moses’ Black wife Tzipporah [Numbers 12:1]. She confounds us because she is us, Ashkenazim with conditional whiteness and generations distanced from legal discrimination, not seeing the contradictions in our own character. We are white-skinned Jews celebrating Fifty Years

of Freedom Summer and putting on commemorative panels but escorting out anyone who yells #BlackLivesMatter. Or, acknowledging Tzipporah but refusing to defend her interracial, interfaith family when Jewish talking heads warn that families like hers are the end of Judaism. We are descendants of slaves who do not yell back that Moses had a Black wife and Black children and that #BlackLivesMatter to our people whether or not we acknowledge it.

Jews For Racial and Economic Justice‘s #BlackLivesMatter Haggadah Supplement, p.7

(Download your own copy)

We counted 3 on the evening of April 6. Tonight, we count….

Making the Omer Count

from On the Road to Knowing: A Journey Away from Oppression

A key element in the journey from liberation to revelation is understanding the workings of oppression, and our part in them. We cannot work effectively to end what we do not comprehend.

So this year, moving from Passover to Shavuot, I commit to learning more about how oppression works and how liberation is accomplished. I invite others to join me:

Let’s work together, as we count the Omer, to make this Omer count.

Thoughts and sources welcome.


Share this graphic to encourage others to participate.

A Meditation

Aware that we are on a journey toward knowing God — from liberation to revelation — I undertake to know more today than I did yesterday about the workings of oppression.

I bless and count [full Hebrew blessings in feminine and masculine address]:

Blessed are You, God, Ruler/Spirit of the Universe, who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us to count the Omer.

Today is four days in the Omer.

Hayom arba’ah yamim la-omer.

In the spirit of the Exodus, I pray for the release of all whose bodies and spirits remain captive, and pledge my own hands to help effect that liberation.