Articles

Ahavat Tzion Presents These Songs of Freedom

Joint musical collaboration CD between BAI, Zion Baptist Church and Main Line Reform Temple.

“Contrary to the belief of some, the Jews are a multiracial, multi-ethnic group. But it should not be surprising that Judaism’s 4,000-year-old creed spans geography as well as time, or that its message appeals to members of all races, on all continents.” ~Karen Primrack, Author, Under One Canopy

The Seder Table – Artist Lynne Feldman

The scattering of the Jews around the world over thousands of years, to nearly every continent, has meant that these traditions have evolved and been adapted to different cultures and settings. Here are some Passover traditions from around the world.

Black Jews Relate to Slave Narrative: The yearly reminder of freedom is what many black Jews appreciate most about Passover by Patrice Worthy

Tarece Johnson attends Temple Sinai with children Hannah and Nile.

Passover is a reminder that G-d prefers his children to be free from spiritual, emotional, physical and mental bondage. But for black Jews the weeklong holiday holds special meaning, often enriching their experience as part of the Jewish people.

The Haggadah reading often is combined with reflections on the history of slavery in America and the present circumstances of black people.

“We celebrate this holiday every year, and how many times are we reminded that ‘I am the Lord your G-d who brought you out of Egypt’?” said Sandra Lawson, a rabbinical student who belongs to Congregation Bet Haverim.

The yearly reminder of freedom is what many black Jews appreciate most about Passover.

Nadiya Boyce-Rosen said Passover is a reminder that slavery should never happen again.

“You have people trying to say slaves are the new immigrant. When it’s posed that way, you need a reminder,” Boyce-Rosen said. “It’s very important to ensure your culture lives on when you have people who try to water it down. History is important.”

The Passover seder gives Lawson the opportunity to relate the story to her black heritage and tradition of standing up against oppression. “That’s why so many Jews are involved in social justice,” she said, “because we have this holiday.”

The rabbinical student said it’s fascinating to see how blacks and others relate differently to the story.

“A lot of people don’t realize it’s a slave narrative. They are looking at it from an Ashkenazi Jewish point of view, and then when we talk about it, they realize,” Lawson said.

She uses the example of Exodus 16:3, when the Hebrews complain about starving in the wilderness as free people after having plenty to eat as slaves, to point out characteristics of people with a slave mentality.

“It’s a slave narrative and trauma story,” Lawson said. “All the kvetching they were doing about having more fish as slaves is trauma.”

There are deep connections between African-American history and the Exodus from Egypt, Tarece Johnson said, including similar struggles and oppression.

“I celebrate it from a Jewish perspective, but as an African-American I see the fight and struggles just like ours,” Johnson said. “It’s that spirit to fight and survive.”

The story has relevance today.

Boyce-Rosen said it’s like a life lesson baked into her calendar. Passover is a story about a particular group, but what applies to the group also applies to the individual.

“You look at the story and see the fight that had to occur and the work that needed to be done. It’s something that galvanizes me, and you say, ‘This is why we need to be educated,’ ” Boyce-Rosen said.

For Reuben Formey, a black Hasidic rapper who performs as Prodezra, talking to his children about slavery is important at the seder while also discussing the history of blacks in America.

“At my table in particular there’s always us speaking about freedom and slavery and the connection to it,” he said. “We compare and contrast and talk about how it is to be African-American in society and the idea of the slave mentality.”

But the relationship is complex, Formey said. Judaism allots black Jews the freedoms that come with Jewish spirituality and culture.

“Obviously, we value the skin which is African-American and the spirituality which is Jewish, so we bring those together, and it does hold special meaning to have a certain level of freedom,” he said.

There are stark differences between the Jewish and black slave narratives, Deanna (Dvora) Windham said. Jews kept their language, names and clothes — three elements essential to identity that were denied to African slaves and their descendants.

That makes a huge difference. During Passover, Windham can’t help but think about the experience of her African ancestors.

“I’m extra-careful in remembering that they were slaves, but they were stolen and robbed of being able to have families, so it became a different experience,” Windham said. “Anything I learned about it, I learned on my own, except the small paragraph in history books in public school.”

Hearing the slave narrative every year is not an option, Windham said. Even after the seder, when the story is dissected for hours, Jews reflect for a week on why we deprive ourselves of certain foods.

In that respect, she said, the story of slavery is something you just can’t walk away from.

“I wish it was something black Americans had where you sit down, tell stories and have a liturgy. There’s meaning to that,” Windham said. “It’s not optional if you’re Conservative, Reform or Orthodox; everyone is doing it. However, you’re doing it first seder; you’re talking about the Passover. I wish my cousins had that, my sisters had that or my brothers had that. It’s disheartening, but in some ways I feel lucky.” Originally posted here: http://atlantajewishtimes.timesofisrael.com/black-jews-relate-to-slave-narrative/

PASSOVER CELEBRATIONS AROUND THE WORLD

Ethiopian Jewish women making Matzoh

Destroying Earthenware Dishes: The Jews of Ethiopia strongly identify with the story of Exodus — and indeed, the first of the famous airlifts that delivered them to Israel was actually called Operation Moses. In some Ethiopian families, the matriarch would destroy all of her earthenware dishes and make a new set to mark a true break with the past. Ethiopian Jews had no Haggadahs, and read about Exodus directly from the Bible. Matzahs were homemade, often from chickpea flour, and on the morning of the seder, a lamb would be slaughtered. They also refrained from eating fermented dairy like yogurt, butter, or cheese

Whipping Each Other with Scallions

Jews living in Afghanistan developed the tradition of using scallions or leeks to stand for the Egyptian slavedrivers’ whips, using them to lightly “whip” each others’ backs. Jews have lived in Afghanistan at least since the Babylonian conquest 2,000 years ago, but in 2004 only two Jews were left in the country. It is now estimated that only a single Jew lives in Afghanistan, as the other died in 2005. The largest group of Afghan Jews in the world is comprised of 200 families in Queens, New York.

Re-enacting Crossing the Red Sea

Moses Parts the Red Sea. Ethiopian Jewish Embroidery Project: NACOEJ

Hasidic Jews from the Polish town of Góra Kalwaria, known as Gerer Hasids, re-enact the crossing of the Red Sea on the seventh day of Passover by pouring water on the floor, lifting up their coats, and naming the towns that they would cross in their region of Poland. They raise a glass at each “town” and then thank God for helping them reach their destination.

Every Passover, Jews prepare charoset, a sweet paste that can be made with fruits like dates, figs, and apples. The result is meant to remind sedergoers of the mortar in the bricks that Jewish slaves in Egypt used in their labor. In the British territory of Gibraltar, a tiny peninsula off Spain where Jews have lived for about 650 years, there’s a special recipe for charoset: the dust of real bricks, ground up and mixed in.

Tapping Guests on the Head: In a custom that began in Spain in the fourteenth century, the seder leader walks around the table three times with the seder plate in hand, tapping it on the head of each guest. Many Moroccan, Turkish, and Tunisian Jews adopted this tradition, which is said to bless those whose heads are tapped. This is sometimes connected to the Talmudic custom of “uprooting” the seder plate so that guests might ask questions about the Jews in Egypt.

Telling the Exodus Story in Costume: In many Sephardic traditions, (a term used to describe Jews originally hailing from the Iberian peninsula and North Africa), an elder member of the family enacts a skit in costume, posing as an ancient Jew who experienced the exodus from Egypt and describing the miracles he saw. In the countries of the Caucasus region, Iraq, Kurdistan, Yemen, and others, the seder (usually the head of household), would put the afikoman matzah in a bag, throw it over his shoulder, and use a cane to support himself. Sometimes a child participated, and there was a call and response with the table: “Where are you coming from?” “Egypt,” was the reply, followed by the story of the Israelites following Moses out of slavery. “And where are you going?” someone at the table would ask. “Jerusalem!”

 In the Syrian community, the custom of breaking the middle matzah on the seder table into pieces (known as yachatz) can sometimes take on Kabbalistic meaning. Matzah broken into the shape of the Hebrew letters “daled” and “vav” correspond to numbers, which in turn add up to 10, representing the 10 holy emanations of God. Jews from North Africa, including from Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and Libya, break the matzoh into the shape of the Hebrew letter “hey,” which corresponds to the number five.

Inspecting Rice for Defects:  Jews have lived in Cochin, in the Indian state of Kerala, for 2,000 years. In the tiny community that remains, Passover preparation begins immediately after Hanukkah, about 100 days beforehand. After Purim, Cochin’s Jews scrub their house of chametz (bread and any fermented grain) and repaint them, keeping special Passover dishes in a separate room. Wells are drained and cleaned for fear of chametz, and every grain of rice is inspected for defects that might let impure chametz in. Jews usually maintain warm relations with the larger community, but during Passover and the preceding months, they keep entirely to themselves.

 

Many different customs surround the welcoming of the prophet Elijah, who is said to visit every seder. While Ashkenazi Jews (whose families came from Germany and later Eastern Europe) commonly leave a goblet of wine for the prophet, in Casablanca, Morocco, Jews would set up an elaborate chair with cushions and ornaments and leave it empty for Elijah’s arrival. And in Marrakesh, dishes are prepared using the wine from Elijah’s cup. Ashkenazi Jews often open the door to allow Elijah in, a tradition that wasn’t historically a part of the Sephardic practice.

Wearing White: Both Hasidic Jews and Moroccan Jews have the custom of wearing white to seder, possibly to signify joyfulness. Some Jews wear white on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, or on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, although this varies.

Displaying Gold and Silver Jewelry: Three passages in Exodus say that the Israelites received gold and silver from the Egyptians (for example, 12:35: “The Israelites did as Moses instructed and asked the Egyptians for articles of silver and gold and for clothing”). Accordingly, Hungarian Jews had a tradition of putting all of their gold and silver jewelry on the seder table.

Tossing Pebbles in the Ocean

Among Moroccan Jews, Mimouna is celebrated the day after Passover with a generous feast of baked goods. Some say it marks Maimonides’ birthday, while others link it to the Arabic word for luck. A table is heaped with items symbolizing luck or fertility, many repeating the number 5, such as dough with five fingerprint marks or five silver coins. Fig leaves, live fish, stalks of wheat, and honey might also be included. In some parts of the Moroccan Jewish community, Jews entered the ocean and tossed pebbles behind their backs to ward off evil spirits.  Original article here.

The Inside Story on Passover

In each one of us there is an Egypt and a Pharaoh and a Moses and Freedom in a Promised Land. And every point in time is an opportunity for another Exodus.

Egypt is a place that chains you to who you are, constraining you from growth and change. And Pharaoh is that voice inside that mocks your gambit to escape, saying, “Why change? How could you attempt being today something you were not yesterday? Don’t you know who you are?”

Moses is the liberator, the infinite force deep within, an impetuous and all-powerful drive to break out from any bondage, to always transcend, to connect with that which has no bounds. But Freedom and the Promised Land are not static elements that lie in wait. They are your own achievements which you may create at any moment, in any thing that you do, simply by breaking free from whoever you were the day before.

Last Passover you may not have yet begun to light a candle. Or some other mitzvah still waits for you to fulfill its full potential. This year, defy Pharaoh and light up your world, with unbounded light!

EXODUS by Bob Marley

Open your eyes and look within: Are you satisfied with the life you’re living?
Exodus! Movement of Jah’s people

GET A GUIDED MEDITATION FOR YOUR PASSOVER SEDER HERE:

Guided visualization actually is reported not to work with about 10% of people, some of us are simply hard wired for different forms of spirituality. I mention this so those who have this difference won’t wear themselves out trying.
For those who can benefit from guided visualization it is a very powerful spiritual tool. Several major medical research centers have discovered that it can even be a tool for active healing (called psycho-neuro-immunology), although this meditation is primarily designed for shifting consciousness.
Be sure to read slowly, with feeling and honor all the pauses fully, they are very important elements…like rests between the notes of a score.

SING-A-LONG!
Go down Moses, Way down in Egypt land.
Tell ole Pharaoh to Let My People Go!
Now when Israel was in Egypt land..Let My People Go!
Oppressed so hard they could not stand…Let My People Go!
So the Lord said: ‘Go down, Moses, Way down in Egypt land,
Tell ole Pharaoh to Let My People Go!’
So Moses went to Egypt land…Let My People Go!
He made ole Pharaoh understand… Let My People Go!
Yes, the Lord said ‘Go down, Moses, Way down in Egypt land
Tell ole Pharaoh to Let My People Go!
Thus spoke the Lord, bold Moses said: Let My People Go!
‘If not I’ll smite your firstborn’s dead’ Let My People Go!
Thus the Lord said ‘Go down, Moses, Way down in Egypt land
Tell ole Pharaoh to Let My People Go!’
Tell ole Pharaoh To Let My People Go

Moses in the Bulrushes by Mary Auld, Illustrated by Diana Mayo
Lavishly illustrated retelling of the Biblical story. Includes background information about the story, a useful word section and a section of questions to encourage further thought.

 

Ethiopian Jewish Embroidery-Making Matzoh for Passover – NACOEJ

~ May All Of Us Be Listened To & Embraced & Welcomed & Supported ~ 

Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah) 2016 begins the evening of Wednesday, May 4 and ends in the evening of Thursday, May 5.

Yom_Hashoah_candleAt the rising of the sun and at its going down,
We remember them.
At the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter,
We remember them.
At the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring,
We remember them.
At the blueness of the skies and in the warmth of summer,
We remember them.
At the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of autumn,
We remember them.
At the beginning of the year and when it ends,
We remember them.
As long as we live, they too will live;
for they are now a part of us
as we remember them.

Ani Ma’amin
Also known as the ‘Varshever geto-lid fun frumer yidn’ (Song of religious Jews in the Warsaw ghetto), the song ‘Ani M’amin’ (I believe) takes its words from a prayer written in the 12th century by the great Judaic philosopher Moses ben Maimon (Maimonedes’/ acronymed Rambam for “Rabbeinu Moshe Ben Maimon“). It is a declaration of faith and certainty that redemption will come in the form of the Messiah, even though he may delay. The song was sung by Jews as they rode on boxcars to the camps during the Holocaust. In the face 0f the most unspeakable horror, there was this majestic affirmation of hope.

Ani Ma’amin by Lynette, Ben Sidran: Life’s a Lesson
Ani maamin beemuna shlemah

B’viat hamashiach
V’af al pi sheyitmameha
Im kol zeh achake lo
B’chol yom sheyavo

I believe with a complete belief
In the coming of the Messiah
And even though he may tarry
I will wait for him whenever he comes.

 Personal photos from family visit to Dachau

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Blacks During the Holocaust

We Remember the Afro-German Rhineland Children

agThere, but for the grace of God, go I… ~MochaJuden

Underscoring Hitler’s obsession with racial purity, by 1937, every identified mixed-race child in the Rhineland had been forcibly sterilized, in order to prevent further “race polluting”, as Hitler termed it.

The fate of black people from 1933 to 1945 in Nazi Germany and in German-occupied territories ranged from isolation to persecution, sterilization, medical experimentation, incarceration, brutality, and murder.

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Above: Two survivors prepare food outside the barracks. On the right is presumably Jean (Johnny) Voste, born in Belgian Congo, was the only black prisoner in Dachau.

 

Gert Schramm, born: November 28, 1928, Erfurt, Germany, Died: April 18, 2016, Erfurt, Germany, was a survivor of Buchenwald concentration camp, where he was the only black prisoner. He was the son of a German woman and an African-American father and was arrested in violation of Nazi racial purity laws.

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Interview in German. In a nutshell, he is saying he was born in 1928, illegitimate son of an African-American and a white German woman. His father perished probably in Auschwitz, while he himself survived the Concentration Camp of Buchenwald.

Blacks During the Holocaust

bwAbove: Nazi propaganda photo depicts friendship between an “Aryan” and a black woman. The caption states: “The result! A loss of racial pride.” Germany, prewar. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Article: In Germany’s extermination program for black Africans, a template for the Holocaust

l_d16c9f116563b85d875af487dd128c32Germany’s Black Holocaust: 1890-1945. In the 1890s Blacks were tortured in German concentration camps in Southwest Africa (now called Namibia) when Adolph Hitler was only a child. Colonial German doctors conducted unspeakable medical experiments on these emaciated helpless Africans. Thousands of Africans were massacred. Regrettably, historians neglected to properly register the slaughter—that is, to lift it from the footnote in history that it had been relegated to— until now.

NEVER AGAIN must remain more than a mere slogan!

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The remarkable story of a black African from a royal lineage in Swaziland who was raised a Christian, converted to Judaism and became a Haredi Litvish Rabbi in Israel. It begins with Rabbi Natan Gamedze’s first visit home in 16 years and traces back his extraordinary spiritual journey from Swaziland to Israel. By following Rabbi Gamedze’s journey to Judaism, this story provides an extraordinary insight into orthodox Jewish thinking from a completely different background. Along the way it gently explores race issues, pre and post apartheid.

Additional information:
http://www.rabbigamedze.com/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natan_Gamedze

“May It Be Your Will That Our Merits Increase Like The Black-Eyed Peas.”

peas-082709

Quentin Bacon, Photographer: ‘Aromas of Aleppo’

New Year’s Table: A tradition for Syrian Jews and those from the American South.

At Rosh Hashanah, Black-eyed Peas for Good Fortune by Devra Ferst, The Jewish Daily Forward

A Google search linking black-eyed peas and Jews reveals a wide discussion about the Jewish roots of the popular hip-hop band (sadly, none) and a riff on Lenny Bruce’s Jewish vs. goyish shtick that peas are Jewish while black-eyed ones are goyish.

But black-eyed peas are Jewish. Jews from both Syria and the American South eat them as part of a celebratory meal on Rosh Hashanah.

One tradition dates back to a 2,500-year-old text and the other crops up in the mid 20th century. Could the two be connected?

The peas — actually beans from the cowpea family — are white with a small black circle, or “eye,” near the base. Indigenous to West Africa, Ethiopia or the Far East (depending on your source), they made their way to Judea at least 500 years before the Common Era and were brought to America by slaves in the 17th century. When cooked alone they are relatively bland; however, being easy to grow and high in protein and carbohydrates makes them an inexpensive staple in Southern states and in the Middle East, though not much of a holiday treat.

Poopa Dweck, author of “Aromas of Aleppo” (HarperCollins, 2007), explains in her book that Syrian Jewish families begin the New Year with a Seder, a ceremony before a Rosh Hashanah meal. “The foods of the New Year holiday symbolize a wish for a sweet year. Aleppian Jews eat several symbolic foods during the Rosh Hashanah dinner… that correspond to the wishes of the Jewish people for the coming year,” she writes.

The tradition comes from the Babylonian Talmud, which states, “Abaye said, ‘Now that you have said that an omen is significant, at the beginning of each year, each person should accustom himself to eat gourds, black-eyed peas, fenugreek….” Each of the foods (nine in total) represents something different for the year ahead; the black-eyed peas symbolize good fortune. For a Syrian meal, they’re traditionally prepared in a simple recipe with garlic, onions and veal. The dish can be spiced up with cinnamon and allspice or flavored with tomatoes or tomato paste.

The dish symbolizes prosperity in ways: A single serving contains so many of the small beans and the dish’s name pays homage to abundance. Black-eyed peas are rubiyah (in Aramaic and Hebrew) or lubiya (in Arabic), which are cognates of the Hebrew words harbeh, meaning many, and l’harabot, to increase. The idea is to take in prosperity at the start of the year, with the hope that it will serve as a good omen for the year ahead. While the Syrian Jewish community is the only one to eat the beans in a Seder Rosh Hashanah, other Sephardic communities have adopted the tradition of the Rosh Hashanah beans.

This culinary tradition likely arrived in America with Sephardic Jews who moved to the South in the 18th century. Many Jews of the South had black cooks, who prepared a combination of what their Jewish owners or bosses requested and dishes from their own culinary traditions. In the case of black-eyed peas, those traditions overlapped, both groups having their own preparations of the beans. Though the two black-eyed pea traditions intersected in the early South, they didn’t meld into one; nor did one seem to rub off on the other.

Around the same time, the tradition of eating black-eyed peas January 1, still widely popular in the American South, was crystallizing in the surrounding non-Jewish communities. Hoppin’ John, a dish made with black-eyed peas, rice and pork, is eaten to obtain a prosperous year. It’s served in a meal alongside greens whose leaves symbolize paper money, thus wealth.

The sources of both the dish’s name and its symbolism have become the province of legend and lore. Some argue that the beans represent coins, while others argue that because they expand while cooking, they represent abundance. Southern food historian John Taylor explains that the combination of rice and beans in the dish came “with the enslaved” from Africa, while the tradition of eating them on “New Year’s probably came from the Caribbean, where they prepare a similar dish called Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christians).”

The first recipe on record for the dish in the South is in “The Carolina Housewife,” from 1847, one of the nation’s earliest cookbooks. It’s likely, however, that the dish was prepared much earlier, particularly since its roots are in slave culinary traditions, which were maintained orally. Over time, the dish was adopted by white Southerners for whom the slaves cooked, and was incorporated into the greater Southern culinary canon, particularly of the low country in the Carolinas and parts of Virginia and Georgia.

More than 150 years later, the dish not only appears in households on secular New Year’s Day, but also in kosher variations on tables of Jewish families in the South celebrating the Jewish New Year. Jewish recipes (found in Sisterhood cookbooks from the South) often replace the pork with a smoked turkey leg, but there are also vegetarian preparations.

Marcie Cohen Ferris, author of “Matzoh Ball Gumbo” (University of North Carolina Press, 2005), explains that the tradition started in the 1960s: “On holidays, people cook traditionally, but there’s a group of people who like to add in regional flavors to give it a signature of place. What could be more of a symbolic dish than to grab that dish from the secular New Year’s and claim it for Rosh Hashanah?”

Ironically, it is by adopting this African-Caribbean-Southern-Christian tradition (possibly inflected by local Sephardim) that the Jews of the South are reclaiming and reconnecting to a Jewish tradition that dates back more than 2,000 years. Devra Ferst is the Forward’s editorial assistant. Original article can be read HERE.

Rosh Hashanah Egyptian Black-Eyed Peas by Diane Kaufman-Tobin

Ingredients:

1 onion, chopped

3 tablespoons sunflower oil

2 garlic cloves, minced or crushed in a press

1.5 lb (750g) lamb or veal, cubed

1 lb (500g) tomatoes, peeled and chopped

3 tablespoons tomato paste

1 lb (500g) dried black-eyed peas, soaked for 1 hour

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon allspice

Salt and pepper

1-2 teaspoons sugar

Directions:

Fry the onion in the oil till golden. Add the garlic, and when aroma rises add the meat. Stir to brown it all over. Add the tomatoes and tomato paste. Drain the black-eyed peas, and simmer on fresh water for 15 minutes, then drain and add them to the meat. Add cinnamon and allspice and cook for 2 hours, adding salt and pepper to taste and the sugar after about 1 hour.

L’shanah Tovah Tikatev V’taihatem!

May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year!

shofarArtist: Lynn Feldman ~ Serigraph: She Blew the Shofar

L’shanah Tovah Tikatev V’taihatem!

May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year!

shofar Avinu malkeinu sh’ma kolenu

Avinu malkeinu chatanu l’faneycha

Avinu malkeinu alkenu chamol aleynu

V’al olaleynu v’tapenu

Avinu malkeinu

Kaleh dever v’cherev v’raav mealeynu

Avinu malkeinu kalehchol tsar

Umastin mealeynu

Avinu malkeinu

Avinu malkeinu

Kotvenu b’sefer chayim tovim

Avinu malkeinu chadesh aleynu

Chadesh a leynu shanah tovah

Sh’ma kolenu

Sh’ma kolenu

Sh’ma kolenu

Avinu malkeinu

Avinu malkeinu

Chadesh a leynu

Shanah tovah

Avinu malkeinu

Sh’ma kolenu

Our Father Our King

Hear our prayer

We have sinned before thee

Have compassion upon us and upon our children

Help us bring an end to pestilence, war, and famine

Cause all hate and oppression to vanish from the earth

Inscribe us for blessing in the book of life

Let the new year be a good year for us

“Awake! Examine your deeds; repent and remember your Creator. Those of you who forget the truth and become involved only in vanity and emptiness, look into your souls; improve your ways and actions, forsake your evil path and negative thoughts.” (Maimonides, Laws of Repentance, Ch. 3)

Rosh Hashanah Talk on Multiculturalism by Bashari Rosenberg George

When I first got chosen to speak at Rosh Hashanah I was a little bit skeptical and unsure about whether I was asked for the right reasons. I thought it seemed a little too obvious for me to be the speaker. I am the “picture perfect” multicultural Jewish girl. Also, I’ve noticed a trend developing in the choice of speakers for Rosh Hashanah. The young person is always a girl, usually someone from JYCA (Jewish Youth for Community Action) and many have been participants in the FAITHS Youth

Leadership Initiative. Here I am, having just completed the FAITHS Initiative, a young black Jewish woman from JYCA! Everyone expected that I would speak. I felt I was being stereotyped, even though it was positive stereotype.

I thought about this dilemma and after having a long talk with my Mom I realized that I do have a lot to say about the subject of multiculturalism and Judaism. I shouldn’t let my discomfort or fear about being stereotyped stop me from using this opportunity to get the undivided attention of my community for seven whole minutes! PAUSE

I appreciate the honor of speaking at Rosh Hashanah. I am thankful to be part of a Jewish community that thinks that multiculturalism is so important and I am glad that Kehilla supports women and youth being up on the beema. But sometimes I think we try too hard to be “politically correct” and cover all the bases, so I feel that I’m expected to speak not only for youth and for women, but also for the “people of color” in our community. I think that often people take the visible things about me and only see what’s on the surface. Then, they act like they know me, but we’ve never actually formed a real relationship. They label me by what they may have heard -I’m a dancer, I’m a youth activist, I’m a Black Jew.

Even within JYCA, where I feel safe and completely loved, sometimes I am forced to be the representative of a group that I don’t feel I belong to. For example, on JYCA retreats sometimes we do different types of workshops. On one retreat TODOS Institute led a diversity training. We were divided into caucus groups of people who’ve been targets of oppression and oppressors. The goal was for the targeted people to speak about how they’ve been oppressed, to see how the other groups could ally with them. Some of the target groups were women, LGBTQ, youth and people of color. I felt forced to assume the identity of a “person of color” which is not actually how I identify myself. I felt I was being used as a token person so that the training could proceed, which is the opposite of what a diversity training should be. I felt artificially separated from my friends. I don’t especially feel oppressed as a Black person or as a bi-racial person – maybe more as a young person. Racism isn’t usually aimed at me so much as at people who have less money and opportunities than I do. There are many other factors that go into who is targeted, and this kind of approach oversimplifies the issue.

I don’t especially see myself as a Black Jew or even as Black and Jewish. In this country, people hear and see Black and think African American and fill in all the history of coming up from slavery in the United States. Culturally and ethnically that’s not what I am. It’s not that I am running away from that identity. If I pretended to be African American, I would be untrue to myself. When people ask me what I am, I say Trinidadian and Russian Jew, and that’s still a simplification of my background. My father is from Trinidad, the southernmost island in the Caribbean off the coast of Venezuela. Trinidad is an extremely multicultural place – including Africans, Indians, Chinese, South Americans, Europeans and Arab Jews. My father’s background is very mixed – my great-grandparents on his side include French, Irish, and Huarahu Indian from Venezuela, a Ghanaian trader and Africans brought as slaves to work on the sugarcane plantations. My mother’s family are all Jews from Russia, even though I suspect there’s more mixture in there than we know. My Bubbie’s mother had Asian eyes, high prominent cheekbones and jet-black hair. My great uncle Israel, when he became old and bald, could easily have been mistaken for Chinese. Were we mixed with Asian Jews coming up through Mongolia into Georgia? Were we partly the result of violence and pogroms? We’ll probably never know.

We need to ask ourselves how the Jewish people, in our migration from North Africa, have become the varied mixture of people we see today. How did a brown skinned Semitic tribe miraculously become “white” with European features? And what about all the other Jews around the world – the Arab, African and Asian Jews? Look around this room at the variety of features, hair textures and skin tones. We are all multicultural Jews. I challenge each of you to take the time to look deep into your own heritage and background- farther back than the last few hundred years. Where does your identity end?

I’ve often challenged my mother when she says someone “looks Jewish”. Usually she means someone who is from New York of Eastern European descent. I say, “Look at me, do I look Jewish?” and she usually says, “Yes! You have very Jewish features.” But the world doesn’t look at me that way. It is not often assumed that I’m Jewish, even though I frequently wear one of the many beautiful Jewish stars my godmother, Hedy, has given to me. At school, sometimes people will say, “I love your necklace – what is it, a flower?” When I reply, “No, actually it’s a Jewish star,” their response is usually, “Oh! You’re Jewish?, or “You don’t look Jewish,” or some other expression of surprise. And I feel like, here we go again, I have to explain myself all over again. Where do I start… how much should I reveal of myself… does this person really care? It’s not just about looking Jewish, it’s about all the racial categories. People are so quick to say, “What are you?” expecting a one word racial definition. That’s not the answer I want to give. Race can’t substitute for taking the time to get to know who people really are. We need to challenge the whole way we see the world through racial eyes.

It’s interesting to me to have traveled to places in the world where nearly everyone seems mixed. For instance, I just came back from Toronto, where there are so many different kinds of people it was hard to even guess a person’s ethnicity, and after a while you stopped caring. Or, in Cuba, where people all think of themselves as Cuban and they’re proud of that identity. People there aren’t always separating themselves by their history. In lots of other places I have visited in the world I feel more comfortable than I do in America. I was more of the norm, and even when I wasn’t, people didn’t trip off of it. I think part of the problem in America is that it’s hard to find a common culture to belong to except for consumerism. There’s the old myth about “the American dream” but that hardly applies to everyone, so people feel the need to identify themselves some other way. Everyone wants to belong to something. Maybe that’s why we’re so divided. People construct racial categories as a way of distinguishing themselves. And that makes it easier for those in power to divide and conquer us. I want to especially call attention to the Arabs who in this day and time are being scapegoated, harassed and threatened. As Jews, who have so often been the subject of mistreatment, we should be able to relate to this. In the face of a violent world we need to find a way to stand together and overcome our differences. Within the human family the Arabs are definitely our cousins. Besides, it’s scientifically proven that race doesn’t even exist. The Human Genome project has shown that 99.9% of human genetic material is the same in every one of us. Underneath it all, we are all one species and our differences should be recognized and cherished instead of being used to categorize us.

Within this society that is so confused about race, I’ve found an interesting way to determine my self-identity and to deal with the identity crisis I am “supposed to” experience. In fact, I don’t feel torn or forced to choose. I don’t consider myself as half Black and half white, or part Trinidadian and part Jewish, or even as bi-racial. I consider myself a whole something else. Because I’m from the Bay Area I’ve been able to find close friends with similar backgrounds to mine who I can share my experiences with. We’ve created our own culture.

We consider ourselves SKITTLES – we represent all different colors, all different shades and flavors. The name “SKITTLES” originated when I was at a concert with a mixed group of friends, we were all wearing bright colors – pink, red, orange and blue, and I made a joke that we looked like SKITTLES – the rainbow candy. Then we realized that it actually went deeper than that. Over time we’ve had different chances to explore this idea – through Destiny Arts Center and the Hapa Club at Berkeley High. We recognize each other as SKITTLES – it’s a spicy attitude and a pride in who we are without being defined by how others see us. The name SKITTLES is starting to travel beyond our little clique. It’s even gotten into the broader culture of Berkeley High, and was included in a student-made slang dictionary. Whether or not people understand it, I prefer to define myself as a SKITTLE.

I guess if I were trying to put this all into one pretty little package about multiculturalism I would say, “Get to know each person as an individual.” Even though you’ll probably first judge someone by looking at them, don’t let that impression make you categorize them and don’t let it substitute for getting a closer look. And if by chance you want to get to know me as an individual, don’t just see the JYCA member, Destiny dancer and activist Bashari. Those activities and interests don’t define me, as those kinds of interests don’t define anyone. If you want to know me, come up and start a conversation. But as a personal favor, please don’t tell me that I am inspiring; tell me what I inspire in you. Don’t tell me what your perception of me is. Tell me your opinions, your interests and your ideas. Help me get to know you, not for who you represent but as an individual.

May all of us be listened to & embraced & welcomed & supported – in the coming year.

 

yom kippur

Jewish Voices Of Color Must Be Heard by David Love


As we enter this holiday season, Jews around the world will celebrate Hanukah. And the global Jewish community is a diverse one, a multicultural and multiracial assemblage, by no means monolithic, representing millions of people throughout the world. Jews in China look like other Chinese, while Jews in India resemble other Indians, as is the case with the Igbo Jews of Nigeria and the Lemba of Southern Africa, and so on. They differ in their religious and cultural expression. For example, some may not know about glatt kosher, but still observe traditional dietary laws. And in some places only women can become a mohel (the person who performs circumcisions on baby boys).

But like a faulty census that leaves out people and portrays an inaccurate picture of what is happening, the Jewish Diaspora is not counting all of its members. Part of the reason is that Jews of color are often held in suspicion, not viewed as real or authentic. The reality is that black and brown Jews always existed, and for thousands of years. Given the places where the stories in the ancient scriptures took place, what else could you expect? Yet, media images – including Charlton Heston’s portrayal of a blond-haired, blue-eyed Moses in The Ten Commandments – only serve to create confusion concerning race and Judaism.

“Jews of color have been like Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird, a bird trying to reintegrate itself into its flock, but looks so different that the flock would turn itself on the painted bird, pecking on the painted bird until it falls to the ground,” said Rabbi Capers Funnye, head rabbi of the predominantly African-American Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago. The congregation was founded in 1918 by a rabbi from Bombay, India.

Rabbi Funnye converted to Judaism, but his introduction to Judaism was through the lens of Africa. His congregation combines the usual Jewish prayers with gospel music and the beat of the drum. But that is ok, because that is what culture is all about. “Jewish practices are based on cultural adaptations, where people found themselves,” the rabbi notes. Although he is a rabbi with extensive knowledge and undeniable passion, Rabbi Funnye is asked if he is really a Jew. “For a Jew who don’t look like you, that question is offensive,” he responds.

Rabbi Funnye – who is also a member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, and the cousin of First Lady Michelle Obama – recently gave the keynote speech at a symposium on race and Judaism at Temple University. The symposium was convened by Professor Lewis Gordon of Temple’s Center for Afro-Jewish Studies, and had participation from the Institute for Jewish and Community Research and Be’chol Lashon, a San Francisco-based group which encourages ethnic, racial and cultural inclusion in the Jewish community.

The conference was refreshing in that it invited a discussion on subjects usually not covered in academia or the mainstream Jewish community. For example, there was a discussion on Rabbi Alysa Stanton, the first African-American woman ordained as a rabbi, and the first black rabbi to lead a majority white congregation. Stanton, whose congregation is in Greenville, NC, received death threats and required a police escort the day she was installed as rabbi.

Another topic of discussion was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, that mythic symbol of black-Jewish cooperation who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King. Rabbi Heschel is a great source of pride for the Jewish community, yet he was marginalized during his life, and regarded as an oddball. Other rabbis advised him to stay away from the rabble-rouser King. And today, Heschel’s anti-racist, social justice message is defanged.

Further, there was an examination of black-Jewish relations and the civil rights coalition, and the manner in which Jews benefited from civil rights in ways blacks could not; the focus by organizations such as the ADL on issues of Jewish authenticity and Minister Louis Farrakhan, when there are genocides taking place around the world; concepts of whiteness and blackness, and the ways in which the Jewish communities have negotiated race. Participants also tackled such weighty issues as black power, and the attempts to equate it with anti-Semitism; the disproportionate representation of neoconservative Jewish voices in American political discourse, and the use of white Ashkenazi Jewish voices as the authoritative voice against affirmative action.

Included in the symposium was the inevitable discussion of Israel, and the ways in which some immigrants become “white” when they arrive in Israel, although they were not considered as such in their home countries. And of course, there is Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Rabbi Funnye, who works with the Palestinian-American community in Chicago, believes that Israel must do a better job of showing its own diversity. He also shed some light on African-American perceptions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Black people don’t say anything because they see the Palestinians as David, and Israel as Goliath,” Funnye concluded. “They don’t want to be called anti-Semites.”

These are tough issues, to be sure, and the conversations must continue at Temple University and throughout the country and the world. A culture benefits when its diverse voices are allowed to express themselves. This is how a culture sustains itself and grows. Jews of color have much to contribute, and much to say. And they must be heard.

BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member David A. Love, JD is a journalist and human rights advocate based in Philadelphia, and a contributor to the Huffington Post, theGrio, the Progressive Media Project and McClatchy-Tribune News Service, among others. He contributed to the book, States of Confinement: Policing, Detention, and Prisons (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). Love is a former Amnesty International UK spokesperson. His blog is davidalove.com.This article first appeared in The Black Commentator and is republished with permission.
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The song “Memories of Africa – Zichronot me Africa” performed by the Sheba Choir and composed by Shlomo Gronich

Amazon Reveiw by Michael Ophir: The Black Jews of Africa by Edith Bruder is an interesting, well written book. The author goes to great lengths to educate the reader as to the origins and whereabouts of various Jewish or Judaic communities across the African continent.

However, what should be noted in several instances, the author insinuates that many Jewish communities are not actually Jewish. For instance, she refers to the Jews of Ethiopia as the “so-called” Jews of Ethiopia. Why are they “so-called”?. Even if they are not descendants of the Hebrews, if they practice Judaism, they are Jews. Why do people not refer to Russian Jews as “so-called” Jews of Russia? After all, many Russian Jews today have much weaker links to Judaism than the Jews of Ethiopia.

Besides this disturbing point, the book is informative and a must read for any interested in this topic. The emergence and in some cases re-emergence of Judaism and Jewish communities in various parts of Africa is a movement that is gaining momentum as people on the continent discover the religion and their roots. A must-read for all interested in Jewish/African or African-Jewish topics.

Hadassah Magazine Extra
November 2009

Elinor Ruth Tatum
By Charley J. Levine

‘When two cultures don’t know each other, there are preconceived notions that must be dispelled,’ says Tatum, ‘and that comes only through education.’

As publisher and editor in chief of Harlem-based New York Amsterdam News, the city’s leading African-American newspaper, Elinor Ruth Tatum is one of the highest profile Jewish black women in the country. Tatum, 38, also produces and cohosts a segment of Al Sharpton’s radio show, Keepin It Real, which discusses national issues facing the black community. With degrees in government and international affairs as well as journalism and mass communication, Tatum is a leader in community affairs organizations, serving on the boards of humanitarian, museum and educational associations. Her dual heritage makes her ideally suited to bring together the Jewish and black communities.

Courtesy of Elinor Ruth Tatum

Q. Your father, Wilbert Tatum, the longtime publisher and editor of the Amsterdam News, was a legend, though he roiled the racial waters by criticizing Jewish leaders and organizations, especially during the 1991 Crown Heights riots. What legacy did your father leave you?
A. Because of [his outspokenness and passion], at times he lost friends. But he stood by his beliefs, no matter what. People would come around, sometimes years later, and say, ‘Maybe you weren’t wrong, Tatum.’ We have a responsibility as journalists to the greater world to defend what’s good and call out what is bad.

Q. Not so long ago, the tenor of black-Jewish relations seemed to be set back by people like Louis Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Are we beyond the crisis point?
A. I don’t know if the situation was ever really as bad as some thought. Many issues between blacks and Jews were created more by the media than anyone else. Basically there were two peoples who did not know the other very well. When two cultures don’t know each other, there are preconceived notions that must be dispelled, and that comes only through education. In this sense, I recall a great program initiated by Colette Avital when she was Israel’s consul general in New York, Hands Across the Ocean. It brought four different groups of people together: American blacks and American Jewish kids first, and then Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. They all learned from one another. Their mission was then to go back into their respective communities and learn about the others.

Q. You are frequently seen wearing your Star of David necklace. Can you tell us about your mother, Susan Kohn, from whom you received your Jewish identity?
A. My Jewishness came from both my mom and my dad. I always knew about Jewish law and felt myself to be Jewish. My father [who was a Baptist] was open to all cultures, and by the time I was 13, he had probably been to Israel at least 10 times. I realized I had two important histories. You can see that I am black, and by Jewish law, I am Jewish. My parents said, “If that is how you want to identify, and if that is who you see you are, then that is who you are.” We spent every High Holy Day at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue. (The Tatums lived in New York’s East Village.) My mother and father were by my side every year.

Q. How did the Holocaust affect your family?
A. My mother was born in Czechoslovakia in 1934. In 1939, she, her parents and four brothers managed to get out on a boat to South America. They settled in Ecuador. My grandmother’s sister didn’t want to leave, yet she managed to survive Auschwitz. Another aunt was a nurse in the Terezin camp, and she would tell us a wonderful story of liberation.

Q. You have modernized the Amsterdam News, but its circulation, 26,000 in 1998, has since dropped dramatically to a little more than 11,000. What is your paper’s strategy for surviving?
A. Newspapers are in trouble. Advertising is down. Readership has declined almost everywhere, so we are fighting an uphill battle. That said, the black press, and community newspapers in general, have a niche that is not filled by the mainstream dailies and therefore we have a leg up on them.

Q. This is a big year for your paper, your 100th anniversary. What is the role and mission of the Amsterdam News?
A. We are a history of black New York. I always say if you were to read the Amsterdam News from one week and The New York Times, Daily News or New York Post from the same week a hundred years from now, you wouldn’t know you were in the same city because we cover different things, and we try to cover what is happening in our community and how it is reacting to developments.

Q. Can you describe your experiences visiting Israel?
A. I was there when I was 13 for the first time, then again around 2001, and then again in January 2008. [On that first trip] I remember visiting one of the first absorption centers for [Ethiopian] newcomers. We got there on a Friday evening. It was absolutely fascinating for a young girl to sit in a room with Ethiopian Jews who had just gotten off the very first plane ride of their lives. They were showing us one of the houses at the absorption center, and somebody went to turn on the light. This little Ethiopian boy, no more than 5, didn’t speak English or Hebrew, jumped up. He took the man’s hand and said, ‘No, no, Shabbat.’ It was so amazing to see how the religion transcended distance. Today, the [focus] is how the Ethiopian Jews are faring, how they are becoming part of society, getting into the Knesset and [Israel Defense Forces] leadership ranks. There are some exciting new programs going on, like at the Weizmann Institute for Science [and Technion Institute] for the Ethiopian Jewish kids who are learning sciences.

Q. Have you followed the progress of the Ethiopian immigrants?
A. It is such a dramatic story. We are talking about going home. The only thing you can probably compare it to somewhat in the U.S. is how the Amish have lived for generations in isolation. There were some problems with the way [the aliya was handled], but at the same time I don’t know if there was another solution or better way to absorb them. I really think Israel put its best foot forward in trying to make the transition as smooth as possible. Any time you bring groups of people over there are issues. When I went to one of the absorption centers the last time I was there, looking at the young people in their twenties and thirties who are now going to college, going into politics, I found that exceptionally refreshing.

Q. What do you think of President Obama’s peace strategy for the Middle East?
A. If we can get peace in the Middle East, it’s good for everybody. That is the billion-dollar question that has challenged and frustrated us for decades. We have seen road maps to peace [and] a variety of plans. The formula for success lies between just how upset people are and their willingness to compromise. The only way I believe there can be a solution in the Middle East is probably the two-state solution. The problem with this approach is there has to be the realization from the other side that Israel does have the right to exist. There also has to be a realization on the Israeli side that the Palestinian state has the right to exist. I am a big believer in peace in the Middle East, but I claim no answers on how to get there. I do feel, however, that if anyone can achieve it, this president can.

Q. What insights have you brought to your unique position as an American Jewish woman?
A. When I think about being Jewish in the role that I fill, I realize that first and foremost I am an educator. There are misconceptions that must be addressed. Two groups that do not always live or work together naturally may not understand or be terribly sensitive to the other. I hope that I will succeed to some degree in bridging [the gap] between the black and Jewish communities. Part of this can be achieved through the pages of my newspaper and my regular TV and radio appearances. Part of it by just speaking to people, in lectures or one by one—for instance, a group of [black and Jewish] young people from differing backgrounds brought together by a black judge and a Jewish judge in the city’s courthouses to have discussions around race. I have worked with the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. I have spoken at synagogues and at churches about being black and Jewish both in New York and in other states. The paper has partnered with the Museum of Jewish Heritage–A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. I spearheaded a trip with AIPAC for black publishers and journalists to Israel last year…publishers from across the country—New York, D.C., Baltimore, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, St. Louis, Philadelphia, as well as the VP of news and documentary of BET. Who better to tackle such a mission than a person who comes from both those worlds?

Article: Courtesy of Hadassah Magazine

Jewish Living Magazine

In Loving Color
By Rachel Sarah

Raising a biracial Jewish daughter, a mother finds herself answering many questions: from her child, from total strangers, and from her own heart.

“Mommy, you became Jewish when you had me.”

That’s how Mae, my eight-year-old daughter, explains it, and she’s right. Sort of. Mae was seven months old when her father walked out and I became a single mom. At that point in my life, I’d never been so far from Judaism. I was firmly planted in motherhood, but it would take me a while to see that I needed my religious roots to unfold.

Today, Mae is a spirited second grader with a beautiful afro, cinnamon skin, and full lips. Many people assume we’re not related. But Mae — who is quite a sensitive child otherwise—isn’t self-conscious about looking different from her Jewish peers. I, her mother, am the one who sometimes feels — or is made to feel — insecure.

It’s not as if we shouldn’t be used to the idea of mixed-race heritage. There are Jews everywhere — Ethiopia, Russia, China, India. Everyone who visits Israel tells a story of meeting someone who, because of skin color or another physical characteristic, she simply couldn’t believe is one of us. In the United States, according to one study, one of every five Jews (1.2 million people!) is either black, Asian, Latino, of mixed race, or of Sephardic background.

Not me. I’m white, of mostly Polish descent. My father is Jewish; my mother was born Catholic. She stopped going to church in her 20s and supported the raising of her children as Jewish (although she didn’t convert). I had a bat mitzvah and a confirmation. I went to Jewish summer camps. I went to Israel. I was told that 60 of my relatives were lost in the Holocaust — the single fact that always kept me deeply connected to Judaism. But when, in my 17th year, a rabbi in Israel told me that I wasn’t “really” Jewish because my heritage hadn’t been passed down matrilineally, I was crushed. In anger and disappointment, I distanced myself from anything Jewish for more than a decade.

Twelve years later I had Mae. I was living in New York City, and, despite its large Jewish population, I didn’t know any who were of mixed race. When I moved back to the Bay Area to be near my family, there was a Jewish preschool down the street, but I was adamant about not sending Mae there: If I’d felt shunned for not having a Jewish mother, imagine how she would feel. So, I found a diverse, high-energy preschool; she cried for a week. Every afternoon when I picked her up, her eyes were bloodshot.

Friends raved about the nearby Jewish pre-school, so I called: A spot had just opened up. I was unsure, but the moment Mae walked into Kitah Aleph, she felt at home. And she was not alone. Three children were Jewish Asian, one boy was African-American, and a Spanish-speaking girl — her mother, from Venezuela, had worked at the JCC for more than a decade — is still one of Mae’s best friends.

Mae never wanted to go home when school let out. She learned how to count in Hebrew and how to braid (practicing on challah). She expanded my repertoire of Jewish songs tenfold.

But it wasn’t perfect. I once took 5-year-old Mae to a local kids’ Shabbat service at a Conservative shul. We walked in, and everyone stared. After the service, only one person came up and said, “Hi.” She was the white mom of an adopted son with brown skin. While researching this article, I called that mom —who asked to remain anonymous — and asked whether anyone at her temple mentioned her son’s race. “They ignore it,” she said. “No one talks about it.”

Nevertheless, her son recently said to her, “Mommy, most Jews are white.”

Lisa Williamson Rosenberg, a New Jersey psychotherapist and writer, is both Jewish and biracial (her mother is white and Jewish; her father was black). Fortunately, she reports, “the definition of what a Jew looks like has broadened significantly since I was a kid.” She remembers being told, “How can you be Jewish? You’re black.” “As if the two were mutually exclusive,” adds the mother of two (her husband is white and Jewish).

“Today when I say, ‘I’m Jewish,’ I may get a respectful question or two,” Rosenberg says, “but I won’t get the same kind of disbelief I might have in the ’60s. On our two coasts, if you walk into a synagogue there’s a good chance you will find at least a few brownish faces. I think it’s due to the high numbers of interracial marriages, conversions, and transracial adoptions by Jewish parents.”

Diane Kaufmann Tobin, associate director of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, agrees.

“When I adopted Jonah, I didn’t know any black Jews,” Tobin says about her 10-year-old son, whom she adopted with her husband, Gary, the institute’s president. “I wanted him to grow up Jewish and not have to choose between his racial and religious identities.”

The Tobins, both of whom are white, were determined to find a place where Jonah would feel “very at home being both Jewish and black.” So, they founded San Francisco’s Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue) program, which “grows and strengthens the Jewish people through ethnic, cultural, and racial inclusiveness.”

Clearly I’m not the only white mother who hopes her child will feel pride in every facet of her identity. Right now, Mae considers herself Jewish, while others define her — on the basis of what they can see — as black. Looking ahead, I’m not ready for the changes sure to come in her teenage years and beyond, both with how Mae sees herself and how the world does.

I ask Rosenberg for advice on raising my child. “It’s important not to let the black part get lost,” she says.” Being black is something many biracial people take a long time to come to terms with — I did — especially if they identify strongly with whatever makes up the other half. But I believe it’s important to teach a biracial child to love the black in herself, along with everything else.”

One of my closest friends — a white, Jewish mom whose extended family is Orthodox — is doing just that. She had her 7-year-old daughter with an African man who’s no longer in the picture. The Jewish part is easy, says my friend (who requests to keep her family anonymous) about raising her daughter. “She was named in a Jewish ceremony at temple. My grandmother even came out from the Midwest.” And her daughter? “She never questions that she is Jewish.”

Instead, my friend worries about helping her child identify with the rest of her background. During Black History Month, her daughter started asking questions about her African roots. Not sure what to do, my friend enrolled her first-grader in an African drumming class; she didn’t love it, but Mom persuaded her to keep going “because I don’t know how to help her feel the parts of her that are not parts of me.”

“It’s hard, with so many negative images of blacks in the media, especially if the child isn’t living with a black family member,” Rosenberg adds. “It’s a process that I’m still working on. And I’m in my 40s.”

My daughter, too, seems to have no questions about her Jewishness. She is secure and happy at our local JCC. She attends a Jewish after-school program and will soon start her fourth summer at Jewish day camp. When she’s with her Jewish friends, she isn’t shy, the way she often is in public. She volunteers to act in skits; she shows new kids where the bathroom is; she teases her counselors . (She did confess to embarrassment, however, when she was recently proclaimed “Mensch of the Week” in front of the entire after-school group).

I’m the one still feeling like an outsider.

Recently, a Jewish friend invited us to a neighborhood party. As I was pouring myself a glass of wine—and Mae was asking if she could have another cookie — a local dad asked me, “Where did you adopt your daughter?”

Pointing to my belly I answered point-blank, “She came from right here.”

I’ve got that answer down pat because adults and children have asked me many times whether Mae was adopted (along with other common kid questions, like “Why is her hair curly and yours straight?” and “Where’s her daddy?”).

Scott Rubin, a Jewish dad in San Francisco who, with his partner Stephen Moore, has adopted two children, one African-American, the other African-American and Latino, says that strangers also have approached him with questions. First, he tries to gauge their intentions. Then, he wants to know why they’re asking. “I always try to tell the truth,” he says, “but I don’t always elaborate. And if they ask, ‘Are they your kids?’ I say, ‘Yes.’ But I do not engage in conversations about ethnicity or race with strangers. Ever.”

Says Diane Tobin, “What I’ve learned from other Jews of color is they don’t want to be asked, ‘Why are you Jewish?’ or ‘How are you Jewish?’ It’s rude. We need to educate people about what to say or not to say.”

For me, biracial Judaism is a touchy subject. When white Jews ask about my daughter’s identity, I appreciate their curiosity as long as their tone is respectful and warm and as long as their questions are directed to me.

Rosenberg says, “It’s not your daughter’s job to answer. As a parent, you need to step in and say, ‘Why do you ask?'”

Still, if Jews are not acknowledging my daughter’s biracial identity, are they really ignoring her?

“Don’t look at the container, but look at what’s inside.” That’s from Pirkei Avot — Ethics of Our Fathers, Chapter 4, Mishnah 27. I’m led to that tenet by Rabbi Judah Dardik of the Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland. Although we couldn’t be more mismatched — I’m a 35-year-old single mom who never goes to temple and had a child with a man outside the tribe; he’s Orthodox, married, and the father of four — Dardik is my go-to rabbi because he’s thoughtful, respectful, and patient.

I catch him on the phone on a Friday, an hour before sundown, and apologize for not calling earlier. I tell him that I’m trying to write about what it’s like to raise a biracial Jewish child, but every time I sit down at my computer, what comes out sounds overly defensive.

“Many Ashkenazi Jews tend to assume that Jews are white,” Dardik says, “but it’s not true. Jews come in different shades and colors.” In Judaism, he explains, what matters is not what you look like on the outside — your “container” — but what “merit you have on the inside.”

I’ve done something right, because clearly Mae isn’t afraid to show her “inside.” Maybe it’s time for me to open up a little bit, too.

Maverick researcher Gary Tobin, 59, reached out to Jews of color

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NEW YORK (JTA) — There are probably few students of American Jewry as comfortable arguing for more aggressive efforts to grow Jewish numbers through conversion as they are assailing the hostility towards Israel of reflexively liberal academics.

But Gary Tobin, who died late Monday at 59 after a long illness, was just that sort of thinker.

Trained as a city and regional planner at the University of California, Berkeley, Tobin first turned his attention to Jewish communal issues while a professor at Washington University in St. Louis. He moved to Brandeis University, where he became a tenured professor and director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies before departing to start his own think tank, the Institute for Jewish & Community Research, in San Francisco.

“Gary was a visionary about the Jewish community,” said Leonard Saxe, a professor at Brandeis University who succeeded Tobin as director of the Cohen Center. “He identified problems and issues in the community and often developed these really creative analyses, whether it was about the role of synagogues or the makeup of communities and more recently about philanthropy.”

Lacking a background in sociology, Tobin often came at problems from a different perspective than many of the researchers who dominate the study of American Jewry.

While most communal professionals were bemoaning the loss of Jews to intermarriage and assimilation, Tobin assailed the community for its insularity and hostility toward converts and the gentile spouses of Jews. While Jewish organizations were complaining that wealthy Jews were directing their philanthropy to non-Jewish causes, Tobin told them to quit kvetching and give them a good reason not to.

And while many Jewish institutions were content to ignore Jews of non-European origin, Tobin actively sought them out. Through its initiative B’Chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), his institute reached out to Jews of color and helped educate the mainstream community about Jewish diversity.

“To the black Jewish community he was a friend, a colleague and just one that cared a great deal about seeing the broader community be more inclusive of Jews of color, particular African Americans,” said Capers Funnye, a black Chicago rabbi and the associate director of B’chol Lashon.

Tobin showed up 12 years ago at Funnye’s synagogue in Chicago and the two have been friends ever since. Funnye, a cousin of first lady Michelle Obama, said he had a closer relationship with Tobin than with any mainstream Jewish organizational leader.

“This loss, for me, it is indeed like losing a brother, a member of my family,” Funnye said.

While Tobin staked out liberal positions on issues of Jewish community and identity, he had no qualms about making common cause with conservative groups in defense of communal interests. In 2004 he was named to the Forward Fifty list of the country’s most influential Jews, which noted both his “maverick liberal” attitudes on conversion and racial diversity as well as his partnership with the neoconservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a post-9/11 creation intended to fight the spread of radical Islam.

It was there that Tobin produced studies on American attitudes toward Israel and anti-Israel sentiment on campus and conducted public opinion polls relating to national security and the Middle East. In 2005, Tobin co-authored “The Uncivil University,” which charged that universities had violated the public trust by permitting a climate of rampant anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment to take root.

Tobin also was a fierce critic of the National Jewish Population Survey, claiming that its methodology was flawed and that it had vastly undercounted American Jews. He estimated the American Jewish population at 6.7 million, more than 1 million more than the 2000 NJPS found.

“He was first and foremost a planner,” said Larry Sternberg, who was Tobin’s associate director at the Cohen Center. “His orientation was that of a person whose first response is to understand the nature of how the community looks. I think that as a planner he saw these people as people with needs, he saw them as human beings.”

Tobin’s most audacious writings may be those that urged the Jewish community to abandon its longstanding coolness to newcomers. Tobin saw such thinking as a relic of the Jewish experience of suffering and persecution and more befitting shtetl life in 19th century Europe than 21st century America. Jews, Tobin argued, needed to get over their fear and stop seeing their institutions as a bulwark against assimilation.

“No number of day schools or summer camps is going to turn back the clock on religious freedom and competition,” Tobin wrote last year in a JTA Op-Ed. “It is time for Jews to join every other group in America and quit obsessing about who is being lost and start acting on who might come in. Right now it is largely a one-way street because we cling to dangerously obsolete ideas, attitudes and practices about conversion. We do not welcome people with open arms but rather we stiff-arm.”

Tobin is survived by his wife, Diane, the institutes’s associate director, and their six children. Funeral services are scheduled for Thursday.

The Institute for Jewish & Community Research
Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue)

Jews of color could not have had a better friend or ally. We have lost one of our most beloved vocal and spirited advocates. Mr. Tobin will be greatly missed. May his memory be for a Blessing. ~Mocha Juden

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3 Ugandan Teens Learn Leadership Skills on L.A. Trip

From left, Kokasi Keki, 17; Sarah Nabagala, 17; and Igaal Sizomu, 15, at Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills. Photo by Jason Lipeles

From left, Kokasi Keki, 17; Sarah Nabagala, 17; and Igaal Sizomu, 15, at Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills. Photo by Jason Lipeles

Igaal Sizomu was clearly ecstatic, laughing with a group of friends from Shomrei Torah Synagogue (STS) whom he hadn’t seen in nearly a year. They were pushing each other around at the West Hills synagogue the way teens often do.

Igaal, who is from Uganda, had spent five years adjusting to life in Southern California while his father, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, was interning at Shomrei Torah Synagogue and attending American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. Last year, after Sizomu was ordained as a Conservative rabbi, the family returned to the Jewish community in Uganda known as the Abayudaya or Sons of Judah.

But on May 12, Igaal returned to Los Angeles with his father and two other Abayudaya teens to learn leadership skills. The ultimate goal, as imagined by David Weingarten, president of Shomrei Torah Synagogue’s United Synagogue Youth (USY), is that the Ugandan teens will take what they learned in Los Angeles and establish a Jewish youth group in their hometown of Mbale.

After Igaal, 15; Sarah Nabagala, 17; and Kokasi Keki, 17, arrived in the Southland, they attended leadership training sessions, planned sports events and coordinated a USY meeting. On the following Friday, the teens sang Abayudaya tunes and played African drums for Shabbat services with local USY members and more than 200 Shomrei Torah congregants. An additional 250 people attended a USY-Abayudaya Partnership event on May 19, where the teens and Sizomu gave an update of what life was like in the Abayudaya community.

Igaal, the tall and lanky rabbi’s son, told the crowd he hoped to raise money through CD sales of Ugandan Jewish music to send local USY members to Uganda for a cross-cultural concert.

The crowd erupted in laughter when he said that the biggest change since returning to Uganda was the lack of sweets. “In Uganda we don’t have desserts…. I love desserts,” he said.

Sarah, another of the Abayudaya teens, said an important leadership lesson she learned during her trip to Los Angeles was to take the initiative.

“On Shabbat … all of us met [in the synagogue] with no elder, only the youth,” she said, referring to her experience with STS-USY. “So that taught me to always do things from my own thoughts. Not to wait for somebody like a rabbi or a community leader to say, ‘You can do this with the youth.’”

Weingarten, STS-USY president, said that he was impressed overall with the teens’ leadership skills and how proud they were of their Jewish identity.

The idea for the teen training began at Sizomu’s farewell ceremony in June 2008, when Weingarten asked the rabbi what the West Hills community could do to help the Abayudaya. Sizomu told Weingarten how much of an impression the Conservative youth group had made on him, so they decided together to bring teen delegates from Uganda to Los Angeles to experience the USY members’ ruach (spirit) and leadership skills for themselves.

The project, known as the USY-Abayudaya Partnership, started with a $2,500 donation from a local family to the Abayudaya community to make hand-stitched challah covers to sell at Shomrei Torah and regional USY events.

The challah covers sold well, but Weingarten found the proceeds fell short of the $12,500 needed to finance the trip.

“We realized we were going to need a lot more help than we initially thought,” he said. After Weingarten and his fellow USY members asked the Shomrei Torah community for donations a second time, more than 20 families, individuals and temple groups donated enough to cover the remaining costs.

During the events, volunteers sold kippahs, necklaces and challah covers that had been handmade by the girls and women of the Abayudaya community to help raise additional funds for the Ugandan congregation. The Abayudaya Marketplace also included bags of Delicious Peace Coffee made by a coalition of Jewish, Christian and Muslim farmers from Uganda that was founded by J.J. Keki, Sizomu’s brother, the father of Kokasi, one of the visiting teens.

Ever since Sizomu returned to Uganda as an ordained rabbi, Sarah said, their Muslim and Christian neighbors understand how committed they are to Judaism.

“They can’t say we are pretending and all that,” she said. “We are a strong people. We love our religion. We are so serious about what we are doing.”

NPR: Faith Matters
Black Rabbi Shares Story of Conversion, Unity
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Listen

Rabbi Capers C. Funnye grew up Methodist, but he converted to Judaism and is now a Rabbi. Funnye now leads an Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago, one of the largest Black synagogues in America (and he’s also First Lady Michelle Obama’s cousin).

Rabbi Funnye shares his faith journey and his work to unite black and white Jewish communities.

United Colors of Judaism
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