Posts Tagged ‘rabbi’

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. 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 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.

Seasons in Sheol: A Black Woman’s Nightmare Journey
Through Synagogue Culture


A self-professed and eager integrationist, author Kush Miri converted to Judaism and entered the synagogue’s employ with high hopes and an open heart. Her experiences there left her without faith in God, physically and mentally scarred, and abandoned by her congregation. In this memoir, Miri reveals the discrimination and persecution that took place during her seven years of employment.

Season in Sheol paints a portrait of Miri’s difficult inner-city childhood, her early family and religious experiences, and her journey to enter the Jewish faith. Ten years after converting to Judaism, Miri accepts a job in a synagogue and immerses herself in Jewish culture. Her descriptions of the activities, rites and practices of Judaism, and Judaism’s history provide a fresh and comprehensive overview for both Jews and non-Jews. Initially welcomed among her congregation, Miri experienced a radical change in their attitude. With the arrival of a new rabbi, she found herself castigated by congregants with whom she had formed warm and cordial relations.

Despite her bitter experience, Miri refuses to renounce Judaism—an essential part of her identity. Season in Sheol serves as an important reminder that people can convince themselves of inner good while committing outer acts of malice.

Kushi Miri was a teen actress in musical theatre. As a writer, her journalism has appeared in national magazines, and her poetry has appeared in literary anthologies. She is an accomplished textile artist and her artwork has been on exhibit throughout the Northeast. She is married and has one daughter. I am honored to call her my friend.

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