By way of a joke, Robin Washington, Minnesota newspaper editor, African American and observant Jew, explained how mainstream Christian society marginalizes Judaism in American life, filters its holidays through the lens of Christian tradition:
One kid: What ya getting for Christmas?
Another kid: I’m Jewish.
First kid: Oh. What ya getting for Jewish Christmas, then?
Washington’s joke cuts to the heart of the relative isolation that Hanukkah endures on the national holiday calendar, and by extension the experience of black Jews, a minority inside a minority. As American Jews in general establish their identity in the face of the nation’s predominately Christian identity, Jewish African-Americans — who sometimes self-identify as “JOC’s” (for Jews of color) — face another challenge in the United States.
The idea of black Jews in America is more widely accepted than in years past, dovetailing with the nation’s overall increasingly diverse demographic mosaic. But challenges exist in the integration of the black Judaic experience into a skeptical or disbelieving public, and into some aspects of Jewish tradition itself.
For Washington, editor in chief of the Duluth News Tribune, co-founder of the National Alliance of Black Jews, and an oft-quoted writer and essayist on the black Jewish experience, the sense of being “different” is one he felt most acutely through his children.
“Hanukkah isn’t a major Jewish holiday, and only takes on that significance in the U.S. because of Christmas. By no means is it insignificant, but it’s not Christmas,” he told theGrio recently. “The problem, of course, is for families, and keeping your children from crying when their friends are visiting Santa and getting presents.”
The persistence of the Christmas holidays in American culture and commerce can have an emotional impact on those outside the Christian faith. For Washington, it was in trying to explain to his daughter about being an outsider — a distinction reinforced by a double bind of race and faith.
“You can’t really be black and Jewish and not know it,” Washington said. “My family was unusual — we’d celebrate Passover with another black Jewish family. Not everybody did things like that; it took years to understand that this was to make us feel normal. I’d tell my daughter, ‘you’re the norm.’ But there’s no way you don’t know. As a child there’s no way you can avoid it. How could you not know that race and religion matter, how could you not be aware of your otherness?”
For April Baskin, the primacy of Christmas in mainstream culture excludes as many as it embraces.
“I think that in general the holiday cheer is great, but it’s unfortunate that so much is tied in with American business,” she said. “And it’s interesting to me in that it’s similar to the ubiquity of whiteness. There are many things defined as the norm, but for many other people, that’s not their narrative or their experience.”
Baskin, who grew up in California and now lives in Washington, D.C., and self-identifies as “a multicultural Jewish woman — black, white and native American,” is the president of the Jewish Multiracial Network, a national support group of and for Jews of color and multiracial families.
As a child, Baskin experienced the sense of “otherness” Robin Washington alluded to, but pushed beyond it at an early age. “By the time I reached fourth grade and had been in religious school, I found that the sense of exclusion wasn’t there any more,” she said.
“There were so many meaningful aspects of Jewish life that sustained me,” she said. “That sense of a strong community, and the prayers I learned — it gave me meaning, connection.”
The number of black Jews in the United States varies, estimates swing from as low as 50,000 to more 500,000; although a precise accounting is difficult, there’s a generally accepted number of 200,000 people. The style of that expression of the black Jewish experience takes different forms. Many choose to identify as black Hebrews and Hebrew Israelites; this subset of the black Jewish population is observant and obeys many of mainstream Judaism’s customs, its adherence to the Torah and various dietary laws. But a fierce sense of identity exists within the group; many black Hebrews have insisted that they, and not the Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Mizrahi and other Jews whose numbers dwarf their own, are the only real descendants of the Israelites — a view that, perhaps obviously, puts them at odds with their counterparts in the wider Jewish population.
Generally among Jews of color, there’s a drive for connection that manifests itself in widely accepted ways. Web sites like JocFlock.com and manishtana.net are focused on their needs and concerns. JocFlock, catering to singles, promises “a pain-free and always respectful dating experience”; Manishtana is an outlet for videos and general chat for JOCs. A third, the Florida-based Kehila Magazine, was launched in September to be a forum for JOCs, white Jews and non-Jews airing viewpoints over various social issues.
Educators and historians have noted the changes in Jewish identity. “Once, there was a sense that ‘so-and-so looked Jewish,’ said historian Jonathan D. Sarna of Brandeis University to The New York Times. “Today, because of conversion and intermarriage and patrilineal descent, that’s less and less true. The average synagogue looks more like America.”
At the same time, old patterns of stereotype still exist. Donna Halper, an author, historian and academic, observed how “the general belief persists in most parts of the USA that a Jew is usually Caucasian…black Jewish parents sometimes find themselves having to prepare their kids for being questioned about whether they are ‘really Jewish’.”
“I think the ‘are you really Jewish’ preparation is true, but it’s important not to think of it as a negative or unusual,” said Washington. “All responsible parents prepare their children for adversity. Preparing children to deal with ignorance “isn’t particular to black Jews,” he said.
“Any number of Christian denominations may have practices that are entirely foreign, if not blasphemous, to another, and of course reform, conservative, reconstructionist and orthodox Jews regardless of color may find each other’s practices discomforting.”
For Washington, society has changed vis-à-vis recognition of the black Jewish experience since he co-founded the National Alliance in 1995.
“I just find the whole concept of Jews of color far more accepted, understood and simply comprehended than 15 years ago,” he said. “Everyone knows a black Jew, or should, and the people who don’t or still think it’s an impossibility or a joke are both in the minority and viewed as ignorant by the rest of society. We’re so multicultural that, while race still matters, no one seriously bats an eyelash that Lionel Ritchie’s daughter is white or Angelina Jolie’s children are black.”
For Washington, issues that are pertinent to African-American Jews often coincide with those affecting the country as a whole.
“Nationally, they’re the same as for everyone else, and particularly black people: Where is the country headed? When will we get out of this economic mess and perpetual state of war? Who’ll be president in 2013?
“For black people, Obama’s re-election is more than a matter of pride,” he said. “It’s part of the old ‘you have to be better than good’ mentality drilled into us for survival in this country. Obama has to be re-elected to make it clear he was as good as any other president, since one term is viewed, rightly or wrongly, as a failure.”
But other matters are more of a specific concern. “For black Jews, as well as black people and even Jews in general, there’s also the worry of a backlash if the Republicans take over, or the Tea Party or something else,” Washington said. “Likewise, Jews in particular are concerned about anti-Arab attacks in this country because there’s always the feeling they could be next.”
“If something happens to a mosque, Jews are very, very concerned.”
To Washington, society’s truly tectonic shifts will have less to do with political action and everything to do with social interaction.
“Personally, I’m less worried about the political shifts — the Supreme Court aside — than I was 15 years ago because of America’s growing multiculturalism,” he said. “There are so many interracial relationships these days that if you’re going to discriminate against people based on race, chances are you’re going to diss someone in your own family.”
Washington lamented the under-enlightened in society, those “who think black Muslims all wear a bow tie and that black Jews are all like Sammy Davis Jr. … they’re really becoming a minority.”
The conversion of Sammy Davis Jr. to Judaism (in the late 1950’s) may be the most publicized example of a black American adopting Judaism. Other black Jewish Americans by birth and by choice include the author and educator Julius Lester; the film and television actor Yaphet Kotto; Walter Mosley, acclaimed writer of the Easy Rawlins mysteries and other books; actress Lisa Bonet; the actor, singer and songwriter Lenny Kravitz; and Dr. Ada Fisher, the North Carolina Republican National Committee member who prominently called for RNC Chairman Michael Steele’s resignation.
Jamaica Kincaid, the celebrated author who converted to Judaism from Methodism in 1993, became the president of Congregation Beth El, a Vermont synagogue, according to People magazine.
The rapper Shyne, a former Sean Combs associate who went to prison for his role in a Manhattan nightclub shooting in 1999, is now an Orthodox Jew living in Israel as Moses Levi, The New York Times reported last month.
And Rabbi Capers Shmuel Funnye — a co-founder of the National Alliance — leads the Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew congregation in Chicago. His first cousin is first lady Michelle Obama.
“A few years ago, people would still say, ‘funny, you don’t look Jewish,’” Washington said. “Now, I don’t get that at all. Every synagogue has got one [black Jew], at least one. I don’t even have to qualify that. America has not reached the postracial society that some folks thought was going to happen with Obama. But by the power vested in me, I hereby declare Judaism is a post-racial religion.”