“HOW ARE YOU Jewish?” That’s a question Shais Rison, 28, an Orthodox African
American Jew from Brooklyn hears a lot.
His answer, delivered in his
signature monotone voice, is usually something like: “Thank you, and how are you
Jewish?” Rison admits that some are taken aback by his sarcasm. Then again, many
people have never met anyone quite like Rison.
At a Limmud NY event in
October, in which he hosted a session entitled, “What Really Does Make a Jew of
Color Different from Any Other Jew?” Rison was equally at home with Talmudic
phrases and urban street talk. His pinstripe suit, polka-dot tie and crocheted
kippa seemed a nod to his complex identity – part committed Jew, part African
On the Internet, he’s knows as blogger MaNishtana, an allusion
to the Passover Seder song about difference, and is also the founder and
administrator of JocFlock.org, an online dating site for JOCs, or Jews of Color,
as many prefer to be called.
For Rison, a multifaceted identity is
nothing to fuss over. It’s other people who have the problem. Everywhere he
goes, he says, white Jews demand his religious credentials.
While in the
past, he used to offer information about his father’s conversion and his
mother’s Jewish roots, he’s stopped being so accommodating. “If you are white,
everyone assumes you are Jewish.
People don’t say: ‘You don’t have a
ketuba [marriage contract] from your great-greatgrandfather, so I guess you’re
not Jewish.’ I don’t have to provide more proof than anyone else.”
African American Jews, like Rison, are on the forefront of an identity
revolution. “American Jew” used to be synonymous with Ashkenazi food, music and religious practice, but those markers of identity are on their way out. In an
increasingly diverse country, where racial barriers are crumbling, American
Judaism is reflecting a widespread cultural shift, explained Diane Kaufmann
Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research (IJCR), an
independent think tank, in a telephone interview with The Report.
reports that 77 percent of Americans now approve of interracial marriage, so it
makes sense that a growing number of American Jews are increasingly open to the
idea of black, Hispanic and Asian Jews. Israel has long held a place as home to
“exotic” communities such as Yemenite and Ethiopian Jews; now American Jews are
joining that demographic, as Jewish couples adopt children of diverse
ethnicities, and communities increasingly embrace converts of all
As the demographics change, so does society’s conception of
combining African American and Jewish identities. In an earlier era, it seemed
unusual for individuals to have this dual identity. Even well-known figures who
had this blended identity – notably entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. – were seen as
an anomaly. Henry S. Levy & Son chose to feature an African American child,
among other ethnic individuals, on their 1967 advertisement for Levy’s Rye
The famous tag line: “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s
real Jewish rye” made sense in a time when black and Jewish identities seemed at
Today, by most accounts, this is shifting, as multiple forms of
identity take the place of strict labels. In July 2009, Alysa Stanton was
ordained by the Reform movement as the first African American female rabbi and
consequently took the pulpit at a North Carolina synagogue, a momentous event
covered by the press. Jewish Rapper Shyne, now known as Moshe Levi Ben- David,
as well as the late Orthodox Jewish rapper Yoseph Robinson are also widely known
for blending American black culture with observant Jewish living. Yet, according
to some young leaders of African American and Jewish heritage, such as Rison,
the old ways of establishing who is “in” and “out” are still all too
Jews of Color are still seen as the “other,” they say and, as
such, are made to feel unwelcome in their communities.
EXACT NUMBERS OF
AFRICAN American Jews are nearly impossible to find. About half of the non-white
American Jews reported by Tobin – 435,000 or 7 percent of the total – are Jews
of Sephardi ancestry, who in Israel would not be considered people of
“Historically, it has been complex to count Jews, as is the case
with any ethnic minority,” Tobin says.
Additionally, this number reflects
the perennial question of “Who is a Jew?” as it is likely to include individuals
who see themselves as Jewish, but may not have undergone conversion in any
stream of Judaism.
It may also include members of the Black Israelite
community, an African American community that claims roots to biblical Hebrews
and practices Judaic customs, with some alterations. While they were once viewed
as outsiders by the Jewish establishment, that too may be changing. Rabbi Capers
Funnye, famous as Michelle Obama’s first cousin once removed, was originally
ordained as an Israelite rabbi, but has maintained strong ties with the broader
Jewish community. (See “My Goal Is To Build the Jewish People,” page 33.) What
is certain, according to Tobin, is that increasing numbers of Americans are
interested in Judaism, and are choosing to join the flock. More than ever,
social networking tools on the Internet offer people the choice to affiliate
with any number of religious groups. She says that Judaism is attractive to
Americans, many of whom are “Old Testament readers,” and are looking for a way
to “talk to God.”
“If Judaism is part of the marketplace of world
religions, then we have a great chance,” she says. However, warns Tobin,
with a history of persecution, many Jewish groups tend to be suspicious of
others. While some might see this attitude as part of an ages-old Jewish
tradition of testing potential converts to determine the seriousness of their
intention, Tobin sees it primarily as hostility, which can drive people away – a
major mistake, in her view.
“If people want to become Jewish,” she says,
“we shouldn’t turn them away.”
These sentiments are echoed by many young
African-American Jewish leaders active in established Jewish circles. But ask
them what they are working for, and most will tell you that they are not
interested in gaining acceptance from “mainstream” Judaism, but in improving and
changing the community. They approach the issue of diversity with a wide lens,
exploring all the ways that American Jews can open doors and let down their
guards. Many seek to bring new values to Jewish life in America – to make it
less parochial, more attuned to diversity and, in many cases, more spiritually
LACEYSCHWARTZ, 33, NATIONAL Outreach Director at Be’chol Lashon,
an organization that seeks to strengthen the Jewish people through
inclusiveness, uses media and content tools to encourage diversity and help
people stop compartmentalizing different identities.
Her personal history
provided an impetus to get involved in the issue. She grew up in a white,
culturally Jewish family in New York and found out at 18 that her biological
father is black. Even before coming to terms with her family history, she was
bombarded with rude comments from members of her local, non-denominational
synagogue due to her black appearance.
She describes the lack of warmth
and acceptance in many Jewish venues, citing synagogues as an example. Even when
overt racism is absent, a true feeling of acceptance for those who are different
is often lacking.
Referring to synagogues, she asks: “Can I be fully
myself in this space, or do I have to put a piece of myself aside? Is it because
someone said something ignorant and rude? Or nobody talks to me, or invites me for Kiddush (refreshments) after
services?” These kind of experiences led to a personal mission: to acquire both
a strong black identity and a strong Jewish identity, and finally to blend those
and “move forward with that combination,” she tells The Report.
personal stories is a major part of her work at Be’chol Lashon. She uses film to
offer nuanced views of the subject.
Recently, the organization held
screenings of the film “Off and Running” by Collier Meyerson, about the
experiences of a black girl adopted by lesbian Jewish parents.
own film project “Outside the Box” is currently in production. Be’chol Lashon
also works with Jewish communities, educating about diversity in a way that fits
the specific needs of each locale.
According to Tobin, the past 10 years
has seen an increase in the number of organizations interested in partnering
with Be’chol Lashon and in identifying with their aims.
WHILE THERE MAY
BE A trend towards greater openness, American Jews are not there yet, according
to Anthony Rogers-Wright, a Colorado-based musician who converted to Judaism
some 10 years ago.
Dating is the “ultimate litmus test,” he
says. “I have dated Jewish girls who said it would be easier to bring
home a white Christian than a black Jew. Parents say they want their kids to
marry Jews, but what they really mean is white Jews,” Rogers-Wright relates to
Rogers-Wright, the child of parents from Sierra Leone, was
brought up Muslim on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. His mother, a Christian,
raised him with the religion of his father, as is the Sierra Leone custom: boys are raised with their father’s
religion and girls with their mother’s religion.
Spiritual searching as
an adult led to serious Jewish study and finally to conversion, “a rite of
passage” that he happily embraced. However, a sense of acceptance by his
co-religionists was not always on offer. While living in Los Angeles, he was
encouraged to take leadership roles in a number of Jewish organizations and
programs, including Limmud LA. But upon moving to Colorado, he was faced with a
He cited the fact that people of color are
underrepresented in Jewish organizations around the country as evidence of the
“You don’t see any Jews of color in pertinent positions in the
Jewish Federations, or in Jewish environmental organizations.
been invited yet. We are still seen as different.”
greater inclusivity would lead to a more robust American Jewish life. “We bribe
young Jews to be Jewish with Birthright’s free trips to Israel. They don’t have
to earn it. This leads them to embrace Jewish culture, but not Jewish religion.
If we keep going like this, we will become a culture and cease to be a
religion,” he warns.
Jews of Color, on the other hand, are truly inspired
by a Jewish lifestyle and share a zeal for their religion that Rogers-Wright
compares to the enthusiasm felt by Christian youth groups in the US. We have to
learn from them and from others who have chosen Jewish practice.
JACKSON, 27, WHO traveled to Israel with Birthright and was president of the
Hillel at his university, has already been recognized as a leader by several
However, as the son of an African American Cherokee
father and a “standardissue Brooklyn Jewish” mother, who grew up in a largely
black neighborhood, he too has a thorny history of being rejected. He says that
his family was asked to leave a local Conservative synagogue, after being made
to feel unwelcome. Meanwhile, his father’s Baptist family called him and his
siblings “the tainted babies.”
“I felt rejected from both sides,” he
asserts to The Report.
On a trip to Israel, awarded to him by the Charles
and Lynn Schusterman Foundation, he found himself sitting on a rock in the Negev
and contemplating what he could do to honor his “dual heritage.”
returned to the United States and founded “Jews in ALL Hues,” an organization
that educates communities about Jewish people with dual forms of identity –
including interfaith identity and two ethnicities – and also creates a “safe
space” for them to come together. Jackson emphasizes that the group is peer-led,
so its mission is determined by individuals dealing with these issues, and not
“You have the right to claim your heritage,” he says.
“When I tried to make aliya, they verified my mother’s bat mitzva and her
parents’ ketuba, but identity doesn’t stop there.”
The group allows
people to fully discover and revel in multiple identities.
based in Philadelphia, it has already held several events and is set to hold a conference in San Francisco on
May 30. In addition to encouraging outreach to communities, it also celebrates
the unique flavor that dual-heritage individuals bring to Jewish
“There are certain things in African American culture that I’d
love to bring to Judaism. Some synagogues I go to are very bland. People will
sometimes clap their hands, but sometimes if you do, you tend to be alone. I’m a
jazz saxophonist and I love the liveliness of music. My girlfriend is
half-Colombian and we like to go salsa dancing. We would just dance around the
synagogue. I’d like to bring that into the service. You don’t have to change the
words,” Jackson says.
As he works to push “Jews in ALL Hues” to the next
phase of growth, Jackson has also found a way to stay in touch with two often
estranged groups: the black community and the American Jewish world. He says
that as an African-American Jew, “you are, by default, a bridge to two
communities.” It’s a role he enjoys.
Some people may relate to the
fact that he resembles them physically, while Jews of all ethnicities will
relate more to his mannerisms, he says.
“I tend to be neurotic and that’s
a Jewish trait,” he jokes. “After five minutes with me, people say ‘There’s no
way you’re not Jewish.’”