When the person wearing that source of black pride known as an ‘Afro’ is Jewish on the mother’s side, yes it can, as that Afro and the person wearing it are technically Jewish, hence I sometimes refer to mine as a ‘Jew-fro’ (Fro for short) to keep at the forefront of my mind that I love and respect both parts of my identity equally.
I decided to get back to my natural hair roots by letting my relaxed ‘chemically straightened’ hair grow out to reveal my natural Afro hair. I hadn’t seen my Fro for at least 19 years. Can you imagine not wearing your kippur or sheitel for the same length of time? Having spent 5 solid years in and around the Orthodox Ashkenazi Jewish community I was starting to miss my Afro and I wondered what I would look and feel like with an Afro, and whether or not my friends and the community as a whole would continue to accept me.
Part of my motivation was rebellion against the pressure of my feeling a need to ‘fit in and conform’ with the Ashkenazi customs, even though my Jewish heritage is mixed Ashkenazi and Sephardi, and my paternal side of the family is non-Jewish Jamaican. I mean, to what extent can a medium-brown skinned Jew like me completely ‘fit in’ with the Ashkenazi community, even where I’ve straightened my hair and adopted the frum dress style - which incidentally I love. Relaxing my hair is not only expensive to maintain, it also hides my natural Fro. Rightly or wrongly I had feared deep within my soul that not all of my friends would be accepting of my natural hairstyle once free of chemical straighteners.
However, I countered that re-growing my Afro would be good for my spirit, my soul and my self esteem, and that it would be a good test of how accepting of ‘colour’ the Jewish community really is.
At the Orthodox shul I used to attend, the Rabbi used to stare meaningfully at whichever part of my hairstyle was betraying the Ashkenazi tradition in favour of a style that more closely reflected my black and Jewish roots on any given Shabbat, and I quickly learned from him that a straight hairstyle bunched into a pony tail high-up on one side of my head, is categorically not in keeping with the accepted Ashkenazi hair standards.
If I switched to a beautifully blow-dried hairstyle, shul associates would instantly notice and warm to me, but if I happened to be in say, week 5 of 8 of my chemically straightened ‘relaxed-hair’ cycle where my naturally kinky roots are growing through, I would fade into obscurity and be ignored widely in shul. The ignorance was not deliberate, it was just a set of people mobilising their sub-conscious preferences. Nothing wrong with that, but being sensitive and prone to alienation anyway on account of my being the only Jew of colour and not brought up in the community, when I noticed it, it tended to hurt. And to what extent can I live my life pandering to the preferences of the dominant majority of the local Jewish community?
Years later, I’d mentioned to a friend over dinner that I was planning to re-grow my Afro. I’d seen the look in her eye, just the thought of Afro was unpleasant to her. Perhaps for this reason or reasons unconnected, I found myself ‘un-friended’ from her on Facebook a month or two later. Not one to be dissuaded easily, I cut off the relaxed hair in January 2015 following much soul searching and another unrelated incident which caused me to desire a cutting edge transformation in my appearance. After my Afro grew to 1.5 inches, I was really apprehensive about the idea of going to the Orthodox Jewish area where I do my kosher shopping. I dreaded going into my butcher’s because I’d once had an unpleasant experience in there from a customer who’d said to her young daughter “some of us are real Jews” as she stood behind me with my head in the freezer. As I’d turned around I met the glare of her young daughter who was petulantly requiring an explanation from me presumably on the issue of whether I am a “real Jew”.
I couldn’t help but laugh quietly to myself, though being a sensitive soul the memory has stayed with me So, I feared I might have another bad experience because of choosing to re-grow my Afro. However, when I went into the butcher’s my butcher was very nice, in fact nicer than usual, a proper mensch, even helping me put my purchases on the counter. That first shopping trip on which I wore my new Afro went well.
However, another friend of long-standing explained “they won’t understand the Afro” in a conversation regarding my invitation to a friend’s memorial and stone-setting. And for another friend of equally long-standing, the appearance of my Jew-Fro appeared to be for him the last straw, and he subsequently became less respectful and more open in his hostilities.
I’m still learning about the Jewish people, having been separated almost at birth from my Jewish family, and then having only fleeting Jewish interactions until 8 years ago at which point I sojourned into the community and have had the chutzpah to do my level best to remain here on my own terms as a black and Jewish woman. At times it is tough being black and Jewish and being so in the Jewish community, more so when I decide to identify more proportionately with the black side of my identity. Apparently it’s just not Jewish! Except for the fact that it is Jewish, when as in my case the offending Afro sits on the head of a woman who’s grandmother is white-Jewish and who’s grandfather was black. I could be white Jewish and have a tamer version of a Fro, but it just so happens that I am a mixed-race Jew with an Afro.
Although I look more Jewish when I wear my hair in straight-hair styles, as a mixed-race Jew I want to strike a balance between honouring my maternal Jewish heritage and identifying as a Jewess, and honouring my paternal heritage and identifying as a mixed-race woman. This allows me to be more acceptable to the black community, which can be a great relief at times when the Jewish community is rejecting me. However, when I wear my hair in a ‘relaxed’ chemically straightened style which shows off more of my Jewishness, I can face alienation from both the black community on account of my only having one black parent, and the Jewish community on account of my only having one Jewish parent.
Because people often notice my hair and skin colour first, this balance is not easy to maintain when I have a Jew-fro, and many of my close Jewish friends would feel more comfortable around me in external social settings if I were to banish my fro and return to what for me is an expensive process of chemically straightening my hair every 8 weeks, at which point my neighbour tells me I look “Jewish, not black”.
To answer the question “Can an Afro ever really be Jewish” the answer like so many others seems to be, yes in theory, but in practice only at it’s own peril.