In The Diaspora: Ghetto to ghetto

African-American's memoir of conversion to Judaism shows one identity need not supplant another.

sam freedman 88 (photo credit: )
sam freedman 88
(photo credit: )
When Passover begins next week, more so than at any other time on the civil or religious calendars, American Jews and African-Americans will be reminded about both the nearness and the distance of their experiences. The Exodus narrative serves a foundational role for both peoples. The language of liberation from Egypt permeated the preaching and praise-songs of the civil rights movement. Yet the coincidence of Passover and Easter, which occurs this year as in many others, also demarks the irreconcilable theological difference between Judaism and Christianity, the religion of the vast majority of American blacks. Jesus is either a Jewish reformer or the son of God, father of a new faith. No amount of ecumenical goodwill can bridge the chasm. And the very reason for the resonance and relevance of the Exodus story - the black and Jewish histories of oppression - has led all too often into a kind a genocide one-upmanship, an unending and mutually estranging argument over whether the Holocaust or African slavery was the greater tragedy. Into this welter of affinity and recrimination comes a book, From Ghetto to Ghetto by Ernest H. Adams, that offers both a redemptive and an unsentimental message. It is either cunning planning or a providential accident that it has been published as what might be called the Exodus season commences. As its title slyly implies, From Ghetto to Ghetto is a memoir of Adams's conversion to Judaism in 1997, and of his lives as a black and a Jew. I use the plural lives advisedly, because this autobiography is not a zero-sum game, not a triumphalist tract in which religious revelation effaces all that came before it and one identity supplants another. NOW 62, ADAMS grew up in a basement apartment in Harlem, a precocious boy known by the family endearment Junebug. While his religious experience deviated from the black Christian mainstream - his mother became a Jehovah's Witness and Adams by age 10 was a "stone cold atheist" - his encounters with both legalistic and behavioral bigotry in both the North and South were sadly typical. Work ethic and intellect alike carried Adams from his basement to college, law school, graduate school and ultimately a doctorate and profession in clinical psychology. None of these achievements, though, entirely assuaged the nagging self-doubt that Adams calls the "Whispers War." Looking like a role model, in fact, brought on some unwelcome praise. At one point in the book, Adams describes being part of a psychotherapy group with eight blacks and three whites. One of those whites, a Jew named Ben tells Adams "You are one of us." A moment later, Ben extrapolates, offering what he plainly considers a compliment: "You are not black." Far from feeling uplifted, Adams feels furious and denigrated. The book, as a whole, might be taken as his rejoinder to the premise that black and Jew is somehow an either-or choice. Adams got his first glimpse of what a merged identity might be through a law-school friendship with a rabbi's son, Meyer Goldstein. He was struck not only by the kindness the Goldstein family showed him, including the first Shabbat dinner of his life, but also by the way Rabbi Baruch Goldstein, a Holocaust survivor, asked Adams with his psychology training for help in making sense of the experience. In that moment alone, the condescending stereotype of black-Jewish relations - the virtuous Jew coming to the aid of the helpless, grateful black - is wonderfully inverted. Rabbi Goldstein's vulnerability, as much as any other trait, starts to open the Jewish door to Adams. STILL, CONVERSION was no bolt of lightning. Fully 24 years passed between Adams's introduction to the Goldsteins and his conversion to Judaism under Conservative auspices in 1997. Eight years later, Adams had a second, Orthodox conversion. In between, in 2000, he became a bar mitzva. Appropriately, his ceremony took place on January 15, the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Shabbat on which the parsha told of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. Adams recounts his bar mitzva day with the candor and incision typical of the entire book - describing an African-American friend who refuses to wear a yarmulke, confessing his own trepidation about giving a Jewish congregation a d'var Torah making the biblical case for affirmative action. In writing about his marriage, Adams again overturns racial and religious presumptions. He, the black convert, is far more observant than his white, born-Jewish wife, Karen Sander. As he writes: "I had a kosher kitchen, she did not. I did not travel on Shabbat, talk on the phone or watch television, and attended synagogue weekly. Karen traveled on Shabbat, talked on the phone, watched television and she did not belong to a synagogue. Still I remained madly in love with Karen as we tried to broker a lifestyle that would be acceptable to both of us." Their reconciliation, or maybe their ability to tolerate difference, ultimately took the form of a son named Eliot Akiva. He will be growing up in an America with a mixed-race president and in a Jewish community enlarged and enriched by the presence of converts from myriad backgrounds. They are the most poignant refutation to the concept of Jews as a race - a concept that has done far more to enable mass murder and pervasive prejudice than to instill any kind of unity. By way of full disclosure, I should say at this point that my admiration for From Ghetto to Ghetto has a personal side. Through the early 2000s, I knew Ernest Adams by sight from my own shul-going on the Upper West Side, and when he wrote a first draft of the manuscript, I read and commented on it. He subsequently audited a course I teach in book-writing. My only frustration throughout the process was that, after a number of near-misses, no commercial publisher acquired the manuscript. The fact that it had to be self-published under iUniverse's imprint says much more about the economic woes of the book industry than the quality of this work. From Ghetto to Ghetto belongs on the same shelves that hold Julius Lester's conversion memoir, Lovesong: Becoming a Jew or Paul Cowan's account of Jewish rediscovery, An Orphan in History. "Being African American and Jewish is a lot easier than most black people may imagine, and for sure, a lot of other people," Adams writes toward the book's end. "One caveat: do not expect Perfection. There will be disagreements about politics and racial issues, seemingly on racial grounds, but there will be a lot more common ground if we keep our heads above ground." To which a reader could only add, yasher koach.