Not All Jews Look Like Barbra StreisandErika K. Davis, Kveller, January 19, 2012
I’m not a mother, yet, but I hope to be one day. I enjoy reading Kveller for a variety of reasons, one of them being my 90s obsession with Mayim Bialik, and others have to do with my obsession with motherhood. I’m a 32-year-old black, lesbian Jewish woman madly in love with an Ashkenazi Jewish woman from Texas. While we’re definitely not in the place where we’re making plans for children, it’s on our radar.
I often find myself in mental debates over donors we’d choose: could we find a biracial Jewish donor? Would my partner be comfortable raising a black child if I choose a black donor? Is adoption a better option? When I saw Alina Adam’s piece, My Daughter’s Black/Jewish Hair, I was prepared to be angry based on the title alone, but instead I could hear the sincerity in her voice. Raising biracial Jewish children isn’t just about hair, it opens up an entirely different set of concerns and a new level of awareness of race and ethnicity within the Jewish community.
Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder recently wrote a blog post called Jewish And…Youth, Diversity and the Future, in which she shares the story of a Jewish child who becomes a bar mitzvah who also happens to be South Korean. In this child’s Jewish community being “Jewish and” is fully accepted and celebrated, but is this the reality of other Jewish children who are Jewish and…?
The implication of “Jewish and…” is that the “Jewish” is the norm, (or white) and the “and” is the other, or non-white or non-Jewish–when in fact a large number of children who are racially and ethnically diverse Jews are just that, Jews. I don’t think that Alina meant to infer that her child’s hair wasn’t Jewish by asserting that it was Black/Jewish hair, but I can understand why it would came off that way.
Twenty-percent of American Jews are racially and ethnically diverse. Jews with African American, Chinese, Indian, and Mexican backgrounds to name a few. Jews of color are born into Jewish families, some Jews of color are adopted, while other Jews of color come from the union of two parents who are racially different. Despite the racial and ethnic diversity that exists within the Jewish community, it is still commonplace to assume that a Jew is someone who looks like Barbara Streisand or Woody Allen or Sarah Silverman. When, in fact, many Jews look like me or Alina’s adorable child.
One of the greatest concerns I have about bringing a biracial Jewish child of two mothers into the Jewish community is having them feel like an outsider. The progressive Jewish community prides itself in being an open and tolerant place, but it needs to do more than just be tolerant, it needs to celebrate the diversity that exists in its midst. Again, I’m not a parent, but I can only assume that it starts with the parents of Jews of color. I’ve been in Jewish day schools and I am always uncomfortable in the way that the schools look. The cut-out pictures of Jews on bulletin boards and tacked to the walls are often images of white Jews. The story books about Hanukkah and Shabbat are often illustrated with pictures of Jews who only look one way: white.
I don’t know what it’s like to be a parent of biracial Jewish children, but I had an amazing opportunity with Be’chol Lashon, a Jewish organization dedicated to celebrating diversity, during Sukkot. I sat in a room of parents listening to their experiences raising children who are racially different than themselves and the following morning I sat in a room of ethnically and racially diverse teens and listened to their stories. Hearing the same stories being told through the eyes of a child versus the eyes of their parents was revealing. I can’t share those stories, because they aren’t mine to share, but I can say that Judaism is a beautiful thing. We are a beautiful people, yet the vastness of that beauty is rarely seen or celebrated.
Parents of racially and ethnically diverse Jews are often in an uphill battle of finding language that’s inclusive. The majority of Jews in the United States are of Ashkenazi, European, white heritage. Stereotypes of who a Jew is in media, in advertisements, and in movies are Jews of Ashkenazi heritage more often than they are Jews of Mexican, Black, or Chinese heritage.
In my experience being a black Jew in an average New York synagogue means being assumed to be a child’s nanny, a member of security, or simply the help. To be sure, Jews of Ashkenazi heritage have had, and continue to be victims of anti-Semitism and bigotry. When you’re a Jew who is raising a child who is not Ashkenazi, battles over curly hair are just the beginning. Thankfully there are organizations like Be’chol Lashon and the Jewish Multiracial Network that are dedicated to creating spaces for both parents and children as well as educating Jewish communities about being more aware of the diversity of Jews.
Being the parent of Jews of color means answering tough questions and coming to terms with how we identify personally as Jews. Jewishness can’t just mean matzah ball soup or brisket, because that’s only one way of being Jewish. Being the parent of Jews of color is fielding unsolicited questions from strangers and having hard talks with children who will eventually come home from Hebrew school with hurt feelings because a classmate questioned their Jewishness.
Whether we, as Jews, are willing to admit it or not, racism, misunderstanding, prejudice, and bigotry exists within the Jewish community. As parents of Jewish children it is our job to educate our children about who Jews are, what we eat, and what we look like–which isn’t just about Bubbe’s matzoh ball soup or Aunt Rose’s famous brisket, but also exploring other Jews’ experiences along with our own. Some may say that adoption, interracial marriage, and interfaith families are changing the face of Judaism, but Judaism has always looked this way. Since the mixed multitude left with the ancient Israelites in the Exodus story, Jews have been a diverse people. Whether we accept, acknowledge and learn from that diversity is up to us.
I’m sure that my future and unborn children will hear their fair share of questions, as it is, I am always answering asinine questions myself. I’m anxious and curious if I’m a strong enough Jew to answer them in a way that they will understand. I hope that when it’s time for me to have children that their Jewishness won’t be questioned because of their dark skin, their two moms, or their curly hair.