Black and Jewish and Read All OverJulie Wiener, The Jewish Week, July 16, 2013
She may currently live on the Upper East Side, but Simone Weichselbaum, 31, remains a Brooklyn girl. Raised in Williamsburg and Crown Heights by her Ashkenazi Jewish dad (who freelances for The Jewish Week) and Jamaican mom, Weichselbaum, a Park East Day School grad (she formally converted to Judaism at age 7), covers Brooklyn for the Daily News.
Her coverage — "piercing, respectful, accurate and entertaining reporting of the multicultural borough, in particular its Orthodox Jews and Jews of color" — earned her the 2013 "Media Award" from Be'chol Lashon, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that celebrates and promotes cultural/racial diversity and inclusivity in American Jewish life.
Weichselbaum — who reports on everything from crime to the city's bike-share program (she's an avid cyclist who often commutes to interviews on her two-wheeler) — recently met with The Jewish Week at a café near her apartment. The following is a condensed and edited version of the conversation.
Q: So what was it like growing up in an interracial and Orthodox family?
A: My parents raised me Jewish — we never talked about race. They said, "You're biracial." I grew up with other kids who were like that too. Park East had other biracial Jews and Jews from around the world, so it wasn't weird to be brown there.
So, do you identify as black?
I'm proudly biracial. I'm very adamant about this. I don't understand why people pick one. I'm Jamaican and Jewish. I have friends who are biracial and say they're black Jews or Latino Jews. I'm like, "You're mom's white, knock it off." ... I like [Shlomo] Carlebach and Biggie Smalls. I listen to both on a daily basis.
Are your parents still Orthodox?
My dad goes to Chabad in DUMBO, and he learns there on Wednesdays. His favorite thing to do is trying to set me up with men from his shul. It's very annoying.
You're not interested in being set up?
Not by my father! He says I'm turning him into a clichéd Jewish mother.
What about your mom?
My mom knows Yiddish and kept a kosher home. She went through the training for a haredi conversion when I was a kid. ... Both my parents call me a lot. They call once or twice a day. When you're an only child, they think you can't take care of yourself.
I can see why they'd worry, considering that you do a lot of crime reporting.
When I was at the Philadelphia Daily News I would ride around the city covering crime with a photographer — they called me "Sidecar Simone." Philadelphia is a very scary place. ... But here, even in the rougher neighborhoods people usually welcome media coverage. My only concern is God forbid I get hit by a stray bullet.
So, what's your beat now?
I cover Brooklyn. Also, I like bikes, and obviously I like Jews and black people. The good thing about being mixed is you can be plugged into both cultures.
Do you identify as Orthodox? Are you observant?
I recently moved to the Upper East Side to be closer to Park East Synagogue. I keep kosher in my own way. I don't eat pork, and I don't bring in meat that's not kosher. I like Shake Shack though. ... The problem when you grow up religious is you feel guilty all the time. You know when you're cheating. I do Shabbat — I have a Shabbos posse, because when you're young and single in New York there's a whole Shabbos scene; it's more like a social thing.
You wrote your college thesis on the Crown Heights riots, and reported on the 20th anniversary. Do you remember the riots, and what was that like given your family is black and Jewish?
I was going into fifth grade then, and we hadn't moved to Crown Heights yet. I was more focused on my toys then than on what was going on, I wasn't really aware of crime and violence at the time. But it was interesting spending a month reporting there for the 20th anniversary. I got to interview Gavin Cato's father.