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Race and Judaism

Either people are feeling their oats at the end of another academic year or the heat is getting to them.  But it must be the season for brouhahas.

There’s one that’s been brewing on the JewsByChoice.org forum.  Someone writes about having attended a shul with Filipino friends (gerei tzedek) and when the Filipino man sat down, a (white) woman came over and offered him a kippah.  He pulled one out of his pocket and put it on, flustering her.  The person who gives this account perceived this as an interaction motivated by the woman’s racial prejudice.

I’m entirely supportive of people of color converting to Judaism.  If the Torah speaks to people, let them come and take part.  And Judaism at its best is colorless, like water.

At the same time, I can understand how people of color could feel not entirely part of the congregation.  There is a very interesting (and, I believe, valid) list of issues faced by Jews of color called the Ashkenazi Privilege Checklist, featured on this blog.  Going down the list, I can see that many of the things I take for granted someone of color is likely not to enjoy.

I have given a lot of thought to the issue of race in Judaism lately.  And as you can imagine, I have a few things to say about it.

Here’s one.  In the situation where a woman handed a man of Filipino descent a kippah, it doesn’t necessarily mean she doesn’t think he’s Jewish.  She probably doesn’t, but the point is that he sat down in a sanctuary without a kippah.  That’s not done anywhere I know of except perhaps a Reform synagogue, and perhaps not even then.  If she didn’t hand one to any of the Caucasian congregants, perhaps it’s because she knows them personally and knows that they put one on before the service starts.  Or she’s offered them kippot in the past and they told her to buzz off.  The thing to do here is employ the principle of dan l’kav zechut, or judge the woman favorably.  She appears to mean well, whatever her views on race.  (My father, as Ashkenazi-looking as they come, used to walk into shul and forget to put on a kippah, and was offered one by other congregants every time.)

Another thing.  If you still believe that racism exists in America, and that it’s not even something of which people are always aware, why would you expect American Jews to be any different?  They’ve been there for generations, and even if you see them as an “oppressed” group, they may not see themselves as such.

I suspect the experience of alienation or perception of racism depends on the particular congregation.  Some are whiter than others, and some more colorful.  Some have more Israelis and Jews of color, and others fewer.  If you find your local Ashkenazi synagogue to have an unbearable attitude toward people of color, perhaps there is a Sephardi one you could attend.  Most people have to shop around synagogues anyway to find a rabbi they like, a chevra they can fit into, and a davening style that works for them.  If you’re a Jew of color, you have an extra thing to shop around for.

My suggestion to Jews of color if someone asks embarrassing questions about their background, or asks if they’re Jewish, or tells them they don’t look Jewish, is to give their interrogator a little lesson in shmirat halashon (guarding one’s speech).  The Torah commands Jews to love the convert.  It forbids asking people questions about their past.  Embarrassing someone is said to be tantamount to murder.  Not all Jews are white; they live all over the world and usually look like the people they live among.  Ever been to Israel and seen a Libyan Jew?  Or an Ethiopian?  Or one of the Bnei Menashe?

From the traffic on this forum, it would appear that the only thing that ticks off the person telling this story of the kippah in shul more than the story itself is people asking why it’s offensive.  In the comments following the post containing the Privilege checklist, one reader wonders if shuls can really be held responsible for not having kids of diverse racial backgrounds in their cheders, or materials (like books) reflecting racial diversity.  The author of the post insists that the shuls are responsible for such things.  Some shuls do have diverse populations, and others don’t.  Some nursery schools do have books with Jewish content that picture Jewish children of color.  But the vast majority of American Jews are white Ashkenazim from Eastern Europe.  That’s just the way it is.  They’re the ones who brought their customs and practices from Europe, and they’re the ones who built the communities, shuls, and mikvaot, hired the rabbis, and kept the building funds going.  Most have difficulty understanding why other white people convert to Judaism, and are probably not even aware that there is a trend today of people of color embracing Judaism.  I think that as more people of color choose to cast their lots with the Jews and become active members of synagogues, there will be more acceptance of them.

Rome wasn’t built in a day.  Women and Black people didn’t get the vote after a single protest.  Things take time to change, including in Judaism.  The most effective way to change things in Judaism is to do what has always been done: concentrate on making yourself a better Jew and person, be a participatory member of the community, and with your presence and persistence, slowly chip away at the establishment.  It’s how girls gradually were allowed to learn Torah, and how women are working to become rabbis and shul presidents in Orthodoxy.

Good luck.

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I have written a post about the Crunch family’s Lag B’Omer experience this year.  You can read it (and see the cake I baked for last Lag B’Omer) over at Frum From Rebirth.

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Go, Dames!

Yesterday I took the Crunch girls to a children’s matinee performance of “Dames of the Dance 2: The Pesach Story.”  The Dames are made up of Gush Etzion’s women’s dance teachers and their students, and following their highly praised show of last year, they were back this year with a series of 17 dances around the theme of the Exodus and the Pesach seder.  Among the many dance styles were tap, hip-hop, Israeli, jazz, and modern dance, the Charleston, and belly dancing (with lots of jingling but no visible jiggling).

Peach and Banana love shows, but Beans often loses interest after the first ten minutes.  Yesterday, though, the cockles of my heart were warmed by the sight of all three of them completely enraptured by the dancing.  Children, teens, moms, and grannies partook in the performance, telling the story with beauty, grace, wit and humor.  Here were a few highlights:

  • A video of little girls dressed as slaves dancing to Lenny Solomon’s “Into the Sea” (a parody of “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid; lyrics here);
  • A graceful modern dance by a group from Tekoa called “Desert Voices” which showcased the importance of water in the Hebrews’ sojourn in the desert;
  • A small tap ensemble dressed in Egyptian garb (lots of gold lamé) to demonstrate the Egyptian credo that everyone should dress and act like them (performed to the Bangles’ song, “Walk Like an Egyptian,” of course); and
  • A processional dance by women wearing “Dames of the Dance” aprons, providing percussion with metal bowls and colanders, spoons and whisks, forks, knives, and plates, enacting the cooking and table-setting part of seder preparation.  The kids were mildly interested here; the mothers and grandmothers in the audience were busting their guts laughing.

Despite the fact that the Gush is much smaller than Beit Shemesh (around 25,000 as opposed to 75,000), and we have far fewer Russian musicians and no conservatory, there is a wealth of culture here, especially for women.  There are the Dames, of course, and Raise Your Spirits, a group of women who do musical theater, writing and performing shows on Jewish themes.  (Raise Your Spirits began during the early part of this decade to provide entertainment for people in the Gush when there was nightly shooting by Arabs on the road to Jerusalem.)

What I love and admire best about these groups is not only their guts and their talent, but their initiative in making these wonderful events happen.  Some of that comes from this being a community with a very high percentage of immigrants (and children of immigrants) who are accustomed, when they don’t see something they want or need, to making it themselves.  With Raise Your Spirits, it came out of necessity, and with both, it provides a venue for women to perform who do not feel comfortable (because of the laws of modesty) performing for men.  But above all, it showcases local amateur talent, raises money for charity (half the price of each 40 NIS ticket goes to help the needy), provides entertainment for women of all ages, and shows that all women, regardless of shape and size, can build strength and flexibility, move gracefully, and create something beautiful.

Go Dames!

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