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Jewish Journal

Myth of Uniformity

by Rob Eshman

July 10, 2003 | 8:00 pm

A lesbian, a Chinese American and a black man walk into a bar.... It's not the start of a joke, it's the beginning of a minyan.

It takes 10 Jews to make a minyan, or quorum for communal prayer, and at least three of the people on stage at the University of Judaism last week fit the description above. They were taking part in a July 1 panel discussion on "Creating a Culture of Welcoming in the Jewish Community," as part of the Whizin Institute for Jewish Family Life summer seminar.

"We live with powerful myths of who we are," said the organizer, professor Gary Tobin, director of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research.

He asked, what do you see in your mind's eye when someone mentions the term "Jewish family?" Most people might imagine an Ashkenazic mom and dad with two children. But that's not reality.

"If you really look at the nature of the Jewish family," Tobin said, "and add up all the families that fit this image, it's about 10 percent."

In other words, the Jewish future -- if we are to have one -- will look more and more like the panel pulled together at the UJ. It's not a matter of, "Funny, you don't look Jewish." It's that Jewish doesn't really have a look any more.

"My community is very welcoming," said Davi Cheng, president of Los Angeles' Beth Chayim Chadashim, the first gay and lesbian synagogue in the United States. Cheng is Chinese American. Asked if strangers in the synagogue approach her because they want to welcome her or because she stands out, she gives the unblinking answer, "People come up to me because I'm exotic."

That word came up frequently in the course of the discussion. Jews, long regarded as exotics in the lands they wandered, are too quick to single out the uncommon faces in our midst.

But "we" have always incorporated "them" -- beginning with Moses, who married a non-Jew. Our distinctiveness has helped us survive, but our ability to blend and assimilate other peoples has also been a source of strength.

"Our non-Jewish family members -- referred to in the Bible as 'the strangers within your gates' -- have been a secret source of our community's health and vibrancy throughout history," wrote Anita Diamant, author of "The Red Tent."

For many of us, our initial introduction to the many faces of Jewry came with the establishment of the State of Israel, when the country filled with Jews from the four corners of the earth, who looked like anything but those freckled kids wearing the kibbutznik hats in the Hebrew readers.

Even as our own community in Los Angeles has grown and diversified, turning into disparate communities of Persian, Sephardic, Russian and Israeli Jews, we have clung to the myth of uniformity. We do so in part because we're so attached to the myth of unity, but also because as Americans, we are not immune to the race consciousness that permeates our society.

Capers Funnye, rabbi at Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago, made this point clear. More often than not, he said, he will visit a new synagogue wearing his yarmulke, dressed in his tzitzit (ritual fringes). Funnye (pronounced Foon-nay) will pray the liturgy flawlessly, chant Torah when called to the bima and give a sermon that displays his considerable learning. Afterward, someone in the congregation will inevitably approach him and ask, "Pardon me, but are you Jewish?"

My wife, a young and beautiful rabbi, is often asked, "Are you really a rabbi?" But no one has ever asked her if she's Jewish. The difference, of course, is that Funnye is black.

But statistics tell us the Funnyes and Chengs of the Jewish world are less and less unusual. If you subtract the Orthodox from the mix, the intermarriage rate among Jews is not 50 percent, but more like 60-65 percent. That means there are 1 million intermarried Jewish families, according to Tobin.

Rabbi Neal Weinberg, who runs the UJ's Introduction to Judaism program, said he oversees 250 conversions per year. Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the Orthodox and Reconstructionist movements add hundreds more to this number.

"The Jews who go through this process are very knowledgeable," Weinberg said. "The new Jews often know more than [Jews by birth] know, and they stay involved all through the year."

If you've been following "Sex and the City" this season, you know popular culture is on to this phenomenon. Charlotte, the WASP princess, is in the midst of undergoing conversion. (The one downside to this plot line so far is a rabbi who is far more sanctimonious than just about any rabbi I know -- maybe it's a New York thing.)

Though her Conservative Jewish boyfriend doesn't mind if she sets up a Christmas tree, Charlotte won't hear of it. "I don't want to be a meat-eating vegetarian," she explains.

While Charlotte is fictional, Funnye and Cheng are not. America's grand openness, which has made it acceptable to welcome Jews into the mainstream, has also made it acceptable for the mainstream to become Jewish.

"This is the best opportunity Jews have had in 100 years," said Tobin.

Our role in this phenomenon is simple: We must welcome the newcomers.

"Our ancestors were slaves; our ancestors were pagans," Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom said at the conference. "We're all in a sense Jews by choice."

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