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Conversions up, African-American Jews on the move

by Brad A. Greenberg

July 2, 2008 | 11:03 am

This spring, we saw a flashbang in Jewish-black relations with the saga of Daphna Ziman and the Rev. Eric Lee. Those waters have smoothed, and this week in New York, a former colleague of Martin Luther King Jr’s (no, not this one) said it is essential to both blacks and Jews that the communities identify their shared needs:

“As blacks and Jews, the wind may blow, the rain may beat down on an old house, be it a house in Brooklyn, Atlanta, America, Israel or Africa, but we all live in the same house,” Rep. John Lewis, a leader of the civil rights movement who stood behind Martin Luther King, Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, told a group of Jewish and black leaders in Brooklyn this week.

“We are one people, one family and we must stay together and build a society at peace with itself.”

Agreed. Interestingly, though, in an increasing number of cases, Lewis’ comment that “we all live in the same house” is especially true. What do I mean? Well, beside the reality that blacks and Jews have similar political sentiments, and the fact that Jews have historically felt the brunt of persecution whenever a society discriminated against anyone, there is a growing community of African American who are, in fact, Jewish.

Would you believe it numbers 150,000?

From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

The notion of black Jews is hardly new. The Jewish history of worldwide migration has led to Jews of every ethnicity. But much of the black Jewish experience in this country has flown under the radar of other Americans, [Temple University’s Lewis] Gordon said. That’s because many black Jews historically practiced privately or in segregated communities, he said.

The population was “swept up in the tides of racism in scholarship and institutions” that saw Jews as exclusively white, even though American Jews of European descent did not consider themselves white until recent decades, Gordon said.

“There have always been communities of either black people who are already Jewish or black people considering coming to Judaism. What is different is that institutional structures are changing,” he said.

“There is an increased effort to creating a welcoming environment for them.”

Gordon speculates that as many as 1 million black people in the United States have Jewish roots, among them African-Americans, African and Caribbean immigrants and Afro-Latinos.

Which is why Gordon thinks that, among the rising numbers of black Americans coming to Judaism, some of them are simply returning to it.

That’s how Sivan Ariel sees her experience.

Born to a Catholic family in the Virgin Islands, Ariel now believes her biracial grandmother practiced Jewish customs she learned from her mother.

“She would always talk about the laws of God” and the Exodus story, Ariel said. Her grandmother would light white candles, which now remind Ariel of those lit on the Sabbath.

“She was the only person I knew that actually did that, so I wondered if it was actually witchcraft,” Ariel said with a chuckle.

Growing up with only knowledge of Ashkenazim, I was ignorant enough about tanned Jews, let alone black Jews. There is an even more complex story than that of most American Jews, and dovetails with this comment about a true Passover Exodus.

One person bringing attention to the often voiceless community of black Jews is Lacey Schwartz, a New York attorney and documentary film maker who learned in college that she was conceived after her mother had an affair with a black man.

Photo
Schwartz’s film

Though finely attuned to the color of her skin, Lacey Schwartz — Schwartz, she reiterates — was raised in ignorant bliss in Woodstock, N.Y. The only child of her fair-skinned parents, she describes a sort of upbringing as iconic as any other American Jewish kid raised during the 1980s, complete with Hebrew school, a bat mitzvah, youth group, even her parents’ separation at age 15. “I was a nice Jewish girl in upstate New York,” she says, lapsing into a kind of East Coast Jewish whine.

Remarkably, no one in her family discussed Lacey’s dark skin and distinctively curly hair, nor did they acknowledge she was biracial. “People go day to day, and don’t talk about things,” she says, knowing well from experience.

But while Lacey’s family ignored the obvious, not everyone else did. When she was five, a boy in the nursery school playground insisted on checking the color of her gums to determine whether she was white or black. As a teen, black girls ostracized her. Whenever people questioned her identity, “I always said I was Jewish,” she says. Looking back, Lacey identifies herself as an interloper in a game of “which one of these things doesn’t belong.”

Schwartz’s film about being black and Jewish, “Outside the Box,” is so named because it was her college application that tipped her to added ethnicity; she could never figure out which to mark.

Hat tip for the AJC article to Bruce Feiler, who has been fixated with the theme of the Exodus story in American society, which is the focus of his next book.

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