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Suddenly, I’m an expert on black Jews*

by Brad A. Greenberg

July 17, 2008 | 12:44 am

I’m not Rodney Dangerfield, but I’ll admit that from my friends I get no respect. It took me a few painful teenage years to learn how to get people to laugh with me and not at me, or at least how to convince myself otherwise. My wife, God bless her, embraces this tradition and has been known to laugh at me a few times before.

Most recently—not truly, but for the sake of this post—she got a good chuckle out of call I received from the Christian Science Monitor, a paper that gets lots of respect and whose staff pushed me into third place in the American Academy of Religion’s 2008 newswriting contest for smaller publications.

See, I had blogged about the increasing number of African Americans converting to Judaism, and when reporter Patrik Jonsson, the Monitor’s Atlanta bureau chief, stumbled across my post, he phoned me as an expert source.

“Because you’re the expert on black Jews?” my wife snickered. “You’re neither.”

She was right: No matter how much I try to shove my identity into an ethnically Jewish mold, my skin is white as Poland is cold. Even in the summer. Regarding both.

So I spoke carefully with Jonsson, and when necessary I directed him to better voices: Gary Tobin of the Institute for Jewish Community and Research; Lacey Schwartz, the black-and-white renaissance woman behind “Outside the Box;” and Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, Uganda’s first.

The article ran today, and each “expert” makes an appearance, except Sizomu, whose countrymen are referenced. Jonsson used a comment I made about Jews being known only for inreach, not outreach, and I now have proof of another interview in which I didn’t embarrass myself. The most interesting part of Jonsson’s story, though, was his lede:

Like many of the growing numbers of Protestant blacks in America and Africa converting to Judaism, Elisheva Chaim grew up believing she had a “Jewish soul.”

As a black woman and a Baptist in the South, that was a peculiar, somewhat troubling realization. But when she turned her doubts about Christianity into a search for answers, the truth became evident: She had to go deeper than the Old Testament. She had to convert.

“It’s odd to see black people convert to Judaism, and even Jewish people look at me strangely, I’m not going to lie,” says Ms. Chaim “But once everybody sees that I can recite the prayers in Hebrew, their attitudes change.”

If my last name was Chaim, I would have thought precisely that moniker was primary indicator of a “Jewish soul.” The name comes from the Hebrew root “chai,” meaning “life.”

*Updated: Forgot to mention that I told Jonsson when we spoke that I thought there was really no connection between blacks converting to Judaism and the presidential election. This, however, was the subhead: “Conversions to Judaism among African-Americans are growing in a way that could affect the presidential election.” JTA’s Ami Eden agreed today that the article “doesn’t come close to backing up the ambitious claim.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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