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Minority within a Minority

Minority within a Minority

Jews of color and their unique challenges.

by

A young African-American woman, who happens to be Jewish, tightens her braids while knotting her scarf. She straightens her colorful African print dress and gets ready to light the Sabbath candles.

The serenity of this Friday evening ritual unfortunately dissipates the next day when she enters the synagogue, encountering the stares and whispers of members of the congregation as they speculate, often within earshot, about her Jewishness.

Roughly 435,000 American Jews say they are African-American, Asian, Latino/Hispanic, Native American or of mixed race.

This is the case for many Jews of color who are weary of having to define and explain their family tree to curious fellow Jews. Most Americans still think of a Jew as someone whose skin is white. The reality, however, is that nearly seven percent (roughly 435,000 individuals) of this country's approximately six million Jews say they are African-American, Asian, Latino/Hispanic, Native American or of mixed race, according to a study by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

Many date their lineage to biblical times. Some Jews of color come from African or Middle Eastern lands, while others (or their forebears) were adopted into Jewish families. Some have a Jewish mother or grandmother, or come from converted families. Others credit their embrace of Judaism to curiosity about the Hebrew Bible and an appreciation of Jewish theology and traditions.

Yavilah McCoy is a second generation Jew and represents the fourth generation in a family line of what she calls African-American "seekers of truth" through Judaism. Her great-grandmother was the first in her maternal family line to investigate Judaism and take steps toward Jewish practice. Her grandfather, a civil rights spokesman and labor union leader, emphasized the significance of the African-American struggle for freedom, justice and equality that is deeply ingrained in McCoy's philosophy and message.

McCoy's parents were drawn to Judaism and chose to raise their six children in the Orthodox tradition. She was raised in Crown Heights and other Brooklyn neighborhoods.

Her education reflects diversity. She attended a chassidic elementary school, a Modern Orthodox high school, the State University of New York at Albany and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In her career as an English and Judaic Studies educator, McCoy found opportunities to teach in Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox and chassidic day schools.

McCoy, who resides in St Louis with her husband, Dr. Pinchas McCoy, and their four children, is the director of Ayecha Resource Organization, a national not-for-profit network that provides networking, advocacy, and support for Jews Organization in the U.S and offers educational resources to rabbis, educators, students, and outreach professionals aware of the need to increase communal appreciation of Jewish diversity.

What are some of the challenges faced by Jews of color?

I don't view being a Jew of color as a burden, but rather as a gift.

The biggest challenge faced by Jews of color is helping people understand that Jewish identity can be wider than being white and European. Speaking only for myself, being a Jew of color is less about challenges than it is an opportunity to bring a sense of social justice to the Jewish community. I don't view being a Jew of color as a burden, but rather as a gift.

Why do you prefer the term "Jews of color" as opposed to "black Jews?"

It binds me to both my own African heritage and the many Jews from different cultures around the world who, historically, have had brown skin. I refer to the Jews of Iraq, Iran, Tunisia, Yemen, Ethiopia, etc. For me, being a black Jew is not an anomaly in Judaism. Being a Jew of color incorporates more than just the color of my skin.

Why is it important to connect to your African culture?

I wish to acknowledge the African-American experience in this country and pay attention to the lessons that can be learned from America's struggle against racism and oppression. I think the level of political and economic comfort that many Jews feel in our current society has allowed them to forget some of the valuable lessons that that struggle has brought to the Jewish people over time.

What is the general black community's reaction to Jews of color?

I'm not comfortable making generalizations. What I can say is that I have met some African-Americans who embrace Jews of color and their history as part of the African-American experience, and who celebrate the diversity of spirituality that has flourished among people of color in America. Unfortunately, the experience of slavery robbed many African-Americans of the ability to choose their own religious practice since Christianity was forced upon us. Those in the black community who know this celebrate Jews of color.

I've met others, however, who have not been so kind. Upon meeting me, they have taken the opportunity to spill out their Christian rhetoric. They tell me I will burn in hell and I need to be saved from damnation. While this is not the case with most African-Americans I've met, there have been instances -- especially when traveling down south -- when being black and Jewish among my fervently Christian sisters and brothers of color has not been comfortable.

Do you ever get tired of having to explain your Jewishness?

I do get tired, but I manage my energy for the situation by choosing whether or not to answer questions, and when I do, being sure to answer them on my own terms. It took me a long time to figure out that it wasn't my job to prove my Jewishness to the rest of my community.

I didn't mind answering questions from people who genuinely wanted to get to know me and build relationships. But in many cases, I found it extremely isolating to be quizzed by total strangers out of sheer curiosity, as if I were a museum piece for people to gaze at and talk about how fascinating I was, and then walk away and tell their friends. When people want to be friendly and get to know me as a valued part of the Jewish community, it is always my pleasure to engage them in discussion.

Are there Jews of color who have left Judaism due to all the obstacles?

Sadly, many have left Judaism and Jewish practice. This is a shanda [a disgrace]. We don't do enough to bring dark-skinned Jews closer to Judaism.

Are Jews doing enough to include Jews of color in the fold?

I'm not sure the issue is Jews of color being included into the fold as much as the "fold" becoming an environment where all Jews can thrive, serve God, and live with one another in peace.

David Menasse

David Menasse lives in New York where he attends college. He looks like a typical student, hanging out on campus laughing with friends between classes.

But as a Jew of color, he actually lives a very lonely life. Menasse's mother is Jewish but his father is not. He grew up without much religion in his home. He embraced Judaism as a sophomore in college.

One always hears of dating hardships in Jewish circles. Has this been particularly difficult for you?

I'm a Jew and that's all that should matter.

I don't get set up too often and when I do, it's usually with an Ethiopian girl. I don't particularly like this, since I'm American and I would like to marry someone whose family is Americanized. Matchmakers feel that if I'm black and she's black, it's a match. Whenever I hear Ashkenazi singles complain, I get upset because I'm a ba'al teshuvah from a divorced home and I'm biracial. Try selling that to a shadchan!

Why don't you like focusing on your African heritage?

I'm a Jew and that's all that should matter. I don't feel any connection to Africa or other black people. I connect to Jews.

Sometimes, in an attempt to bond, other Jews talk to me about the latest rap song or what's going on with police brutality. That really bothers me because it makes me feel like an outsider. I grew up in Flatbush so I'm just as sheltered from all that as any other Orthodox kid.

Sheree Curry Levy

Sheree Curry Levy is a journalist and ethnologist who chronicles stories of black American Jews and other Jews of color.

Levy is a Jew by choice. She became interested in Judaism while a senior in high school after taking a comparative religion course. Studying to become a Jew as a college freshman, she converted to Judaism during her sophomore year.

Levy, creator of BlackandJewish.com, created in 2000 as a way for black American Jews and their friends to communicate, is member of the Alliance of Black Jews and resides in a Minneapolis suburb with her husband and two sons.

How does the rest of your family feel about your conversion?

I'm lucky because they have embraced it fully. It's never been a problem.

Are holidays especially hard on you?

Not at all. I live in a different state from my family, ensuring some distance between us during the major Christian holiday seasons. My mother is very supportive.

Did you find dating and finding a marriage partner difficult?

Not really. My husband and I met at a Chanukah party. I endured the same issues as other singles.

Do your children face any challenges as Jews of color?

They have a regular childhood. They are still young, five and four. Thus, they are not fazed by any of this.

Professionally, has your religious practice been a problem?

No. When Fortune magazine hired me, I told them that I have to leave early on Fridays and it wasn't an issue. I was the only employee to leave early on Fridays despite there being other Jews in the office.

What about your community's reaction to you?

Currently, we live in a small community that blends very nicely. Living in Israel for several years was most embracing since once Israelis determine you're not a tourist, they assume you're Jewish and focus on when you're making aliyah.

Are you frequently assumed to be Ethiopian?

No. They have distinct features. Actually, I was once asked in Israel if I was Whitney Houston!

What message do you have for the Jewish community?

People need to stop making assumptions about Jews of color. We are not all converts. It should not be assumed that every Jew of color is a Hebrew Israelite.

Additionally I would like to see Jews of color represented more in Jewish publications and illustrations.

As for converts, the Torah teaches us that we are not supposed to remind a convert of his or her status. Unless someone is a kohen, it's just not relevant.

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Press

 

Published: January 12, 2008


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Visitor Comments: 125

(101) hannah, April 23, 2012 7:35 AM

I always cry on shabat

i am a jew of color my skin is brown, i live in the northwest where some think it is so open, well it is not. my great grandmother was jewish, i am in so much pain because jews who have been persscuted as african americans have and we are both experiencing the same hate and antisemitisim why am i so different, i to have been told no jewish man would love me, i dont believe this, and i dont like being set up with only african jews for a date, i am a jew and that is all that maters, i thought we could get past, the ugliness of racisim, obiviously not, so i light my candels and have a small dinner alone, and then go to temple and feel like everyone can see the wind blow trough me, other jews who perpetuate this colour thing might as well be as bad as the goy of the kkk. i have enough to deal with being told by my manager i am going to hell and am not human for being jewish/black, why do the people i thought would open their arms with love and try to let me get to know them talk so fast and almost run from me, i am not an it, i am a live woman, with intellect, morals, i keep kosher, i live my jewish life, i once went out with a wonderful jewish man for a while and was told by this man, your are so beautiful and so much fun to be with but i dont think my family can take it, that you are brown, that your jewish and african american, so after 1 year of dating and having deep talks , going to lectures, having dinner, and my feelings of honoring him as a man, and my heart feeling light and conten, i was like the flower that needs the sun, he was sun, and he told me no, and the sun went down and has never risen agian, and i have not much hope it ever will. and so i cry for a beautiful relationship being lost and i began to blame myself for being perhaps repulsive, i just live quietly and pray quietly and perhaps i will have no one, perhaps i will someday , but i judged on one thing, my skin colour, and not overly sensitive, the pain has not left, and so i cry on shabbat

(100) Anonymous, October 12, 2011 1:12 AM

Difficulty converting as a Jew of color

This article and the comments rang so true for me, as a young black woman. Since my senior year of high school, I have been interested in converting. I was lucky enough to meet one Jewish family of color that helped me quite a bit in my journey, but I’ve had the hardest time finding a congregation that didn't make me feel out of place, with hard stares or constant questioning. Despite my Christian upbringing, the Jewish faith feels right to me and it is what I want for my children (if I'm blessed to have any); but I've been made to feel that my heart may not be genuine and/or I will never really be considered a Jew.I stopped reading Torah and going to services for the last two years b/c of that feeling. I figured, if a Jew is someone whose skin is white, then that's something I can never be, and obviously this isn't the right path for me. It wasn’t until a recent conversation with a young man I was dating, who is Christian, that made me realize I'm only hurting myself by not trying to study and live by the Torah. Unfortunately, it is very difficult when you can't find guidance or feel unwelcome to worship at services. I don't understand how or why the image of the Jews has come to mean only Ashkenazi Jews, when the patriarchs and the Tribes, lived and wandered in lands where we know people's skin colors are of varying hues, from light olive to black. Wouldn’t logic suggest that they too were of different skin colors? I am glad that Sheree Curry Levy mentioned having more representations of the world's Jewry in Jewish media. The single representation of European/white Jews presented today, sadly denies the Jews of color from the past and present, convert or not. Maybe, if people are reminded that being a Jew is, yes, about heritage (a heritage that has and will continue to include different skin colors due to conversions and marriages) AND living according to the Teachings, then the sight of Jews of color will be less of an anomaly in Jewish communities.

Chaim, May 13, 2014 10:40 PM

There Are Welcoming Jews

Dear Anonymous and Hannah,
I'm so sorry to hear what you have gone through. It must be truly heartwrenching and painful, to an extent I certainly cannot even fathom. I would just like to let you know there are Orthodox communities across the US that are welcoming and inclusive of Jews of color. The 2 that I know of are Denver and Seattle....if you'd like to find out more, feel free to ask the moderators for my email.

(99) Rabbi Aryeh Moshen, May 31, 2011 12:35 PM

For gerim and those considering conversion

I suggest that all those who are interested in converting as well as those who are already Gerey Tzedek, they they join http://groups.yahoo.com/group/orthodoxconversiontojudaism/ where you will be able to share resources and stories as well as receive some mentoring from those who are in the know.

Nitza-Chana, July 20, 2013 3:58 PM

Thank you

I just sent a request to join

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