Black and Blewishby Tina B. Eshel February 1, 2015
The history of blacks and their connection to Judiasm is a complicated tale seldom told. As February is Black History Month, it seems an appropriate time to look at what it means to be a Jew of color, or “Blewish” as some members of the group call themselves. Here, I speak with four people who fall on different points of that spectrum: two biracial women, one born to a Jewish mother, the other who converted when she discovered her Jewish heritage; a Black Zionist; and a Caribbean woman with Jewish roots who now calls herself “Jewmaican.”
Judaism transcends race
Jess Cohen is Jewish. An artist with a master’s degree in public administration, Cohen also has a certificate in Jewish communal service from Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. During her time at Hebrew Union College, she wrote a term paper called, “Blacks and Jews: Where has the Love Gone?”
Cohen’s interest is personal. Her mother is Jewish, her birth father is black and she identifies as biracial and “Blewish,” as has become the customary term.
“My parents met in the Civil rights movement,” she explains. “My mom and birth father met in college in late 60s and they were both active in civil rights and the decolonization of Africa.”
Researching the history of the relationships between blacks and Jews helped solidify Cohen’s Jewish identity. She has much to say about a common history that most, even those who could stand to benefit from the dialogue, don’t talk about.
“Initially, the Jewish community and black community were extremely close because Jews were incredibly involved in the push for civil rights. From abolition to marching and financial supporters of Selma and Martin Luther King and other high power members in the black community, [they] worked really closely with rabbis and other Jewish leaders.”
The love started fading with the rise of the “Nation of Islam and Malcolm X in the late 60s when more peaceful means and legal efforts gave way to more militant efforts. There started to be a strain between the communities – Jewish and black power movements,” Cohen explains.
“There were a lot of Jews [involved in the movement] and the tension between blacks embracing Islam was causing tension between the two groups.”
Like most “Blews,” Cohen moves between her two worlds, intimately aware of the biases each holds against the other. While working for a Conservative synagogue in New York, a congregant once asked her who she was. “I’m the youth director,” Cohen replied to which the woman said, “They let non-Jews do that?”
Cohen had to give the congregant a lesson on the diversity of Judaism, something most white Jews don’t experience in their lifetimes, she observes.
Cohen’s clarity of voice and opinion extends to political correctness and the angst many biracial Jews report feeling in society, or in this case the two tribes – American Jewry and American Blacks – that often want “Blews” to chose one identity or the other.
“I identify as racially mix. I prefer [the term] Black. I always feel African American is a mouthful and I grew up in the pre-politically-correct generation, so for me saying that is like, Dude, this man isn’t an Irish-American. Why do we have to categorize what type of American you are?”
She continues: “There’s a misconception particularly in America that Jews are white. I’m a Jew by birth. I think we are so into categorizing and putting people in boxes and safely homogenizing Judaism that we lose the point. Jews come in all shapes, sizes and colors.”
Rekindling the love between tribes
That tension Cohen wrote about at Hebrew Union College L.A. continues to reverberate with consequences today. Once upon a time, black leaders such as Martin Luther King were strong supporters of the Jewish community, and, by extension, Zionism. Today, that sense of support waxes and wanes, particularly with regards to Israel and the spurious attempts by pro-Palestinian groups to connect the civil rights movement with their own.
Dumasani Washington is a pastor, author and music educator in Northern California. He’s been an Israel supporter for many years, focuses his efforts on young adults and formed the Institute for Black Solidarity with Israel in 2013. Washington blogs for The Times of Israel, and he conducts diversity outreach for Christians United for Israel, the largest pro-Israel organization in the United States.
Washington’s work can be seen as an extension of the civil rights movement that once united, and is now working to reunite these two communities.
“This is an unfortunate reality in a global community that is very ‘race’ conscious. People of color understanding that the Jewish people are black, white and brown (and that they are persecuted on the basis of their ethnicity, regardless of their ‘color’) is crucial. It is also the first step to understanding the true, universal fight for human rights.”
Washington wants his “Jewish brothers and sisters to know that they are not alone; there are many outside of their community that care about them and the Jewish State.”
As for non-Jewish blacks and people of color, Washington’s message is respectfully critical. He says that any parallels between the Palestinian plight and that of African Americans is inaccurate, dangerous, and needs to stop.
“I also want [people] to understand the importance of a free, prosperous, strong Israel to many around the world – not just the Jewish people. There were 60 million who died as a result of Hitler’s Nazis and World War II, Six million were Jews, which means 54 million were not. Anti-Semitism is a poison that affects everyone.”
Finding her Jewish dreadlocks
“I call myself a Jewmaican,” says Yvonne Scarlett, a holistic healthcare practitioner and founder of Red Lotus Wellness in San Diego, who was born and raised in Jamaica. “On both my mom and dad’s side, there are Jewish relatives.”
Growing up in Jamaica, (some researchers have estimated that up to 424,000 Jamaicans have Sephardic ancestry), Scarlett was “always fascinated with Jewish customs and traditions and grew up with a lot of Jews. The curiosity was always there.”
What’s more, she says, “I didn’t feel like I ‘belonged’ in the church. I had an issue with the deity of Jesus for a long time.”
In 1996, she left the church and began worshipping with “the Black Jews in Jersey” for about five years while also frequently checking out Conservative synagogues.
“I was living as a Jew for many years. My boys were circumcised. I was living according to Torah. However, when I moved to Florida, I was concerned that if I died, would I be allowed to be buried in a Jewish synagogue?”
That’s when Scarlett spoke to her rabbi who arranged for her to present before the Beit Din.
“I did the work to become officially converted. I went into the mikveh to make sure there was no question to the validity of my conversion.”
With her flowing dreadlocks and lilting Jamaican accent, Scarlett wants people to know there’s no physical representation of who is a Jew.
“If I were in Jamaica, there’s Jews that look like me.” Even so, she continues, “I’m always asked if I’m a convert. I know it’s because I’m black.”
Stepping stones to Judaism
Jessica Lemoine’s upbringing was unconventional by any standard. Raised Christian by her white mother who never married her black father, Lemoine discovered at age 11 that she was Jewish on her mother’s father’s side. From that moment on, the precocious adolescent decided to explore Judaism. She started by attending a Messianic Jewish synagogue. Today, she teaches math at a prestigious college preparatory high school in San Diego.
“As a traditional Jew now, I can understand why Jews have a bias [towards Messianic], but at the time it was a fabulous stepping stone between the two worlds.”
She describes Messianic synagogue services as very familiar in form and format, following the Jewish calendar and worship services.“Most of the people who attend Messianic synagogue are primarily Jewish men born in traditional Jewish homes married to Christian women. That’s why I fit there so well.”
In college, she started going to Hillel.
“Traditional synagogue was the most welcoming place I could be and they didn’t question my skin color,” Lemoine says.
“I can go into nearly any community and can fit in like a chameleon because since the day I was born, I’ve had to swing in different worlds.”
Lemoine met her husband, Rich – an MIT educated scientist – through her rabbi who thought they would make a good pair because they both have a white mother and black father with extended Christian family.
“My father passed when I was 23, about three months before I got married. My husband grew up in a Jewish home with a black, atheist father … it’s a funky niche we fit.
“I struggled so much with my racial identity and my religions identity that I was so determined that my children would not have that experience.
“It’s been so nice to be a typical Jewish family,” especially in Southern California, Lemoine concludes.
The challenges she faces today as a biracial Jewish woman involve her sons. Her eldest, who has blond hair and light skin, identifies as white; her youngest, with his darker complexion and more African features, identifies as biracial. Having children who look so different from one another surprised the Lemoines, who had determined, “as a couple that we would raise our children as Jews in a traditional setting and their parents would look like them.”
Two years before her eldest son’s bar mitzvah, on the advice of her rabbi, Lemoine decided to go to the mikveh to clear up any personal confusion about her identity as a Jewish woman.
“It was a turning point for me. No matter what happens, that was the day in my head that I became confident in my Judaism. I am a Jew.”