As we enter this holiday season, Jews around the world will celebrate Hanukah. And the global Jewish community is a diverse one, a multicultural and multiracial assemblage, by no means monolithic, representing millions of people throughout the world. Jews in China look like other Chinese, while Jews in India resemble other Indians, as is the case with the Igbo Jews of Nigeria and the Lemba of Southern Africa, and so on. They differ in their religious and cultural expression. For example, some may not know about glatt kosher, but still observe traditional dietary laws. And in some places only women can become a mohel (the person who performs circumcisions on baby boys).
But like a faulty census that leaves out people and portrays an inaccurate picture of what is happening, the Jewish diaspora is not counting all of its members. Part of the reason is that Jews of color are often held in suspicion, not viewed as real or authentic. The reality is that black and brown Jews always existed, and for thousands of years. Given the places where the stories in the ancient scriptures took place, what else could you expect? Yet, media images–including Charlton Heston’s portrayal of a blond-haired, blue-eyed Moses in The Ten Commandments — only serve to create confusion concerning race and Judaism.
“Jews of color have been like Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird, a bird trying to reintegrate itself into its flock, but looks so different that the flock would turn itself on the painted bird, pecking on the painted bird until it falls to the ground,” said Rabbi Capers Funnye, head rabbi of the predominantly African-American Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago. The congregation was founded in 1918 by a rabbi from Bombay, India.
Rabbi Funnye converted to Judaism, but his introduction to Judaism was through the lens of Africa. His congregation combines the usual Jewish prayers with gospel music and the beat of the drum. But that is ok, because that is what culture is all about. “Jewish practices are based on cultural adaptations, where people found themselves,” the rabbi notes. Although he is a rabbi with extensive knowledge and undeniable passion, Rabbi Funnye is asked if he is really a Jew. “For a Jew who don’t look like you, that question is offensive,” he responds.
Rabbi Funnye — who is also a member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, and the cousin of First Lady Michelle Obama — recently gave the keynote speech at a symposium on race and Judaism at Temple University. The symposium was convened by Professor Lewis Gordon of Temple’s Center for Afro-Jewish Studies, and had participation from the Institute for Jewish and Community Research and Be’chol Lashon, a San Francisco-based group which encourages ethnic, racial and cultural inclusion in the Jewish community.
The conference was refreshing in that it invited a discussion on subjects usually not covered in academia or the mainstream Jewish community. For example, there was a discussion on Rabbi Alysa Stanton, the first African-American woman ordained as a rabbi, and the first black rabbi to lead a majority white congregation. Stanton, whose congregation is in Greenville, NC, received death threats and required a police escort the day she was installed as rabbi.
Another topic of discussion was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, that mythic symbol of black-Jewish cooperation who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King. Rabbi Heschel is a great source of pride for the Jewish community, yet he was marginalized during his life, and regarded as an oddball. Other rabbis advised him to stay away from the rabble-rouser King. And today, Heschel’s anti-racist, social justice message is defanged.
Further, there was an examination of black-Jewish relations and the civil rights coalition, and the manner in which Jews benefited from civil rights in ways blacks could not; the focus by organizations such as the ADL on issues of Jewish authenticity and Minister Louis Farrakhan, when there are genocides taking place around the world; concepts of whiteness and blackness, and the ways in which the Jewish communities have negotiated race. Participants also tackled such weighty issues as black power, and the attempts to equate it with anti-Semitism; the disproportionate representation of neoconservative Jewish voices in American political discourse, and the use of white Ashkenazi Jewish voices as the authoritative voice against affirmative action.
Included in the symposium was the inevitable discussion of Israel, and the ways in which some immigrants become “white” when they arrive in Israel, although they were not considered as such in their home countries. And of course, there is Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Rabbi Funnye, who works with the Palestinian-American community in Chicago, believes that Israel must do a better job of showing its own diversity. He also shed some light on African-American perceptions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Black people don’t say anything because they see the Palestinians as David, and Israel as Goliath,” Funnye concluded. “They don’t want to be called anti-Semites.”
These are tough issues, to be sure, and the conversations must continue at Temple University and throughout the country and the world. A culture benefits when its diverse voices are allowed to express themselves. This is how a culture sustains itself and grows. Jews of color have much to contribute, and much to say. And they must be heard.
This article first appeared in The Black Commentator and is republished with permission.