Where Black and Jewish Identity Merge

Authors Emily Raboteau and Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts Seek Utopia

Plane to Zion: Emily Raboteau, author of “Searching For Zion,” traveled the world on a quest to understand the yearning for the promised land.
courtesy emily raboteau
Plane to Zion: Emily Raboteau, author of “Searching For Zion,” traveled the world on a quest to understand the yearning for the promised land.

By Adam Langer

Published January 27, 2013, issue of February 01, 2013.
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S.R.P.: I took a class in college with Jamaica Kincaid, who is from the British Caribbean and converted to Judaism, and her reading of the black American story of Exodus was really interesting to me because she said the Hebrew slaves had a different God than their oppressors and that when they were fleeing toward freedom, it was with the vision that their God would not do this. Certainly the slaves found inspiration in Exodus, and certainly the black church has been a force for liberation struggle. But I always wonder what would have happened if people had refused the God of the slave masters.

E.R.: Well, a lot of them did. I was interested in part in learning about links between blacks and Jews, because you have this sort of flowering of black Judaism and people like Jamaica Kincaid, who, decades earlier, were embracing Judaism.

A.L.: In taking your journeys, do you have any hope that your children won’t be brought up with the same need to search for answers, that they will already have the answers you’ve written your books to search?

E.R: I don’t like to think of my children being people who would not search or ask questions. At the same time, I hope for them to have a more secure sense of themselves and who they are in the world than I did as a young person.

S.R.P.: I imagine the question of black liberation, of black freedom, is a different question for our generation that it was for our parents or our grandparents. So it’s going to be a different question for our sons’ and daughters’ generation, but I don’t think it’s a question that will have evaporated.

E.R.: Something that was carrying on my journey was this provenance of my own blackness. I was interested in talking to black people who’d left home to find the Promised Land, and then I kept arriving in these places and having that question upset or overturned. The Ethiopian Jews I talked to in Israel, for example, don’t think of themselves as black or even necessarily as African.

Your son is of two places; my children have that experience, as well. So, the questions they ask will be different because their backgrounds are different than ours were and are. These questions of identity are shifting as boundaries and borders change.


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