The Seesaw is a new kind of advice column in which a a broad range of columnists will address the real life issues faced by interfaith couples and families. Join the discussion by commenting on this post, sharing it on Facebook or following the Forward on Twitter. And keep the questions coming. You can email your quandaries, which will remain anonymous, to: firstname.lastname@example.org
I am an African American man who has just begun the conversion process. So far, so good. I am working with an amazing rabbi and my fiance couldn’t be more supportive. But the reality is that there is a big difference between converting and being and feeling a member of a community. What is it like out there for Jewish converts of color? I know it is not technically my responsibility to make everyone else feel comfortable, but still I would like to know what I can do to help people feel accepting of and connected to me since I will be the very obvious newcomer. P.S. Feel free to share any good Jewish jokes while you are at it.
ERIKA DAVIS: As a fellow convert and Jew of Color, I know that the decision to become Jewish and process of conversion can seem a bit daunting. My one word of advice is to take it all in. The process, the journey and transformation is a powerful, once-in-a-lifetime process that only a special few experience. And once you emerge from the mikvah, you are Jewish. According to Halacha you are a Jew and it is forbidden to ask “how”.
I’ve always said that the choice to be Jewish isn’t limited to converts to Judaism. In fact, every day we have to make the conscious choice to be Jewish. So the process of being Jewish doesn’t end in the mikvah, the mikvah is where it begins.
As you continue to study Torah, you will learn that Jews have always been a multi-racial, multi-ethnic people. “A mixed multitude went up with them” says Exodus. When you read geographical markers in Torah, you’ll find our roots in the Middle East and all over Africa. The Babylonian Talmud was written in modern-day Iraq and there isn’t a single Eastern European country named at all. Jews, like every other people, make up a mosaic of ethnicities, traditions, languages, cultures and food.
I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t sometimes hard, because it is. I have and continue to experience overt racism as well as microaggressions from both Jews and non-Jewish people of color who have only one view of what Jewish “looks” like. You’re absolutely right, it’s not our job to educate everyone and quite honestly it can be exhausting to try to! But there are Jewish leaders of color, organizations and individuals seeking to make changes in the way that we view ourselves as Jews as a broader community.
Lastly, as a board member of the Jewish Multiracial Network, I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you to be in touch. You will find a list of member-nominated welcoming communities, see faces of Jews who look like you, and realize that you and your family’s ethnicity and race are just another thread in the fabric of Judaism.
Erika Davis writes about the intersection of race, religion and sexuality on her blog, Black Gay and Jewish. She is a Jewish diversity advocate and a board member of the Jewish Multiracial Network. When not trying to change the Jewish world, Erika can be found in her kitchen cooking up a storm or helping mamas have babies as a labor doula.
Rebecca Lehrer: When The Seesaw shared this excellent and thoughtful question with me, I talked to a bunch of friends who are POC converts. During their conversions, they were tested for their true interest (fair enough); told to leave their partner alone so that they could find someone Jewish (sigh); ignored because of their race (mmmkay); and one Chinese woman even had people in the community make “chingchong” noises at her (WTF). Yet all of the people I spoke to were really happy with their communities at present.
In the Jewish community, as in any community, there is a spectrum of understanding and openness to newcomers, and, particularly, people of color. On one end, you’ll find open arms. On the other end, not so much.
It’s your right, and yours alone, to decide how much slack to give to a person on the uglier side of the spectrum, just like in any situation when you face racism or anti-Semitism. Now that you’re in the family — both your new wife’s technical family, and the wider Jewish family — Aunt Ruth might finally feel comfortable asking you a harmless (to her), yet inappropriate question about being black. That might be an opportunity for an honest conversation that opens her mind and brings you two closer together. But you never have to tolerate racism, even from a family member.
A few tactical moves:
— Have an ongoing, open dialogue with your fiancée, who should be a strong advocate for you in the Jewish community and specifically in her family.
— Seek out other mixed Jewish families, including interracial, interethnic, intercultural, interfaith.
— Take a position at your synagogue (Hand out programs! Be on a committee!). The more people know you, the better.
— Host Shabbat dinners to build relationships with both the skeptics and the supporters.
— Watch Old Jews Telling Jokes, “Annie Hall,” specifically this scene with Grammy Hall and, just for me, check out the Jewish comedy triumvirate, Jerry Seinfeld interview Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks drinking coffee together..
Rebecca Lehrer is the Co-Founder and CEO of The Mash-Up Americans, a website and consultancy representing the hybrid culture and new face of America. The Mash-Up Americans is exploring Spanglish, kimchi + more, just not on Shabbos.
SUSAN KATZ MILLER: While your nuclear family (assuming your fiancée is Jewish) will be entirely Jewish after you convert, you will still have extended family from your religion (or religions) of origin. I encourage you to cultivate the intention of experiencing the benefits of an interfaith family and not simply the challenges.
I think the key to feeling part of a Jewish community is to find one that fully embraces you–as a Jew by choice, an African American, and a member of an extended interfaith family. For example, you are going to want your parents and siblings to be warmly welcomed at your wedding, or a baby-naming, or bar mitzvah. The truth is that not every person in every Jewish community is ready to be part of this 21st-century reality. Your task is to find a community in which the leadership, policies, and membership make it very clear that your family will be appreciated for all that you bring to Judaism.
There are great resources now for supporting Jews from diverse backgrounds. Take a look at the organization Jews in All Hues, led by Jared Jackson, which provides diversity training to Jewish communities. Also check out The Shivtei Jeshurun Society for the Advancement of Jewish Racial & Ethnic Diversity, recently founded by longtime African American Jewish activist MaNishtana.
As for jokes, I find that those of us with complex identities or backgrounds must be cautious in attempting to share religious humor with casual acquaintances (or in advice columns). But on your new journey, you are sure to find deep and rewarding friendships, and safe places to share both sorrow and laughter.
Susan Katz Miller is both an adult interfaith child, and an interfaith parent. She is a former Newsweek reporter, and the author of “Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family” (Beacon Press).