Being Black and Jewish in America
Originally published in the Forward April 22, 1994.
“I usually introduce myself as ‘Robin Washington, I’m black and a Jew.’ I want to put my identity in your face; I want you to deal immediately with who I am,” grinned the 37-year-old independent filmmaker and managing editor of Boston’s African-American weekly Bay State Banner. Mr. Washington, who proudly displayed “the first kente cloth kippah,” just sewn by his wife, was the first of three speakers at a symposium “On Being Both Black and Jewish” held at Brandeis University last week.
“We’re who America’s becoming,” said Mr. Washington, who estimates that there are 200,000 black Jews in America today, up from 50,000 in the ’50s. “I think we offer America to America,” he said. “More people are going to look like me.”
The symposium was the brainchild of Jehuda Reinharz, provost and president-elect of Brandeis, who was intrigued by an article last fall by Laurence Thomas about being black and Jewish. He passed the article along to Jonathan Sarna, head of the Near Eastern and Judaic studies department, who realized that, with black-Jewish relations at an all-time low, this was an ideal year for a conference. Co-sponsored by Mr. Sarna’s department and Brandeis’ Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, it was also funded by the department of American studies, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Historical Society, the department of African and Afro-American studies, the Martin Wierner Fund for Distinguished Lectures and the Nathan Perlmutter Institute for Jewish Advocacy.
While black-Jewish relations are a highly charged political matter, the focus of the conference was often far more personal than political. “All my life people assumed ‘it must be terrible!’ But I never knew my ‘blend’ was . unique,” observed Mr. Washington, whose mother is a German-English Jew, his father African American. Both parents were active in the civil rights movement. “My family went from being the first black family on the block to the last white family. We didn’t change; the times did. But when I went to synagogues, I would often be asked — in urban places — ‘Are you from Israel? Ethiopia? Well, then where are you from?’”
Carol Conaway, a research fellow at Harvard University, recalled growing up in suburban Philadelphia as “a Negro. We were the only ‘colored’ living among Italian whites.” Her parents “emulated whites but were virulently anti-Semitic.” Ms. Conaway remembers 1959 as the year she first met Jews while playing the violin in a community orchestra, and as the year she first saw pictures of the Holocaust. “I felt an immediate bond with the Jewish people. My people were also scorned and despised. A link formed instantly.”
Ms. Conaway’s road to Judaism was a painful one. Just at the point when her identity was “transformed from colored to black,” her old friends began calling her a “Jewlover,” harassing her after school. Her grandfather, born into slavery, introduced her to the writings of Martin Buber, and when she felt “a tremendous affinity,” he counseled her to listen to her own heart. Her parents took a different approach. They “went berserk,” burning all of her Jewish books and forbidding her to attend synagogue. “They. didn’t understand the center of Jewish life is at home, not at the synagogue,” she added. “I was struck by how familiar the melodies and prayers seemed; I was attracted to Judaism’s intellectual side, its strong set of ethics. There is no Afro-American set of ethics like halacha, a way of life, a system of values.” After eight years as “an underground Jew spent reading everything I could about Judaism,” and after graduating from Bryn Mawr during “the time of Black Power,” Ms. Conaway started Conservative conversion classes — the only student in her class not converting for marriage. Her Ph.D. thesis at M.I.T. was on Midrash.
Ms. Conaway was not the only speaker who clearly valued her black identity but whose primary intellectual identification was Judaism.
“I’m a Jew who happens to be black,” explained Laurence Thomas, a professor of philosophy and Judaic studies at Syracuse University whose writing caught the eye of Brandeis’ provost and sparked the symposium. “Among my black students, I’m a pariah. I don’t carry the banner of blackness. I don’t talk black lingo or do the black strut.” Mr. Thomas, the author of “Vessels of Evil: American Slavery and the Holocaust” and “Living Morally: A Psychology of Moral Character,” continued, “For me being Jewish is a way of seeing the world. Our society is in the grips of stereotypes: Jews are allegedly ‘intellectually gifted and talented,’ while blacks have ‘a mark of inferiority.’ But there are dumb white Jews! I’ve: met them! I’ve taught them!” Mr. Thomas told the laughing crowd of about 80 people, which included only a smattering of Brandeis students and only a handful of African Americans
“Look at me as having a gift—two vantage points for seeing the world, two sets of lenses,” Mr. Thomas continued. “Why should we black Jews see what we are as a burden? There’s a rich black culture, but no black narrative (which identifies a set of ennobling rituals). The harm caused from blacks not having a narrative is that they don’t have a common way of unifying blacks who don’t tread the beaten path, and are then seen as traitors. Christianity is not the narrative and cannot supply it.”
In the symposium’s second half, Leonard Zakim, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League of New England, declared that black Jews “confound our own narrow way of looking at each other. … Jews have always had an insecurity that tomorrow it — their political and economic success — can all end. Walter Anthony, Brandeis’ eloquent, soft-spoken assistant dean of academic affairs the past six years, countered, “Blacks have so many insecurities that they can’t figure out which to be insecure about first.” Mr. Anthony, who grew up in Jewish communities but is not Jewish, still smarts having been referred to by fellow blacks at the University of Michigan as a “brother from another planet. With my tie and the way I speak I’m called a traitor. Some of us aren’t both [black and Jewish] but we feel the same sort of isolation. I’ve had a hell of a time working at Brandeis. They just now have gotten past my color.”
Lawrence Fuchs, who teacher in Brandeis’ American studies department, reminded the audience that between 1880 and 1930, Jews were thought of as “the Jewish race” by a large number of Americans. “America’s major fault line has been color. Jews can pass as Afro-Americans cannot. As individuals you three represent ‘a vision of this country where boundaries can be crossed.’”
But crossing boundaries, however permeable, requires a lot of finesse, patience and courage. The dual labels of traitor and pariah seem linked to the double identities of black Jews, who suffer as both.
“Today black is a description of my Jewishness,” Ms. Conaway observes. “Why can’t blacks accept me for being both? I want to be a thorn in the side of both communities, to make them rethink their liberal intellectual premises. They have to deal with the whole reality of me.”