On April 22, 1987, my mother was rushed to Interfaith Medical Center, situated on the outskirts of Crown Heights in Brooklyn. My mother was new to this country, without anyone to guide her about things like where to give birth to her firstborn, me. She claims I was the only white baby in the nursery. Decades later, I would discover that this, the place in which I was born, would be the only aspect of interfaith in my parents’ lives.
In the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community I grew up in, racism is a common aspect of life. It is seen as necessary in order to maintain the separation from goyim, or gentiles, and uphold the status of chosen nation (and as Hasidim, chosen Jews). As young children, we were educated about the horrors of the gentiles, who were out to destroy the pious Jews. ”In every generation,” we read aloud each Passover, “they [the other nations]stand ready to destroy us.” We are further taught that Esau, who symbolizes gentiles, forever hates Jacob, the Jewish nation.
As a young child I accepted what I was taught about the outside world without question. My exposure to non-Jews was limited to the few words I exchanged with the old Polish woman with the tattered kerchief on her head who cleaned our house once a week, and to passing by our black neighbors on the streets of Crown Heights. Any interactions with people outside the community were nonexistent — and unnecessary — since everything we ever needed was accessible through other Hasidic Jews just like us.
As a female I was taught to think, act and appear modest and demure at all times, hidden behind a mechitzah, the partition in the synagogue, and by layers of clothing wherever I went. I couldn’t talk or interact with boys past preschool, sing around men once I turned 12 or learn the intricate Jewish texts like the males in my family did.
My friends and family thought of our community as a safe, supportive and comforting little world. As I grew older I found it restricting, confining and controlling. I had many questions about our way of life that I was not allowed to ask.
At 18 years old I married the first man to offer me a ring. We moved to another Orthodox community, a 15-minute drive away from my childhood home. My husband was observant but not Hasidic. This was my rebellion.
But marriage, even to a non-Hasid, did not work as a means of escape. Five years after our wedding, I found myself separated and back in my parents’ house with my 2-year-old daughter. That first year back at home was a difficult adjustment period for all of us — only I didn’t want to adjust. I felt like I was being forced to return to an environment I had already escaped from, one in which I had never truly belonged.
The next few years were a journey of exploration and discovery for me. I was forced to figure out on my own where I stood. I got myself into therapy. I read more. I researched more. And I became bolder in my beliefs and in my thinking for the first time in my life. I remember discovering the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who writes about Nigeria and racism. Though all my close relationships were still with other Orthodox Jews, I was starting to think that maybe there were good people outside our world, even if they didn’t look like us. After all, they got up for me on the subway, and helped me carry heavy bags. Though they didn’t do a mitzvah by giving charity, visit the sick or invite guests the way we did, they still did all those things. Though they didn’t go to other ends of the world in order to do Jewish outreach, like many in the Chabad community do after marriage, they did things like send doctors, clean water and money to starving children in Africa.
At home, nothing had changed. Goyim were out to get us. Black people were referred to as “shvartses” at best, “animals” at worst. When my family sat around the table during the Sabbath, the word “shvartse” was tossed around freely, about the neighbors, the rude policewoman or the throngs of people at the West Indies Parade near our home.
One Friday night, my mother and I were arguing about something or other with the whole family seated around the table. At one point, my mother burst out and said, “It’s no wonder why you are the way you are; you were born at Interfaith.”
It took me a moment to understand what she was getting at. The realization made me laugh and sputter with shock. “Why I am the way I am,” I repeated. “And what way is that?”
“You know,” she said. “On a different path than the rest of us.”
I asked her what would have happened if I had been born in Maimonides, a predominantly Orthodox Jewish hospital where the rest of my five siblings were born, and she replied, sounding sad, “Maybe you would have turned out differently.”
Her message was clear: You were tainted by the mere presence of people who don’t look like us. Somehow, the tumah, or unholiness and impurity, of the black babies surrounding me, seeped into my neshamah, my soul, and tainted it forever.
I find it hard to believe that this is what our religion is supposed to be about — complete intolerance for anyone who isn’t Jewish, where skin color and religion determine your worth as a human being. Perhaps we’re looking at it wrong. Perhaps what is written in our Torah, “Love thy neighbor/friend as thyself,” does not mean to love only those Jewish neighbors who look and behave the way that we do — but rather, to love our other neighbors, those who are different, in the very same way.
Shaindy Urman is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.
Growing Up Hasidic — and Racist