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‘Juneteenth this year is a whole new ballgame’ — 9 Black Jews on the holiday of liberation

Juneteenth celebrates one of the most important events in American history: the end of slavery. June 19, 1865, was Galveston, Texas, finally freed its enslaved people — the last place in the United States to do so.

Now, 155 years later, the country is convulsed by a critical conversation about the systemic racism that is rooted in its history with slavery. And while Juneteenth, widely seen as a kind of African-American independence day, has for years been marked with picnics, parades and programs in many black communities, it is having a more mainstream moment this year.

Companies including Twitter, Square and The New York Times have given employees the day off. President Trump postponed to June 20 a rally he had planned for Tulsa, Okla., the site of one of the worst race massacres in history, after outrage erupted over the timing, The Jewish Multiracial Network has created a “Kaddish for Black Lives,” and all around the internet, people are sharing recipes for “hot links and red drinks,” as The Times put it — red foods are traditional for the holiday because red stands for resilience.

At The Forward, we are hosting a Jewish conversation about Juneteenth via Zoom on Friday at noon EDT with Rabbi Sandra Lawson, a chaplain at Elon University whose powerful personal essay about never going unquestioned in a Jewish space we published last week; and our contributing columnist Tema Smith, whose most recent piece, about police brutality, was titled “Why will this time be different from all other times?”. Please sign up here to join the conversation (if you can’t make the time but are interested, sign up anyway and we’ll email you the video afterward).

We also asked Rabbi Lawson and other African-American Jews about the holiday. Excerpts from the interviews, conducted by myself, Batya Ungar-Sargon, Irene Katz Connelly, Molly Boigon and Mira Fox, are below.

Jodi Rudoren, Editor-in-Chief

‘It should be a new beginning for us’

TribeHerald founder Yitz Jordan.

TribeHerald founder Yitz Jordan. Image by Courtesy of Yitz Jordan

A Brooklyn-based songwriter who can rhyme in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Aramaic, Yitz Jordan, 42, is a founder and chief executive of TribeHerald, a new publication oriented around Jews of Color whose Website is slated to launch June 18 — or, as he puts it, “Erev Juneteenth.” Find him on Twitter as @ylove.

Up until this week, I thought of Juneteenth as a festival, a celebration of freedom from slavery. But now, it feels as much like a protest as anything else. Juneteenth is really a reminder that slaves went from slavery to freedom. It was the beginning of a new era, for the country and in their lives. And it should be a new beginning for us.

We are living in the turbulence of that transition and, God willing, we’re going to something much better than what we had before.

‘Emancipation from the enslavement of silence’

Michael W. Twitty

Michael W. Twitty Image by Courtesy of Michael W. Twitty

A former Hebrew school teacher, Michael W. Twitty, 43, is a chef and food historian who studies how enslaved people shaped food culture in the American South. He’s currently working on his second book, “Kosher Soul,” which will explore his own food journey through African-American and Jewish cuisine. Twitter: @KosherSoul

Juneteenth this year is a whole new ballgame. So often we talk about liberation, but it’s fascinating that this year, we’ve received a true Passover and a true Juneteenth.

On Passover, we were forced to stay inside and watch as a plague swirled around us. On Juneteenth, we’re celebrating an emancipation from the enslavement of silence: silence about law enforcement overreach, about disparities between black America and white America, about the two realities 401 years after 1619.

Not just emancipation from silence, but an emancipation from apathy. That allows us to talk about those disparities and really reprogram ourselves and what our liberation looks like.

‘Being a Jewish Black woman, that’s a triple-threat right there’

Juneteenth Voices

Sehaye Luks, center, with her mother, Joanna, and sister, Beza, at the Women’s March in 2017. Image by Author

Sehaye Luks, who turns 17 on June 20, is a junior at Montclair High School, where she is part of the Center for Social Justice, and a member of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, N.J.

Last year my mom got strawberry soda, and we watched the Juneteenth special on “Blackish.” We ate some soul food. And it wasn’t a holiday we really celebrated until the more recent years. I honestly didn’t learn about it in school until I was much older.

We learned about the ending of slavery, but we didnt learn that Juneteenth was a holiday. It’s not even until recently that New Jersey made a law, I think, that all schools have to teach black history.

My mom and my sister brought it up to me, and they were like, ‘Let’s celebrate Juneteenth.’ The tradition is to have strawberry soda and — I don’t know the full context as to why, but I know that’s tradition for Juneteenth. I’m really not a soda person, actually — I’m more into seltzer.

Juneteenth has become way more popular than it was, it’s now a day of liberation. I know that this Juneteenth there are many events to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

We haven’t planned it out, we’re probably just going to stay home and my mom will cook a meal and we’ll watch a movie, to educate ourselves further.

When I think about my identity as being a Jewish Black woman, that’s a triple-threat right there. I try to see certain holidays through a Jewish lens, and my Black lens, sometimes putting the two together — sometimes it confuses me. Black history and Jewish history aren’t very comparable. It’s not something I compare, they both have such detrimental, vile aspects, histories that have happened to both sides.

‘I love both communities equally’

Ananias Edwards III

Ananias Edwards III Image by Courtesy of Ananias Edwards III

Ananias Edwards, 49, is, as his Twitter bio boasts, “a humble father of three who loves Torah and the Jewish community of which I belong. He lives in Wichita, Texas.

Juneteenth, to me, is a celebration of emancipation for my people. I’m always happy to celebrate the milestone of my people being released and freed from bondage. When the Jewish community is in pain, I’m in pain. When the African-American community is in pain, I’m in pain as well. I love both communities equally._

[Once in shul, a member] basically interrogated me, began investigating why I was ushering. He sat right beside me to interrogate me and then finally came out and asked me why I was ushering. I said, ‘I’m a paying member of the synagogue. I don’t think the rabbi would have me in this position if I wasn’t a member or if I wasn’t Jewish.’ When I complained, [my community] listened and they tried to implement changes. And the person who interrogated me actually called me up and apologized.

The struggles that the Jewish communities have gone through throughout history, I can see that they want to make sure that you’re part of the community and that you’re Jewish. But if you see me in shul on a Saturday, and you see me up at the bimah, I’m a member.

‘I’ve always wanted for somebody to make the Juneteenth Haggadah‘

Juneteenth Voices

Omar Wasow Image by Willi Wong

An assistant professor of politics at Princeton University, Omar Wasow, 49, studies, writes and speaks frequently about the civil-rights movement. He is currently living in Los Angeles.

Growing up, part of what I loved about Passover was that it always felt like the blackest holiday in America. It’s about emancipation, it’s about honoring our ancestors, it’s about traditional food. I wasn’t aware of Juneteenth as a kid, so for me, Passover was the emancipation holiday.

When I first discovered Juneteenth — and I couldn’t put a date on that — I loved it as this very indigenous black holiday, and that it also was deeply rooted in the black American experience. Things like Kwanzaa always felt to me like some kind of attempt to shoehorn the black experience into a Christian and Jewish winter holiday, whereas Juneteenth felt deeply rooted in historic black life.

Soon after college, I was dating a woman who was from Martinique. I remember visiting her family on the island, and in the town square in this one part of Martinique, was this formerly enslaved person in the statue in this pose of victory, no longer enslaved. There’s an Emancipation Day celebration in much of the Caribbean — why don’t we do that in the United States? We still, in some ways, are culturally contesting the war to free enslaved people.

A Jewish conversation about Juneteenth. Jodi Rudoren, editor-in-chief of The Forward, hosts Rabbi Sandra Lawson of Elon University and Tema Smith, a contributing columnist, in celebration of the end of slavery in the United States. Click here to join the conversation June 19 at noon EDT.

Why doesn’t America celebrate this enormous achievement? That speaks to the contested legacy of this — for a good chunk of the country, it’s not something to celebrate. That’s the work we still have to do.

I’ve always wanted for somebody to make the Juneteenth Haggadah [Ed’s note: Jews for Racial and Economic Justice did: it’s here. Within the black community, it’s much more of an informal tradition. I almost wish there were something that drew on traditions like Passover. Part of what’s wonderful about Passover is there’s a whole script you follow. There’s cultural infrastructure.

Symbols like eating bitter root to remember the bitterness of slavery is small, but it forces us just once a year to sit with something deeply traumatic, that is not a normal part of our normal routine. That’s something that for me, in this Black-Jewish tradition, that’s really important.

They’re both emancipation narratives, they’re both fundamentally about liberation from slavery, they’re both about honoring ancestors who fought that fight. Exodus and emancipation are two versions of the same story: How do we fight for our freedom from oppression?

Because they’re both celebrations of liberations from slavery, in my mind they’re braided together.

‘When I think about Juneteenth, I think about the Torah’

Juneteenth Voices

Aaron Freeman Image by Author

A comedian and science geek, Aaron Freeman, 64, says he makes funny videos about brains (Sciency Optimist on You Tube). He was born in the small town of Pembroke, Ill., moved to Chicago at age 5, and now lives in suburban Highland Park.

When I moved to Chicago and we got the Defender, then you heard about Juneteenth. It was not a thing — it was a thing you heard about it in the paper, in the Defender, you heard about it in Jet. It wasn’t something we did at home.

I actually started thinking about it much more when I converted and became a Jew in 1991. On Pesach, every Jew should feel as if he himself were liberated from slavery — pretty much Juneteenth, that would be the theme.

I live in Highland Park. My mother was born in a cotton plantation in Hernando, Miss. So there’s not a day that goes by that I’m not aware of the freedom that I enjoy, that my grandparents couldn’t think of.

We note it, but we don’t do anything particularly special for it, because it’s not part of the family shtick. When I think about Juneteenth, I think about the Torah — about Pesach.

Since it is on Shabbat this year, we’re going to be getting together with my brother-in-law and his wife, so we’ll probably do something interesting gastronomically.

‘I’m liberated because I can be Jewish in public’

Jonny Mitchell

Jonny Mitchell Image by Courtesy of Jonny Mitchell

The author Jonny Mitchell, 35, grew up in Jamestown, Va., and said he was not taught about Juneteenth in school. He first celebrated it in 2006 in Texas, and this year, he plans to attend a street festival in L.A. Twitter: @jonnybmitchell

Actually this year I’m very excited because of the change and how much of a presence it’s getting. Out here in California, it’s like, very little presence for Juneteenth, so it’s very exciting that there’s going to be a lot of activity.”

I was thinking about all of the select similarities that there are between the African-American community and the Jewish community as far as history. They both are no strangers to slavery. They’re no strangers to discrimination. There’s a lot of shared pain in the history, so it’s like that celebration in Juneteenth is not just for — for me — it feels it’s not just for being African-American, but also because I feel like I’m liberated because I can be Jewish in public.

People are being educated about the holiday, that it is a real holiday. And I guess now, more people are starting to appreciate that part of the American history. When it’s so torn and drenched in bloodshed, it’s good to celebrate something free.

‘It was not on my radar at all’

Dammara Kovnats Hall

Dammara Kovnats Hall Image by Courtesy of Dammara Kovnats Hall

Dammara Kovnats Hall, 33, is a Jewish studies teacher at Rodef Shalom, a K-8 school in Manhattan, She does not remember learning much about Juneteenth growing up in Winnipeg, Canada, but it’s come to her attention this year.

There would always be an article written in the paper, in the Winnipeg Free Press, and I think it was usually a time to teach history about the Underground Railroad, which definitely lets Canada appear in a very positive light, taking it as a moment to reflect on the history of racism and Canada’s role.

And then usually there’s a tie-in piece speaking about residential schools — we have a history of having residential schools where aboriginal children were forcibly taken from their parents. So there would be a little bit of a feel-good, but also a reminder of ‘Hey, we did terrible things too.’

This year is the first time that I feel like I’m really hearing about it. I was not aware that there was any particular marker to the day. I would say it was in ‘Events Suggested for You’ on Facebook. I’ve been living in New York for 10 years and I never thought about going to a celebration, it was not on my radar at all.

I was actually invited by two former roommates to “Wominyan.” They’re doing this Juneteenth event which sounded great because, just knowing the work that they do and the style in which they do it, it just feels really comfortable and diverse. I think that’s a group of people that I would feel comfortable and interested and motivated in celebrating with, so that’s something I’m planning on doing.

‘A magical, crazy, awesome, scary time’

Rabbi Sandra Lawson

Musician, activist, military veteran, vegan and personal trainer are some of Rabbi Sandra Lawson’s identities. A chaplain at Elon University in North Carolina, she has also been called “the Snapchat Rabbi” and named “one of the 50 Jews everyone should follow on Twitter,” though lately she’s moved into TikTok. Last year, she wrote this article for the Forward about Juneteenth.

Juneteenth is an important day in black history and in American history. And it’s more than just the celebration of emancipation. It was when the last slaves found out, two years after slavery had actually ended. It has turned into this holiday of liberation.

This month is the anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, then Juneteenth, then we have Pride Month and right now people are also protesting in the streets. So we are in a magical, crazy, awesome, scary time right now in this month of June.

I would love for Jews of color to be able to walk into spaces without a ton of armor, worried about being questioned, worried about being blocked because they just want to go and pray.

I have not been in a Jewish space where I have not had my identity questioned at some point. And that is true for a lot of Jews of color and that is really sad. I would like the white Jewish community to figure out why it is so important to understand somebody’s story as soon as you meet them, before you’ve even introduced yourself.

When I walk into a Jewish space and my identity is questioned, I can’t move. I can’t go about my business, I can’t pray until the person in front of me gets the answers they feel they’re entitled to.

I don’t understand why they feel entitled to answers. And I’ve asked. But I know all this has to do with trauma. Racism is trauma, anti-Semitism is trauma. I think if people did the real work they would have an answer. And the real answer is rooted in racism, but nobody wants to talk about that.

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