Identity, Justice

Erika Davis: "What I'm trying to help people understand is that all Jews are not the same."

Erika Davis is the Chief of Staff at Hazon. She also works as a freelance writer for The Sisterhood, Jewcy, Kveller and others while maintaining her personal blog Black, Gay and Jewish. Erika likes Syrian Jewish cooking and is convinced she makes the best hummus in Brooklyn. She is a volunteer with Jewish Multi-Racial Network, Be’chol Lashon and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice.
Q: Tell us what we can find at Black, Gay and Jewish.
ED: I started to write Black, Gay and Jewish when I realized that converting to Judaism and talking about Jewish things was taking up a lot of space on my now defunct blog about lesbian  dating in NYC (I’d just come out). I started writing it as a sort of personal journal through the process of converting to Judaism and also because there was only one other blog penned by a black, gay and Jewish woman. (This isn’t to say that there weren’t awesome blogs out there about conversion; there are so many that it  boggles the mind. A few are written by gay Jews and by Jews of Color, but rarely did I find anything on the web that had all three.)
Because I wrote it as a sort-of online journal, it’s filled with a lot of personal stories-everything from my first time in a synagogue right up to my conversion story and mikvah experience. I write a lot about the intersection of race and similarities between the black American experience and Judaism. I also write about race in Judaism because it’s thought to be a sort of new phenomenon as well as racism within Judaism. When the URJ put out their New York Survey and the last section was about the racial diversity in NYC, it was as if this idea of ethnic Judaism is something new, that  having Jews who were “non-white” in our midst was something newsworthy, when in fact the study and the findings were insulting because Jews have always been multi-racial.
Now that I’ve converted to Judaism, I’ve been focusing on education. I’m helping with a diversity curriculum that we hope will be a game-changer, I’m planning on interviewing Jews who are making changes in Judaism.I want to use the blog as a home base for education. I’ve been working behind the scenes to organize the blog better and hope to start rolling out the Jewish Geography Project after Simchat Torah to coincide with the weekly Torah portions.I started it  a few months ago that I’m re-launching after Simchat Torah. Basically I go through the Bible and when a land mass is mentioned I write it down in my notebook. I then Google the modern-day equivalent in order to track the migration of the Jewish people. We’ve started in what is modern-day Nigeria and when I stopped the project we were in Iraq. The fact that Jews are seen in one way: White, Ashkenazi and from New York in such a way that the idea of a Jew being plain ole’ black (i.e. not from Ethiopia or Nigeria) or Mexican or Indian or Chinese for that matter is strange, odd or new is more than insulting, it’s completely inaccurate. Yet, most Jews only see Jews through an Ashkenazi or Sephardi lens. I’ll be adding videos to the blog, interviews, and going around NYC talking about Judaism to folks on the street. I’m excited for the next year.
Q: What do you think is the current state of the conversation about racism in Jewish communities? Why do you think it is what it is?
ED: There is no conversation. I was talking to someone about this who thought that the way I tend to talk about race and racism in Judaism is off-putting and defensive, but I don’t see it that way. When someone asks me if I’m a nanny or a babysitter rather than assuming I’m Jewish I can assume that it has to do with race and that person’s idea of not only what a Jew looks like but what a black person looks like and what their job is. When people use the word schvartze, knowing that it doesn’t just mean the color black, but that it is used in a derogatory manner, that’s racist. When Jewish organizations or synagogues work with black churches, black communities or Ethiopian Jews rather than working with black Jews here in the U.S, in their own communities, it seems a bit off. Why work on building bridges outside of the Jewish community when there’s a gigantic wedge between white Jews and black Jews?
The conversation cannot just be all “I love working within this poor black community” or “I’m a socially-conscious Jew because I work within low-income communities” or “I do this activist work out here, but in my personal life I don’t interact with people of color because it makes me feel all Heschel-like”  because there’s nothing Jewish or Heschel about that. (Heschel, in fact borrowed that “praying with my feet” quote from Frederick Douglass,  it’s not his.) As much as it’s annoying and infuriating to have to say “No, I’m not the babysitter,” or  “Yes, there are Ethiopian Jews, but they’re not the only black Jews, ” or hear “I have a black friend.”  I honestly don’t think that it comes from a place of racism, it comes from a place of ignorance because as Jews we’re only given half of the story.
The cohort I’m working on the curriculum (mentioned above) with is  addressing this-language is a great first step. A rabbi stands before his congregation and says, “When our grandparents came over from Poland” or a Jewish publication writes about Jewish food and only mentions matzoh balls or when a children’s book about Shabbat only features Jews who are fair-skinned and brown haired that’s a problem. I’m not here to tell Jews that they’re racist, because I don’t think that all Jews are racist. I do, however, think that we’re blissfully ignorant of our own people. If rabbis, executive directors of organizations, JCCs and Hebrew Schools aren’t going to address the fact that Jews are not a homogenous people, that Jews aren’t just Sephardic or Ashkenazi, the ignorance is bliss mentality remains.
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been called a racist, that I hate white people, that I’m a self-hating Jew, that I should’ve never converted to Judaism, simply because I ask hard questions. The fact is, most of my friends are white Jews, my partner is a white Jew. I also have a large portion of friends who are black Sephardi Jews, black Ashkenazi Jews or black Yemenite Jews or Mexican-American Jews or Asian Jews and if you asked them the same questions, they’d give you similar answers. When we see Judaism portrayed in mainstream media, in JCCs, in our Hebrew schools, in our neighborhoods the image reflected back isn’t accurate. I’m not trying to undo years of Jewish tradition, because the tradition of Ashkenazi Jews in the United States is rich and important. What I’m trying to help people understand is that all Jews are not the same.
I find the idea of how people became white in America very fascinating. It’s simple historical fact that as immigrants came to the United States that they were treated like second-class citizens. Cartoons of Irish, Jews and Italians are strikingly similar to the racist cartoon images of blacks. Jews, Irish and blacks were portrayed as ape-like, backwards, and subservient to white “Americans” but as the more immigrants came in and the ones who arrived first were able to through name change, through a change in dress and attire, through customs people who could become white did. I learned this in undergrad when I took a course on Irish history and in my African American Lit series, and it makes sense. If you can assimilate and become the majority, it’s easy to forget that you were once the minority.
The Torah mentions Middle Eastern and African countries upwards of 60 times, yet most Jews only see themselves through Polish/Russian/Ukrainian eyes. To be Jewish is to eat kugel, to be Jewish is to have a bubbe, to be Jewish is to have grandparents from Poland, to be Jewish is to be white in the United States, but that’s not who a Jew is. I was recently at an engagement party and this snarky, hipster 30-something Jew told me to my face that I didn’t exist, that black Jews don’t exist. He followed up with, “Well, unless they convert.”  When I asked him where his family was from, he named an Eastern European country. I asked him which book of Torah that country was mentioned and he was silent. I walked away from him furious but completely validated.
Q: What advice would you give to folks committed to having  hard conversations? In Jewish communities and in general?
ED: In terms of Jewish diversity, it’s actually an easy conversation. Executive Directors and Rabbis must be more mindful about language, about real inclusion that’s alive rather than a flat mission statement living on a website. It takes a bit of self-reflection and honesty.
This also applies on a personal level. I think it’s human nature to migrate to people who are like you and people be curious of people who are different from you, but that curiosity shouldn’t be at the expense of a person’s dignity. As Jews we’re really into saying “Welcome the stranger for we were strangers in Egypt.”  We like to quote Heschel, we like to think that we’re socially conscious and socially aware and a lot of us are, but when I walk into a synagogue and no one sits next to me or no one talks to me or when the first question out of someone’s mouth is “Are you Jewish?,” all of those good-intentions go flying out the window.
A black Jew doesn’t want to hear a story about Ethiopian Jews, we don’t want to hear that you have a friend who adopted a black child, we don’t want to hear about your black office mate we came to synagogue to pray, just like you. Instead, welcoming a Jew who is black or brown into your synagogue, JCC, Hebrew School in the way that you would welcome any other person into your community.
If communities are serious about diversity and inclusion there are many resources available to them, but it does take change and it requires people to shift their ideas about how they identify as a Jew, what a Jew looks like and who a Jew is. It requires people to not think of how they are Jewish as the North Star of Judaism, but to be honestly open to learning about how other people experience Judaism. It’s about being mindful about the smallest details like realizing that some Jews don’t eat apples dipped in honey on Rosh Hashanah, they eat dates instead. Understanding that when rabbis talk about “our ancestors in Eastern Europe” that they’re leaving out some of their congregants.
No one wants to admit that they’ve had racist thoughts, no one wants to say that they’re prejudice, no one wants to say that they’ve stereotype people based on their race, but guess what-we all do it! if you say you haven’t, then you’re a liar because we’ve all had those thoughts. Admit to them, learn from them and move forward. Conversations about race are hard and they’re uncomfortable, but they don’t have to be.
Panel discussions, movie screenings and speakers are great if they’re done properly. You can’t just show a movie about Ethiopian Jews and check off the diversity box for the year. A lot of damage has been done by organizations and publications mis-representing who Jews of Color are all in the hopes of being more “diverse” by simply showing a movie or printing an article. It’s sloppy work. For instance, 92Y showed  “Commandment Keepers”, a film about a non-Jewish community with many Jewish traditions and similarities, and many Jewish publications wrote about it. The vast majority of Jews of Color in the U.S aren’t Ethiopian or from Africa, they’re American blacks who are also Jewish. Out of my large group of Jews of Color friends, only about five of us converted. It sort of felt like the 92Y and the publications who wrote about it were saying, “Look here. These people are black and they do something that looks like Judaism so I’ll show a movie and write a story about it to show that there are communities for black Jews to go to,” as opposed to actually doing research or working to change their communities. It’s  like a band-aid solution for an issue that can’t be fixed by showing an inaccurate movie. It also feels a bit like 1950s segregation-here’s this place in Harlem you can go to and there are people like you there, why should we change who we are? Do I think that 92Y and the papers that covered the movie did it on purpose? Probably not. I think they saw something having to do with diversity and jumped at the opportunity to show it without doing any research.
It’s  important for Jewish communities who are interested in working towards greater inclusion of all Jews; Jews of Color, Jews by Choice, LGBTQ Jews to be prepared to do hard work. Creating inclusive Jewish communities takes working from the inside out.

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