By Marian Moore, Guest Blogger
December of 2013 found me in San Diego, California this year, attending the fiftieth Biennial of the Women of Reform Judaism. Although, this was the organization’s centennial, WRJ actually began at my synagogue in 1900 as “the Sisterhood”, the name still used by most members. When I look at our official history, I find that the Sisterhood began as a ladies auxiliary. In 1900, they took on the task of selecting the furnishings for the synagogue and maintaining the new synagogue building. In later years, they did everything from comforting the sick, funding the purchase of an organ, preparing holiday synagogue meals, and sponsoring scholarships at the rabbinical college in Cincinnati. WRJ, The Sisterhood, is still the critical heart of the synagogue. They ensure that things get done. The President of each synagogue chapter is responsible for representing the chapter on the synagogue board and responsible for defining what tasks the chapter will accept.
This was my third biennial but my first as the President of my synagogue chapter. Each time that I’ve attended these national gatherings, there are more jews of color (JOC) participants than the prior time. I attended many small panel discussions where I was the only non-white woman in the room, but when I attended the group discussions with more than one hundred attendees that was never the case. Many of our blended identities were present, from Jewish and African-American, Jewish and Asian-American, Jewish and Latina, et. al. While I was there to find out how to increase membership in my own synagogue Sisterhood, I was interested to listen as the hierarchy of both the women’s organization and the Reform movement wrestled with the recognition of the diversity of Reform Judaism and jewish life in general. I see evidence of that struggle in my life in New Orleans.
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For example, I sat in one seminar where the Rabbi was describing the development of the synagogue itself. The synagogue as an assembly may have begun during the Babylonian exile, but he traced the growth of synagogues as edifices to Napoleon: the creator of French identity. He turned to the Jews of France and asked: Is Judaism a religion? Or are Jews a people? If Jews were a people, then he was prepared to expel them. If they were merely Frenchmen practicing a different religion, they could stay. Very quickly, the Jews of France decided that they were practicing a religion. This was the pattern established across western Europe. According to the Rabbi, the Jews of eastern Europe were not offered this choice; they maintained their cultural definition that Jews are a people. (For example, it was not until 1997 that Russian identity papers eliminated “Jewish” as the nationality of Russian jews.) The stage was now set for the migration to the United States. The Jews of the West became Americans and adopted the practices of their new country. They built Jewish houses of worship and emulated their neighbors. They became Americans first and Jews second. The Jews of the East also became Americans, but the cultural identity of Jewish remained central to their character. (And yes—this is a vast simplification.) My synagogue was founded by western Jews, therefore, of course, a Black woman could become president of her synagogue’s women’s group. Via JMN, Jewish Multiracial Network, I know of at least two Black Rabbis, one Rabbi in training and numerous other Jews of color in the U.S.
However, that doesn’t mean that the idea of Jewish peoplehood has vanished even within my synagogue. In practice, Judaism is family centered, not synagogue centered. Unlike many of the JOCs that I know from the north-east, I am a convert, an adopted member of the tribe. And like some adopted children, I find myself occasionally treated as inauthentic or an outsider. The reason is not always apparent.
Case 1: Women are always rushing out of the last service that marks the end of the Jewish high holidays. I never understood why until a visitor from New York included me as his plus-one invitation. People had been rushing home to prepare elaborate meals for family and friends. These meals mark the end of a day long fast. Why did it take a stranger to let me know of a practice in my own synagogue?
Case 2: People are sitting around match-making the few single women in our group. I notice that they don’t match me with anyone and I wonder—aloud—why that is so. Silently, I ask myself if it is because they are American white southerners first and can’t imagine bringing a Black woman into their family? Or is it because I am not an authentic member of the tribe in their view? I have no way of knowing. The only response that I received was an abashed silence and a change of subject.
Case 3: A musician at a synagogue fundraiser is taking requests for his final performance and someone asks for Dixie. Dixie? Really? I look for the person in the crowd and can not find him. My memories of Dixie are seeing Shreveporters stand for the song as if it were the national anthem. I’ve heard enough stories of fear and exclusion from Jewish friends that I want to demand that the requestor explain why he wants the anthem of people who oppressed both Blacks and Jews played aloud to a Jewish crowd.
None of this would be a surprise to some Black professionals in New Orleans. You don’t have to be Black and Jewish to experience your white associates cultural blindness or assumptions. It’s the same in the Jewish community, but complicated by their own feeling of exclusion. Sometimes, they see a Black woman, sometimes they see a Jew. And to be fair, I am suspect to the same type of blindness as they. The New Yorker who included me in his invitation was seriously flirting but it never occurred to me that someone white would be interested in me.
The New Orleans Jewish community is small compared to that of the north-east. Therefore, I have not suffered the questions and rejections that some of my northern JOC friends have. More than once, people have leaned over after service and complemented me on my voice. I’ve been invited up to the bimah (the pulpit) for the honor of reading the Torah in my own synagogue, and to read the blessing over the Torah in several other synagogues. There are few Jews in New Orleans, and we treasure every one.
It’s only when I leave New Orleans and the gulf coast region that I hear the question: How long have you been Jewish? It drives many jews of color into a fury because their families have been Jewish for unknown generations. (After all, Israel is on a land bridge between Asia and Africa. 55% of modern Israelis are of north african or middle-eastern descent.) In my case, however, there is an actual number of years that I’ve been Jewish. By Jewish law, however, it is a question that should never be asked even of converts. Once you convert, you are Jewish, the child of Abraham and Sarah. Many converts, including myself, feel as if they are merely returning home to Judaism. Home is a religion that welcomes questions and rejects the idea that there is one answer to any religious question. Home is a religion that has no concept of original sin and that insists that the yetzer hara (the evil inclination) is a vital component of a balanced human life. Home is a religion that had no word for “religion” until modernity.
There are no easy responses to what it is like to be Black and Jewish in New Orleans. I have spent years wondering if I occasionally feel like an outsider because I am Black, because I am single in a family-oriented religion, or because I am not a native New Orleanian. It was instructive to listen to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the current leader of the Reform movement. At the biennial, he spoke of arriving at a synagogue where he was scheduled to speak. He was early and few people were around. One woman demanded to know why he was there. The Rabbi replied that he was looking for a ‘congregation filled with warmth and welcome’. Too often, he reminded this assembly of jews, we don’t welcome the stranger. If the current head of the Union of Reform Judaism can have his authenticity challenged at a synagogue, I suspect that the source of my occasional discomfort is more multifaceted than America’s racial divide.
It has been my own practice for the past few years to reject bitterness and remember that I am the child of Abraham who ran out into the street to welcome the stranger. My small Passover table has been open to those who I know were not invited elsewhere. I am the one bringing Moroccan carrot salad or Ethiopian lentil soup to synagogue events to remind others that Jewish food is more than kugel and bagels. I would love to see the story of Esther read, as we do every year during Purim, as we sit down to a Persian dinner. Some people may grumble that I don’t bring “jewish” food. Others will rejoice at new choices. On the African-American side, I am lucky that most of my Black friends have decided that pork is unhealthy. I seldom have to avoid their meals for religious reasons. My two traditions, Black and Jewish, echo each other in surprising ways. When at their best, they are proud of their differences. When at their best, they remember what it means to be a stranger.