Jews and Blacks are Yesterday’s News

As an assimilated Negro, I find that black Jews just tickle my fancy. (Any Oprah/Sarah Silverman hybrids, call me!) I agree with the writer Julius Lester when he says, “What I find remarkable about Jews: They’re the only ethnic group … Read More

By / October 5, 2007

As an assimilated Negro, I find that black Jews just tickle my fancy. (Any Oprah/Sarah Silverman hybrids, call me!) I agree with the writer Julius Lester when he says, “What I find remarkable about Jews: They’re the only ethnic group that seems to care about blacks. At least Jews want to learn.”

I’ve certainly tried to learn a Jewish girl a thing or two on blacks, so I figured Julius Lester might have some words of wisdom for me. I first discovered Lester when I stumbled upon his must-read 1984 New York Times interview with James Baldwin (during which Baldwin exclaimed “Fuck Norman Mailer!” when Lester mentioned the author of “The White Negro”—sadly, the Times struck it from the record.) Besides being an academic and literary star—he's author of over 45 books and a decorated professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts—Lester also happens to be that most intriguing of exotic birds, a black Jew. He made a name for himself as a writer, radio commentator, and avowed atheist during the civil rights era, but converted to Judaism in 1982 after years of religious searching (Lovesong, his spiritual memoir, details this journey.)

At 68, Lester is still writing; next spring HarperCollins will publish his novel about lynching, told from the point of view of a 14-year-old white boy. I took to asking him some questions over e-mail.




I think the average black person is suspicious when the average Jewish guy distinguishes himself from the average white guy—at least in America. What do minorities like blacks or Hispanics have in common with American Jews, and what are their differences?

Not a huge fan of Normal Mailer: BaldwinIdentity has many faces, and one’s social identity may not correspond to one’s personal identity. There are Jews whose personal and/or religious identity is so forceful that they resent being identified as white, even though they look like “the average white guy.” Someone who identifies first as a Jew sees him or herself as living by a value structure that believes in justice and equality as opposed to a white guy whose value system is different. Perhaps blacks should not be so quick to dismiss a Jew who insists that he is not white, regardless of what he looks like.

Growing up in the forties and fifties, I always thought Jews were different from whites. Jews were people who empathized with blacks, who understood what it was like to be discriminated against. When I was doing radio on WBAI from 1968 to 1975, people would call me on the air and identify themselves as being “white and Jewish,” and that always confused me because, in my mind, Jews were different from white people.

None of this is to say that Jewish racism does not exist, because it does. And black racism exists, despite those who maintain that blacks cannot be racists because they are victims of racism.

It is increasingly difficult to generalize about blacks, Hispanics, and Jews because of increasing class differences within each group as well as generational differences. For example, blacks and Jews of my generation and older worked together in the labor movement and the civil rights movement. As fraught with tensions as black-Jewish relations became, that coalition meant something. The present generation of blacks and Jews do not see why it is expected that blacks and Jews will work together. The black-Jewish coalition means nothing to them, and I would not argue with that. The events of their lifetimes—Farrakhan, Israel, Arabs—mean very different things to each group.

Different from the rest of the country: Unique New York However, having said that, black-Jewish tensions have been more pronounced in New York than, for example, in the Midwest, where I found blacks and Jews working together on many issues with none of the suspicion and antagonism that can exist in New York. People too often think that the experiences of blacks and Jews in New York reflect the state of affairs between blacks and Jews across the country, but that is not the case. I know it’s difficult for New Yorkers to believe that their experiences do not represent the truth for everyone in America, but New York is unique.

Politically I think blacks and Jews made a huge mistake in the 1980s and 1990s by not reaching out to start working with Hispanic groups. Even twenty years ago, demographic projections suggested that Hispanics were going to become the largest minority group early in the 21st century. That has happened earlier than anyone predicted. As Hispanics become an increasingly strong political group, the public discourse on whom and what constitutes a minority will change, and neither blacks nor Jews are prepared to deal with the shift. Blacks are in the process of losing their golden status as the largest minority group, and this loss is going to have an impact on black identity, which has been too focused for too long on being victims.



Is there a statute of limitations on historical tragedies? For how long is Auschwitz or Jim Crow Mississippi relevant to a young Jew or Negro in New York City?

Compassion fatigue: Remember the Maine? A very interesting question. I suppose one needs to ask if there is a statute of limitations on memory. There was the recent article in the Sunday Times about people who are tired of memorial services for the victims of 9/11—about “compassion fatigue”. The article referred to the numerous events that were once remembered by public ceremonies and are scarcely remembered now: the sinking of the USS Maine, the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

One of the real problems facing America today is that since the 1960s, Americans no longer share the same historical memories, or we do not share those memories in the same ways.

In the summer of 1973 I taught summer school at a small college in Macon, Georgia. In one of my classes was a very beautiful blonde girl who invited me to drive up to someplace in north Georgia with her. I declined. I knew that northern Georgia was prime KKK territory and as much as I wanted to sleep with her, driving into Klan country was a price I was not willing to pay. When she asked me why I told her about the Klan’s prominence in northern Georgia, about segregation and the backs of buses, etc. She looked at me with her wide blue eyes like I was crazy said in her honeyed southern accent “None of that ever happened down here.”

Echoes of the past: Jim Crow Mississippi can't be forgotten Even though she was blonde, she was not dumb. She had come of age after the changes wrought by the civil rights movement and had grown up at a time when blacks sat anywhere on buses, when there were no white and colored water fountains in stores, when blacks and whites went to school together. I was floored by her response. I had no idea that history could be wiped out so completely in so short a time. This was 1973. The summer nine years before, I had been in Mississippi waking up every morning half-surprised that I hadn’t been killed during the night. After that day I didn’t know how to talk to her, (which was sad because she was really a beautiful girl) because her experience negated the history I had endured.

It is not enough that we remember only what happened to us. We should make the effort to remember that which happened to others, even others before we were born. So many U.S. states and cities have Native American names. The people are gone; all that remains is a word from their language, which is really a kind of tombstone. Massachusetts is a Native American word meaning “High Mountain Place.” Connecticut means “Long River Place.” It is my obligation to remember. The act of remembering connects us to each other. The life of the young black in New York grows from the lives and deaths of blacks in Mississippi who endured and struggled so that he would not have to endure and struggle in quite the same ways. The same goes for the young Jew.

Still relevant?: Building the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin Our lives do not begin with our births. Our lives exist on a continuum. Part of that continuum is that our lives today will become someone else’s past, and how we live our lives will, to some degree, give texture and context to the lives of people not yet born.

One of the things I love about being Jewish is that remembering is an integral part of being Jewish. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we sing melodies and say prayers that date back a thousand years and more. On Tisha B’Av we still mourn the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem more than 2000 years ago. At Passover we remember the exodus from Egypt, which may or may not have happened, but something happened that was transformative.

It is my wish that the young black New Yorker will remember Auschwitz as well as Jim Crow Mississippi, and that the young Jewish New Yorker will remember Jim Crow Mississippi as well as Auschwitz. Remembering the sufferings of others makes us come closer to each other.

Seems to be being a black Jew might have some perks. For example you can’t be “out-victimized” by anyone, right? It also seems the particular black-Jew blend should have a nickname. Any suggestions?

If there are perks to being a black Jew, I missed out. And I must be dumber than I realized because it never occurred to me that no one could out-victimize me. I never thought of being black or Jewish as being a victim, which just goes to demonstrate how much out of touch I am with the times I live in.

As for nicknames, oy vey! Virginia Hamilton wrote a novel called Bluish about a kid who was black and Jewish, but “bluish” sounds more like an alien in a bad Sci-Fi movie. The police chief (or maybe he’s former police chief now) of Charleston, South Carolina is (was) a black man named Reuben Greenberg, and he is Jewish. He said he was working on a recipe for fried chicken soup. That’s as close to black-Jewish humor as I’ve seen.



You’re a blogger at 68, when many people your age are still trying to get on to the Internet. Do you think it's important to stay engaged with the youth generation? Do you think blogs are a good medium for bridging generational gaps?

The non-linear world: Can you blog and walk at the same time? There are probably more people my age online than is recognized. I think it is important to stay engaged with the youth generation to the degree that is possible. I taught at the University of Massachusetts for 32 years, retiring at the end of 2003. I retired in part because I couldn’t continue to bridge the generational difference between my students and me. Yes, I blog but Facebook, YouTube, and other such enterprises are beyond me. At age 68, I keep having to decide: Given however much time I have left, how do I want to use it? One of my children is on Facebook and I enjoy logging in and seeing what she’s up to, but I don’t have the time or energy to create a Facebook site for myself.

One difference that my daughter and I talk about is that I grew up in a “linear world,” i.e. the world of print, and also a world in which you did one thing at a time. She has grown up in a world of simultaneity, a world in which one does several things simultaneously. It took me a while to understand that I can be talking to a friend in France on Skype and at the same time being sending that friend an attachment relating to what we’re talking about. And there’re probably four other things I could be doing at the same time. I grew up taking piano lessons; my daughter grew up with Garageband. A big difference.

I want to stay engaged with younger generations but recognize that I can only do so to a limited extent. Aging has its own interesting challenges and rewards. One is relief that I won’t be young again; another is the ability to look back to when I was young and what my dreams were and being able to say that I have achieved what I set out to achieve and more, that I didn’t sell out, that I made my dreams become reality. I would not trade being 68 for anything.

Are there any classic writers that would have thrived in this new media environment?

The Perez Hilton of Dublin: Joyce (drawn in text) This is a very interesting question. The writer who first comes to mind is Malcolm Lowery. I don’t remember the name of the novel, but one of his novels has a separate text running in the margin next to the main text. I wrote a short story (“The Child,” published in Join In: Multiethnic Short Stories) and a novella (“Catskill Morning,” published in Two Love Stories) in which I attempted to tell two stories—one in the margin, the other the main text. And I think James Joyce would have excelled in this new environment. To be able to add visuals to stream of consciousness feels like a natural for him. Although he’s not a writer, certainly Picasso would have thrived on the kind of art that is possible now, which can combine text, visuals, and sound.

I went with Baldwin one day to help him buy an electric typewriter. It frightened him so, I don’t think he ever used it.

What blogs do you read? You mentioned seeing me on Gawker.

I read Gawker, Jezebel, The Assimilated Negro, and several blogs devoted to women’s fashions. I love women’s fashions and subscribe to Vogue, Paris Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, W, and a couple of others. Both Gawker and Jezebel are funny as hell. The contributors on both have raised cynicism to a height that has its own peculiar beauty. However, Gawker needs to lighten up on the cracks about old people.

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