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On Being Black, White, and Jewish

The news this week has been saturated with issues of race, otherness, and problems of identity in a society that’s most comfortable drawing boundaries and lines. On Sunday, the New York Times ran a story on Rabbi Capers C. Funnye, Jr., the first African-American member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis. On Tuesday, Senator Barack Obama gave a landmark speech on race relations that took the country by storm. We asked documentary filmmaker Lacey Schwartz to weigh in on these two stories by sharing her own parallel experiences as a Black, Jewish woman who is working to incorporate and make sense of her dual identities. Here’s what she had to say:

Like any typical upper-middle class Jewish girl growing up in the Eighties, my life revolved around the Bar Mitzvah party circuit, Gap clothing stores, second base, and Madonna. Something was off, though: From a young age, I encountered people who pointed out that I looked different from my white parents because of my darker skin, tightly curled hair and thicker features. From a little boy in nursery school who made me show him my gums because he claimed they determined my race, to my classmates in high school who would verbally accost me in the halls with “What are you?”—an inquiry that they demanded more than asked—questions about my identity were abundant. “Jewish?” I would tentatively respond, afraid of how they might react to my denial of what they saw as my obvious blackness.

My family never seemed to notice or acknowledge the fact that I looked different from them. One overt example of this came at the age of sixteen, when my grandfather strongly encouraged me to break up with my bi-racial boyfriend. Without irony or malice, Grandpa expressed his fear of how people might treat me for being in an interracial relationship. Because of experiences like these, I deeply related when Barack Obama described in a speech earlier this week how he would cringe when his white grandmother uttered racial stereotypes, and yet he could not disown her.
When I applied to college I left the race/ethnicity box blank and attached a photograph instead. Based on that, I was admitted as a student who was of “Black/Not of Hispanic Origin.” It wasn’t until the end of my freshman year that I learned the truth: My biological father was an African-American man who my mother had had an affair with while married to my father. It was quite a shock, but I cherish my university experience as the time and place where my identification with being African-American and my connection to the Black community first began.

Years later, in an attempt to merge my Black identity with my Jewish upbringing, I attended Yom Kippur services at a Black synagogue in Brooklyn. I was skeptical at first: “A group of Black Jews worshipping together?” I thought. On entering the small brownstone converted into a synagogue, I was amazed to find that the entire congregation was Black! I was even more surprised to find the songs, prayers, and Shofar blasts were identical to what I learned growing up. I couldn’t help but wonder how someone with two Black parents could possibly be Jewish, but after years of being questioned by strangers about my own identity, I hid my ignorance and didn’t ask the questions I so desperately wanted answered.

As featured in last weekend’s NY Times, Rabbi Capers Funnye Jr. embodies both the heart and soul of this community of people. He was one of the first Black rabbis who I came upon in researching other Black Jews, and he has been one of the most inspiring people I have met along the journey. His work, along with others like him, is making the Jewish community more accepting of all Jews and changing the way we all expect Jewish people to look. For much of my adult life, I have maintained separate cultural identities. Only in the last couple of years, as part of a personal documentary, have I set out to learn what it means to be both Black and Jewish. In recognizing the uniqueness of my situation, I have come to discover that Black Jews are members of a small, but significant minority within a minority: A group of people whose roots are as diverse and dynamic as any other ethnic group or subculture, and who represent the immense complexity of America itself.

This article first appeared on March 21, 2008 and has been republished as part of the series JEWCYEST WEEK EVER.

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