About Me · Community · Culture clashes

“Diverse” Continued

I don’t mean to undermine the efforts to spread the awareness that Jews exist in all colors.

But, the way that that is being propagated lately makes me a little uncomfortable.

When you look at the posters of “diverse” Jews in America, you always see a “black” face, an “Asian” face, and a “Middle-Eastern” face. To the trained eye,  it looks like this: There is an African-American, who either is born Jewish or converted (there is no way of telling, really. From my experience, both are equally likely with African-American looking people). There is usually also that Ethiopian face (which, needless to say, is usually someone born Jewish). The “Asian” face is usually an Asian girl, who was probably adopted by “white” Jewish parents. (Sorry for the stereo-typing, but I haven’t met an exception to this one yet.) The Middle-Eastern looking person could be a Yeminite Jew, or a Arabic-Jew with slightly tan skin. Occasionally, you also see a mixed-race child (although if there is, that tends to be an Asian-White child, like me).

I look at this and think…. Well, it’s great that there are advertising this…. But, we are not all the same. In fact, we have such a different history from one another. To lump us all together like this seems a little problematic because that shows me more than anything else that we are “the Other” Jewish population. I almost hear a voice saying, The Black ones, Asian ones, Middle Eastern ones (to a lesser extent) are all “weird” but we are going to bite our tongues and say, “we must embrace all the diverse Jews among us.”

Let’s get real for a second:

The existence of biracial and multiracial Jews (born Jewish or with a Jewish parent) is a pretty new (by which I mean about a half-century old) phenomenon which has a lot to do with the increased ease of movement between varying regions and countries, banning of anti-miscegenation (interracial marriage) laws (for more on this, look here), and the increased acceptance of such children in the general Jewish community. At least in the US. The Caribbean islands is one of the most interesting and earliest sites (to the best of my knowledge) that gave rise to this phenomenon that still continues till today.

The existence of black American Jews has its own rich history (details of which I don’t know yet) which goes back to as far as the mid-nineteenth-century in the US and also has links to the Black Pride Movement.

The Ethiopians Jews and Middle Eastern Jews, as a collective, have been Jews for ever. That they get lumped together with “us” newer-phenomenon Jews seems to point to the real reason all of this bothers me.

So many of those visuals that try to tout “diversity” in the Jewish communities seem to focus on the “Wow! You are a Jew?” factor that comes from the “general” (which is the “white”) Jewish population and does not seem to take into account “our” perspectives or even basic histories–the perspective of the ones who are being lumped together to compose the “mosaic” or “diverse face of Judaism today.” Honestly, when I see those visual images (and may I add that anything advertising something Jewish still uses the dark curly-haired white-skinned 20-something girl most often), I feel like I am being used to show to the rest of the (non-Jewish) American world, that “yes! We too, are ‘diverse’ like the rest of America!” (Assimilation complete!) Cynical? Perhaps.

This is a post I hesitated to post because I don’t want to shoot the positive movement of trying to diversify people’s ideas of who a Jew is. At the same time, I felt compelled to upload this because, really, it’s quite irritating that “diverse” is being used to only mean “non-white” and I think that use really needs to stop. Otherwise, real normalization can’t happen and we “diverse” Jews will always remain on the margin.

What alternatives remain then? I have ideas, but not now. To be continued…. Maybe….

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10 thoughts on ““Diverse” Continued

  1. I hope you continue this series on ‘diversity’ in the Jewish community. I’m not aware of these portrayals, except for the 3 decades-old TV commercials for Levy’s Jewish Rye Bread (‘you don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Jewish Rye Bread’), and they weren’t Jewish (I assume). Perhaps this is the type of trite hype to which you take objection. But more seriously, public relations drives to depict diversity in the Jewish community sounds to me like political hype, not Judaism. I have a cousin who is Jewish, Black, and born into both; I haven’t posted her picture on any web site, and I don’t intend to. What for? She’s not an exhibit; she’s just a person living her life as she chooses. The same holds true for me, a ‘standard issued’ Ashkenasic Yid of European immigrant parents. Perhaps the problem is the marked trend by the ‘sub-Orthodox’ (please forgive me) to adopt politics and social activism as substitutes for religion. If we stick to Judaism, we won’t be distracted by social/political hype.

  2. I always read these “celebrations” of non-White Jews as an effort by Jews to distance themselves from the idea that they are just a quirky variant on White European Christiandom. For many non-Jews, Jew = White, and thus = colonizer, imperialist, dominator, etc.. So it’s kind of the opposite of an assimilationist message — it’s an affirmation of uniqueness, and a demand that non-Jews view the Jewish community on its own terms and not reduce us to Whiteness.

    This is still problematic, given how (as you say) it lumps together all non-White Jews as an undifferentiated mass, and it doesn’t really say anything about the independent history and experiences of these various branches of the Jewish community. I’m also not sure how much White Jews truly view their non-White peers as “full” members of their community (regardless of whether the person is a recent convert or belongs to a centuries old Jewish community) when they’re not being used for this diversifying purpose, which is of course problematic too.

    I’m looking forward to more of your thoughts on this topic — great post.

  3. Hello again Kaguya:
    I haven’t gone through your 3 year-long
    archive of postings, so I don’t know if you’re familiar with an organization called ‘Shavei Israel’; it’s web site can be accessed at:
    http://www.shavei.org/en/Default.aspx.

    It was founded (I think) by Michael Freund, and is dedicated to finding isolated communities of Jews throughout the world and
    reintroducing them to Klal Yisrael, most especially by bringing them on aliyah to Israel.

  4. I get this a lot–

    Q: What drew you into yiddishkeit?
    A: I’m not into yiddishkeit. That’s for ashkenazim. I am sefardi.
    Q: Was it a guy?
    A: It’s ok if you think your texts are unconvincing, some of my best friends are apikorsim too. *sympathetic look*

  5. Good post. I agree with you that much of what is touted as the inclusive movement in Judaism sounds to much like Jews who don’t meet the media perception of a Jew are an anolomy instead of simply business as usual.

    There actually has been a LONG history of Jews of mixed ancestry. For example, you had Jews in China who converted and married some of the local ethnic groups. The same is true in West Africa. There were Sephardim who, after the expulsion from Spain, made their way to Cape Verde and Senegal and married locals. In Yemen there was a period around the 6th century where entire ethnic groups became Jewish. Also, the same for Berbers in North Africa. Even in Europe these kind of things were common.

    I think the difference now is that most people don’t learn Jewish history in a complete fashion. What I mean is that often things that are not of a Euro mindset are passed off as side notes in history or ëxotic points in history.

    I plan on doing a video on YouTube soon about Jewish migrations in West Africa.

  6. Kaguya, thanks for commenting on my site which has now introduced me to your world. I love this post for it’s nuance and thought.

    I agree that “Jews of Color” has been marketed for the “wow” factor almost to shock the “Schvartza” culture. By playing broad stereotypes or touting Jews of color as exotic spices, we are dancing before the privileged Jewish culture and assuming they are the audience; and we do not translate the diversity within the term “Jew of Color.”

    That said politics is not separate from the discussion and the term “Jew of Color” is a political term to raise awareness and increase inclusiveness. You should continue to work in this direction, though. Kenji Yoshino said,”Yet it is worth asking when we will live in a society where Americans will feel central without feeling white.”

    I feel the same way about Judaism.

    Akira

  7. This is a bit weird because it wasnt that long ago that Ashkenazic Jews in the US werent considered “white”. True story: A very distant relative of mine living in Tennessee in the late 1800s was strung up by the KKK one night. They couldnt find a black man that night so they figured they’d lynch a Jew instead. They’d already begun to hang him when he started flashing the Masonic distress hand sign. One of the Klansmen was a Mason so he ordered his “brother” cut down from the tree. I guess you could say my relative’s story had a happy ending, but the simple fact is he was going to hang because he wasnt “white” (even though my people were Ashkenazic).

    I’m figuring that as the general, mostly Ashkenaz, population of Jews in the US assimilated or at least became somewhat accepted in their communities, “Jew = White” became standard thought not only for non Jewish Americans but for most American Jews as well.

    I guess the Ashkenaz majority does need a bit of a kick in the tuchus, but I hope for all our sakes that its doesnt become “News of Color” vs “Jews without Color” but that at some point we take it for granted that just as the seed of Abraham became as countless as the stars in the sky, that the Nation of Israel doesnt come in one flavor only.

    Israel_B
    Tokyo

  8. Kaguya: I’m sorry to see that you haven’t posted a blog in a long while. I hope all is well with you and your family. I look forward to the resumption of your excellent posts.

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