Black HYPHEN!! Jewish

Hi, I’m MaNishtana. And in the spirit of Black and Black Jewish History Month, I need to pause from the biographies to address an article which printed almost a week ago in New Jersey Jewish News.  In it, Rabbi Enan Francis is interviewed and all goes well until the interview turns to the topic of race and racism:

NJJN: Do you see racism as a problem in the context of Judaism?

Francis: I don’t. People of color I have met who do have this added flavor to them often [react from] the American construct of blackness. Often it comes with the baggage of the American racial experience, so you have people who are now coming into the fold of Judaism who carry along many vestiges of blackness germane to the American experience, whereas others — like in my family — we don’t have that baggage because we were brought up in an environment of Judaism that was a raceless environment.

NJJN: What is your own background? Are you African-American?

Francis: That is what someone on the periphery might associate me with. I don’t have a problem with anyone who is African-American, and I have made peace with the reality of the boxes other people put me in. I would ask, “Don’t my parents have to have come from Africa or come to this country through slavery or were converts to Judaism for me to qualify as African-American?” I defy all those categories.

My mother’s family is Eastern European. My mother’s family, for argument’s sake, is Caucasian. They are Jewish. My father’s family came from Brazil and Venezuela; my [paternal] grandmother came from Holland. They are Jewish.

NJJN: Do you have any relationship to the black community outside the context of your Judaism?

Francis: I do not, and that was the reality of growing up in my family. We didn’t see or interact with people who espoused any hyphenated form of Judaism. If it is a hyphen, then it is not Judaism. Judaism is without hyphens. Often, people who say ‘I am a black Jew’ are identifying themselves as ‘I share in the experience for good or for worse and identify with black America, and my religion is to pray Jewish.” My family has always had a problem with that because that defines who we are inherently; and that is, we are Jews without a color designation. When I see my mother, I see love. When I see my father, I see my father — and love.

Now, before I start, this is what Rabbi Enan Francis looks like:

“Nope, I’m not Black at all.  Your CMYK and RGB settings are just off.”

Now, back in the mid 80’s to mid 90’s–possibly even earlier–Crown Heights was a little basin full of assorted African-American Jews who all pretty much know/knew each other.  Among them, there were the Francises (Rabbi Yisroel and his sons Gershom and Enan, above), my family, and the Fulchers (the maiden name of a little somebody I’m sure no one’s ever heard of, Yavilah McCoy).  So I and others find the above contentions more than a little bit ridiculous.  So let’s address some of it:

NJJN: Do you see racism as a problem in the context of Judaism?

Francis: I don’t. People of color I have met who do have this added flavor to them often [react from] the American construct of blackness. Often it comes with the baggage of the American racial experience, so you have people who are now coming into the fold of Judaism who carry along many vestiges of blackness germane to the American experience, whereas others — like in my family — we don’t have that baggage because we were brought up in an environment of Judaism that was a raceless environment.

Alright.

Now, before I begin, I’d like to clarify a point.  Is Judaism racist/a racist religion?  No.  Not by a long shot, and especially not moreso than Islam or Christianity.  Is racism a problem in Judaism? Yes. Just like it is in every society and religion across the world.  To adamantly state that racism is not or does not exist in Judaism is…well let’s just say “disingenuous” and keep things civil.

Now.  Enan.

I’m going to pretend like you don’t know, and didn’t grow up in the same community at the same time as myself and Yavilah McCoy, neither of whom “came into the fold of Judaism”.  We were born there.  And have been there for a while, actually.  Generations long.  So let’s ignore your implication that there is this group of uppity Negroes storming into Judaism wanting to fight “The Man”.

In fact, let’s also say that your statement–that the only people who perceive racism in Judaism are the ones operating from the American construction of blackness–is true. (Completely ignoring discrimination against Sephardim or anyone browner than an Ashkenazi in general.  In Israel).

How then would you explain a comment like this, from a Jewish blog site discussing Ethiopian Jews (Beta Israel):

“[Ethiopian Jews are] just African black guys with feathers and bells singing their ol’ folk tunes but they sure got rhythm … I see dozens of Ethiopians a day and 95% look like deep African tribal blacks and the other 5 % look more refined but none of them look Jewish to me… SHVARZAH NIC YIDDEN … they ain’t Jews except to the non-religious politicians who want cannon fodder they are employed as security guards and janitors and vote for the liberal parties the lefties love it canned votes and someone to sweep the floors … you marry a sevarzah and i will marry a Jewish girl your kids will have rhythm and mine will get a Noble prize (at least statistically)…”

Or perhaps this one, on yet another Jewish news site, discussing Amare Stoudemire’s Jewish roots:

“How is Amare Jewish?? Was his mother raped?”

Or perhaps THIS one, Rule No. 23 from the 1820 constitution of the first Jewish congregation of South Carolina, Congregation Kaal Kodesh Beth Elohim:

“This congregation shall not encourage or interfere with making proselytes under any pretense whatever, nor shall any such be admitted under the jurisdiction of their congregation, until he or she or they produce legal and satisfactory credentials, from some other congregation, where a regular Chief [Rabbi] or Rabbi and Hebrew Consistory is established; and, provided, he, she or they are not people of color.”

Clearly it’s not these alleged few converted malcontents who are operating from some American concept of Blackness.  It seems that a lot of our fellow White Jewish brethren do as well.  But for some reason, Rabbi, you seem to be blind to that.  Still believe it’s the hyphenated “Black” Jewish people’s mode of operation causing a perception that racism is a problem in Judaism?

Well then I’ll make you a deal.  If you can tell me where the people in the following anecdotes were operating from that “American concept of Blackness”, thereby making the scenario their own fault, then I’ll cosign on your concept.

“On May 29, 1988, on a lazy Sunday afternoon, children were playing on the sidewalk of President Street between Utica and Schenectady Avenues, and an eight-year old black girl snatched a ball away from a Hasidic toddler. As happens sometimes in Crown Heights, violence escalated from this innocent exchange. The toddler’s father shoved the young black girl to the ground, and the young girl’s teenage cousin came to her aid, confronting the Hasidic man. He then shoved and punched this teenage girl, knocking out one of her teeth. But the Hasid didn’t and couldn’t know–or could he? and if not, why not?–that the teenage girl he’d punched out was an African-American Orthodox Jew, an honor student at a high school affiliated with Yeshiva University.

Ten years later, I discussed this incident with an older sister of the girl who was punched…She spoke of it passionately, describing how her sister ran upstairs to their apartment, bleeding from her mouth and carrying her tooth…Finally, she told me how the Hasid who had punched her sister apologized, profusely and repeatedly, once the whole thing was sorted out: “I’m so sorry!” he cried to her and her family: “I didn’t know she was Jewish!” —Jews of Brooklyn, by Ilana Abramovitch and Seán Galvin

Well, I guess that whole “Black Jews operate from an American concept of blackness” thing flies out the window, doesn’t it?  Because apparently some Jews think it’s perfectly okay to be a grown man punching regular Black teenage girls in the face if his only excuse was “I didn’t know she was Jewish”.

A black, male and Jewish friend of mine visited a synagogue one Friday night. The congregation, I think, was liberal and Reform in orientation. Rather than anyone speaking to him or greeting him with one word at all, they called on the authorities and he was escorted out of the synagogue by the police. Now what’s interesting, and what I’d like to emphasize, was that this young man did nothing but sit down inside the synagogue and begin to read a prayer book in preparation for worship services. He caused no outrageous disturbances. He harassed no one. He wasn’t dressed inappropriately. According to him, when approached by the police, he was actually wearing a kippah and tallit… Now think very carefully about that moment. A young man is sitting in a sanctuary of worship and he is then tapped on the shoulder from behind. He turns around and standing over him–the first person in the synagogue to which he must talk–is a city police officer…”

Yep.  I can see it.  How dare he operate from this foreign-to-Judaism concept of “Blackness” by wearing a kippah and tallit to pray?!  The nerve.  Read more comments here.

“[W]hen I asked one African American Jew raised in Crown Heights about her day-to-day experiences growing up as a Black Jew, she answered immediately, “Oh, you mean like everyone staring at us when we walked to shul, and they saw my father wearing his [prayer shawl] on Shabbat?” Fleeting moments like this may seem trivial or insignificant, but other Black Jews I spoke to described the profound effect of their Hasidic neighbors’ failures to recognize them as Jews–the pent-up anger that threatens to surface when yet another Hasid seems to ignore one’s neighborly greeting of “Good Shabbos.” —Race and religion among the chosen peoples of Crown Heights, by Henry Goldschmidt

I suppose this–yet again, born Jewish African-American–is just perceiving that she was receiving stares.

“A 23-year-old woman of Ethiopian descent claimed that the driver of an Egged No. 5 bus in Rishon Lezion refused to allow her to board his bus because of the color of her skin.
Speaking to Ynet, Yedno Verka recounted last Wednesday’s incident: “As I prepared board the bus, the driver suddenly shut the door. I banged on the glass, but he ignored me. Then a young woman came running towards the bus, and he opened the door for her. I stayed close to her and boarded the bus.

“When the driver saw me he said, ‘What, don’t you understand that I don’t allow Kushim (derogatory term for black people) on board? Are you trying to smash my door in? Were there buses in Ethiopia? Why don’t you walk? In Ethiopia you didn’t even have shoes and here you do, so why don’t you walk?’ I was shaking all over; I couldn’t even speak,” she said.
At this point Verka handed the driver the bus fair, but, according to her, he refused to accept it and said,

“Kushit hold on, what’s your hurry? Since you (Ethiopians) made aliyah you’ve become arrogant.”–Story from Ynet News.

Whoop, sorry.  That was in Israel.  So I guess it’d be irrelevant to your “American concept of Blackness” belief.  My mistake.  Moving on.

NJJN: What is your own background? Are you African-American?

Francis: That is what someone on the periphery might associate me with. I don’t have a problem with anyone who is African-American, and I have made peace with the reality of the boxes other people put me in. I would ask, “Don’t my parents have to have come from Africa or come to this country through slavery or were converts to Judaism for me to qualify as African-American?” I defy all those categories.

My mother’s family is Eastern European. My mother’s family, for argument’s sake, is Caucasian. They are Jewish. My father’s family came from Brazil and Venezuela; my [paternal] grandmother came from Holland. They are Jewish.

NJJN: Do you have any relationship to the black community outside the context of your Judaism?

Francis: I do not, and that was the reality of growing up in my family. We didn’t see or interact with people who espoused any hyphenated form of Judaism. If it is a hyphen, then it is not Judaism. Judaism is without hyphens. Often, people who say ‘I am a black Jew’ are
identifying themselves as ‘I share in the experience for good or for worse and identify with black America, and my religion is to pray Jewish.” My family has always had a problem with that because that defines who we are inherently; and that is, we are Jews without a color
designation. When I see my mother, I see love. When I see my father, I see my father — and love.

I’m not even sure where to start on your about disdain for the skin you’re in.

“Are you African-American?” “Well don’t my parents have to have come from Africa or come to this country through slavery or were converts to Judaism for me to qualify as African-American?”

Ignoring for the moment your implications that African-Americans do not include Free Blacks (I am descended partly from Free Black AFRICAN AMERICANS) or that African-Americans must be converts to be Jewish, perhaps, if you are confused about your lineage, you should ask your dad.  Because according to him, your family’s roots are on the Caribbean island of Curacao in the Dutch Antilles. And in the late 18th century, your Jewish ancestors came there from Holland and Spain and mixed with the BLACK islanders.  So yes, some of your ancestors DID come from Africa.  Except they stopped in the Caribbean.  Which would actually make you kinda Caribbean American.  But still Black.  I’m not exactly sure where “Brazil and Venezuela” come into the mix.  However, you have always had a penchant for adding new “not Black” heritages into your background.  When a friend of mine spoke to you in 2007, at the time not only were you “not Black”, but instead, in fact, a “Moor”.

But what amuses me the most is that, despite the fact that you emphasize that your mother’s side is Eastern European and Jewish, for “argument’s sake”, you refer to them as Caucasian.  Utilizing that logic, given the deep end of the spectrum your father’s side exudes, wouldn’t it be equally fair to refer to them as Black?  For “argument’s sake”, of course.

Now, about that “hyphenated Judaism”.  I supposed you don’t associate with ANYONE then.  Because isn’t being a Chassid a hyphenated form of Judaism which differentiates you as being Ultra-Orthodox as opposed to, say, Modern Orthodox?

Actually, that was facetious of me.  Clearly what you meant was “hyphenated Judaism” as in people who put an emphasis on their culture/race/background and mold a form of Judaism from it, which isn’t necessarily “Judaism”, but a Judaism through their lens.  Like Eastern Europeans did with the Ashkenazic tradition.  Or Iberians and North Africans did with the Sephardic tradition.  Or Middle Easterners did with the Mizrahi tradition.  Ethiopians with Beta Israel traditions.  Yemenites with Temani traditions.  Lithuanians with Litvish traditions.  Hungarians with Satmar traditions.  And, last but not least, Russians with Lubavitch traditions.

So I can totally see your point about not wanting to associate with African-American Jews who have the gall to live Judaism as informed by their experiences and culture.

And by the way, when people say “I’m a Black Jew”, they’re saying: “I share in the experience for good or for worse and identify with black America, because even though I am and equally identify with being Jewish, the reality is that in 1951, I’d be drinking from the “Colored Only” fountain, in 1943, I’d be getting on the back of the bus, and in 1820, my white Jewish brethren would not allow me to step foot into the same house of worship as them”.

Quick refresher course:

“This congregation shall not encourage or interfere with making proselytes under any pretense whatever, nor shall any such be admitted under the jurisdiction of their congregation, until he or she or they produce legal and satisfactory credentials, from some other congregation, where a regular Chief [Rabbi] or Rabbi and Hebrew Consistory is established; and, provided, he, she or they are not people of color.”

So please, stop being so…again, I’ll go with “disingenuous”.

Now. I’m not saying Rabbi Enan is a horrible, terrible individual.  In fact, just a cursory glance of any article concerning his work as a Rosh Yeshiva reveals glowing commendations in the comments section.  It’s just that, by his own admission, he deliberately disregards an entire section of the Jewish community, and worse yet, makes it seem like THEY are the ones with the problem.

So how “Jewish” is that, really?

Besides very.

manishtanasignoff

MaNishtana@manishtana.net

twitter.com/MaNishtana

Order Thoughts From A Unicorn: 100% Black. 100% Jewish. 0% Safe.

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