Assuming Identity

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March 1, 2011
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Ruth Abusch-Magder

Recently, I was walking across the Golden Gate Bridge with my family when I observed another family ambling toward us. The big-framed man was tall with dark skin and curly hair. The woman was short and roundish. Large gold earrings dangled beneath an updo that was topped off with carefully coiled curls. Both children had almond colored skin similar to that of the mother. Catching myself staring, I realized I was trying to figure out if they were Jewish.

When I lived in New York, I used to play a game in my head; I called it, “Lid/not a Lid.” Walking in Penn Station or on the Upper West Side, I would assess the men coming toward me and guess whether they were wearing kippot. My ability to guess with amazing accuracy was based not only on deep familiarity with the dress and social habits of observant Jews but also on a deeply held set of assumption about Jews.

This summer, I began work as the rabbi-in-residence for Be’chol Lashon, an organization dedicated to celebrating the full diversity of Jewish peoplehood, with particular attention to racial and ethnic plurality. My first week coincided with Camp Be’chol Lashon and as I drove into the campsite that we shared with a local choir camp, I realized that my assumption about Jews had to change. It was easy to distinguish our children from the choir gang. The choir campers were all white, while the Jewish children were a showcase for the range of human skin tones.

For many complex historical and sociological reasons, most Americans equate Judaism with white skin — and most Jews tend to assume that they know a Jew when they see one. Encountering African-American, Asian, Latino, or mixed-race Jews pushes white and light-skinned Jews to question what they see — their curiosity piqued about the Jewish journeys these folks have taken. But if we take the time to ask about those stories, if we question the Jewish authenticity of the Asian man with the kippah or the Spanish-speaking woman dropping her child off at the Jewish Community Center preschool, we need to be not only polite and respectful, but also open to the full messiness of Jewish identity and peoplehood, which will inevitably mean questioning ourselves.

There are as many different Jewish stories as there are racially and ethnically diverse Jews. Some are converts. Accepting converts into our clan is a tricky business: in part, because some Jews enjoy the cachet of being part of an exclusive club; in part, because accepting converts means accepting their rabbis (a different conversation — see the essays of Daniel Gordis, Yehiel Poupko, and Mark Washofsky on pages 12, 13, and 14 respectively); and, in part, because it requires an openness to the diversity of contributions to the collective Jewish whole. Before we judge whether Korean kimchi belongs on the seder plate or fried plantains are eaten at Hanukkah, we might remember that at one time charain (horseradish) and latkes were themselves an innovation.

The claim to membership in the Jewish people “because my parents and grandparents are Jews” also means that we accept Ethiopian Jews who can name seven generations of Jewish lineage. While the practices of some marginalized Jewish communities might differ from the ways most mainstream American Jews observe Judaism, who are we to decide whose comfort and familiarity are meant to be the standard? Would we, for example, get rid of “kosher for Passover” products that have rice and legumes in them because the millennia-old Sefardic customs unsettle Ashkenazic customs?

Our ability to embrace and rejoice in the full plurality of possibilities of Jewish peoplehood — and the individual Jews who make up that people — rests on our capacity to look beyond the certainty that we know what a Jew looks like. Jewish peoplehood is a beautifully complex and multilayered business. There are no answers about what constitutes Jewish identity that do not in some way raise more questions. Our own history, sense of Judaism, and personal attachments shape and, unfortunately, also limit our understanding of peoplehood. If we focus our gaze with laser precision on the kippah-clad Jewish men of Manhattan, we obscure the complex realities that are our inheritance and also the birthright of our collective future.

Skin color is only one of the many ways individual Jews are, as my colleague Lacey Schwartz notes, “outside the box” of assumptions about what Jewish is. When we open ourselves up to embracing the many possibilities in modern Jewish identity, we will open new bridges toward the Jewish future.

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Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, PhD, is the rabbi-in-residence at Be’chol Lashon, a San Francisco-based organization that advocates for the growth and diversity of the Jewish people. She is currently working on educational projects that encourage Jews worldwide to see themselves as part of the Jewish future.

1 Comment

  1. I couldn’t agree more. As a black woman, who is a lesbian and in the process of converting to Judaism I am constantly being questioned by strangers when they notice the star of David around my neck. I’m always quite amazed when people assume all Jews are of Eastern European heritage based soley on Torah. It was the same issue I had when I was shown pictures of a blonde haired, blue eyed Jesus as a child. Last I checked, Torah’s roots aren’t in Poland.

    The reasons that there is such racial diversity in, say Islam and Christianity is because both of those faiths actively seek new members and they are not tied to a people. Judaism is first and foremost, a religion for me. Culturally, I cannot make ties to a “Jewish” identity because frankly, I’m not white. I’m drawn to Sephardic foods, music, and customs over Ashkenazic. When I enter a shul, it’s important for people to see me, to see my skin color and to see me as a Jew. It’s important that we get comfortable with things, people, music, and food outside of our communities and families to see the larger, broader fabric of Judaism.

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