DON’T TURN AWAY

The January 25 issue of J! The Jewish News of Northern California reported on Jews of color rising to take their places in the Jewish community. I applaud this. But the article also made me nervous.

Yes, Jews of color have faced difficulties in a religious and cultural world led by Ashkenazim—Jews of European descent (like me). Yet the Jewish world is incredibly diverse. It includes those born of two non-Ashkenazi parents—of color or not—or one. And Jews by choice. At my synagogue, Congregation Sherith Israel, we’re majority Ashkenazi but include Sephardim (descended from the Jews of Spain), Mizrachim (Jews from the Middle East) and congregants with genes from Africa, Asia and Latin America. I’m not sure about Native American descendants, but that would be cool.

Still, Jews of color often are asked, “What brings you here?” and “Are you Jewish?” Many Ashkenazim have no idea regarding Jewish diversity and non-Ashkenazi legitimacy. It’s only natural and right that Jews of color demand an equal place at the table.

Lest you think this problem is confined to North American and Europe, consider Israel. Wander through its cities and towns, and you discover Israeli Jews’ wide genetic and cultural backgrounds. Jews have immigrated—or fled—from the West, Latin America, North Africa and the Arab Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan, India and Ethiopia. Some have come from Sub-Saharan Africa and the Far East.

Yet pre- and post-state Ashkenazim often exhibited racist attitudes. Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews were welcomed to swell the young nation’s population but under-funded regarding housing and education. In his book Spies of No Country, Israeli author Matti Friedman notes how Mizrachi Jews spied for Israel’s “Arab Section” during the War of Independence but were looked down on as “blacks.”

Racism isn’t gone, but it has been much reduced. Mizrachim and Sephardim make up half the population—and vote. Also, military service and a growing economy have brought together Israelis from all backgrounds. My cousin Maxine has a son-in-law whose family comes from Iran and Yemen. We spent last Passover with our cross-cultural family at the ancient fortress of Masada overlooking the Dead Sea. I love Tsachi’s family the way I love the varied backgrounds of my fellow Sherith Israel congregants and friends newer to Judaism—African-American, Korean, Mexican, Chinese and other. 

The Torah states, “The stranger (ger, later considered by the sages to mean proselyte) who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself…” (Leviticus 19:34).The commandment to love the stranger appears at least 36 times in the Torah. I hope Ashkenazim everywhere take this to heart.

I also hope that Jews of color will refrain from turning inward. Be’chol Lashon (“In every tongue”), headquartered in San Francisco, runs programs and a summer camp for Jewish kids of color. It enables them to look in the communal mirror and see themselves. That’s good. In a Christian-dominant society, Ashkenazi Jews don’t always get to do that, either. But will Be’chol Lashon remain necessary ten or twenty years from now? It would be wonderful to see the organization eventually disband because it’s simply not needed.

So, I extend a plea to Jews of color: Don’t turn away from me. That would hurt us all.

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8 Comments


  1. Jerry Robinson
    Feb 15, 2019

    Interesting and right on.


    • David
      Feb 15, 2019

      Thanks, Jerry. When we say Am Yisrael echad—the people Israel is one—we ought to mean it.


  2. David Newman
    Feb 16, 2019

    In Mumbai two weeks ago, we attended the celebration for the 20th anniversary of Mumbai’s JCC. The 150 or so guests ranged from European to Middle Eastern to Indian, and many of the women wore saris. The prayers were different, yet familiar, because of their Mizrachi origins. And we were welcomed with smiles and hugs.


    • David
      Feb 16, 2019

      And that, David, is one of the great benefits of being a single people with many backgrounds. Everyone brings great stuff to the table. Thanks for sharing this.


  3. Nancy Sg
    Feb 17, 2019

    Nicely stated David.
    You know Jews have only become white in recent history
    and we know those that have been excluded
    want their chance to be exclusive.
    In the olam haba, the world to come, maybe we will
    be in a world where we don’t focus on our
    superficial differences and instead recognize
    our shared humanity.
    Nancy sg


    • David
      Feb 18, 2019

      Nancy, you’re absolutely correct that “whiteness” as a category for Jews is recent, a social construct. See the book, How Jews Became White Folks by Karen Brodkin. And may the day come sooner rather than later when Jews and non-Jews alike see each other as descendants of the same Creator and worthy of the same respect.


      • Nancy E Sheftel-Gomes
        Feb 18, 2019

        Thanks David,
        I have met Karen And I have the book.And i personally have no desire to pass as white.


        • David
          Feb 18, 2019

          Matches my disposition.

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