The Many Shades of Judaism: A Mother And Her Bi-Racial Daughter Reflect On Their Emotional Journey To The Bima
The whole bat mitzvah process is long and frustrating for many Jewish preteens, but for me it was a lot different from most others’ experiences. Not only did I have learning difficulties that made learning trope really painful, but I needed to figure out my Jewish identity. I am a Jew and also a child of color.
As a little girl, I celebrated all the Jewish holidays and many Shabbats with a group of friends from preschool. I was a student at the B’nai Jeshurun (BJ) Hebrew School, and I went to many children’s services at my synagogue.
But the first time I realized I was a different kind of Jew was when I was seven years old. One day, on the bus going to my Jewish day camp, two boys confronted me. They stood over me and said, “You know, if we were living 100 years ago, you would be our slave, and we would be your masters!” Something happened inside of me that day that made me feel different and ashamed, and it gave me a sense that I no longer belonged to the Jewish community I had known.
After many emotional days crying with my mother about this incident and what it meant to me, the search for my Jewish identity began. My mother dragged me to a Jewish multicultural dinner that was my introduction to learning that there were other people who thought and felt just like me. It was very comforting to know that others had struggled and dealt with the pain of being a multiracial Jew. They expressed the deep emotions that I was not yet able to express out loud. They talked about their sense of not belonging and of the hateful and naïve statements made to them in synagogue. They talked about their own confusion and their inability to get others to see that they, too, were Jewish.
What I learned from them helped to cushion the blow of yet more hurtful words. Just days before my bat mitzvah, at Rosh Hashanah services, I overheard a little girl ask her mother what a black person was doing in the synagogue. The mother put her fingers to her lips but gave no explanation.
As I continued to go to Shabbat dinners, multicultural holiday celebrations at the JCC, and lectures at BJ, I found a renewed interest in Judaism. I was blessed to meet many wonderful people. Some became my mentors, and one in particular, Yavilah McCoy (an Orthodox African-American Jew) helped me to prepare for my bat mitzvah and my d’var Torah by teaching me about the history of Jewish multiculturalism. She took me under her wing, inspired me to find my own voice in the Jewish community, gave me opportunities to speak about my experience as a Jew of color at various events.
I was initially a little uneasy at bringing up the subject in my d’var Torah. I wasn’t sure how the congregation would view it, but I knew that whatever the outcome, I was speaking up and educating those who were oblivious to Jews of color. And for that I was extremely proud of myself.
On the day of my bat mitzvah, I was anxious, but also really excited. I felt that I might disturb some people, but I also believed that others would be open to what I had to say. After I finished my d’var Torah and made my way through the aisles of my congregation carrying the Torah, I was overwhelmed with emotion. I remember seeing people’s faces and the tears in their eyes. Through their words and reactions, I was immensely touched by their recognition and appreciation of what I said. It was a moment that I will never forget.
Within all the Mazel Tovs, I also heard requests that I should speak more often and get more involved in the Jewish community. I wasn’t ready to become that voice the community so desperately longed for just then. First, I had to become more comfortable with myself and my Jewish identity before I would be able to vocalize my opinions in public.
Over the next few years, I found myself immersed in programs that helped me develop my Jewish multicultural identity. At my Hebrew school, for the past four years I have been an assistant teacher for first- and second-grade students. My mere presence offered an unspoken recognition among other students of color. I became for them something that I didn’t have during my years at Hebrew school. At an early age, they were able to grasp that it was not uncommon to see a person of color in their classroom. It would not be foreign to them, as it was for me, to recognize that Jews come in all colors. During a service trip to Muchucuxcah, Mexico, with other BJ teens, race was no longer an issue. I found that I had a unique voice in our Jewish text discussions, and one that was very welcomed. Both of these programs built up my confidence and helped me believe that there was an important place for me in the Jewish community.
I also made personal connections with the rabbis from my synagogue. They all motivated me to continue to make my voice known and encouraged me to get more involved in BJ. I am currently involved in a teen leadership program there, and I’m always looking for other ways to contribute my voice to the understanding of Jewish multiculturalism. I know the importance of being a bridge in many of my communities, but I now also understand my mission of being an educator in the Jewish community.
I grew up in a joyous, traditional Jewish household in an Irish-Italian Catholic neighborhood. Some of my fondest memories were of having my Christian friends over for Shabbat dinner. My mother cooked a five-course meal, and they became familiar with challah, chopped liver, chicken soup, and brisket. During the dinner my mother wove into the conversation the teachings of the parshah (Torah portion) for the week.
My other memory was Shabbat luncheons at the home of the woman who was the backbone of the Talmud Torah that I attended five days a week. There were usually five to six families invited to lunch. We spent Shabbat afternoon eating, singing nigguns, and dancing Israeli folk dances.
Though they were two different types of community (my Christian friends and the families of the Talmud Torah), it was clear that the traditions of Shabbat and the holidays were intertwined within each.
So it was no surprise that when I adopted my biracial daughter at birth as a single mother-by-choice, our household became the center for all the Jewish holidays and Shabbat. Since I had a more religious background than all of my friends, they were eager to experience the holidays with their children in a way that they could not do on their own. Between the ages of two and seven years, my daughter, with seven of her friends and families, made Torahs for Simchat Torah, made menorahs and cooked latkes for Chanukah, and built a Sukkah each year on our deck where families gathered for dinner. For Rosh Hashanah, each child had a book to record an accounting of what he or she felt good about and uncomfortable with, what accomplishments he or she made that year, and what he or she struggled with. They learned the practice of t’shuvah—how to ask and give forgiveness. We celebrated Passover with plays about the Passover story. We got so elaborate that one year we had a magic show to demonstrate the 10 plagues that featured handmade costumes for each child.
It was not until the summer of my daughter’s seventh year that I would learn that this community would not be enough to help her with her Jewish identity and make her feel a part of the Jewish community. One day, on the bus to her Jewish day camp, two boys confronted my daughter and told her, “If we lived 100 years ago, you would be our slave, and we would be your masters.”
Racism had finally entered our home, and I knew a major change would have to happen in our lives. Luckily, the JCC of Manhattan had developed a thriving Jewish multicultural community. I took Eliana to her first Jewish multicultural Shabbat dinner there. It would be the event that changed the course and understanding of our Jewish lives forever.
A ritual at these dinners included two people speaking about how they integrated their Judaism with their race. When Eliana told me that these “girls” spoke to something that was in her heart that she could not put words to, I knew we had found a place to call home.
We went to every Jewish multicultural event the JCC had—Shabbat dinners, Chanukah celebrations, Passover Seders, talks, and musical events. We bought CDs and artwork made by Ethiopian Jews, and we went to photography exhibits at the Brooklyn Museum on “What is a Jew” and a show at the Jewish Museum entitled “The Jewish Identity Project.”
Our continued involvement in the Jewish multicultural community produced wonderful connections and friendships. Eliana became the little sister to the “girls” who spoke, and she developed a special mentoring relationship with Yavilah McCoy, an African-American and fourth-generation Jew. Yavilah is a Jewish educator and activist whose mission it is to bring Jewish multiculturalism to the entire Jewish community. About a year before Eliana’s bat mitzvah, our synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun (BJ), hosted an evening of dialogue about Jewish multiculturalism. Some of the “girls” spoke, as did Yavilah. At the end of the evening, Yavilah offered to be Eliana’s mentor in learning the history of Jewish multiculturalism.
Again, on the way home Eliana shared her excitement of having a mentor and realizing how important it was for her to deepen her understanding of her historical heritage. I was not far behind in understanding the opportunity that her bat mitzvah could offer her to reflect on her role in the Jewish community. I chose a bat mitzvah date not according to her birthday, but rather to the content of the parshah from the Torah. In Vayelekh, she could study the definition of community as told by Moses to the people of Israel. Moses instructed that all of the people must assemble to study Torah. He pushed the Jews to understand that all included the strangers in their cities, as well as even the non-native born among them, meaning that everyone is included in God’s covenant.
So you can imagine my pride and joy when my daughter stood before the entire community of our synagogue at her bat mitzvah and started her d’var Torah by saying, “Today, I stand before you proudly as a Jew and as a child of color.”
I don’t think either of us was prepared for the reaction from the congregants. At BJ we practice equality by responding to all bar and bat mitzvah children by saying yasher koah after a d’var Torah. But after Eliana finished, the entire congregation stood and applauded. As Eliana carried the Torah around the synagogue, many people literally reached out to her with their hands and tears in their eyes.
She had touched them deeply in their hearts. Over the coming weeks, Eliana was approached at services by congregants telling her their personal multicultural stories and how they sent her d’var Torah to family members and friends. She was asked to speak at some events, and for the first time Eliana was beginning to grasp the importance of her voice in the Jewish community.
It has not been an easy road. My daughter walks in many worlds and has a deep appreciation of race and class. She often acts as a bridge between these worlds and has helped others to appreciate differences and to learn to live openly with each other.
Eliana is learning that having a Jewish multicultural identity takes work, both emotionally and mentally. Now, at the age of 16, she is beginning to appreciate the rewards of this struggle.
My daughter has taken a path where many have not traveled. In my blessing to her on her bat mitzvah, I said, “May Moses live deeply inside of you, and support you and let his words Hazak v’amatz, ‘Be strong and resolute,’ guide you. May you be given the wisdom, courage, strength, and fortitude to hold onto your ideals and to help others to open up their hearts so that the world you live in will be more loving and accepting.”
This article is reprinted with permission from the Fall 2008 issue of Bar Mitzvah magazine.