This week's portion: promise
Finite language, infinite truth (Radical Torah repost)

IBARW: celebrating the diversity of Jewish community

This week is I Blog Against Racism Week (IBARW), the fourth annual weeklong carnival of posts relating to racism and race. If you're new to the conversation, you might begin with this Race-related resources post -- for white readers, I especially recommend the classic White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack [pdf].

IBARW seemed like a good opportunity to unpack (and ideally keep trying to dismantle) some of my own unconscious assumptions about race. Growing up, I mostly knew Jews of Ashkenazi descent, which is to say, Jews with roots in Germany, Eastern Europe, and Russia. I knew a few Jews who'd come to San Antonio via Argentina, which meant that their Hebrew was Spanish-inflected rather than Yiddish-inflected, but they were mostly of Ashkenazic descent, too -- their families just immigrated to South America instead of North America during the late 19th and early 20th century waves of Jewish immigration.

But the Jewish world is so much more than this. I don't mean to knock Ashkenazic Jews, or our food and culture -- these are the building-blocks of my own family and childhood! But there are whole other Jewish worlds out there: Sefardic Jews (Sfarad is the Hebrew word for Spain) of Spain and North Africa; Mizrahi Jews (mizrah means "east") of the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia; Jews in, and from, India and Latin America and Asia. Klal Yisrael -- the broader Jewish community -- has always been multifaceted and multicultural.

Of course, the picture is always more complicated the closer you look at it. Many Jews in Spain became conversos, marranos -- "hidden" or "crypto-"Jews, who converted to Christianity on pain of death but preserved rituals like lighting Shabbat candles in secret. Some Jews of color have deep Jewish roots: there have long been Jewish communities in Ethiopia, India, Iraq. (In the last 100 years or so, also Uganda.) Other Jews of color have chosen Judaism in this generation -- or maybe their parents or grandparents chose Judaism. But it's problematic (even offensive) to assume that a Jew of color is new to the covenant, just as it's offensive to assume that someone who "looks foreign" is a new immigrant to the United States.

In the aftermath of the Obama inauguration there were stories about Michelle Obama's cousin Rabbi Capers Funnye, and about Alysa Stanton, America's First Black, Female Rabbi. It was great to see some attention paid to non-white Jews, but in the way those two articles were passed around I perceived a kind of tokenism. I'd love to see our community move beyond that and into a more mature recognition -- and celebration -- of how gorgeously diverse the Jewish community has always been. In the interest of that, a couple of personal stories which really spoke to me:

Aliza Hausman writes about being a Dominicana and a Jew in her essay Nation Divided: Coping With Racism in the Jewish Community:

Sometimes, I wish I wasn't a Jew of color. I just want to blend! But the results of blending have been, at times, unsettling. When people don't know I'm a Jew of color, I become a "racial spy." Jews and non-Jews alike sling hurtful comments in front of me, believing that I must be not one of "them." That it's okay to be racist because there aren't any non-whites at the table. Or no one Jewish around. But during the "joke" about the Mexican housekeeper, I protest, "Hello? I'm offended!" And somewhere, later, I'll have to pipe up to defend the Jews.

Iraqi Jew Loolwa Khazzoom posted a poignant essay about Tisha b'Av at Jewschool yesterday called Rebuilding, Reshaping, and Reclaiming Our Identity after It’s Been Smashed to Bits. After describing the Temple's fall and the Jewish community's exile to Babylonia, she writes:

Their end was my beginning: The beginning of an exiled people in Babylon, who over the millennia transformed into a thriving, vibrant community — writing the authoritative Babylonian Talmud, launching the first ever Jewish learning institutions (yeshivas), and otherwise developing a rich and unique culture full of stories, music, language, spiritual teachings, architecture, prayers, dance, scholarly works, art, and religious rituals.

After nearly three millennia, my ancestors were sent packing once again: In 1950, my grandparents and father were among the 100,000 Jewish refugees from Baghdad alone – forced to flee after a surge of anti-Jewish violence throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Most of these refugees, including my family, were absorbed by the modern state of Israel. As in hokey-pokey style: One foot in, one foot out.

These aren't the stories I grew up hearing, but I know I want our child to hear them. (You can bet that as soon as he's old enough, he'll be reading Joann Sfar's The Rabbi's Cat alongside the I.B. Singer and Sholom Aleichem of my own childhood.)

For those who are interested, a few resources relating to Jews of color:

What's missing from this list are blogs by Jews of color, Sefardi Jews, and Mizrahi Jews. If you're a part of any of those communities, and you maintain a blog or twitter feed, drop a link in the comments? I read a fair number of J-blogs already but I would love to expand my horizons beyond the Ashkenazic world.

Happy IBARW, everyone.

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