Last Shabbos, I geared myself up for going to services, but it just didn’t happen. However I realized on Friday morning that it would be Rosh Chodesh Elul, and it would be really nice to get back in the swing of things (G-d simply wants us to make the effort I’m sure…). Even though I woke up at 7 a.m., I went around the house lamenting to my boyfriend about how much I dreaded this whole exercise. As the morning wore on, he began to think I was crazy. “What’s the big deal? If they give you a hard time, forget them, you don’t need them anyway!” But the Jewish community is not like that. There are not tons of synagogues all over the place. And among the ones that exist, not all of them are an option. For numerous reasons, I really didn’t want to make the 40-minute trek to the synagogue I had been going to before. But at least they knew me. So I wouldn’t have to explain myself. Isn’t that a shame? As a Black Jew, the fear of harassment is always considered (at least by me) before you can go to worship services!
In spite of my dilly-dallying, I made it to this new shul (I don’t want to get into names, but I would love to one day, publish some sort of collection of reviews on synagogues from a Black Jew’s perspective) before krias Shema. The synagogue was not as light and airy as the one I had been going to; the interior was beige (not Jerusalem gold…but gym room beige) brick with modest blue portable chairs. I had my wild afro pinned back at the front…so I grabbed a siddur and swiftly took a seat at the back of the congregation (I like that…less staring). The service was more traditional and flowed better than the other synagogue’s service (this shul is Conservative…the other was unaffiliated, but used Conservative siddurim). I realized that the service was being led by a layman, and not the rabbi, who served as the chazzan and read the Torah. About 20 people were there of which 15 were men and the average age seemed to be 60. I didn’t catch any outright staring. But when it came time for the Torah service, the inevitable happened…
As we stood for the opening of the aron kodesh, the gabbai cooley came up behind me and asked “Are you Jewish?”; although he then followed that by offering the synagogue honor to tie the sefer Torah (rosh chodesh usually requires two Torah scrolls to be brought out). To give the benefit of the doubt, that is probably why he asked (as opposed to wondering about my status due to my skin color…which if that was the case, he masked it well). I declined…twice. I thought that would be the end of it, but he continued on with asking “So how did you come to hear about us?” Uh…this was weird, because I really didn’t want to get into any sort of lengthy conversation here with a total stranger, in the middle of the service. I also didn’t know if he was talking about the synagogue or the Jewish people in general or what. I don’t even know if I answered that question when he asked, “So are you Ethiopian?”. GRRRRRR….OMG! Why oh why does that question get posed to me over and over? I mean, I really, really don’t look like an Ethiopian. And Ethiopians don’t have a monopoly on the Black Jewish experience. And I also don’t know if that’s somehow supposed to imply that if I was Ethiopian, then I would be “legit”, whereas if I wasn’t….
I did answer that question though; I said “No; I’m from McKeesport, PA.”
He then went on to ask about how I got there (???) and making suggestions in regards to what buses I could catch in order to get there (????). And then he went on his way. Yey.
Besides that, the rest of the service was pretty uneventful. The kiddush was very modest. Just wine and cookies. I did appreciate that they said the mezonos bracha though (it’s the proper thing to do really). The Rabbi asked me and two other guests to introduce ourselves. A couple of people came up to say hi. And that was that.
I walked out the doors, glancing back and sort of marveling at how even after all these years, I get that uncomfortable knot of nerves in my stomach that turns up every time I walk into a strange synagogue alone. What type of questions and comments will I have to endure this time? What will the congregation and the rabbi think about me initially? I know, I know, I shouldn’t let it bother me. But these are my people…and it’s a sensitive topic with me that I need work hard to prove myself in order to be accepted; just because of the color of my skin.
In the end I decided that it wasn’t so bad. I could possibly do it all over again next week.
Sorry, But I Don’t Need You To Tell Me About African Jews
It never fails. At least once a month, but many times two or four times a month, I get an email from a Jewish friend that has a link to an article or a video about Jews in Africa. Yesterday it was an email about Jews in Nigeria. Let me tell you, it took a lot of willpower for me to not respond. I don’t feel enlightened by these emails…not the least. In fact, I find in condescending and inappropriate mainly for the reasons listed below:
#1. I already have knowledge about Jews in the continent of Africa. Even if I didn’t, I am an intelligent, college-educated person who knows how to research these topics on my own; if they should interest me. I don’t need you to educate me about “my people” (or so you perceive).
#2. Just because I’m Black does not mean I have a deep, strong connection to Africans. I am proud of my African ancestry and the culture that has been bequeathed upon me via Africa. However the dreaded institution of slavery has robbed me of any knowledge regarding where exactly my ancestors came from. Africa is a big place - a continent with many different peoples. I’m not about to blindly embrace all of them as being “mine”. Do Hispanic individuals embrace all of Latin America? Yes there is an acknowledgement of shared roots. But that’s as far as it goes. I have no desire to claim ownership in cultures that I may have no rights to (I have enough cultures that I DO know about that I can claim…which is fine by me).
#3. The division among Jews along racial classifications disgusts me; and emails like this just add to the problem. Jews make up only 0.2% of the world’s population. We are the smallest of minorities. So what good does it do to divide ourselves up even more? By perpetuating terms like “African Jew”, “Sephardi Jew”, “Indian Jew”, etc., you diminish a person’s Jewishness and hone in on their race. The Torah clearly shows us that the nation of Israel is made of of ethnically diverse individuals…and always has been. So why is it that 5 millennia later, we haven’t just become one Jewish nation?
#4. There are some exceptions, but the vast majority of these articles and films tend to be incredibly patronizing. Too often the tone is along the lines of “Oh wow; look at these primitive Africans and look at their attempt to live like Jews in their part of the world”. Hardly ever are they approached in the sense of being closer and truer to Judaism as practiced by the patriarchs. Instead their knowledge of Judaism is minimized because they haven’t been exposed to the Talmud.
So just to wrap up my rant here; unless I specifically asked for a link — or if you are a well-read expert on the subject….don’t send me any stories about Jews in Africa. It will just get deleted.