I remember it like it was yesterday. I was laid off from my job for poor work performance. Weeks before, I went to HR regarding a co-worker who attacked my Jewish identity by asking another co-worker, “What does she want to be Jewish?” followed by “She thinks she so cute” because I asked for the first day of Pesach off.
Her sister, who worked in the same department, questioned my Judaism in front of the entire office, and when the daily harassment was too much for my body to handle, I was hospitalized and forced to tell my diagnosis to my supervisor, who encouraged the discrimination, and the HR rep.
It was the first time I experienced discrimination because of my religion, and I was blindsided that it came from the black community. I couldn’t and still cannot understand how people who are targeted for racial violence and discrimination can be so oppressive.
Being black and Jewish, at least from my experiences in the South, is a precarious position. Especially in a socially segregated city like Atlanta, where you are forced to choose between being Jewish and being black, whatever that means.
I have been told the discrimination is my fault by white Jews who were fired for being Jewish and taking holidays off. Your identity is constantly questioned, and your loyalty to both communities is a topic for debate.
People wrongly assume one of my parents is white. My mother’s family is an Afro-Portuguese/Indian mix, and she is darker than me. My father is black.
But living in the South, I been told everything from I’m not really black to I think I’m special to I prefer Jews over blacks. None of which I have said or nonverbally communicated, but being a black Jew seems to draw projections from insecure people.
My identity garners resentment from those who are comfortable with the status quo because being a black Jew disrupts stereotypes in both communities. People who have never met a Jew tell me about being Jewish or tell me I’m trying to whitewash my identity.
The first man I dated in Atlanta said I needed to drop my Jewish identity, and I was warned to keep it a secret. I thought to myself, “This is not 1865, nor is it the crusades, and I am a proud Jewish woman.”
History proves being Jewish isn’t easy. When I sought solace from my father, he always said, “Birds always pick at the best fruit, and the best fruit is at the top.”
Whether the discrimination is out of jealousy, ignorance or malice, it’s all part of being Jewish, he would add.
During our study sessions, I have learned about being a Jew and specifically a black Jew. I inherited a true understanding of the trauma of slavery by reading Deuteronomy and an even better understanding of the slave mentality by reading Exodus. The liturgy, combined with my father’s urging to research the Harlem Renaissance and Black Wall Street in high school, fostered a true love for my black heritage that inspired me to start a website dedicated to blacks in the high arts.
I never felt that being black and being Jewish were mutually exclusive. I always believed those stories of freedom (Passover), civil rights (Esther) and family abuse (Joseph) applied to me. I always thought Hashem was talking to me.
One of my black Jewish friends would say, “You’ve never had a problem mixing your fried chicken and latkes. I admire you for that.” And it’s true.
I have faced discrimination all my life. One morning I woke to a cross on my front porch and the words “Niggers go home” on my front door. Someone tried to burn down my house while my family slept. At 8 years old, I knew what it meant to be hated and violated because of your race.
So when I picked up the Torah and read about freedom and blessings as a result of standing up to Pharaoh, my soul stirred. Like many black Jews, Passover is my favorite holiday.
Yes, I now understand I am special. I love that I probably look like many of the women in the Torah. When I attended the Jewish Funders Network conference, Israelis approached me speaking Hebrew because they assumed I was from Israel.
I don’t have much family, and my Jewish community has always been my family and my source of comfort. The Tanakh has and always will be my go-to in times of trouble, celebration, peace, happiness, stress (you get the picture).
It is who I am. There is liberation in Judaism, and, as Rabbi Harold Kushner said, “Judaism will save your life.” Judaism has saved my life on more than one occasion.
There is freedom in being among people for whom it doesn’t matter if I am light-skinned black or dark-skinned black. I am a black Jew, and that means something to me.
I don’t have to abide by racial constructs embedded in my psyche. I am free to grow and to challenge myself. I am free to be my black Jewish self and to think of new and big ideas, just like Abraham and Moses and his wife, Tzipporah.
So I rest easy, knowing I come from a long line of kings and queens who were considered lower, were discriminated against but changed the world.