Sisterhood Blog

Sh— Jews Say to (Non-White) Jews

By Erika Davis

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Franchesca Ramsey, in a still from “Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls”

The “Shit Girls Say” videos, which The Sisterhood’s Elissa Strauss weighed in on here, have been an online phenomenon with spin-offs including “Shit Guys Say” and the most spot-on, “Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls. “ (Nuggets include: “Jews were slaves, too; you don’t hear us complaining about it all the time” and “you guys can do so much with your hair” and “not to sound racist, but…”)

As I watched this video for the fourth time, I realized that someone should make a video called “Shit White Jews Say To Black Jews.” It would include statements like:

You’re Jewish?”

“Where should I put my dirty dish?”

“Are you someone’s nanny?”

I thought it was just me, but when I asked other Jews of Color, they told me they’ve heard things such as:

“Oh don’t worry, shvartze is just Yiddish for black.”

“Wait, so you’re not Ethiopian?”

“I so want to come to your house for Shabbat. I live for soul food.”

“Do you know X? She converted, but she used to be Korean.”

“Racism isn’t a problem in the Jewish community.”

I like to give folks the benefit of the doubt. I usually assume they’re not used to seeing a black person at their synagogue who wasn’t security, that they’re genuinely curious or that they simply don’t know better. I’d like to think that when the person walks away from me they have a better idea of who Jews are and what Jews look like.

Jews have been a multi-ethnic people since biblical times. Both Torah history and anthropology trace human beings from the land mass now known as Africa to the farthest reaches of the earth. And the environments we adapted to determined everything from the color of our skin to the texture of our hair to the shape of our eyes.

Recently CNN published on its website a piece about the increasing diversity within the Jewish community. I was excited to see the piece — and even more excited to see the Jewish diversity organization Be’chol Lashon, (literally, “in every tongue”) featured in it.

The problem with the CNN article is that it assumes that Jews who are non-white are Jews because they’ve been adopted or converted, or they’ve married white Jews. It doesn’t acknowledge that many non-white Jews are born into Judaism.

According to numbers compiled in 2004 by the Institute for Jewish & Community Research, Jews who are African–American, black, Latino, Hispanic, Native American, mixed race, African, South American, Middle Eastern, Caribbean, Asian and Mizrahi make up 20% of Jews in the United States alone.

Jews who speak about justice often quote Heschel’s famous “praying with my feet,” line, but how many actually walk the walk? From where I stand as a new convert to Judaism, as a black, gay woman, Jews are skeptical of anyone who is not like them and often cannot see their own prejudices.

Shabbat dinner in the home of African–American Jews will taste different than Shabbat dinner in a Mexican–American Jewish home and different than Shabbat dinner in an Indian Jewish home, but they’re all celebrating Shabbat. We’ve been a diverse people since the mixed multitude went with the Israelites out of Egypt. And our institutions need to be places that represent — and celebrate — this diversity, in their liturgy, curricula and programming.

One of the best things has come out of Franchesca Ramsey’s “Shit Black Girls Say…” video is that it opened the conversation about race, ignorance and insensitivity. These conversations are easily adaptable to the Jewish community. It’s okay to ask questions, as long as the questions are sincere, genuine and neutral:

“Did you enjoy the service?”

“Is this your first time to Congregation XYZ?”

“Will you be joining us tomorrow morning for services?”

All are acceptable and normal questions a newcomer to a Jewish community expects to hear.

Not welcome are questions that ask how one is Jewish or if they are Jewish. Random comments about Ethiopian Jewry also fall into that category.

I’ve been the only person sitting in a pew at busy congregations. Even when the pews start to fill up and there’s nowhere else to sit, I notice that people will not sit next to me. If someone does sit next to me, they’ll often ignore my presence.

Luckily, I’ve found a congregation in Brooklyn that is open and vibrant. I walk into shul every Friday evening and am greeted warmly by members of the congregation and by the rabbi. This is what Shabbat services should be like — for all Jews.

Erika Davis blogs at Black, Gay and Jewish

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