Black and Jewish, and Seeing No Contradiction

The New York Times

Shais Rison, left, and Yitzchak Jordan are black Orthodox Jews, a rarity in New York and the nation.

In yeshivas, they are sometimes taunted as “monkeys” or with the Yiddish epithet for blacks. At synagogues and kosher restaurants, they engender blank stares. And dating can be awkward: their numbers are so small, friends will often share at least some romantic history with the same man or woman, and matchmakers always pair them with people with whom they have little in common beyond skin color.

They are African-Americans and Orthodox Jews, a rare cross-cultural hybrid that seems quintessentially Brooklyn, but received little notice until last week, after Yoseph Robinson, a Jamaican-born convert, was killed during a robbery attempt at the kosher liquor store where he worked.

At his funeral and in interviews afterward, a portrait emerged of a small, insular but energized community that is proud but underpinned by a constant tug of race and religiosity.

In Crown Heights, one of the city’s hubs of Orthodox Jewish life, blacks and Jews have long lived side by side and have occasionally clashed. In 1991, riots broke out after a car in a motorcade carrying a Hasidic leader veered onto the sidewalk, killing one black child and badly injuring another.

Nobody keeps track of how many black Orthodox Jews are in New York or across the nation, and surely it is a tiny fraction of both populations. Indeed, even the number of black Jews over all is elusive, though a 2005 book about Jewish diversity, “In Every Tongue,” cited studies suggesting that some 435,000 American Jews, or 7 percent, were black, Hispanic, Asian or American Indian.

“Everyone agrees that the numbers have grown, and they should be noticed,” said Jonathan D. Sarna of Brandeis University, a pre-eminent historian of American Jewry. “Once, there was a sense that ‘so-and-so looked Jewish.’ Today, because of conversion and intermarriage and patrilineal descent, that’s less and less true. The average synagogue looks more like America.

“Even in an Orthodox synagogue, there’s likely to be a few people who look different,” Professor Sarna said, “and everybody assumes that will grow.”

Through the Internet, younger black Orthodox Jews are coming together in ways they never could before.

In Crown Heights, a group has struggled to form a minyan, the quorum of 10 men required for group prayer, though Mr. Robinson’s death leaves them one short. On the first Wednesday of each month, about 15 to 20 called “Jews of color” (not all of them Orthodox) meet to trade their experiences and insights. There is also a New York branch of the national group Jews in All Hues.

“They are strengthening their blackness through Judaism,” said Asher Rison, 62, a black Jew who lives in the Mill Basin section of Brooklyn, said of the younger generation. “They don’t have a place of their own, so they are trying to carve out their own niche.”

Mr. Rison converted more than 25 years ago after meeting his wife, who is also black and traces her Orthodox roots back to the late 1800s. The oldest of their five children, Shais, 28, is the founder of a Web site that plays off the classic Passover question, “Why is this night different?” — and a dating site for Jews of color, sometimes dubbed “J.O.C.’s.”

Shais Rison said he opted for a yarmulke over the black fedora worn by many Orthodox men and preferred his gefilte fish as his mother prepares it, seasoned with Jamaican peppers and spices. He said balancing being black and an Orthodox Jew was part of the broader identity struggle of being black.

“I have encountered people who actually get that Judaism isn’t about skin color,” he said. “But the majority of people will stare at you as you walk down the street. You would think that we were covered in chicken feathers.”

Shais Rison said it was often other black people who questioned him and his Jewish friends of color, viewing them as suspicious or as sellouts. And not all black Orthodox Jews agree on how to balance their loyalties. Some, he said, “see being Jewish as not being black anymore.”

“Those are the people who don’t want to associate or get together with other black Jews,” he said. “Everyone wants to play the only one, like ‘I’m a black Jew, and I want my struggle to be unique so people will look at me as a commodity.’ ”

Yochanan Reid a former musician who was attracted to Judaism during a difficult period in his life and converted about six years ago, said he was “a Jew first.”

“There are those who consider themselves black and Jewish and those who consider themselves Jewish,” said Mr. Reid, 29. “But, where do I live? I live where the Jews live. I speak the language that the Jews speak. You eat kosher food because you are a Jew. You dress a certain way. I am also black, but how does that define me? I am a Jew first.”

Akeda Fulcher, a family court advocate who lives in Crown Heights, said that she was a fourth-generation observant black Jew, and that new efforts at multicultural curriculums in Jewish schools helped ease racial tension among the Orthodox.

“There is nothing in the Torah that says you can’t be black and Jewish at the same time,” she said. “I think it gives my Judaism flavor. I think that my foods, my music, my dance, my struggles — everything that makes me a black woman also make me a beautiful black Jewish woman. There is no difference between the two for me. I am what God made me, and everything about me is beautiful because of that.”

Yitzchak Jordan, a black Orthodox rapper, said he became interested in Judaism as a child in Baltimore, learning from his Puerto Rican grandmother, whose own father had worked for a Jewish family upon moving to the mainland. At 14, he started wearing a yarmulke and observing Shabbat. He converted about 10 years ago, and he later studied at a yeshiva in Jerusalem.

Walking along Kingston Avenue one afternoon last week with Shais Rison, Mr. Jordan, who is known as both Yitz and Y-Love, was greeted by young white, Orthodox Jews with handshakes and head nods. “I love your music, man!” one told him. In Basil, a new kosher cafe, he beamed between bites of pizza as one of his songs played over the speakers.

Mr. Jordan said that he had a large following in Israel that his music had been embraced by a generation of young Jews that feels marginalized.

“A black Orthodox Jewish kid is far less likely to grow into an Orthodox Jewish adult because you have a lot of racism in the school system, not so much institutionalized but more like social racism,” he said. “When people hear my music or see my face on a T-shirt, they can relate.”

19 Comments

  • 1. Judaism = No hate wrote:

    this article is quite powerful if you think about it. it demonstrates that, sadly due to the nature of our persecution Jews can be inherently xenophobic, yet the fact that these Jews who happen to have a different coloured skin can be proud to call themselves Jews and are becoming more and more acceptable is a beautiful statement about how far the Jewish people have come. because the truth is, as gory as this sounds, cut us open and we’re all exactly the same on the insides. Our neshama’s all come from the same source regardless of our external packaging. it is amazing, truly amazing, to see the growing tolerance. It makes me incredibly proud to be a Jew. :)

  • 2. if a typically-white-skinned Jew went wrote:

    to Yemen, they would be the ones to stand out…
    Yiddishkeit is not about color, or looks…
    if you were born a Yid or converted according to Halacha and for the right reasons,
    then you have a neshama-
    and then you are a Yid…
    We are all one.
    As it says in Perek Lamed Bet of Tanya, it is only our bodies that are seperated, (our Neshomos are one…)
    Hashem made a person look the way they do, so if we chas v’sholom make fun of a person’s appearance, then we are saying chas v’sholom that something is wierd about this creation of Hashem.
    I would venture to guess though that most times, if someone looks a little longer than usual at someone who is different than what they expect a certain type to be, it is not a negative thing as in “we think you’re wierd”, but simply someone being rude when they see someone or something that they don’t usually see.
    :-) A good rule is, if you stare for more than a few seconds, then say hi too (of course when it’s appropriate to do so)
    Shana Tova to everyone

  • 3. One wrote:

    You can not be black and Jewish at the same time, nothing to do with color, skin tones do not make you either of them, however if you identify as Black that in itself is a culture Judiasm is a religion that also has it’s on unique culture that needs no tweeking,to attempt to mix them (the cultures) is wrong,they both have very rich culture’s, I do not understand why anyone would join any group and then only want to accept what they want or attempt to change or create something that it is not meant to be.

  • 4. Seperate? wrote:

    Why ask to become a Jew and then want self segregation based upon your color? If they are uncomfortable being a part of our people because of a fixation on the color of skin, perhaps they need to reexamine who they really are. Also Judiasm is being treated like a Church where you belong for religious reasons but then live your own distinguished cultures.

  • 5. the fine wool coat of music and peace wrote:

    religion is first personal and then communal
    communities that are successful know their strengths
    for most it is experience, experiences and knowledge that conquer the divides of race, gender, and religion
    “we all wear different shoes”
    it is great “heenay ma tov uma naiiim sheves achim yachad”

  • 8. Samson wrote:

    Of course “Jewish” has no color. We are all the same – we all know that it’s the soul and how we treat each other that counts. All educated Jews know that our ancient Israelite ancestors had many skin complexions – mostly shades of brown. The Yemenite Jews of today are know to be the only Jewish community who never intermarried – they are a good example. Any Jew who is a racist in any way or form is not a Jew but a phoney.

  • 9. To # 2 wrote:

    Dear # 2………..Are you kidding me????
    Did you actually say that you can’t be Black and Jewish at the same time??? Pardon me, but is your name “HaShem”??? It seems to me (and I’m no genius) that the color of one’s skin is JUST that.Hashem created ALL of us. The neshama, brain, heart,feelings and needs of human beings have no color. The beauty of Judaism is that anyone who converts according to Halacha and is totally sincere, is considered a Jew…black, white, purple, green or red.

  • 10. to 8 wrote:

    my dear 8, did you even bother reading the gentleperson from comment #2’s entire comment?

    please do us intelligent people a favor, read it, again, and again, then apologies to us all from lowering the collective IQ further then it already is.

  • 12. Shaina wrote:

    What does “friends will often share at least some romantic history with the same man or woman” mean?

  • 13. MaNishtana wrote:

    1-amazing how everyone seems to be ignoring the ffb black jews mentioned in this article and only focus on “well why did THEY become one of US”.
    2-“You can not be black and Jewish at the same time…if you identify as Black that in itself is a culture Judiasm is a religion that also has it’s on unique culture that needs no tweeking,to attempt to mix them (the cultures) is wrong”
    yes. i suppose you’re right. you may want to explain to me why both cholent and chamim exist then. or sephardim and ashkenazim. why ashkenazim wear frock coats. why moroccan wedding are very colorful.sounds very culture specific/influenced to me.
    3-“Why ask to become a Jew and then want self segregation based upon your color? If they are uncomfortable being a part of our people because of a fixation on the color of skin, perhaps they need to reexamine who they really are. Also Judiasm is being treated like a Church where you belong for religious reasons but then live your own distinguished cultures.”
    again, some of us didnt “ask” to become jews. we’ve BEEN here. and fixating on color? tell me, if a black guy in a hoodie walks up to you at night, do you think he’s going to rob you or ask you where a maariv minyan is? alright then. also, “white” jews dont live their own distinguished cultures? perhaps you should try eating rice an in ashki household on pesach then.

  • 14. MaNishtana wrote:

    @shaina it means they may have dated, been engaged to, or married the same man or woman that a friend is dating, engaged, or married to

  • 15. confused wrote:

    @#2 But one can be Lubavitch and Jewish? I’m not being facetious – we all wear multiple cultural layers, yes? And this doesn’t make us any less Jewish.

  • 17. Unbelievable wrote:

    This is so ridiculous. What century are we in? Plus, aren’t Jews supposed to be accepting, not basing their opinions of others on such a shallow, materialistic thing as skin color?! I can’t believe that there are people who call themselves Chabad, and yet they don’t even follow the simple but powerful mitzvah of loving your fellow Jew. Such racist ways of thinking are completely closed-minded. People who think like that do not belong among us. We ourselves are victims of racism all the time, so how on earth can we be guilty of the same thing?!? As Jews, I’m sure you all know what it feels like to be stared at, cursed at, beaten, killed, and looked down upon simply because you’re a Jew. Are we really going to now go and do the same to another human being? All Jews deserve to be treated with respect, regardless of what race they came from originally or what color their skin is. Seriously!!

  • 18. Dovid Spencer wrote:

    The only reason there is even a need for separate Black Jewish organizations is because of the racism in the Frum world. I daven at a BT shul here in CH. Why? Because I feel more comfortable there, I feel like its people I can relate to. How much more so for Yidden who get stares for the color of their skin, or have problems with shidduchim because they are Black. Lets live in the real world, accept the racism against Black Jews (FFBs, converts, and BTs) and with Black Non-Jews. How would we act if the Rebbe was behind us?

  • 19. Luca M wrote:

    Hmm, not sure if they are the same people dressed in red/white and passing leaflets @ Atlantic Av train station, but i’ve tried to approach them today, and was flatly denied, because I’m white!
    After asking if he hates white people, one of them told me he doesn’t but God does….
    Go figure…

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