Imagine being in seventh grade. Your despotic math teacher, unable to distinguish between the voices that were speaking during class, has held your entire class after for detention. About fifteen or twenty minutes in, you hear the secretary in the office call your name over the intercom. As she tries to explain that you have to leave, you hear your father’s booming voice in the background:
“SHE CAN’T STAY FOR DETENTION! WE ARE JEWS! WE HAVE TO OBSERVE THE SABBATH!!”
This happened to me — and it was rarely an isolated incident. Throughout my father’s irate ranting, I slumped further into my seat, wishing that I could hide forever. Going to a school where the majority of students are African-American and Latino, I fit in pretty well—at least physically. But now the fresh discovery of my religion, combined with my already infamous lack of social skills, alternative musical taste—read: symphonic gothic metal—and above average intelligence definitely labeled me as the weird one. I was the only one of my classmates who couldn’t go out on a Friday night, who didn’t know all the new dances that came out the past weekend, and who couldn’t stay after school for extracurricular activities and student council meetings. I guess the secret was out now.
The worst part of all this was that when I was about eight, my father expected my sister and me to take the initiative and ask him to teach us Hebrew. But we were only kids. We didn’t know we were supposed to be concerned about anything more than our schoolwork, Bratz dolls, and game shows. After nine years, we had still received no lessons. My sister began high school and I enrolled in college, having no substantial knowledge of the Hebrew language, nor Jewish culture and history. It felt as if all our lives, we had followed tons of rules with nothing to show for them.
Going to a school where the majority of students are African-American and Latino, I fit in pretty well—at least physically.
Because of my lack of a formal religious education, finding my place in the religious community at Princeton was a challenge. I decided to start at the Center for Jewish Life, because my parents kept forcing me to acknowledge that I was Jewish because I was born into an observant family. Therefore, during the fall semester of my freshman year, I decided to attend my first Shabbat service on campus. I arrived early enough, dressed in a conservative blouse and knee-length skirt, ready for service. Upon entering the room, I took one of the ArtScroll prayer books.
Soon enough, the service began, and a few lines into the first page, I was utterly lost. I remember thinking, “Where are they?” The train wreck that I had anticipated had begun. My eyes scurried across the page, trying to locate some semblance of a word—really a cluster of consonants—that I could recognize. I felt that I had been thrust into a new, utterly unfamiliar culture, where even though we used the same books, recited the same prayers, and sang the same songs, there were significant and fundamental differences.
“Why did you even bother coming?” I thought to myself. “You don’t know how to read this language—even if it’s not your fault. You knew this was going to happen; yet you still show up only to make a fool of yourself. And as if that’s not enough, you’re the only black person here. How do you think this reflects on you? On your family? Besides, Jews aren’t black. Honestly? You look like a poser.”
These same doubts resurfaced when I read about the injustices faced by Ethiopian Jews in Israel over the past year. They were being attacked—even stoned—by Israelis, and insulted with racial slurs. Even the government was expelling them from the country. I tried to find more information, but every source I found was biased either in support of or against Zionism, the belief in the necessity of a location where Jews are able to govern themselves. However, there are millions of Jews all over the world. They can be found on each of the six inhabitable continents, with a significant population. And they don’t all look like the families you see strolling through Brooklyn or Central Park; they’re not all white-passing people who have moved to other countries. There are real Ethiopians, South Africans, Argentinians, and Brazilians—people from countless different cultures identify with this religion. Unfortunately, in Israel, a Jew who “belongs” seems to have a particular look.
Sometimes I find it difficult to understand why my mother identifies so strongly with this religion. She doesn’t refer to herself as a Jew – in fact, I’d be surprised if she did since she also believes in Jesus. I use the term “fandom” because I find it completely ridiculous how devoted she is to the nation of Israel—both religiously and politically. There’s a difference between Israel the people and Israel the People and I don’t think she understands that. Israel the “people” refers to the Israelis, people who were born or naturalized in Israel and consider themselves citizens. Israel the “People” refers to the Jews of the Bible, those who we were taught were the “Chosen Ones”, God’s people. She is definitely not one of the people, but it would also be difficult for her to argue that she is one of the People, particularly noting her West African rather than North/East African features. Oh, and the fact that she married into the religion—to a convert, at that.
Jews don’t all look like the families you see strolling through Brooklyn or Central Park; they’re not all white-passing people who have moved to other countries.
Last Spring, my mother texted me saying that she had purchased a plot of land in Israel. I had to do a double take. What? Did I read that correctly? Why would she do that?
I received my answer when I went home for spring break. My mother had become a regular subscriber to the Christian cable network Daystar a few years ago. Apparently, Daystar evangelists are part of the group of Christians who actually acknowledge their status as an offshoot of Judaism. They host several different educational series about the Jewish roots of Christianity and believe that the commandments stated in the Old Testament are for all of God’s followers to obey and not just Jews. Therefore, they encourage observing the Jewish holidays mentioned in the Bible, such as Passover. Of course, understanding my mother’s motives requires first understanding her devotion to God. When she was twelve years old, she gave her life to Christ and never looked back. Since then, her aim has been to serve God the best that she could and to live the way He wants us to. Through Judaism’s emphasis on the Old Testament, she is able to learn and follow His Commandments.
At home, my mom showed me something that looked like a birthday card. When I opened it, I saw a small square tile. “It’s a piece of the Western Wall,” she said. The Western Wall, or “Wailing” Wall, is a huge wall in Jerusalem where Jews go to pray. They write out their prayers and wishes on pieces of paper and stick that paper into the crevices of the wall. At the time, I didn’t understand the need to destroy a sacred Jewish monument to give souvenirs to supporters of a television network, AKA “allies of the Jewish people.” Even now, I don’t understand it. How does owning a piece of land next to the Red Sea and having a souvenir of the most sacred place in Judaism make one a good ally?
Now, as a junior in college, I am trying to start over; to fully comprehend my identity. Even though my parents separated while I was in high school, my mom still chooses to continue the lifestyle that she practiced while she and my father were together—and she expects me to, as well. The trouble with this is, well, I’m twenty years old. For most intents and purposes, I am an adult entitled to a certain level of autonomy, one that should include the religion that I choose to practice. At the same time, how do I respect my parents’ beliefs while maintaining my own identity and autonomy? Even more importantly, how do I bring myself to feel comfortable in a space that was not designed with me in mind?
I am conscious of my race at all times, whether I think such an awareness is rational or not… Yet, I cannot say that I have ever been uncomfortably conscious of my religious identity.
The last time I was part of a population that was a majority black and Jewish was when I was seven years old and attended a historically black synagogue in Harlem, New York. Since then, I have never met another black Jew outside of my family. Because of this, I could never completely fit in. I didn’t know whether I was just part of a small isolated community or part of a larger history. Now I know that it’s closer to the latter, though still not quite true. My fears of isolation and exclusion because of my race have prevented me from fully immersing myself in not only Princeton’s Jewish community, but also the general social scene on campus. I don’t know whom to trust. I would like to be more extroverted. I would like to get to know different kinds of people, but I can’t. Whenever I am around a large group of white people, I don’t have any idea what they’re thinking; I can’t predict their emotions, their prejudices, if any. Therefore, I can’t help but assume that no one wants me there.
For these reasons, I purposely isolate myself. I think it is better to remove myself from potentially negative situations than to take the risk of actually experiencing them. I have begun to focus almost entirely on the black aspect of my identity, completely ignoring—and trying to detach myself from—the Jewish aspect. Unlike my race, I view my religion as something that can be changed; if I’m not happy with something I don’t see the need to continue in it. I am active in multiple cultural groups on campus and even most of my religious and performing arts groups are in some way connected to my racial identity.
I think that, in a sense, this returns to W.E.B. DuBois’s concept of double-consciousness. I’m stuck at the intersection of a racial identity and a religious identity. As a young black woman at an elite educational institution, I am conscious of my race at all times, whether I think such an awareness is rational or not. I am conscious of my race every time I attend an event hosted by Chabad or the Center for Jewish Life. Yet, I cannot say that I have ever been uncomfortably conscious of my religious identity.
In an ideal situation, my identities would intersect, and I would be able to find a space—a community—with a similar history and mutual understanding. However, my debilitating social anxiety that mysteriously arises in situations such as precepts and Lawnparties and disappears at BSU study breaks, as well as my high level of distrust of white people, prevents me from taking advantage of such an opportunity. I am disappointed that I have to sacrifice one aspect of my identity for the sake of my own mental comfort. Nevertheless, I am lucky to have found a safe space within the Christian community. For the first time, I have a group of friends who have accepted me with unconditional Agape love—a love that is selfless and does not require me to pretend to be anything that I am not.