I have spent so much of my life explaining just exactly who I am. Usually, I like the attention, but the act of clarifying your way of life is daunting, anxiety causing, and eventually, exhausting. An inquisitive nature is the human way, but being inquired about because you are so “different” loses its joie de vivre around age 13.
I’ve been Jewish my whole life. And I don’t really want to explain “how,” or “why,” because I just am. It’s taken me years to be comfortable enough to say that without flinching, or without my breath catching in my throat. I used to fear judgment because of my faith, because not many Jews (at least, not in this country) share my darker skin and thick hair. I am who HaShem (G-d) has made me to be, and that is a Jew.
Ignorance can be welcoming as much as it can be overwhelming. There have been times when people have expressed their desire to educate themselves without coming off as tactless, and I’ve satisfied their interest into the formally “unknown.” But those who look at me with wide eyes as if I’m some circus clown with a beard and a conjoined twin attached to my back have hardened me a little. I’ve chalked it up to asking someone how they’re Asian, or why they’re bisexual; it’s just something you shouldn’t do. History has affected the social presence of Jews. I remember getting asked, “Why would you want to be that?” after a social studies lesson on the Holocaust, as if I had a choice in the matter.
I’m not weird (at least, not because I don’t believe the Jesus is the messiah). I’m just different. There are people like me out in this vast world that a lot of Americans have yet to be exposed to. Black Jews are just few and far between, but we exist.
In getting older I’ve realized that I have to take what this world has seen as my “difference” and use it to make people more aware that people like me do exist. Thanks to Drake at least (and this incredibly clever parody), there’s been somewhat of an influx in acceptance of black Jews in mainstream media. So in the grand scheme of things, I’m not extraordinary at all. But in this bubble of America, I am not your average. But I’ve never really known how, or what I need to do to make me appear as a part of the whole.
I’ve just recently started working at a Jewish summer camp, and it has honestly changed my life. I’ve been a camp counselor before, with some great campers, but this time around there’s something different. Every morning I wake up, I do it for my kids. I love them all individually for the joy each one of them brings into my life. Seeing them cry destroys me. Watching them laugh puts a song in my heart. If I could give each of them the world, I would in a second.
This camp has some cultural diversity, which gets me excited in a way I can’t exactly explain. I am no longer a fly in milk, but a part of a mixed whole. And no one treats me any different. I am just like them, and together we are Jewish. That’s what I love most about kids; they aren’t born with biases or judgements.
I don’t get asked “why,” or “how.” What I do get asked is to have my lap sat on during morning teffilot, where tiny voices whisper the Shema and drawl Modeh Ani in a southern twang. It’s not a day at camp until I’ve prayed with a little person snuggled into me.
I can see my impact amongst the kids of color who maybe didn’t know that Jews don’t all come in one shade, like me. And all I’ve had to do is just be me myself, and be there for them. I didn’t have to say anything special, or pull them aside, or treat them any different. Just giving them me is all I can do. I never had someone older than me, who looked like me, and who I knew was Jewish to make me feel normal when I was growing up.
Constantly, I felt like an alien in both the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds because I had no place to fit in, and it took some soul searching to be comfortable enough to even say the words “I’m Jewish.” Even today, there is a little bit of fear. It’s small, but it’s there.
I say all of this not on assumption, but from a discussion I had with a mother, a white Jewish woman, of three black sons, whom she’s raised Jewish.
The details of that conversation I keep close to my heart, but it gave me a bit of proof that I’m doing something right. I’m not hiding who I am. I’m not keeping quiet about the things that matter to me. I am the person I wish I had growing up. The person that I wish I had to have made me feel normal, that dark skinned people can be Jewish too, and that I wasn’t alone. No kid inherently thinks that they’re different, but there’s always that modicum of wonder; why doesn’t everyone look like me? Aren’t we all the same?
Yes, you gorgeous boy with toasted caramel skin and bright brown eyes, fit in just fine. Wear your kippah with pride and love yourself, in Hebrew or in English.