PROFILE

Iím an Afro-Caribbean Jew but no-one believes me

The first time my Jewishness was questioned, I was an anxious 16-year-old in hospital.

It caught me off guard; I had never had it questioned before because no one ever assumed that I was Jewish.

Why? Because I donít look like the Jews that people are accustomed to seeing.

When the general public thinks of Jews, they think of white people.

When the general public see me, they see an Afro-Caribbean person with afro odango, or headwrap, who looks like they do Vodoun (which yes, if you're wondering, is pretty racist).

It happened after I had written ď??Ē on the board our residential facility to remind myself that Iím still alive and existing no matter how much I'd really rather not be.

My questioner was Jewish; I was trying to reclaim my Jewishness.

When she confronted me on it, she told me that I ďcouldnít be JewishĒ because I'm an afrodescendiente, someone of African descent, who wears geles, Nigerian headwraps, and has never stepped foot in a cheder.

(It's true, I was unfortunate enough to live in an area with no Jews.)

It was rough: She was being racist and antisemitic at the same time, and it gave me whiplash.

I soon learned that I wasnít Jewish enough for her ó or societyís ó liking, that I could never meet the standards of this Jewish litmus test that I never even knew existed.

My Nana (maternal grandfather) and mother are Jewish by birth, but my mother never had a Jewish upbringing because she was raised by her Baptist maternal family.

Decades later, after my motherís long, arduous search for spiritual fulfillment, she ended up in Borough Park, Brooklyn, rekindled her own Yiddishkeit, became baal teshuva ó one who has Ďreturnedí to the Jewish religion ó and entered into a loving and supportive long-term partnership with a Muslim man (my Abu, my father).

My Abu is pretty open-minded when it comes to some things, my motherís Jewishness being one of them.

I was given the best Jewish childhood my overly anxious parents could provide, yet according to people like that girl in the hospital, I still wasnít Jewish enough.

Shabbat was always practised in some form ó and that wasn't Jewish enough. The Passover sedarim with matzo, the prayers for Yom Kippur ó somehow that wasn't Jewish enough.

My independent Torah studies? My edification and refinement? My attempts at understanding kabbalistic texts and theology? My shame? My fear? Wasnít enough; is not enough; will never be enough.

Sadly, this wasnít a rare experience that could be chalked up to one personís ignorance.

I remember the second time it happened, again at a hospital, with another afrodescendiente.

He had assumed I was Christian; I had to tell him several times that I was Jewish because he refused to believe that I was.

He tried to convert me and mould me into a submissive, African Christian wife, but Iím a rebellious, proud Afro-Caribbean Jew.

I didnít want to be converted, nor did I want to be preached to about the redemptive love of Jesus.

I didnít want to be re-traumatised for my Ďothernessí like I was in my many traumatic years of Catholic education.

I just wanted to talk to him about what Igboland is like, his pharmaceutical degree, and how it was really wrong for the hospital we were in to confiscate his insulin pump.

Alas, my existence as an Afro-Caribbean Jew was too much for him to handle.

I know I'm not alone. Non-white Jews have to jump through hoops just to get acknowledgment from everyone, and thatís just facts.

It feels like non-white Jews are held to different standards than the rest.

You need the perfect Jewish upbringing and the perfect bar/bat/b'nei mitzvah and the perfect Jewish home with two perfect Jewish parents because just one is never enough to be accepted and recognised.

On Passover, I went on a campus tour. I accidentally missed my bus stop and had to walk back.

While walking, I ran across a Mitzva Tank ó you know, where members of Chabad ask passers-by if theyíre Jewish and help people celebrate Jewish festivals.

They were giving out free boxes of matzo and Shabbat candles, and I wasnít totally sure if I still had any at home.

I asked if they still had matzo, but I wasnít acknowledged at all.

I gave up trying to get their attention after a while; being snubbed like that hurts when all one wants is to bond with another over the similarity that governs their entire lives from the cradle to the grave.

The only acknowledgment I got was when a young boy asked me if I was Jewish and I got to see his eyes light up when I said yes.

His fresh-faced jubilation was eternities better than all of the uncomfortable social aspects of being an Afro-Caribbean Jew.

I wish more people would treat me like that young boy did. Instead of questioning my very existence, if people asked more about my life as an Afro-Caribbean Jew, they might find out that a lot of our food is deliciously kosher, that our women cover their heads, too (for various reasons even though it's a tradition that's dying out), and that a lot of Jewish people exist in Latin America and the Caribbean, so afrodescendientes with Jewish ancestry isnít that uncommon.

Holidays are usually the only ways I can express my Jewishness and fully allow myself to be the Afro-Asian and indigenous Caribe my par-aaja (great-grandfather) came to the United States as.

I may not be able to have black cake during Passover (which somewhat makes sense, seeing thatís a traditional winter dessert and itís leaven), but poncha de crŤme during Chanucah makes up for it.

Raspberry and hibiscus hamantaschen with coconut flakes for Purim is amazing.

And itís more than just food: A lot of Afro-syncretic religions draw upon the imagery of Moses and the Israelites, and saw the bondage the Israelites faced as similar to their bondage in the Americas.

For example, in Hoodoo (an Afro-syncretic folk magic in the southern United States), Moses played the role of a sorcerer, conjurer and healer.

Thereís a lot of Jewish theology in Latin American/Caribbean culture. You just need to know where to look.

I wish white Jews would hear out non-white Jews and let us positively engage with them.

Weíre already isolated enough for being too different ó the only black person, the only indigenous person, the only Asian, the only Jew.

Donít make us feel like a pariah for our parentage, our melanin and our culture.

So when we speak, listen. We canít begin to take part with you as mishpacha if you donít let us in the tent.


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