The carefully crafted bubble I have created for my black Jewish children is bursting.
They spent the early years of their childhood at a Jewish preschool in Indianapolis that was surprisingly diverse. Between Jewish racial minorities and large numbers of non-Jewish families who enrolled for the highly regarded academics, there was no shortage of black and brown faces studying alongside my kids.
I loved Indianapolis, but I was a single mother living far from family, so seven years ago I moved to Bakersfield, California, to get closer to relatives on the west coast. The black and Jewish communities here are extremely small, and the cultural isolation has been stifling to a degree I hadn’t anticipated.
My children didn’t feel it, though. The upside of being in a small city with few Jews is that the intermarriage rate is extremely high. That’s brought black, Latino and Asian members to our tiny synagogue. To my kids, this was natural and normal. It looked just like the preschool in Indy.
To reinforce the illusion further, I regularly shipped the kids to Camp Be’chol Lashon, a Bay Area Jewish summer camp for children of color. There, they were immersed in a curriculum stressing worldwide Jewry and taught by rabbis and counselors who reflected that diversity.
For a few years, I sent my daughter, Kenya, to both Camp Be’chol Lashon and a mainstream Jewish camp that was almost exclusively white. Her first day at the other one, a fellow camper looked at her and asked, “Why are you here? This is a Jewish camp.” A counselor overheard it and corrected the girl sharply, but the damage was done.
Kenya was puzzled upon arriving home. Why had the girl said that?
Here we go.
“Well, honey, in the United States, most Jews are white,” I said. “You’re not white, so she assumed you weren’t Jewish.”
This was such a foreign concept to Kenya that for a minute she couldn’t process it. Most Jews are white? Really?
I felt a surge of panic akin to what Christian parents must experience the first time their kids question the existence of Santa Claus. Every cell in my body rose up and screamed, “Nooo! Not yet!”
Books are my answer to everything. There is no crisis they can’t resolve, so I scoured the Internet for Jewish books featuring black and brown characters. I read them to Kenya at bedtime with a hint of desperation in my voice. “Look, baby! See there? They’re Jewish and they look like us!”
That bought me some time. Just a little.
I was prepared for a cold dose of reality when my son got old enough for camp. There was no way I could afford to send both children to two camps, so we’d have to pick one. I left it up to Kenya and braced myself. Surely she’d vote for the mainstream camp. The one by the ocean with ten times as many kids. But to my shock and delight, she voted for Be’chol Lashon.
As a result, my son, Jake, still lives in the fantasy bubble. He’s never been in an all-white Jewish setting, and cannot fathom, at this stage, that such a thing could exist. But he’s 9, and I won’t be able to pull this off much longer.
Kenya is now 12, and it’s over. She started junior high a couple of weeks ago, wearing a beloved Mogen David around her neck.
The other day she was fingering her star with irritation in her eyes. Before I could ask what was wrong, she volunteered, “Some girl at school asked about my necklace today. She said black people aren’t Jewish. I hate when that happens.”
I sighed and nodded wearily. “I hate it, too, sweetheart. I really do.”
Courtenay Edelhart is a journalist, Reform Jew and single mother by choice via adoption. She lives in Bakersfield, California, with two children, an obnoxious Chihuahua, and assorted dying houseplants.
Header image courtesy of Pixabay.