It was a Rosh Hashanah miracle. My family was settling into our seats before services when my 12-year-old daughter elbowed me.
“Mama! A Black lady!”
It’s not that I’m the only one at my Bakersfield, California, synagogue. There are a couple others in the congregation, but they don’t come often, and when they do, they don’t speak to me. So a new African-American woman was a source of excitement and trepidation.
I tried introducing myself to one of the other sisters at shul once. It wasn’t that she was rude, exactly, but I was not catching a “Let’s be friends” vibe. She looked genuinely puzzled that I had approached her, so I skulked off and didn’t bother her again.
You’d think any black Jew in a city that has few blacks and even fewer Jews would be delighted to meet someone who shared her race and religion, but I’ve learned that’s not always the case.
In fact, in this and other cities, I’ve had more overtures politely rebuffed than welcomed.
The first time a fellow black Jew rejected me I made excuses. She was half my age. Maybe the prospect of hanging out with a middle-aged mother of two was unappealing. The next time it happened, I chalked it up to a man being too busy with existing obligations to add a new friend to his social calendar. But after a while, I started to wonder. Is it me? I bathe regularly. I don’t mutter to myself in public. What’s up?
Curious, I asked friends who also were Jews of color if they’d had the same experience. I was both relieved and saddened to hear it wasn’t just me. Quite a few of us had reached out to fellow JOCs only to get a cold shoulder.
One friend was incredulous about it.
“At the very least, a head nod,” he lamented. “Anyone who doesn’t acknowledge you with a head nod just has no home training.”
My friends and I swapped theories about possible motivations. Fear of being perceived as a segregationist? Trying not to call attention to race in their zeal to blend in? Hostility toward a rival for their pet token spot? Leery of potential nut jobs?
Whatever the reason, rejection is rejection, and such encounters have made me gun shy.
But when I saw that sister in the crowd on Rosh Hashanah, I did a double take and couldn’t help mentally composing what I’d say to her. I had concocted a graceful introduction, but some unseen force took over and instead I bum rushed the lady and blurted, “Who are you?”
The poor thing physically recoiled after I barged into her personal space, but she was giggling when she told me her name and asked me mine. Breathlessly, I interrogated her. Moved here for a job. No family in the area. Hadn’t joined a shul, yet.
We exchanged phone numbers.
As I walked my kids to the car later, my daughter chastised me.
“Dang, Mama, that was embarrassing,” she said, laughing. “I think you scared that woman.”
In fact, my kids had been so horrified by the spectacle that they’d fled to chat with nearby religious school classmates.
I shrugged without remorse. “Yeah, but we might break the fast together because she has nowhere to go for Yom Kippur,” I said proudly.
My children’s eyes widened. “Really? She said that?”
“Really,” I said smugly.
I was grateful for the open door, but a little disheartened that it struck my children as so surprising.
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.