Being a Jew who has skin shaded past the color described as olive–but is not Ethiopian–is a unique identity to occupy in American Jewish spaces. Identifying as Black or biracial means that there’s more to me than Ashkenazi.
Now re-read that sentence.
“More to me”.
There’s more to Judaism overall than Ashkenazi practices. There are more types of Jews than just Ashkenazim.
Those two statements are the ones most employed when conversations around what it means to be a Jew of Color–that don’t conflate Hebrew Israelites with Jews, that is, (but that’s another article)–are brought to the forefront.
The general American Jewish public must remember that there’s more types of Jews than just Ashkenazi Jews, and therefore Jews of Color not only exist, but belong.
But, what about us? What about Jews of Color that are Ashkenazi…Not only in practice or our decision to convert through an Ashkenazi movement and identify as such (though that’s certainly true as well)…but Ashkenazi by birth? What about those of us who have Holocaust survivor grandparents, just like the rest of Ashkenazi Jews? Who name places in Germany, or Russia, or Poland that our Jewish roots stem from most recently before they landed in America?
Jew of Color spaces, in an unfortunately tough struggle to authenticate, validate, and congeal a solid identity, often must separate the definition of “Jew” from “Ashkenazi”, stating that we’re here because not every Jew needs to eat gefilte fish or know what bagels and lox tastes like or have the Holocaust directly impact our family to be legitimate, or even generational.
Living in Jew of Color spaces is mostly the most comfortable place for me to be, where I’m a person instead of a bunch of labels, because these labels are shared by most people in the groups.
It’s our invisible knapsack space. I have to define me; I’m a writer, I’m an editor, I’m a fighter for social justice, I’m an environmentalist, I’m a woman, I’m a person who likes to wear sweatpants in every setting but can’t anymore because I’m conscious of tzniut now (and also a grown up, and people say that sweatpants aren’t appropriate work attire. Boo.).
But I’m also Ashkenazi.
More importantly, I’m also not not-Ashkenazi. And it’s really hard being otherized in the group that exists because we’re often otherized; in the space that exists so I don’t have to feel that way.
So blah blah blah, I’m complaining and whining and it’s like the skinny girl complaining about how no matter what she tries, she can’t gain 10 lbs, or the married friend complaining to her single gal pals that her otherwise-perfect husband forgot to take out the garbage. My cultural Jewish identity, if not my phenotype, is normative in American Judaism, and I should just be happy about it.
Don’t get me wrong, I am.
I love who I am, and I love that in some small slivers, some parts of me are “normal” because anyone who knows me knows how rare that is.
So what’s my point? I’m not sure.
But I’d guess it’s something like this: Ashkenazi Jews with both parents who are Ashkenazi, Ashkenazi Jews with one Ashkenazi parent and one non-Jewish White parent, Ashkenazi/Sephardi mixed Jews who often pass for Ashkenazi, you all look around at yourselves and debate whether or not you’re White in America.
Some of you know that’s how you’re identified by others, some fight it, and some don’t even think about it at all.
You’re not the only kind of Jew out there, you’re not the only kind of Ashkenazi out there, and not everyone looks like you. Not even in America. And no, Ethiopian is not the only alternative, nor is Yemenite, nor is darker-skinned Sephardic.
Biracial Ashkenazi Jews (or any other for that matter), you’re not alone out there. You, too, should know that not every other Jew out there looks like your mom or dad. Claiming your Jewishness doesn’t claim your Whiteness automatically. This last sentence might be an embarrassing admission and message to my younger self, and I definitely insulted a Sephardic friend and an Iranian Jewish classmate with that confusion.
If we, with Ashkenazi and/or White privilege can realize that, it’ll make all spaces much better. It’ll make overall Jewish spaces much easier for all Jews to exist in freely, without identity being questioned unfairly. It’ll make for less reactive Jew of Color spaces—which will still be necessary because we still have the add-on of dealing with race in America, and just like there are Jewish Farmer spaces and Jewish Artist spaces and Jewish lawyer spaces and Jew camps, we like to have our conversations in a religiously, if not observantly, monolithic space, too—which means that otherization won’t happen in the way it does now, and “not-Ashkenazi” won’t have to be a semi-automatic label to take on or forcefully cast off.
So broaden your horizons. Check into your Jewish identity, and define what it DOES mean to you to be Jewish, rather than what it doesn’t. Find out what it means to others, and stop delegitimizing others’ in your quest to validate your own. Don’t grasp for self-validation at the expense of other Members of the Tribe.
‘Cause guess what? We’re all here, too.
And I’m standing in front of you saying brother, sister, let’s just be.
German Jewish mom + Black Catholic dad = Biracial advocate, interracial & inter-religious family adviser, general race conversationalist. I blog, I speak publicly, and I run classes for interracial families on socio-racial identity development (or, how to make sure your kids are secure in themselves without sacrificing your own identity). I’m also re-learning how to knit.
Header image courtesy of Pixabay.