Nationwide protests against systemic racism and police brutality have inspired a cultural reckoning.
Companies are issuing statements in support of protesters. Books about race relations are flying off the shelves. Even “Sesame Street” hosted a town hall about racism featuring Elmo.
These conversations are happening within communities across the country, and the Jewish community is no exception. Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, director of the reflection and renewal process for POWER Philadelphia, suggests that those who want to learn about how Jews fit into this conversation start by reading books addressing racial justice in America.
“Ibram X. Kendi’s ‘How to be an Anti-Racist,’ is the best place to start,” he said.
From there, readers can explore resources that specifically address the diverse, complex relationship between Judaism and race, including the materials listed below.
“Religion and Race”
by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1963)
Liebling recommends this speech as a crucial text for anyone looking to understand the relationship between religion and race, as well as white Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement. In 1963, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel delivered “Religion and Race” at a conference in Chicago, where he met and befriended Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He would later march with King at Selma, Alabama, in 1965.
Heschel argues the religious imperative to stamp out bigotry and denounces racism as blasphemy.
“Let us cease to be apologetic, cautious, timid. Racial tension and strife is both sin and punishment,” Heschel advises his audience.
“Ocean Hill-Brownsville Reexamined” (Jewish Currents, 2009)
Liebling also recommends this Jewish Currents (jewishcurrents.org) article by Jane Anna Gordon for those looking to understand historic sources of tension between white Jews and black communities.
“In 1967 there was a push in NYC to get community control of schools, to fire a lot of teachers who were older, who were white, many of whom were Jewish, in schools that were 100% black,” Liebling said. The teachers union resisted the change, especially after finding an anti-Semitic flyer created by someone in the black community. “It led to a great fissure in the black and white Jewish communities in NYC that lasted for decades,” he said.
“Broken Bird” (2020)
This short film opens on a familiar scene: a teenager learning her Haftorah in her bedroom. In addition to preparing for her bat mitzvah, protagonist Birdie is exploring her black Jewish identity through music and hairstyles. Her complex feelings about her background are shown through her relationships with her divorced parents, a white Jewish woman and a black non-Jewish man. The film reflects director Rachel Harrison Gordon’s experiences growing up black and Jewish in New Jersey.
“The most hurtful things people did to me were a result of ignorance, not malice: questioning why aspects of my physical appearance, taste, the way I talked, etc., didn’t match their expectations,” she told Alma.
Code Switch: “Members of Whose Tribe?” (2018)
NPR’s Code Switch, a podcast about race, ethnicity and culture, devotes an episode to tackling questions about Judaism. Are Jews a race, a religion, an ethnicity or something else? What makes someone Jewish? Hosts Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Maraji discuss that with Leah Gershenfeld Donella, who identifies as “racially black and religiously Jewish.”
They talk about history, DNA tests, rising anti-Semitism and Donella’s frustration with being referred to as half-black and half-Jewish.
“Ariel Samson, Freelance Rabbi” (Multikosheral Press NYC, 2018)
Black Orthodox Rabbi Shais Rishon wrote his funny, moving semi-autobiographical novel under the pen name MaNishtana. In addition to trying to figure out life and love in New York City, his 20-something protagonist must navigate racism, anti-Semitism, going viral and even an attempted murder.
Rishon told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that most of the racism that Ariel experiences in the Jewish community, including an incident where Ariel confronts a Jewish New York assemblyman for wearing blackface on Purim, were either his personal experiences or the experiences of other Jews of color.
“Let’s Talk About Race” (HarperCollins, 2008)
Wondering how to raise anti-racist kids? This picture book written by black Jewish writer Julius Lester with illustrations by Karen Barbour is a good place to start.
Lester writes about race as part of everyone’s life story. He encourages kids to explore their own stories while emphasizing universal human experiences, writing, “Beneath everyone’s skin are the same hard bones.”
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