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Black Jews You Should Know, Part 2

Black History Month 5776 continues with mini-profiles of seven inspiring Jews, from actress Sophie Okonedo to author James McBride

February 09, 2016
Robin Marchant/Getty Images
Sophie Okonedo attends the Broadway opening of 'A Raisin In The Sun' in New York City, April 3, 2014. Robin Marchant/Getty Images
Robin Marchant/Getty Images
Sophie Okonedo attends the Broadway opening of 'A Raisin In The Sun' in New York City, April 3, 2014. Robin Marchant/Getty Images

Welcome back to Black History Month 5776, when I’ll be presenting you with seven black Jewish figures for each week of February. We’re looking at the racial axis here, not the denominational one, so Jews who are either matrilineal/patrilineal count, as do conversions, be they of the Orthodox variety or not—it’s all game.

Last week, we introduced seven important figures in Jewish history, including Muhammed Ali’s trainer Drew Bundini Brown, Alysa Stanton, the first African-American female rabbi, and Jackie Wilson, the original man behind the song that got the Statue of Liberty moving in Ghostbusters II.

Yaphet Kotto
Actor Kotto is best known for his seven-year stint as Lieutenant Al Giardello on Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-1999); for being the first African-American to portray a major Bond villain in Live and Let Die (1973); and perhaps for playing the role of Parker in Alien (1979). He was born in 1939 to Avraham Kotto (originally Njoki Manga Bell), a businessman and observant Jewish crown prince of Cameroon, and Gladys Marie, a nurse and U.S. Army officer of Panamanian descent who converted to Judaism before marrying Yaphet’s father. According to his autobiography Royalty, Kotto’s paternal family originated from Israel many centuries ago, migrating to Egypt and then to Cameroon.

Born in 1977 to an Israeli Jewish mother from New York and an exiled anti-apartheid political activist from South Africa, soul and R&B singer/songwriter Goapele Mohlabane consistently stresses the need for political and socio-economic change with her music. In “Change It All,” Goapele tackles the lack of educational and economic resources in urban areas (They’re closing all the schools down / Some teachers work for free now / And libraries won’t be found / ‘Cause there’s not enough); and in “Find a Way,” she ponders the frustration of engaging in the current systems of change (On November 2nd, election day / I will be thinking that things could change / I voted for the lesser of evil / How many relate?). She has five albums under her belt.

Goapele also practices what she preaches—at rallies, demonstrations, and various political events around the world. In 2006, Goapele, who was raised in Oakland, California will be honored with a Human Rights Cultural Hero Award by the California-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.

Ike Turner
(He’s Jewish! You can pick your jaw off the floor. It’s OK. I had to pick mine up as well. I’ll wait.)

A legendary cornerstone of modern day rock ‘n’ roll, Turner wrote “Rocket 88,” one of the two records (along with “The Fat Man” by Fats Domino) that can claim to be the first rock ‘n’ roll record. Ike and his ex-wife, Tina, were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. In 2006, he won his first solo Grammy in the Best Traditional Blues Album category for Risin’ With the Blues.

Turner converted to Judaism in 1994, one year after the release of What’s Love Got To Do With It, the film adaptation of Tina Turner’s 1987 biography I, Tina. Ike, of course, also introduced the world to Tina Turner, a legendary entertainer in her own right, who’s been dubbed the “Queen of Rock & Roll” by Rolling Stone. Ike, who battled drug addiction for a majority of his career, also saw his legacy irrevocably tarnished because he physically abused his wife. Ike Tuner died in 2007.

James McBride
American writer and musician, McBride was born in 1957, the son of African-American reverend Andrew McBride and Rachel Deborah Shilsky (formerly Ruchel Dwarja Zylska), a Polish Jewish immigrant (and daughter of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi). He worked as a journalist for a number of publications, including The Boston Globe and The Washington Post, before carving out a career as a screenwriter and author.

In 1995, McBride published The Color of Water, a memoir that details and pays tribute to his bringing as a black child with a white mother, and 2013, he won a National Book Award for The Good Lord Bird, a historical novel about a slave who unites with abolitionist John Brown. McBride is also the tenor saxophonist for the Rock Bottom Remainders, a “lousy” group of best-selling authors.

Lani Guinier
Guinier’s Jewish mother, Eugenia Paprin, married Ewart Guinier, a black Panamanian-born scholar, in 1945, when marriages between black men and a white women was still illegal in many states. Her father was one of two blacks admitted to Harvard College in 1929; in 1969, he became the first chairman of Harvard’s Afro-American Studies department. Today, Lani, born in 1950, is an American civil rights theorist who serves as the Bennett Boskey Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, making her the first woman of color—and first Jewish African-American woman—appointed to a tenured professorship at that institution.

Guinier is probably best known as Bill Clinton’s nominee for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights during his presidency in 1993. However, Clinton withdrew the nomination following a wave of negative press, brought on by her controversial writings on remedies for voting discrimination, including her advocacy of the right of a minority to veto the position of the majority.

Lauren London
Born in 1984 in Los Angeles, California, to an African-American mother and a Jewish father, London began her acting career in Pharell and Ludacris music videos before transitioning to roles in television shows like Entourage90210, and The Game, and the movie ATL (2006)In 2009, London gave birth to a son with Grammy Award-winning rapper Lil Wayne. London is currently in a relationship with rapper Nipsey Hussle.

Sophie Okonedo
This one might be cheating a little since she’s British (considering this month is a celebration of African Americans), but actress Okonedo is known for her amazing turns in Hotel Rwanda (2004), The Secret Life of Bees (2008), and the Tony Award-winning Broadway play, A Raisin in The Sun (2014). Okonedo was born in London in 1968 to a Nigerian father and a Russian-Polish Jewish mother. She proudly identifies herself, and her daughter, Aoife, as Jewish.

This article is part of a collaboration between Tablet and JN Magazine, a website “here to change the monochromatic monolithic perception of Judaism.”

MaNishtana is the pseudonym of Shais Rishon, an Orthodox African-American Jewish writer, speaker, rabbi, and author of Thoughts From A Unicorn. His latest book is Ariel Samson, Freelance Rabbi.