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Black Jews You Should Know, Part 3

Meet the Jewish star of Hamilton, an Orthodox Los Angeles civil servant, a Hebrew-schooled safety for the Oakland Raiders, and many others

February 19, 2016
Willie "The Lion" Smith, famed Jazz musician and Jew Wikimedia
Willie "The Lion" Smith, famed Jazz musician and Jew Wikimedia

Welcome back to Black History Month 5776, where 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 matrilineal/patrilineal, Orthodox conversion/non-Orthodox conversion, it’s all game. So, without further ado:

Daveed Diggs
If you watched the Grammys this week, you might remember when the cast of Hamilton blew the roof off the building, then walked off with the award for Best Musical Theater album. But what you probably didn’t know is that one of the performers of the hip-hopera was Daveed Diggs, a Brown University alum who starred in the roles of Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in the musical.

Born in 1982 in Oakland, California, Diggs’ parents met at a club where his mom, a “white Jewish lady” was the DJ. His dad is African-American. While Diggs did attend Hebrew school, he “opted out” of becoming a bar mitzvah. After earning his degree in theater, Diggs began acting in plays, as well as writing and performing with the hip-hop group Clipping. He joined Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sketch troupe Freestyle Love Supreme before Manuel tapped him to join the cast of Hamilton. Heavily influenced by Busta Rhymes, Diggs delivers one of the fastest rap solos on record in his Hamilton role of Marquis de Lafayette in the number “Guns and Ships,” clocking 6.3 words per second.

Jamaica Kincaid
Born in 1949 in St. John’s, Antigua, Jamaica Kincaid (born Elaine Cynthia Potter Richardson) is an award-winning Antiguan-American novelist and essayist. Her writing career began as a contributor for The Village Voice and Ingénue. Her short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review and The New Yorker, where she also wrote prolifically for the “Talk of the Town” section. Her writing commonly explores themes like colonialism, gender and sexuality, racism, class, power, and mother-daughter relationships.

In 1979, Kincaid married composer Allen Shawn, having two children with him before they divorced in 2002. It was in 1993 that Kincaid converted to Judaism, a decision made after “a rabbi told us that we couldn’t all be buried in the same cemetery,” she said. “And I thought, ‘what if there’s a Jewish heaven and I’m in the other heaven and I’d have to send them letters?’ I couldn’t bear to be separated from them.” Currently, Kincaid teaches at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California, as the Josephine Olp Weeks Chair and Professor of Literature. She is also the Professor of African and American Studies in Residence at Harvard. In 2015, Kincaid received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Brandeis University.

Jan Perry
One of the few Orthodox Jews on this list so far, Perry is the General Manager of the Los Angeles Economic & Workforce Development Department. In 2013, she was a Los Angeles mayoral candidate, but lost her Democratic party’s nomination to Eric Garcetti, who himself is a Mexican Jew, and who went on to win the election. Perry represented Los Angeles’ 9th District for three terms, ran an extensive campaign to combat high obesity rates, including funding public parks to promote outdoor activity, and enacted restrictions on fast food restaurants in her district–a move that earned her the derisive nickname of “The Hamburglar.” Perry, who was born in 1955, converted to Orthodox Judaism in 1982 after studying with Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller at UCLA’s Hillel. Of her decision to convert, she noted: “I think it was because I saw it as a way to serve the world.”

Sarah Barrable-Tishauer
Everybody knows that Drake got his start as the wheelchair-bound Jimmy Brooks on Degrassi: The Next Generation, a Canadian teen television drama. But there was yet another Jewish Black actor on set, Sarah Barrable-Tishauer, who portrayed the lonely high-achiever Liberty Van Zandt. Born in Toronto in 1988 to a Black mother and white Ashkenazi father, Barrable-Tishauer’s acting career dates back to the early 2000s when she was cast as Young Nala in the Toronto production of The Lion King.

An experienced dancer, she acted alongside Gregory Hines in the 2002 made-for-TV film The Red Sneakers shortly before snagging her Degrassi role. After her character was written off, Barrable-Tishauer returned to her studies at Concordia University in Montreal earning a degree in Communications and Computation Arts. Currently, she operates as the Digital Marketing Coordinator for Urban Adventures, a company which offers a “new style of travel experience.”

Taylor Mays
Mays, born in 1988, is the son of former NFL defensive lineman and African American Stafford Mays and Nordstrom executive Laurie Black. He is currently a safety for the Oakland Raiders. A former All-Ameican USC Trojan, Mays was drafted in 2010 by the San Francisco 49ers. Since then, he’s suited up for the Cincinnati Bengals, Minnesota Vikings, and Detroit Lions. As a kid, Mays attended Hebrew school twice a week and “celebrated Chanukah, Passover, and Yom Kippur always.” He even had a football-themed bar mitzvah. “I don’t think at the time I really understood what [becoming a bar mitzvah] meant,” Mays said in 2009. “Now, looking back on it, I feel like I have come a long way in regards to maturity and becoming an adult. I think it helped me do that.”

Troy Byer
A director, screenwriter, and actress, Troy Byer was born in New York City in 1964 to an African-American mother and a Jewish father. Her career began at just four-years-old with a role on Sesame Street. She continued to land parts on TV shows, including Dynasty (1986) and Rooftops (1989), and in films such as The Cotton Club (1984), Disorderlies (1987), Weekend at Bernie’s II (1993), Eddie (1996), The Gingerbread Man (1998), and John Q (2002). Byer made her screenwriting debut with B*A*P*S (1997), starring Halle Berry. Unhappy with script changes during the course of filming B*A*P*S, Byer decided to direct her next screenplay herself, resulting in 1998’s Let’s Talk About Sex. She repeated the feat again in 2003 when she wrote and directed Love Don’t Co$t a Thing. Byer is currently a doctoral candidate in Jungian Analysis and Archetypal Studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute in California.

Willie “The Lion” Smith
William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith, born in Goshen, New York in 1893, was a jazz pianist and considered one of the greatest masters of the Golden Age of Jazz. He was, in fact, present during the taking of the famous jazz photograph “A Great Day in Harlem” in 1958. However, as he was sitting down resting when the selected shot was taken, he was left out of the final picture.

The son of a Jewish father and an African American mother, Smith had a conversational grasp of both Yiddish and Hebrew, and at thirteen celebrated his bar mitzvah in Newark. That same year, Smith began his musical career playing in New York City and in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Smith was playing clubs by the age of 15, and served a two-year enlistment in World War I, until 1918, earning the nickname “The Lion” for bravery during his time as part of an all-black battalion, the 350th Field Artillery.

During the 1920s, Smith returned to working in Harlem clubs and in rent parties, where Smith and his contemporaries, James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, developed a new, more sophisticated piano style later called “stride.” Despite working in relative obscurity, Smith influenced countless other more well-known musicians including Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, and Artie Shaw. In the 1940s, as his music found appreciation with a wider audience, he worked as a cantor for a Hebrew Israelite congregation in Harlem. In 2008, Orange County Executive Edward Diana issued a proclamation declaring September 18 to be Willie “The Lion” Smith Day in Orange County, the date of the first Goshen Jazz Festival.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article stated that Sarah Barrable-Tishauer had played the role of Adolf Hitler in children’s theater production. She did not.

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.

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