On May 18, 2012, a Friday afternoon, I found myself at a kosher bakery in New City, New York, my hometown. At the time I lived in Manhattan, but I was here, now, to spend a special Shabbat at home with my family. A skirt-and-long-sleeves-in-May biracial woman, I walked into the bakery with my jeans-clad, blond-haired, grey-eyed mother, my sister, and my fully African-American not-Jewish roommate. We were there to buy a challah, straight from the source.
After we’d spent a few minutes checking out the racks, a blonde woman behind the counter engaged us in conversation. She was the owner. What were we here for? she asked.
“My Shabbat Kallah!” I answered.
“Oh, mazel tov on your wedding!” she said. “Wait, you’re Jewish?”
After I responded affirmatively, her interrogation began.
No, I’m not Ethiopian, yes I am sure; I came from my mother, that woman over there. My mother even chimed in to help ease the confusion. “These two,”she said, indicating my sister and I, “are my biological children.” This identity inspection, directed at me, a soon-to-be-bride who just wanted to buy some delicious challah to share with her friends and family, dragged out for at least five minutes.
Her last question was for my roommate: “So, are you her daughter, too?”
I left enraged—we all did—and swore that I’d never buy from her shop again. How could I ever again enjoy this challah, baked at the expense of my dignity?
And yet, I consider myself to be an empathetic person, somebody who gives the benefit of the doubt: the bakery owner’s line of questioning was ignorance, sure, but malicious? No. It usually isn’t. But that does not make it okay to treat a customer, let alone a fellow Jew, as though they are an exhibit in the zoo. Must every bit of our human curiosity be satiated to the point of making another person feel like an unequal?
For the past three Yom Kippurs I’ve worked to forgive her, but I haven’t been able to shake my anger. Then, last week, at the most public Jewish event in Brooklyn in recent memory, God gave me the chance to let it go.
* * *
Last Wednesday, I arrived at Grand Prospect Hall in Brooklyn, New York, for Project Inspire’s Great Challah Bake, during which over 2,000 Jewish women and girls of all denominations gathered in ornate, spacious rooms to make individual challahs and later witness the enshrining of a 20-foot challah into Guinness Book of World Records. At my table, as group of uswaited for the rest of the attendees to settle in, small talk became full-on icebreakers, and an air of intense bonding similar to summer camp overtook the room. Soon, the crowd quieted down as the amazing emcee introduced our first speaker, who, in guiding us through mixing pre-measured challah dough ingredients, also encouraged the attendees to rise spiritually while the yeast helped it rise. We all shared a moment of quiet, personal prayer, and many faces soon became shiny with silent tears. The unity was palpable.
Then, she—the bakery owner who nearly ruined by Shabbat Kallah—took the stage.
She was introduced as warm, friendly, amazing, and kind. She was here to lead us in the process of braiding dough, she said, as an expert who was able to make a six-strand challah braid with minimal effort. That’s tight, the woman who had so deeply hurt me on one of the best days of my life was about to lead me, spiritually. My stomach twisted into knots. Moments earlier, everyone had let their guard down for a moment of prayer, a time to really connect with God. Now, I wondered, how such a spiritual moment could change so suddenly into a place of intense pain.
I took a deep breath, grumbled a few choice words, and then decided right then and there what it was: an opportunity.
At the end of the event, as people were walking out, I found her. After one of her last admirers left, and she was alone, I gathered my courage, tempered my upset and rage, and reassured my inner whining toddler. Then, I took a step forward, and asked if she had a moment to speak. Without nearly matching the intensity that I felt, she said “Sure,” indicating that she was driving someone home and we should chat on the way out the door.
“Where do you live?” she asked.
“Oh, well, where are you from?”
“New City,” I said.
Excitement and a bit of recognition flashed across her face. She asked, “Have you ever been into my bakery?”
“Yes,” I said. “And, actually, that’s what I want to talk to you about…”
“Oh. I remember… you came in with your family, right? That was one of my favorite experiences, I learned so much from you guys. I had a great time!”
This I know: it’s incredibly rewarding to know that people have learned and enjoyed themselves when I intentionally put myself out there. I experience this fairly regularly in my work as a public speaker and racial diversity consultant. I have no problem opening myself up to questions. But when it’s not on my terms, and I haven’t offered, it’s stealing.
When I’m asked unsolicited questions, as though I’m only a puzzle to figure out—an enigma whose identity people can’t reconcile because of my skin color and outward religious and ethnic representations—it feels degrading and dehumanizing. From my experience, the Jewish world is exceptionally filled with people who feel the right to have their curiosities satiated, to employ a barrage of questions onto another human being simply because their right to know trumps someone else’s right to exist undisturbed.
So I told her that her “favorite” educational experience was the opposite for me—that it came at a great cost. Her response was typical: she does events like the Great Challah Bake all the time because she loves the diversity and unity of the Jewish people. She’s not like that, she said.
I pointed out to her—as though through her I was telling every person I’ve ever had to have these interactions with—that while she may not have intended to be “like that,” her actions nevertheless caused me pain.
I told her that if she’s ever in the situation again, to please remember that people like me—Jews of Color, who are Ashkenazi, Sephardi, converts, or born Jewish, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, etc.—are exposed to this line of questioning all of the time. I told her that it’s not fun for us. What’s novel for her, I said, is just life for us.
Just like you, I said, we tell parts of our life story in the course of a regular conversation. Sometimes, it may not answer how Judaism came into our lives. Sometimes, remember, it’s not yours to know. It is you, I said, who needs to resolve your discomfort without causing the same feeling within us. If you really want to ask someone about their background, I said, just don’t. Instead, get to know them as a person, in another way outside of identity, which, for all of us, is complicated. If these issues comes up naturally, however, then it’s up to each individual to share these extremely personal details with you. If you have a reason that is so real and pressing—so much so that you just need to know—then begin by explaining your reasoning (and not with an inquiry). And finally, if you just can’t help yourself, at least acknowledge that you have a lot of chutzpah for asking, and share something about yourself first, too.
And guess what? She heard me. Do I feel like it’s fully resolved, and that she totally got it? No. But I eventually got my apology, thanked her for listening, and we hugged. It was finally off of my chest.
But this truth remains: at nearly every Jewish event where I’m not a familiar face, and even many where I am, I’ve got to have my guard up. Because it happens, by my estimation, at least one out of every ten times, I’m forced to choose between telling my actual and whole story, evasively dismissing (and having people draw their own presumptive conclusions), or forcefully declining.
In the end, just like everyone else, I want to participate.
Shoshana Ne’ora Rishon, the daughter of a German Jewish mother and Black Catholic father, is a biracial advocate, interracial & inter-religious family adviser, and general race conversationalist. She blogs, speaks publicly, and runs classes for interracial families on socio-racial identity development. She (reluctantly) lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.