Last October, NPR journalist Leah Donnella wrote a wrenchingly sad piece about how she’d taken to avoiding the synagogue on Yom Kippur. The reason wasn’t because she no longer felt connected to her Jewish faith. It was because the Jewish community did not recognize her connection to it—because she was a Jew of color. Throughout her adult life, Donnella wrote, both Jews and non-Jews had assumed she couldn’t possibly be Jewish, simply because she was black.
The Hebrew school-educated Donnella described attending synagogue with her white Catholic boyfriend and immediately being relegated to secondary status. “As soon as we walked in, I started feeling like an accessory,” she recalled. “This was a superprogressive synagogue, and I wasn’t the only person of color in the congregation. But the way people greeted him first, always; the way someone explained to me what to expect of the service (It will be an hour long with portions in Hebrew and English); the way an usher smiled and asked me, not my boyfriend, What brings you here? Those moments made me want to scream, I’m one of you!”
Earlier this month, regular Tablet contributor MaNishtana (the pen name of Shais Rishon), delivered an entertaining yet sobering ELI Talk that further illustrated the plight of many Jews of color in American Jewish spaces. “Have you ever had one of those days,” he opened, “where you’re just like, ‘people are the worst kind of people’?” He went on to describe attending a friend’s Hanukkah party and being asked if he was “really” Jewish. “Is there just like a flock of black people somewhere going, ‘y’know, I just don’t feel oppressed enough?’”
MaNishtana discussed other incidents along these lines, while also grappling thoughtfully with tough questions raised by such black Jewish encounters: What are the differences in historical experience between Ashkenazi Jews and other Jews? Can the curiosity encouraged by Jewish tradition ever cross over into condescension when directed toward people?
MaNishtana closed with a plaintive call for a Judaism that doesn’t “stop people at the gates,” and that focuses on welcoming people in rather than keeping them out. Watch the full talk below: