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What Does It Take To Be Considered Jewish?

Some of the feedback about my ‘Black Jews You Should Know’ lists questioned the validity of my choice to include certain persons

March 14, 2016

During each week of February, I presented seven black Jewish figures I believed deserved recognition for Black History Month 5776. Here are the parameters I set out in choosing the people I included: “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.” The lists had their detractors.

“I found your Black History Month series interesting,” reads one email. “But being Jewish is more than wearing a Jewish Star and going to shul on Yom Kippur.”

I wanted to agree with it. I did. After all, I’m no stranger to being opposed to trite, superficial connections to Judaica rather than Judaism itself. But something about the aforementioned comment felt a little off and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Not yet. The same thing happened when I received an email from someone who was intrigued by the black Jews, but was concerned about their “relationship with Judaism,” which I had apparently not made apparent enough. (I found this one particularly strange, as several of the entries explicitly stated subjects’ synagogue attendance, lifecycle events, and other outward expressions of Judaism.)

But it wasn’t until a third comment—decrying that “it’s a shande that some “movements” accept all kinds of converts without a commitment to keep the mitzvot”—that I was finally able to suss out what was bothered me about these responses: the race-fueled gatekeeping of Judaism masquerading as zealous concern over the dilution of Jewish identity.

Because, see, of the personalities I highlighted over the course of February, two-thirds of them were born Jewish and overwhelmingly within the traditional matrilineal definition of Jewish heritage. So what place did the comment about conversions have, really? Why the concern over with how they identify with Judaism? Why the imposing of a litmus test of whether they’re being “Jewish enough”? And, most importantly, why does that matter when it comes to this particular group of people? (To be fair, I suppose the concerns about the acceptance of all kinds of convert are genuine. But in a “master race” kinda way.)

“Jewish lists” exist in other places, but many of them are centered on occupation, not Jewish diversity. And you won’t find much hand-wringing about whether or not people go to services every Friday night on an article like “45 Hottest Jewish Actresses,” or whether or not someone’s conversion was Orthodox when you’re reading about the “Top 30 Jewish Musicians,” or, shockingly enough, how involved with NFTY someone still is when they’re on the list of “Famous Jewish Pornstars.” Sure, diverse faces are sprinkled into these lists, but somehow, when they’re all together on a list of their own (and thus, not surrounded by “real” Jews to vet them), somehow credential-checking needs to happen.

Somehow, in a country that loves itself some patrilineal Jewish lineage, suddenly matrilineal Judaism is paramount when it comes to whether or not someone’s Jewish. And to be clear, yes, I, an Orthodox Jew, included Jews of patrilineal descent on the list. And Jews who underwent non-Orthodox conversions. Because this wasn’t a list of “Orthodox Black Jews You Should Know About” or a list of folks who were “Jews According To The Traditional Definition MaNishtana Abides By.” It was a list of Jewish African-Americans in their Jewishes. Because we exist all over the spectrum of normative Judaisms. And those Judaisms have definitions that we don’t all abide by. And we’re still the other in all those Judaisms.

We don’t need to put in extra work at being Jewish to prove something just because we look darker than you’re comfortable with.

We get to observe as much or as little as you do.

We get to practice as strictly or as slackly as you do.

We get to be just as Jewish as you do.

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.