My almost 3-year-old daughter, Gadiella, is crazy precocious. Thankfully, we have a close-knit slew of highly creative friends with precocious little ones of their own. More often than not their tykes are older than our daughter, which is all the same to her. (After all, she says things like, “I don’t know if you’re aware of this Grandma, but I currently have the hiccups.”) All of our friends’ kids are Jewish, and come from the same side of the observance spectrum that we do. All of our friends’ kids are also white. Except for one.
Out in the wilds of Philadelphia is a little black Jewish Orthodox girl named Chana. She is Gadiella’s bestest bestest friend. Gadiella talks about her literally all the time. My wife and I are good friends with Chana’s mom, and her family, and we occasionally host each other for Shabbat. But, since we live so far away, we don’t all see each other that often outside of the realm of Facebook. In fact, Gadiella and Chana have only met three times.
But back to our home base in New York, Gadiella has never had a problem playing with any of our clique’s kids and has always really enjoyed and looked forward to seeing them. She’s never had a problem playing with any kid, really, from her (all white) classmates in her Chabad daycare to the (all white) classmates in her JCC preschool, to her (all white) playmates at shul. In fact, she was playing with her synagogue friends a couple of weeks ago when my Daddy Spidey-Sense kicked in.
I watched her for a few seconds—nothing was evident in her behavior indicated that anything was wrong—but I still had this hunch. I turned to my wife and said, “We need to make sure Gadiella plays with kids that look like her this week.”
So off to Philly we went for Shabbat the next week. As soon as we stepped out of the car and onto their front steps, so began the gleeful squealing of two 2-year old girlfriends who would proceed to spent the rest of Shabbat squealing, shrieking, running around in circles, stealing each other’s shoes, fighting and making up, followed by more running and squealing. For the most part, us parentals permitted their behavior because we felt like their friendship was unique and undeniable: How often did they get to enjoy the experience of it, right?
But, soon enough, we had to separate them and calm them down and send them to bed. That’s when I decided to investigate my hunch with Gadiella.
“Hey, so you and Chana are being really crazy together, and Ima and I need you to calm down and behave a little better,” I said. “I know you’re really excited to see Chana, and it’s making it difficult to listen, right?”
“Yeah,” she replied.
“It’s ok, I get that. You don’t get to play much with kids who look like you, right?”
“And when you do, they don’t believe like you do, right?”
“Gadiella, How does that make you feel?”
“Angry, sad. I feel like I’m alone with the other buddies.”
We talked a little bit more, and then it was off to bed. While my heart broke a little, I was so glad that I sensed what I sensed when I sensed it, and that I had acted on it. But it’s not like other black Orthodox kids grow on trees. And I still really don’t know what to do with this.
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.