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September 29, 2020

We Are Family: Rethinking Race in the Jewish Community (Yom Kippur 5781/2020)

Angela W. Buchdahl

“Are you Jewish?”
“Are you Jewish?”
“Are you Jewish?”
“Are you Jewish?”

The Lubavitchers parked their Mitzvah Tank 
at the corner of my college post office
(remember those?)
and posed this question repeatedly, 
like a jingle, 
to students passing by.
In the early 90’s, Yale was about 25% Jewish
so asking “Are you Jewish?” 
was like shooting fish in a barrel.
Most of my Jewish friends 
were accosted multiple times each day.

But not one time, in four years, did they ever ask me.
I would have liked some free Shabbat candles. 
Or to sit in their makeshift sukkah.
Or to have been acknowledged, even once, as a member of the Tribe.  

And the Orthodox weren’t the only ones 
who didn’t recognize me as Jewish.
I led the Reform minyan:
I chanted Torah, I read the entire liturgy in Hebrew, 
all while wearing a tallis
but inevitably, someone would come up afterwards and ask:
“Are you Jewish?”

I know what you’re thinking.
“But Rabbi, surely you understand, 
there is a Jewish look. And you don’t exactly have it.
Jews are a People, with Jewish last names, Jewish features.
We even have our own genetic diseases!”

Yes. I did understand what the Jewish community was telling me.
That Jewish peoplehood was akin to a race.
Something immutable and hereditary.
An exclusive club you had to be born into.
And even though I had a Jewish father,
with this face,
I would never really be Jewish.

Jewish Peoplehood is powerful and real 
but too often we misunderstand what that means. 
So today I want to debunk some of the myths around Jewish Peoplehood.
First: we Jews are NOT a race.

The earliest biblical reference to the Israelite people as a race
is made by Pharaoh in Egypt.
He used it to justify our enslavement, 
And to kill our firstborns. 
He stoked racist fear that the Israelites 
would grow to outnumber Egyptians 
and rise up against them.
Pharaoh’s message to his subjects echoes through the centuries: 
“Jews will not replace us.”

The first historical articulation of Judaism as a race 
was during the Spanish Inquisition. 
Even those Jews who converted to Christianity, 
were still considered to have polluted, impure Jewish bloodlines.  
Later, in an effort to dehumanize Jews, the Nazis used pseudo-science to claim that Jews had identifiable racial features
and a genetic propensity toward certain behaviors and beliefs.  

The notion of Judaism as a “race” is a construct—
created by our enemies—
to justify antisemitism, violence, and even genocide.  
And yet, we Jews still cling to this idea of race:
that there is a genetic blueprint, “a look”
that makes us what we are. 
But that’s another myth.
Jewish Peoplehood is NOT about a pure Jewish bloodline
or survival of one strain of DNA.
We Jews have never been just one color, or one cluster of chromosomes.
When the Torah first calls us a People, coming out of Egypt,
we are described as an erev rav, a “mixed multitude.”
And when we were exiled from Jerusalem, over 2000 years ago, 
we spread out to every imaginable corner of the world, 
Jews went to India, Yemen, Russia, China, and Ethiopia.
The majority of Jews in Israel today are not Ashkenazi, 
but Jews of Color from Middle Eastern, African, and Asian countries.

And in America, while many think of Jews as ‘white people.’ 
even that assumption is outdated.
In 2019, the first Jewish population study 
to measure Jews of Color in America,
found that Jews of Color represent at least 12-15% of American Jews,
and it’s only growing.

That is a stunning statistic.  
It’s about 1 in every 7 Jews.
It means that out of approximately 7.5 million Jews of America,
about a million are Jews of Color. One. Million.

Let me guess: 
You’re thinking: “I don’t believe that.  
I don’t see them anywhere in my Jewish community.”
And you’re right.

On this Yom Kippur, we should do some soul-searching 
and ask why that is. 
After a Black rabbinical student preached 
from Central’s pulpit this summer, 
Robert, a Black congregant in his 20’s, 
had the courage to reach out and tell me about his experience here.
He said that the first time he walked into Central, 
a security guard trailed him inside and watched him suspiciously.
He almost didn’t return after that.
But he did, and while he loved coming to Shabbat services—
back when you could actually, you know, 
COME to services—
he said he faced questions from congregants every single week:

“What neighborhood are you from?“
“Who are you here with?”
And the ubiquitous:
“Are you Jewish?”

We might hear Robert’s story and excuse our community response 
as awkward inquisitiveness, well-meaning curiosity.  
But just imagine that this was Robert’s experience 
walking into, say, Bergdorf Goodman:
He is regarded with suspicion the minute he walks in the door, 
And too many people asking “Can I help you?” 
With the assumption that he does not really belong.  
We would clearly see that as racism.  
But we don’t see this behavior as racist 
when we do the exact same thing to him in synagogue
based on the color of his skin.

I don’t think it’s overt racism that prompts a congregant
to ask an Asian mother in our lobby if she is the babysitter.  
Or to ask a Black congregant to take their drink order 
at a Bar Mitzvah reception.
But the impact of this is undeniable:
Jews of Color experience racism in our community.

If you “look Jewish” you’ve never been asked these questions;
they only get asked of “strangers.”
And because Jews of color hear these questions 
every time we walk into a Jewish community
that’s exactly how we feel:
Like a perpetual stranger. 
It’s exhausting. 

We are in the midst of a national discussion about race and racism in America that is long overdue.
On this holiest day of atonement, 
there may be no more important accounting we each need to make 
then to examine our own racial assumptions and prejudices.
The Jewish community needs to see the fight 
against racism in our country as our fight.
But tonight I focus on racism within our own Jewish community 
because as a rabbi, I have to clean my house first.
And as one who thinks about Jewish survival, 
I know if we don’t fundamentally rethink our tribal, 
racial notion of Jewish Peoplehood, 
we are sunk.
The demographic trends are inevitable.
We will lose future generations of Jews and their children, 
And be the poorer for it.

I remember a meeting with an interfaith couple before their wedding.
The bride was a Southern-born Protestant
who grew up going to church every Sunday.
She was intrigued by Judaism and open to conversion.
She asked her fiancé “what does being Jewish mean to you?”
He replied: “I’m not that religious. Judaism is more my culture and identity. 
It’s the feeling that I can walk into a party, 
and just pick out the Jews in the room.”

She looked at him.
And so did his Asian rabbi.
“So would you pick us out in the room?” I asked.

That couple got married, but she never converted. 
Letting go of the idea of a Jewish race is difficult, 
because there is a real comfort in expecting 
that we can “pick out our own.” 
And there is pride in feeling that there is something inherited,
even divinely ordained, about Jewish Chosenness.
But making our identity a tribal race is not only exclusive, 
it’s dangerous.

Because, and here I want to debunk one final myth:
Race is NOT scientific.
Geneticists and anthropologists agree that race is a man-made invention 
with no real basis in science or biology.  
Further, Anthropologist Ashley Montagu writes:
“The idea of race was ... the deliberate creation of an exploiting class 
seeking to maintain and defend its privileges.”
Or as Ta Nahisi Coates bluntly says: 
“Race is the child of racism, not the father.”

This idea is brilliantly fleshed out in Isabel Wilkerson’s 
groundbreaking new book Caste.
She convincingly shows how race has been manipulated 
to create hierarchies of human value—
to assert the supremacy of one race over another.
To create caste systems. 
Whether it was Blacks in America, Untouchables in India 
or Jews in Nazi Germany, the pillars of caste systems 
are remarkably similar across time and geography. 

For example, did you know that when Hitler created his caste system 
in order to exterminate the so-called Jewish “race”
the Third Reich actually studied America’s race laws for ideas?
Yale Law professor James Whitman wrote 
that in the 1930s, the United States was “the leading racist jurisdiction in the world…Nazi lawyers, as a result, looked very closely at [and] were ultimately influenced by American race law.”

In particular, Nazis admired the Jim Crow-era laws 
that discriminated and segregated Black Americans 
from white Americans.
They adopted America’s anti-miscegenation laws, too. 
But banning Jewish and Aryan marriages 
posed a special problem for the Nazis, because at the time, 
intermarriage rates were over 60%.
With interracial children, it was hard to define 
who was Jewish and who was not.

So the Nazis borrowed from the American obsession with categorizing race by fractions of perceived ancestry. 
In 1890, the United States census included racial categories 
for those who were ¼ Black: Quadroon 
Or ⅛ Black: Octaroon.
You could be 1/16 Black, with a “drop of Negro blood” 
and you were considered Black.
As I said, race is not scientific
The Nuremberg laws ultimately defined a Jew 
as anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent, 
regardless of religious practice.
For the Nazis, even conversion to Christianity couldn’t overcome Jewish ancestry. 

Through these laws, the Nazis established a caste system 
that put Jews at the bottom: as untermenschen.
This dehumanizing view of Jews as an inferior race 
was critical in enabling the Nazis 
to persuade Germany and much of Europe to participate in 
or stand by and watch 
the murder of six millions Jews by the end of the war.
It was a caste system that the Nazis learned in great part 
by studying the legal caste system we created for Black Americans.
After World War II, when the State of Israel was founded,
with a mission to take in Jewish refugees, 
Israel, incredibly, adopted the Nazi’s “¼ Jewish ancestry” definition 
as the foundation for defining 
who was eligible for the Law of Return.
I was taught the reasoning was: 
“If it’s enough Jewish blood to get you killed, 
It would be enough Jewish blood to get you saved.”
But why did we allow a racial definition 
imposed by our enemies
to become our benchmark for “Who is a Jew”?

This “one Jewish grandparent” definition for the law of Return 
does NOT, however, match Israel’s definition for Jewish status,
which requires proof of Jewish matrilineage.
This results in a shameful condition where Jewish immigrants 
can be considered Jewish enough to come to Israel 
under the Law of Return, to fight in the Israeli Army and 
even to die for the Jewish state,but then not be considered 
Jewish enough to be buried in a Jewish cemetery!
Once again, defaulting to a racial definition of the “Jewish blood”
creates a most problematic definition of Jewish peoplehood.
Yes, heredity is important and meaningful; 
it is powerful to imagine an ancestral line of Jews 
that goes all the way back to Sinai.
But it is time to stop thinking of Jewish Peoplehood 
as a race
once and for all.

Instead, think of the Jewish People as a FAMILY. 
You can become family by birth, adoption and choice.
And you can create a bond stronger than blood 
through covenant—as we do in marriage.
The Jewish brit, our covenant with God, is how we all became family.
Because the foundation of Jewish Peoplehood 
doesn’t come from myths about race 
but from our covenant with God.

Tomorrow, we will read about this brit in our Torah portion—
listen to who is included:
Atem Nitzavim kulchem—You stand, ALL OF YOU,
Before God:
Leaders and laborers,
Grownups and children,
The stranger and convert—
into this sworn covenant I make with you today.

Instead of defining Jewishness 
by having the correct fraction of Jewish blood, 
Let every Jew who feels bound by this covenant
be seen, and counted,equally,
as part of the Jewish people.
Just as God does.
A few years ago, I was walking on the Upper West Side, on Broadway
And there was a mitzvah tank parked on the corner.
I saw a boy, not yet bar mitzvah age, in a black hat and suit.
But as I hurried past,
he stepped right in front of me, looked me straight in the eye and asked: 
“Are you Jewish?”

I stopped in my tracks.
He was seriously asking me.
I had to hold myself back from my enormous urge to embrace the boy.
“YES!”  I said excitedly.
“Yes, I AM JEWISH!  
Thank you VERY MUCH!”
The young boy, confused by my passionate response,
shrugged his shoulders and offered me a box of candles:
“Happy Hanukkah,” he said and walked away.

The boy thought nothing of it, 
but I’ve replayed that moment many times since.
It was my Hanukkah miracle.  
He gave me a taste of a Jewish Peoplehood that was beyond race.
Where the color of my skin, the shape of my features, 
were no longer the markers of my belonging or authenticity.
In that young Chasid’s question was a revolutionary assumption,
one that could truly change the world.
That he could see me 
and imagine me,
as part of the same family. 

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.

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