Two interesting articles on black Jews recently caught my attention: one, in American Jewish Life magazine (formerly Atlanta Jewish Life), tells the story of Lacey Schwartz, the daughter of two white Jewish New Yorkers who discovered in college that she was the product of an affair between her mother and a black man; the other, in the New York Times, excerpts a passage from a new book by David Matthews, the child of a Jewish mother he barely knew and a black nationalist father.
They are two very different people: Lacey appears to have grown up in a stable, privileged home, and didn’t even know of her multiracial background until she was an adult, while Matthews says he “was used to some measure of instability–various apartments, sundry stepmothers and girlfriends” and grappled with his identity from a very young age:
Nothing prepared me for walking into that public-school classroom, already three weeks into fourth grade. I had never felt so utterly on my own.
Mrs. Eberhard, my new homeroom teacher, made an introduction of sorts, and every student turned around to study me. The black kids, who made up more than 80 percent of the schoolâ€™s population, ranged in shades from butterscotch to Belgian chocolate, but none had my sallow complexion, nor my fine, limp hair. And the white kids, a salting of red and alabaster faces, had noses that were tapered and blunted, free of the slightly equine flare of my own, and lips that unobtrusively parted their mouths, in contrast to the thickened slabs I sucked between my teeth.
In the hallway, on the way to class, black and white kids alike herded around me. Then the question came: â€śWhat are you?â€ť
Lacey, meanwhile, lived in relatively ignorant bliss until she went to Georgetown University, which classified her a “black/Hispanic origins” student. After returning home from her first year at college, she asked her mother “Do you ever wonder why I look the way I do?” Two weeks later, her mother told her the truth. She went onto explore her black identity, joining the black theater group and student association, hanging out with other black students and dating black and biracial men.
But as outwardly different as the two are, both of their stories demonstrate the way, in American society, racial identity trumps religious identity. Despite having no background in black culture–indeed she was raised in the lily-white town of Woodstock, N.Y.–Lacey Schwartz still felt drawn to other black students and black-centric activities at Georgetown, a fairly racially segregated school (I know from experience; I graduated from Georgetown a year after Lacey). Harris, meanwhile, chooses to sit at the white kids’ cafeteria table but feels a deep sense of inadequacy over his inability to be as “alive and cool” as the black kids: “The black kids reminded me of home, but the white kids reminded me of myself, the me I saw staring back in the mirror. On that day, I came to believe that if I had said I was black, I would have had to spend the rest of my life convincing my own people.”
In the same way that the majority of children from intermarried homes assimilate into secular and Christian culture because it’s easier than practicing Judaism, children from biracial homes often identify as black because it’s easier than identifying as white. People will tend to gravitate to social circles where it’s easier to blend in.
(Incidentally, the two share something else: each has a new creative exploration of their life coming out. Schwartz is working on a documentary on black Jews called Outside of the Box; Harris’s autobiographical book Ace of Spades: A Memoir is coming out in February.)
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