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Does the huge conversation about Rachel Dolezal, who resigned as president of the Spokane, WA, chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People after it was revealed that she identified as African-American while her parents are White, have any relevance to efforts to engage interfaith families in Jewish life and community?
I’m not commenting on Dolezal’s conduct or its implications on race and race relations; Samuel Freedman addresses those issues and describes her as “clearly disturbed” in the Forward’s “How Rachel Dolezal Crossed the Line from Solidarity to Slumming.” Dolezal’s claim to be transracial has also been criticized as demeaning to people who are transgender, which I certainly don’t mean to be.
In “What My Black Jewish Son Teaches Me About Rachel Dolezal,” (also in the Forward) Alina Adams, a Jewish woman married to an African-American man, who has written six wonderful articles for us over the years, says that her three children “are being raised Jewish, and they identify as 100 percent Jewish, not ‘half’,” while her husband “didn’t convert, and he doesn’t self-identify as Jewish. But he does identify with the Jewish people via his children.”
Then, about her husband, she says:
So Alina Adams doesn’t “self-identify as black” but she “sort of” “feels black” while her husband sometimes includes himself when talking about Jews, and his wife and their children’s Jewishness has become a part of him.
It sounds like Alina would not describe herself as “transracial.” Does it make any sense or serve any purpose to describe Alina’s husband as “transJewish?”
I don’t think so. I don’t think coming up with categories or labels for people like Alina’s husband is helpful. Over the years, some people have suggested calling a supportive partner from another faith tradition a “ger toshav,” a Biblical category that literally means “stranger in the camp.” But the motivation is usually to allow people who fall into the category to participate in more Jewish ritual than those who don’t, and I think that’s a bad idea.
I know that some people would say that it doesn’t make sense to talk about “transJewish” because a person who comes to identify as Jewish can convert. But as of now there’s no civil or cultural conversion, only religious conversion, and in any event there are many people who feel sort of or partly Jewish who for many reasons aren’t interested in converting.
But the notion of a person who is born with and/or raised with one identity, who feels an affinity with and eventually adopts in some fashion a different identity—that’s what strikes close to home. There are many people who were not born or raised Jewish, who are married or partnered with Jews, who feel an affinity with Jews and Jewish traditions and who in some fashion adopt a Jewish identity, the way Alina Adams’ husband has. The increasing understanding that that kind of identity shifting happens is the positive implication of the Dolezal incident for those interested in engaging interfaith families Jewishly.
I agree with Alina’s conclusion:
Postscript June 23, 2015
In the Sunday New York Times on June 21, 2015, there is a letter to the editor from Ron Brown of Brooklyn, who describes himself as a Christian married to Jewish woman for 30 years, with adult children who identify as Jewish.
He writes, “Over time, I have grown to ‘feel’ Jewish myself. I even feel a bit insulted and left out when I am singled out as the only one in the family who is Christian. I can understand feeling so identified with a certain group that you wish you were born into that group, so identified that even a reminder that you are separate from that group hurts. I can understand Rachel Dolezal. But I would never consider lying about it. I wish Ms. Dolezal hadn’t either. There’s no doubt in my mind that she would have been welcomed into the African-American community just the way she was.”
Well, I went to the water one day to pray.
As a Jewish woman who feels deeply rooted in her African- and Native-American family’s heritage, the famous Negro spiritual “Wade in the Water” holds multiple and profound layers of visceral meaning for me. It was a central component of an alternative Rosh Hashanah ritual I created and observed in Washington, DC’s Rock Creek Park a couple years ago. And a couple years before that, “Wade in the Water” was bittersweetly at the heart of a soft-spoken, yet powerful conversation between Alana, a dear friend of mine from college, her Hungarian-Jewish grandmother and me in her grandmother’s home in Mayen, Germany.
The classic spiritual was originally among a number of songs used as vocal instructions sung in the cotton fields to help fugitive slaves navigate the treacherous, but ultimately liberating path of the Underground Railroad.
One night during a five-day layover in Germany in 2009, Alana shared with me that the “Wade in the Water” segment of Alvin Ailey’s famed “Revelations” dance sequence was once playing on her grandmother’s television. She explained to her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, how enslaved African-Americans used the song to escape from slavery. After a few moments of silence, her grandmother began crying as she asked Alana, in German, “Why didn’t we think to do that?” With Alana’s permission, I gently broached the subject with her bubbe a couple days later. What ensued was one of the most meaningful conversations of my life.
Black people, my people, literally found their way to freedom through song. Similar to making aliyah or immersing oneself in the mikveh, song is a spiritual vehicle that guides and elevates both individuals and communities to higher ground. The Jewish people, also my people, are well-versed in spiritual elevation, as well as immersion. It is embedded in the mundane to mystical elements of our religion.
One of the nicest ways that spiritual immersion is still alive and thriving in the Boston area is found at Mayyim Hayyim. Now in its 10th year of existence, the Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Mikveh and Paula Brody & Family Education Center is a community mikveh that has stayed true to its mission of reclaiming and reinventing one of Judaism’s most ancient rituals—immersion in the mikveh. Mayyim Hayyim has brought this sacred tradition to life by encouraging its traditional, as well as creative contemporary spiritual use. Each year the center teaches thousands of interested visitors. And on a daily basis, it models how to make the mikveh a sacred space that is open and accessible to all Jews and those who are becoming Jews. This was the vision of Mayyim Hayyim founder and acclaimed author Anita Diamant.
As Mayyim Hayyim’s founding executive director Aliza Kline once stated, “The explicit mission of Mayyim Hayyim is to provide a space that is warm and welcoming of the broadest sense of the Jewish community.” In a world where not enough Jewish communal spaces fully embrace interfaith families, let alone the rest of the Jewish community’s expansive diversity, the Newton-based non-profit stands in a distinctive category of its own. It has become a destination for interfaith families and Jews across the spectrum of observance and affiliation. Mayyim Hayyim actively welcomes interfaith, multiracial and LGBTQ members and families.
“Wade in the Water,” along with many other songs and poetry from Jewish and other spiritual traditions are resources Mayyim Hayyim has available for visitors of their mikvehs to use as they feel inspired.
Whether you are undergoing conversion, a life cycle event or a personal journey of healing or transformation, I recommend you schedule a visit to Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Mikveh.