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.”
As the wife of an African-American man and the mother of three biracial children, I feel much more personally connected to cases of police shootings, racial profiling and the academic achievement gap for minority children than I ever did before my marriage.
Would I self-identify as black? No. Never. That would be insulting, in my opinion. (I believe even wearing ceremonial clothes of another culture is pretentious, though many would disagree with me.)
But do I feel black?
Then, about her husband, she says:
The same way my husband sometimes says “us” or “we” or “our” when he’s talking about Jews. I honestly can’t imagine how you can love a person and not feel like a part of their struggle. Which is a part of them. Which becomes a part of you.
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:
My primary takeaway from the incident and my family’s own experience is that, apparently, identity is much more complicated than my husband and I ever imagined it would be before our kids were born. And that instead of having all the answers, we’re going to be learning right alongside with them—and the rest of America.
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.”