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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?
Iâm not commenting on Dolezalâs conduct or its implications on race and race relations; Samuel Freedman addresses those issues and describes her as âclearly disturbedâ in the Forwardâs âHow Rachel Dolezal Crossed the Line from Solidarity to Slumming.â Dolezalâs claim to be transracial has also been criticized as demeaning to people who are transgender, which I certainly donât mean to be.
In âWhat My Black Jewish Son Teaches Me About Rachel Dolezal,â (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 âare being raised Jewish, and they identify as 100 percent Jewish, not âhalfâ,â while her husband âdidnât convert, and he doesnât self-identify as Jewish. But he does identify with the Jewish people via his children.â
Then, about her husband, she says:
So Alina Adams doesnât âself-identify as blackâ but she âsort ofâ âfeels blackâ while her husband sometimes includes himself when talking about Jews, and his wife and their childrenâs Jewishness has become a part of him.
It sounds like Alina would not describe herself as âtransracial.â Does it make any sense or serve any purpose to describe Alinaâs husband as âtransJewish?â
I donât think so. I donât think coming up with categories or labels for people like Alinaâs husband is helpful. Over the years, some people have suggested calling a supportive partner from another faith tradition a âger toshav,â a Biblical category that literally means âstranger in the camp.â But the motivation is usually to allow people who fall into the category to participate in more Jewish ritual than those who donât, and I think thatâs a bad idea.
I know that some people would say that it doesn’t make sense to talk about âtransJewishâ because a person who comes to identify as Jewish can convert. But as of now thereâs 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 arenât 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 identityâthatâs 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 Adamsâ 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 Alinaâs 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 toÂ Jewish woman for 30 years, with adult children who identify as Jewish.
He writes, âOver time, I have grown to âfeelâ 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 hadnât either. Thereâs no doubt in my mind that she would have been welcomed into the African-American community just the way she was.â