Originally published June 21, 2010. Republished April 13, 2012.
Every Passover, my husband, three children and I sing "Dayenu." We sing "Ma Nish'Tana." We sing "Eliyahu Hanavi."
|Alina with her family at Rosh Hashanah this past year. (Hence the round challah--she told us it was a very high concept.)
And we sing "Go Down, Moses."
Every Passover, just like we ritually read the Haggadah, we discuss how "Go Down, Moses" is a Negro spiritual sung by American slaves about their own fate and about their dreams of freedom.
When Israel was in Egypt land
Let my people go
Oppressed so hard they could not stand
Let my people go
Go down, Moses
Way down to Egypt land
Tell ol' Pharaoh
Let my people go!
My husband is African-American. I am Jewish, born in the former Soviet Union. Our children, ages 10, 6 and 3, are Jewish African-Americans — something neither their father nor I ever were.
Because of this, my children often find that their family tree offers some branches that are in direct conflict with one another.
For instance, they (at least the older two) know that "Go Down, Moses" was popularized in the 1940s as a recording by Paul Robeson, a singer and actor revered to this day by the black community for his work in civil rights, anti-colonialism and against apartheid and fascism. They also know that, as a Communist, Robeson supported Jewish refugees from Nazism; at the same time, as he accepted the Stalin Peace Prize from the dictator himself, he denied the existence of anti-Semitism or any other kind of racism in the USSR, and turned his back on marked-for-death Jewish performers he'd once claimed were his friends.
They know about the arguments for reparations to American slaves. And they know our family joke that, as long as Kwanzaa principles insist, "We were the kings and queens of Africa," and the Passover story reminds us of life under a particular king of North Africa, then Jews are also owed their fair share for building the pyramids. (To be honest, we're not really expecting a big payout from either.)
Because we live in New York City, they've heard of Crown Heights and Yankel Rosenbaum. They know that Harlem, where their father grew up and one set of grandparents still lives, used to be a Jewish neighborhood. They know about the Jews of Ethiopia, Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Martin Luther King, and Lenny Kravitz.
They know a lot—the occupational hazard of being the children of a teacher and a writer. The question is: Do they care?
They're kids. Kids don't care about a lot of things that grown-ups think are important.
When kids are asked to describe a playmate, they're just as likely to say, "The one in the yellow shirt," or "The one who brought her doll to class for show and tell," as they are to say, "The black one," or "The one who is Jewish like me."
My kids are utterly unimpressed that the president of the United States is biracial like they are. (Yeah? So what? Does he plan to shorten the school year anytime in the near future?)
And they certainly don't think that skin color has anything to do with religion. In the past few months, they've attended the bat mitzvah of one biracial cousin, and the First Communion of another.
At their Conservative Hebrew school in New York City, there are several other children with one black parent, there are adopted Asian girls with two white parents and Sephardic Jewish kids with parents from Iran or Libya whose skin tone is darker than all of theirs combined.
When my oldest son was still in preschool, his paternal grandfather got him a Martin Luther King collage to hang in his room. One of the images showed a segregated lunch counter. Adam wanted to know what that was all about. So (in no small part because I'd rather explain that illustration than the one featuring a bunch of men dressed in white sheets setting a cross on fire), I told him about Jim Crow-era "whites only" lunch counters and drinking fountains and public bathrooms.
My 4-year-old listened to me solemnly. And then he cried and cried and cried. (I suppose this should be filed under one of those occasions that my brother has dubbed "bad parenting.")
However, when I told a fellow parent at temple about what had happened, his only comment was: "Jews faced plenty of discrimination too. You should tell him about the Holocaust."
First: Yes, I am aware that Jews have faced discrimination. The Soviet Union was pretty clear about that.
Second: If I was too chicken to tackle the Ku Klux Klan, I am most certainly not about to introduce Nazism to a preschooler.
And third: I didn't realize this was a contest.
Now, granted, in the real world, competitive victimization is a full-contact sport, cheered on equally by the government and the media. ("Your suffering deserves remuneration. Yours doesn't. Work it out among yourselves. Let us know how it goes. And make sure to take pictures.")
But when raising black/Jewish children, that's the last national pastime I want them participating in.
Because when your family tree contains multi-continent slavery, the burning of the Colored Orphan Asylum during the New York City draft riots and Babi Yar (just to name the more widely known incidents; there are also plenty of "Our no-name village used to be here. It's not here anymore."), the main point I want to impress on my children is that all of these things are a part of who they are. But they are not an indicator of who they will become.
Unlike with a real tree, a family's roots can keep you grounded, but they need never keep you from soaring.