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Yes You Can Be Black AND Jewish

July 2, 2010

I'm a lucky parent. I have three magnificent children: two born biologically to me and one a bonus from my husband's first relationship. We are an interfaith, blended family. As the Jewish parent in a family where the decision to raise our children to be Jewish was made on our first date, (that's actually when I told my not-yet-husband our decision, but that's another article) I probably do much of what many Jewish parents in an interfaith family do. I take my children to religious school, work to find the perfect Hanukkah/Christmas card that includes everyone and offends no one and do my best to raise happy children.

Debbie and her daughter, G.
Debbie Popiel White, a very lucky mom, with her daughter at her school play.

I also have the unique opportunity of raising not just a Jewish child in an interfaith family, but a black Jewish child with one white Jewish sibling and one black sibling. Oy vey!

Even at her age, my child realizes that she's been dealt a double whammy — on both sides of her heritage her ancestors have suffered because of what they look like and what they believe in. Let's stir in the anti-immigrant law, SB 1070, passed in the state I have chosen to live, Arizona, which makes it legal to judge a book by its cover. I realize no matter how many times I tell my child it doesn't matter, I'll have to bite my tongue. I know it most certainly does.

I grew up in New York, pretty much the melting pot of all melting pots and still there I got the occasional, "You don't look Jewish" comment. How is someone supposed to respond, "Thank you"? I wonder whether people will make the same comment to my black daughter and whether the people commenting will be Jews.

My heritage is Sephardic. My family migrated from Spain to Greece taking with them their language, Ladino, and their food. My mother spoke only Spanish in her home and her immigrant parents discovered prejudices within their own community for not speaking Yiddish or cooking with chicken schmaltz. I've had people say to me "You can't be Jewish and Spanish." It took a long time for me to be able to say, "I am Jewish AND Spanish. Haven't you ever heard of the Inquisition?"

My daughter will have to answer those questions more often and sooner because the fact remains she is black and the world will see her color before they get to know her. This is the cold, hard truth of the world we live in whether you are raising your children in the Jewish faith or not. So how do I teach her to say with dignity and confidence, "I am black AND Jewish?"

I have made choices that have impacted my family and as such I have to be not only willing but able to deal with each individual situation while working towards a steadfast faith and strong identity that does not waiver. Information, communication, pride and support will be our best friends in this awesome journey forward.

So what do you do when your child comes home the first time and says, "Everyone says my hair is fuzzy"? I can relate to her stories of my having curly hair when others had straight growing up and remind her of B'tzelim Elohim, that we are created in the image of God as the Torah teaches us. When emotions are involved, though, sometimes you must be able to hold your child's head in your lap and let her cry because someone has hurt her feelings. Certain universal situations always arise in childhood, but when your child is black, Jewish and female you have to arm them with more than a basic response like, "I'm rubber, you're glue." They have to be involved in their community and knowledgeable of their heritage so they can answer the insensitive questions and they have to be confident in their identity so they can ignore the flat-out mean comments.

G. White before book report
Debbie's daughter, G., showing one of her favorite books the night before her book report.

Raising a child in a world that sees her differently is a reality for many families. Physical characteristics, quirky personalities, clothing choices, all can be targets for schoolyard bullies. Somehow as parents, we must instill confidence in our children to embrace themselves for who they are and conquer the world. In our case, there's also the complicating factor of racism. What if my child has to confront prejudice in her own community, where people may not assume she's a Jew? Being a Jew is a key component in this 8-year-old's identity. Since she looks different physically from one of her parents, namely me, some mistake us for a child with her nanny, not her mother. Their bias makes them think she's not my daughter.

My daughter is also female in a world where the pressures to conform to ideals of beauty are hitting the elementary school playgrounds at an alarming rate. I can't just arm her with the typical responses and then stop. I read books about growing up black or interracial and speak with other parents — Jewish, black, interfaith, you name it. I have a little library of children's books to instill a level of self esteem and pride regarding their looks, heritage and faith — I've included a book list here.

I would advise other parents to keep books on hand and make them part of regular bedtime reading routines. Read them yourself, share them with friends and neighbors and use them as a tool to check in with your children. Opening the subject will give your children the opportunity tell you if something or someone is bothering them. Even if nothing is wrong, these books will help you convey that you are at ease with your choice to raise them to be good, kind, well adjusted, confident people who are proud to be black or Jewish or in an interfaith family. The more you show them that, the more confident and comfortable they will be with themselves.

Don't be afraid to solicit the help of teachers, rabbis and school administrators. If you're having challenges feeling connected somewhere, involving yourself in your Jewish community as well as your community at large will provide information and support you need. My daughter went to a Jewish preschool, attends religious school and goes to a Jewish sleep away camp for part of the summer.

Remember that multiracial environments are equally important. I have often spoken to mothers of black or biracial children who do not have a connection to a black spouse or anyone within that community to provide the necessary identification so important to a child who looks different from you. Whether this child came to you through birth or adoption, make sure you are looking at schools with groups of different ethnicities, joining community centers with varied populations that have a commitment to diversity and understanding how this piece of your child fits into their world and yours. I am fortunate that I have a black sister-in-law who taught me how to do my daughter's hair, a rather simple task that could be stressful in a home with only white parents because hair has so much meaning for black women. Don't be afraid to ask other parents in similar situations for help. I am often the parent on line at the grocery store asking someone where they got their hair braided. You have to be willing to reach out in order to get and stay connected.

Resources for Jewish Multi-Racial Families

Organizations:

Books:

When I told my youngest daughter I was writing an article about her, she asked what it was about "pacifically" — no I didn't correct her because it's too cute, and yes that's another article also. I explained to her it was about her being black and Jewish and having a white mom and a dad who is not Jewish and one brother who looks more like me and one who looks more like her dad. As I rambled on thinking this sounded so intriguing and exciting she looked at me puzzled and rather matter-of-factly said, "So you're just writing about our family?" I stammered, "Well, uh, yeah I guess." "Oh," she exclaimed and happily skipped away.

Being black and Jewish is just who she is and she certainly doesn't see it as a challenge. We talk all about black heritage and slavery and that some of her relatives came here through Ellis Island and some on slave ships. When she was only a 3-year-old, she could explain the entire story of "that lady on the bus who wouldn't get up" (Rosa Parks) and also proudly recite the Shema before she went to bed at night.

I have always been a believer as both a parent and an educator, in open communication with your children. This is especially true when it comes to the tough topics, you know the ones that parents are usually the most uncomfortable discussing: sex, death, etc. There are other topics, like the history of slavery in this country, the Holocaust and the struggle for black civil rights, that leave parents equally uncomfortable and perplexed. When you're raising a Jewish child, like it or not you will have to talk about the Holocaust. When they ride a bus to school and someone tells them Adolf Hitler is going to get them, they had better be armed with not only the pride to tell the truth but the correct information. The same is true about the history of the treatment of blacks in this country. Whether the comments they are on the receiving end of border on insensitive or uninformed or racist, your child must have heard the truth from you first. We have the tough conversations, in developmentally appropriate terms and we keep having them so all of our children understand who they are and where they came from. This not only maintains their sense of identity and pride, but helps create the same individuals who stand up for friends who may be bullied for whatever reason.

At a stage performance recently of a well known Broadway musical, G. said to me during intermission, "I guess black people aren't very good actors." When I asked her why she'd say that, she pointed out to me that there weren't any black actors in this production. Here I am, the mother of a black daughter, the stepmother to a black child, the wife of a black man and I didn't notice it. I was surprised and disappointed in myself. I then realized that all that may surface for my child I may not see at first. Just as any teacher will tell you they learn with and from their students, I too grow alongside my daughter. While I may never be able to look through the lens she does, I can certainly try my best and keep the conversation going. I hope that the door to communication is always open between us regardless of how hurtful the comments may be. This is the essence of helping your child succeed in any area.

I don't think I do anything more than any other parent, black, white, Jewish or otherwise does raising my child in terms of creating her identity, instilling strong values, nurturing her creativity and loving her. The difference is that I am not raising just a black child or just a Jewish child or just a girl in today's world. I have the great honor and the awesome responsibility of raising all three in one delicious tomboy who wears tutus and plays basketball and sings about the five books of Moses. Like I said, I'm a lucky parent.

Of the culture of Jews with family origins in Spain, Portugal or North Africa. Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. A language, also known as Judaeo-Spanish or Judezmo, once widely used by Sephardic communities, but now close to extinction. It is influenced by Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish and Turkish. It is comparable to the language of many Ashkenazi communities, Yiddish. Hebrew for "hear," the first word and name of the central Jewish prayer and statement of faith. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Debbie Popiel White

Debbie Popiel White, originally from New York, is a graduate of Hofstra University and the Director of Early Childhood Education at Temple Chai Childhood Center in Phoenix, Ariz. She is married to Gregory, and their blended family includes two older boys and a little girl born in 2002.

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