Pointed Towards Israel

By Michael C. Duke


Reprinted with permission of the Jewish Herald-Voice.

Sept. 13, 2007

Jackie Giles is on a journey. . . .

Jackie Giles

A mathematics instructor at Houston Community College and adjunct professor at the University of Houston, Giles likes to begin each semester by asking her students to share something about themselves that makes them special. To encourage the class to open up, and to help alleviate the anxiety of those who suffer from math-phobia, Giles, too, shares something that she says makes her special: She’s “part Jewish.”

Giles was born in 1943 in Houston’s then-named Negro Hospital. The oldest of six children, she recalled spending a great deal of time with her grandmother while growing up in the city’s historic Fifth Ward neighborhood. So often did Giles visit her grandmother that, when she’d ask her mother where they were going, her mother’s response would be “out to Momma’s”; so Giles, as a child, thought her grandmother’s name was “Out-to-mamas.”

While working on her graduate studies at Texas A&M University, Giles frequently would drive from College Station to Houston to visit Out-to-mamas. During a particularly challenging semester, Giles recalled having a difficult time with a coding theory course she was taking, taught by a meticulous professor, Dr. Sue Geller. In telling Out-to-mamas about this tough class, Giles mentioned that Geller is Jewish. Abruptly, Out-to-mamas cut her granddaughter off and warned her not to speak ill of her professor’s Jewish identity. Taken aback, Giles asked Out-to-mamas what she meant, and the grandmother revealed, for the first time to her now 40-year-old granddaughter, that her father (Giles’ great-grandfather) was “half-Jewish.” And from that moment forward, Jacqueline Brannon Giles says she’s been on a journey–one “pointed toward a better understanding of Israel.”

“As soon as my Out-to-mamas told me this, that she was part Jewish–that we were part Jewish–I thought it was wonderful, and I immediately wanted to know more,” Giles explained in a recent interview with the Jewish Herald-Voice.

Giles said she listened attentively as her grandmother retold her father’s story: His name was Eddie Benton, and he was the child of a Jewish father and a black (Christian) mother, who also was believed to have been part Cherokee. The Benton family, including Giles’ mother, all grew up in the East Texas town of Rusk. Surprised to learn that there was a Jewish community living in East Texas, Giles then set out to learn more about her family’s rich history.

“So, I read all about the Galveston Plan when I started studying at the synagogue, at Congregation Beth Israel (in Houston, Texas). I saw the old photographs on the wall there, which told the story of how Jews came through Galveston and settled throughout Texas and the South. But, I’m already getting ahead of myself… ” she indicated.

Backing up, Giles noted that after earning a B.A. degree in mathematics from Texas Southern University, in 1966, she won a fellowship to study at the Polytechnic University of New York (Brooklyn Poly), where she would earn a B.S. degree in applied math three years later. Walking the halls of Brooklyn Poly, Giles said she regularly would see signs advertising various Zionist organizations and their activities and, for the first time in her life, she met Hasidic Jews. Among her close friends at Brooklyn Poly was a Jewish student, Barry Horowitz. Giles and Horowitz, and two other friends, one from India and the other from Connecticut, spent their weekends exploring the city, and often engaged in “cross-cultural, international conversations,” as she put it. Giles said she mentioned this experience, and her friendship with Horowitz, because it would prove to be one of many that would lead her down a path of greater understanding and appreciation of her Jewish heritage and multi-ethnic identity.

“I’ve come to realize that all through my life someone has been near me who was Jewish, or had some kind of Jewish heritage, and this has had a tremendous impact on me,” she remarked.

After completing her studies, first at TSU, then Brooklyn Poly and finally A&M, Giles was asked to serve on the professional development committee of the Math Association of America, whose chairman, at the time, was Dr. Jerry Porter. And, it was Dr. Porter, also Jewish, who acted as a mentor to the young African-American mathematician and educator: “Dr. Porter took a special interest in me–he put me on special committees and he always showed up to the banquets and events. And, eventually, I was nominated to be on the board of governors for the MAA, and I got elected. The person who pushed me, who encouraged me, was Dr. Jerry Porter. Sure, I had some qualifications, but you need somebody to help you along the way, and, thankfully, Dr. Porter was that somebody for me,” she pointed out.

In her pursuit to know more about Out-to-mamas and her Jewish background, Giles turned to the Hebrew language. Out-to-mamas’ full name was Peggy Ida Idell Benton. And, it soon became apparent to Giles that both of her grandmothers’ middle names were of Hebrew origin: Ida, which is derived from Adah, is mentioned in Gen. 36:2; and Idell, derived from Adiel, is mentioned in I Chron. 4:36 and 27:25. “When I discovered this, I realized that, in their own way, my great-grandparents were making a connection, I believe, with their Jewish heritage,” she observed; a connection, apparently, that Giles’ daughter came to appreciate, several generations later, for Giles’ own granddaughter was given a Hebrew name, Alyssa Yael.

Fascinated with Hebrew and these connections, Giles began studying the ancient Jewish language–first, at the Houston Graduate School of Theology; next, with Rabbi Eve Ben Ora at the Jewish Community Center on South Braeswood in Houston; and, currently, at Congregation Beth Israel with Dorothy Robbins.

“And, it was in Rabbi Eve Ben Ora’s Hebrew class that Hebrew really came alive for me for the first time,” Giles said. Since studying Hebrew, especially at the JCC and Beth Israel, Giles noted that her fellow classmates have been very interested to know why she was so keen to learn. “And I always tell them the same thing: I’m preparing for something.

“Once, a lady turned to me and asked if it was destiny,” she continued. “And I said that might be what you call it, but I see it as something else: This is about letting G-d’s purpose unfold in your life, and being obedient to those inner voices that tell you to do this and to do that.”

The journey that Giles has embarked upon has been an exciting and illuminating one: It presented her with the opportunity to attend last year’s Consular Ball honoring the State of Israel; it led her to learn about the Hebrew language and the history of Southern Jewry; it led her to see the striking similarities between the African-American and Jewish communities; it reminded her of the important role Jews played during the Civil Rights Movement and the need today for stronger black-Jewish and Christian-Jewish ties; it helped her understand why her Out-to-mamas always had Mogen David wine in the house; it helped reveal the meaning behind that strange spinning-top game her Out-to-mamas would play with her grandchildren each winter; and, it’s shed new light on why her grandmother perhaps never spoke about the family’s Jewish heritage. For Giles would learn from Out-to-mamas, on her deathbed, that her brother, George, was beaten to death during a hate crime so many years ago for being both black and Jewish.

This journey also has taken Giles on some incredible trips around the world: She attended the historic hand¬over to democracy and presidential inauguration of Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, in 1999; she was part of Bill Clinton’s presidential entourage during his 2000 visit to Africa; and, she presented an academic paper on “Mathematics and Democracy” in Abuja, Nigeria, in 2001.

Thirty-four years ago, Giles’ father, who was a Christian minister, gave her a book on Jewish history. “And when he gave me this book, he said: ‘Jackie, you can only understand the word of G-d if you understand Israel and its experiences, and what part it plays in G-d’s plan for the world.’ And I kept that book for years, but I didn’t have the maturity then to understand what my father meant by it. But today, I’m beginning to understand, and this makes me think of that wonderful Jewish phrase: l’dor v’dor–from generation to generation.”

Of all her discoveries and studies through the years, perhaps the most profound was when Giles learned the meaning behind her own name. Jacqueline, she discovered, is derived from the Hebrew Yaakov; and it was Jacob who, after struggling with the angel, was given the name Israel.


About Michael C. Duke

Michael C. Duke is associate editor of the Jewish Herald-Voice and teaches the Holocaust and American-Jewish Civics at the religious school of Temple Emanu El in Houston.