Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Jewish and Dark

I was walking around Haifa one day when first an old Ethiopian, and later two more Falasha, called out to me in Amharic. Each time I shook my head no, trying to let them know only English and Hebrew work for me. They thought I was ignoring them and were not happy. When another black guy came my way later, I figured I would head off the problem and called out, wuz happenin'. With a smile and a shout, the guy told me how happy he was to see another Black American. "You wouldn't believe," he confided, "how many Ethiopians have mistaken me for one of them today in Haifa!"

Imagine if Malcolm X had journeyed to Jerusalem as a Jew rather than embrace Islam and the Haj. Or picture Zab Judah without the cartoon Hebrew militancy, Obama's Rabbi without the racist Khazar mythology, or Sammy Davis Jr., glass eye and all. Now throw all those newsreel ideas of Black Jews out the window and get ready for a fascinating true life story, the biography of a modest kibbutznik of Tirat Zvi.

Years before he made aliyah and settled in Tirat Zvi, one of the kibbutz members was born to an unusual African-American family in New York City. The Hebrew Bible had cast such a spell on the young boy's father and grandfather that the two adults had taught themselves to speak in the biblical tongue. Rather than join an isolated black congregations like the Hebrew Israelites, which embrace a Judaism colored by the idea that blacks were the original Hebrews, the adults sought to introduce their son to authentic Judaism. With the okay of the local yeshiva, the future kibbutznik was sent off to cheder in the Bronx. With a Talmud in hand and tzitzit dangling from his shirt, it was not long before the growing boy fully embraced his Jewish identity.

Others were less quick to accept the skinny black kid as Jewish. Black street gangs called him as a traitor. Jewish parents were hesitant to allow their children, and later their daughters, hang out with him. Disbelieving Jews would often ask him to say the word Chanuka, sure that his foreignness would be revealed when he failed to correctly pronounce the Ch sound.

When Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik found out about this black, Bible-loving family, he was incensed that they had masqueraded as Jews for so long without undergoing conversion. It took weeks of persuasion before the Rav would agree to allow them to convert. When the conversion papers were drawn up, the Rav insisted that three of his most respected disciples, Rabbis Norman Lamm, Shlomo Riskin and Aharon Lichtenstein, add their signatures. With those names attesting to my Jewish credentials, the kibbutznik remarked with a smile, I'm probably more Jewish than anyone else!

The most beautiful moments of the kibbutznik's story came near the end, shortly before he showed us a film he made years ago when his father visited Tirat Zvi for the bar mitzvah of his eldest grandson. After struggling with his Jewish and black identities for years, the son had come to terms with both on a visit to Israel shortly before the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Years before dark skinned Jews would become a common sight in Israel due to the arrival of the Jews of Ethiopia, the son found that in Israel his skin color did not prejudice his relationship with the Jewish community. And so he stayed, married a girl on kibbutz and has never left.

Despite settling into life on kibbutz, the son remained troubled for years wondering where his family's embrace of Judaism came from. Jewish tradition teaches that all Jews share a pintele yid, a small speck of Jewishness in our soul, no matter who we are or where we came from. Where, he would wonder, did his pintele yid come from? Eventually he found solace in memories of his childhood, in the remarkable grace and charity his grandmother had displayed in providing hospitality to even the shadiest of drifters. Jewish tradition also teaches that so long as we treasure the characteristics of our forefathers, their merit will protect us. And nothing speaks to the legacy of Avraham like unbounded hospitality. Magen Avraham, Shield of Avraham, indeed.

This most ordinary of kibbutzniks left my garin with the reminder that most Jews see their religious faith as a responsibility, a chova. Thanks to his family background, his Judaism is very different, not a responsibility but a zechut, a privilege, he feels grateful to be a part of.

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