Jews of Many Colors
Tue, 07/05/2011
Religious studies. Yemen, 1992. Courtesy of the  American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Religious studies. Yemen, 1992. Courtesy of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

At the end of the 19th century, members of the Jewish establishment in America — mostly Jews of central European origin — took aim in the pages of the Jewish press at another group of Jews who had more recently arrived on the scene and whose appearance, customs and habits seemed totally foreign to their Jewish sensibilities. A writer for the Hebrew Standard, for example, wrote that he and his fellow American Jews felt closer bonds to Christians than they did to “these miserable darkened Hebrews.” Editors of another establishment organ, the American Hebrew, wondered what might be done about these “wild Asiatics,” whose primitive form of Judaism seemed like “a piece of Oriental antiquity in the midst of an Occidental Civilization.” A speaker at the Jewish Women’s Congress, held in Chicago in 1893, took a somewhat more humane approach to these “ignorant” and “degraded” Jews, advocating aid and assistance to them, “whether we believe they are of one race with us or not.”

The “darkened Hebrews” and “Asiatics” referred to by these American Jewish leaders were not African American or Asian American Jews, as one might assume from the references, but Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, more than two million of whom arrived in the United States between 1880 and 1914. Though jarring to Jewish readers today, the certainty with which acculturated central European Jews drew lines of racial difference between themselves and the newcomers from Russia and Poland underscores, in retrospect, how fluid and changing definitions of Jewishness and membership in the Jewish people have been.

This historical insight should give some comfort to the growing population of Jews of color in the United States, who often have to contend with exclusivist attitudes among their fellow Jews, attitudes that are perhaps expressed more subtly than they were in the 19th century, but that detract no less from the forging of a common Jewish identity. While Eastern European Jewish immigrants and their descendants went on not only to be accepted by their central European predecessors, but to become the dominant group among American Jews, the question remains as to whether Jews of color can overcome challenges of exclusion as easily, given the strength of racial prejudice and division in the United States. Several changes occurring in both American and American Jewish life, however, suggest that they can.

The increasing racial and ethnic diversity of the American Jewish population that has taken place in the last few decades has been part of the larger social transformation of American Jews in the post-World War II period, when declining anti-Semitism and more fluid social boundaries allowed Jews to come into greater contact with Americans of all backgrounds. Increased incidence of intermarriage, conversion to Judaism and adoption from outside the Jewish community are among the aspects of this transformation that have led to more people of color joining the Jewish fold and more being born as Jews. As a result, Jews of color are increasingly part of the everyday experience of the American Jewish community, its institutions and its families. In a 2002 study by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, 7.3 percent of American Jews defined themselves as “African American, black, Asian, Latino or Hispanic, Native American, mixed-race or some other race than white,” a figure that has doubtless grown in the last nine years.

As Jews of color have made the American Jewish community more racially diverse, their rising presence has also reflected changes that are occurring in how American Jews approach their relationship to whiteness. Historically, European Jewish immigrants and their children faced significant pressure to define themselves as white, a factor that shaped, although sometimes in contradictory ways, their interactions with people of color and their own self-presentation as Jews. Since the increase in the number of Jews of color stems at least in part from an increase in marriages between Jews and people of color, it indicates that Jewish concerns about being accepted as white are diminishing substantially. This trend stands to continue, along with a further increase in the number of Jews of color, if scholars are correct in their prediction that within 50 years whites will no longer hold their position as the dominant group in American life. In such a context, whiteness could lose its power and attractiveness for Jews, and a more pluralistic, multicultural American culture could open the door to a reinvigorated and more diverse group identity among Jews.

While American Jews are clearly under diminishing pressure to identify as white, the transformation has so far remained only partial. Among Jews of color there is a clear consensus that other Jews remain too exclusive around issues of race and are unaware of the extent to which they assume being Jewish also means being white. To address this problem, the Jewish Multiracial Network, a community-building, education and advocacy group promoting Jewish diversity, has created what it calls an “Ashkenazi/White Jewish Privilege Checklist,” with items designed to make white/Ashkenazi Jews more aware of the slights experienced by Jews of color in synagogue and communal life. The list asks readers to check statements that apply to them, such as “My rabbi never questions that I am Jewish” and “People never say to me, ’But you don’t look Jewish,’ either seriously or as though it was funny.”

One area that has been especially challenging in discussions regarding the future of Jews of color in American Jewish life is the role of Jewish particularism and peoplehood. Jews have historically understood themselves as a people as well as a religious community, but expressions of Jewish peoplehood by white Jews can sometimes seem too culturally specific, or too focused on notions of biological descent, to feel inclusive to Jews of color. As a result, some advocates of Jewish diversity have argued that religion, not ethnicity or peoplehood, should become the exclusive hallmark of Jewish identification. “Judaism is in fact a faith, a set of beliefs and a group of people who are united because of what they believe in,” argues Jacob Duprey, a Jew of Korean background who has written online about the topic.

My reading of American Jewish history, however, suggests that a focus on Jewish peoplehood can help facilitate rather than discourage the participation of Jews of color in Jewish community life. Expressions of Jewish peoplehood have often highlighted the experience of Jews as a persecuted minority, as well as the moral and cultural sensibilities it has fostered, in defining what sets Jews apart from non-Jews. Because this “outsider identity” also speaks to the experiences of other minority groups, many of the symbols and narratives traditionally associated with it, like those regarding slavery in Egypt, or the Holocaust, have resonated strongly with them. Just as African American culture has often made use of imagery and stories originating in the Hebrew Bible, many African Americans who have converted to Judaism have been drawn to Jewishness, at least in part, because its historical narratives and particular brand of minority consciousness has spoken powerfully to their own circumstances. Thus, rather than serving to exclude those Jews with roots in different cultural and religious traditions, these expressions of Jewish peoplehood can work as powerful tools in connecting them with the consciousness of the larger Jewish world. This should be no less true for Jews of Asian, Latino or Native American background, who are likely to find that many of these same historical and cultural associations will resonate with and enrich other aspects of their identity. When understood in this way, Jewish peoplehood can also be flexible enough to incorporate the experiences and traditions of Jews of color and begin to make them accessible to other Jews as part of an evolving shared tradition.

There are promising signs that this approach — one that fosters diversity while utilizing the cultural tools of Jewish peoplehood — has already taken root among some of the leading advocates on behalf of Jews of color. The organization Be’chol Lashon, which aims to “grow and strengthen the Jewish people through ethnic, cultural, and racial inclusiveness,” has done an excellent job finding language that accounts for Jewish diversity but still asserts the notion of the Jews as a people as well as a religious group. “Many Jews may look different from their fellow Jews of European origin,” the group’s website explains, “but they pray to the same God and consider themselves part of the same people. Jews are diverse, yet they are tied to each other historically and religiously.”

For Jews who may be uncertain or ambivalent about the ways in which Jews of color will reshape what it means to be Jewish in America, I offer the following observation based on my larger study of Jews and American racial identity: such changes are “good for the Jews.” European Jewish immigrants and their descendants certainly benefited from the privileges that came to them in American society by being seen as white, but those privileges came with significant costs for Jewish group identity because they placed limits on the expression of Jewish distinctiveness. Today, an American Jewish community that increasingly includes people of color has the opportunity to re-imagine Jewishness in ways that will make it more distinctive, vibrant and less limited by the need to conform to the expectations of white America.

Eric L. Goldstein is associate professor of history and Jewish studies and interim director of the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory University. He is also editor of the quarterly scholarly journal, American Jewish History. His 2006 book, “The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity,” won the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature Choice award.