Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Paper bag Jews

There is a popular belief that African Americans used to have clubs excluding blacks with skin darker than a brown paper bag. Jewish racism has a similar quality. It always ends up impacting other Jews, as we saw from the recent controversy over Yated Ne'eman's comments on Yemenite Jews.

Two weeks ago I needed something to read when waiting for my brother's mother-in-law at the airport, so I went to the library and grabbed a book--Melanie Kaye Kantrowitz's The Colors of Jews, about nonwhite Jews. I posted my thoughts about this book on my blog. Only a few days later, DB happened to post a video about an African American shul run by R' Capers Funnye, one of the people interviewed in the book.

Though the shul has a nominally Orthodox look and a basic Ashkenazic service, most of the congregants are so-called "Hebrew Israelites" who claim descent from a black Yaakov Avinu. I first heard about this group in a book called Black Zion, where one of the leaders expressed agnosticism about the Protocols for the Elders of Zion. I assumed they were simply an African American variant on the Christian Identity Movement. "We're more Jewish than the Jews" is an old anti-Semitic theme. It turns out that at least a few of them have converted to Judaism.

In the comments, Micha cited a Mishna alluding to the skin color of ancient Jews. Discussing the visibility of tzaraas, Negaim 2:1 suggests that Bnei Yisrael's skin was like that of a boxwood tree, neither black nor white but some shade in between. (I'm curious what boxwood looks like.) This Mishna seems to imply, further, that there were both black and white converts.

The discussion heated up when a guy named Baruch left the following comment: "How can someone who is black truly be Jewish?" Only after Miriam and I loudly protested did he start to back down, but not before telling a story about when he was in yeshiva thirty years ago and a teacher instructed a black custodian not to read from the Mahzor because it would "render our books unkosher." Hearing the story, a Christian poster named Jesse expressed surprise that Jews could be so racist. Well, he's got a lot to learn.

Is it unwise for me to discuss frum racism on a public forum? Forget about Noah Feldman for the moment. I'm not talking about theological discussions on the halachic status of goyim. I'm talking about anti-black attitudes that reflect far more the cloistered lifestyle of most frum people than anything in halacha. Ed will tell you that when he teaches his children "Don't be like the shvartzes," he isn't talking about skin color. He's talking about, say, men who have children with four different women. (So Yaakov Avinu was black after all!) Therefore, black Jews like Miriam need not get upset. I suppose that Ed would be perfectly okay with a Christian who taught his children "Don't be like the heebs," as long as he assured us he wasn't talking about Orthodox Jews but about the ones who run Hollywood.

This has very little to do with theology. It has to do with simple, backwards ignorance.

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