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  • Journey to the Promised Land:How I Became an African-American Jew Rather Than a Jewish African American
  • Carol Conaway (bio)

My journey to Judaism was not easy. In fact, it was fraught with peril all along the way. Yet there were those who helped me eventually get there—my Jewish Underground Railroad. The story of why and how I became a Jew is complex, an intersection of race, gender, sexuality, and class. Since I have been a Jew for nearly thirty-four years, some details of my journey have been forgotten. But most of them are as fresh in my mind as when they happened, primarily from the 1950s through the 1970s.

I consider myself a Jew fundamentally. I am the child of two parents who defined their identity as Negroes when they were being formal, and as colored when they were talking to family members or close friends. Both had significant Native American roots. I have chosen the identity African-American Jew without acknowledging my Indian ancestry, mainly because it seems so remote, and I know so little about it (I suspect that we are members of the Algonquin nation, but I have no proof of that); and also because it is hard for me to choose to identify with a group that is worse off than African Americans. African American is for me a descriptor of my type of Jewishness. I have shaped all of my identities as a Jew—African and American, woman and lesbian, middle-class professional—based upon my knowledge of who I am and on my desire to be who I want to be. These intersecting identities have served [End Page 115] me well on my journey to Judaism and to discoveries of "self," because each has provided me with the strength necessary for my safe passage.

Although my parents were considered middle class within the black community of the Philadelphia suburb where we lived, they would have been considered working class by whites. My father worked at a variety of jobs but had no employment stability until he took the civil service exams to become a postal worker and a clerk in a state liquor store. My mother for most of her life refused to be employed outside of our home and made it clear that being the "breadwinner" was my father's job. Though we would have been better off financially had she gotten a job, she was adamant about staying at home to raise my sister and me, and so we often "did without." Both my parents had grown up in families where more than average sacrifice of material goods for the sake of education was often the rule rather than the exception.

Both of my parents came from unusual families. My mother's father, born to a full-blooded African father and a full-blooded Native American, spent his early years on an Indian reservation in Pennsylvania. At a fairly young age, he became a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal church and rose quite rapidly in the church hierarchy. His good looks, charm, and intelligence made him stand out. He became a Presiding Elder (a position similar to that of a bishop in other Protestant denominations), and his congregation was one of the most prestigious in Philadelphia. He was much beloved for his dedication to his flock, his warmth and compassion, and his education; long after he retired, his congregants, their adult children, and their children came to his house to have him christen babies, perform marriages, and bless them. Wilberforce College (now Wilberforce University), a black institution on whose board he served as a trustee, conferred an honorary doctorate on him. Thus, he was known as the Reverend Doctor Robert Oliver Napper—or "Rev" by his friends. To his grandchildren, he was Daddy Napper.

My maternal grandmother died before I was born, but I heard countless stories in which she was portrayed as a saint—a suffering one, because seven children and not much money posed an unusual hardship. While I do not have confirmation of this, her facial features, as revealed by her photograph, lead me to presume that she, too, was descended from at least...