- African American Jewish Women—Life Beyond the Hyphen
As two diverse Jewish Women of Color, what does it mean for us to live "gracefully" across binary definitions that can be drawn in our communities around race, gender and culture?
For me, this question is about moving through life as my full self and enjoying and observing how my own reality influences others perceptions and ideas of who I am. It's about how I work with this condition as a reality. Inevitably, not looking like the stereotypical Ashkenazi Jew, I turn heads when I walk into a room, especially a synagogue. That's the beginning of any educational process: being in the room as yourself. I think this raises questions because the reflection, and I think we all look for our reflections in our community, the reflection looks different, but is the same. So by default, I educate people in the Jewish world on how to work with what they see in me as reflecting a non-stereotypical Jew. What does it means to be Jewish in the first place? This is about my ability to question how we arrived at [End Page 182] the assumptions we carry around about what Jewish looks like. It's about quiet or subtle education. I don't walk around saying, "Look at me, I am moving in grace as my whole self." I just do it. My educational tool is a mirror. The questions that I am asked (Are you Jewish? Are your parents Jewish? How long have you been Jewish?), I repeat back to the questioner. "Well, of course I'm Jewish," they reply, usually somewhat aghast that I would ask. It's odd too, because I have found that other converts with white skin don't get asked to verify their Jewish identity. Grace is also being aware that I live in America and that putting individuals in boxes, categorizing each other, is a way of life; in some ways it's a safety net. I believe we need to let go of the net.
Yes, for me it's about the choices I make each day to both know myself and reveal myself in layers. Depending on the people or situations I encounter, I find "grace" in giving myself permission to be one thing at a time with people, knowing that I am much, much more but have all the time in the world to reveal that in a relationship. Resisting the urgency that often underlies questions people seem to need to ask me at first glance, like "How are you Jewish?" helps me to see my experience in the Jewish world as benign as opposed to a proving ground. "Grace" for me is about being both patient and present with myself and others as I discern what it will take in a person or an environment to allow me to feel safe enough to share more than what lies on the surface. It's about being pleased as I experience others' differences from what I am familiar with. It's in taking time to gauge to what extent I will feel empowered or disempowered by the situations I enter and the relationships I choose to form. I find Grace in being courageous enough to choose myself first, as a priority, when I enter environments where my race, gender, or culture has not yet had the opportunity to be celebrated or valued. I find Grace in using the arts as a tool and container that has the capacity to hold all of me while the people around me pick and choose what they can handle. I find Grace when I can enjoy being "other" than the normative experience because I am valued as a contribution to the betterment of a whole. Sometimes, it's difficult for me to hit up against cultures in people and organizations that manifest like walls—impermeable walls where difference feels like a reason to stay out and not engage. Grace, for me, comes when I can approach these encounters, with compassion and love instead of anger. When I am able to reach deep within me...