Originally published June 6, 2006. Republished February 27, 2013.
I am a ballet dancer turned psychotherapist. I am a mother, a wife, and a daughter — both to my mother and late father. I am biracial. I am Jewish. I am black.
I define identity as the entire conscious self, made up of all the components — chosen and inborn, current and remembered — that make you yourself. Some parts of my identity I embrace; others I merely acknowledge as unchangeable. For identity includes not only how you see yourself but also an awareness of how you are seen by others — your size, your features, as well as the age and race you appear to be.
Racial, ethnic and religious identities come from belonging to groups. For Jews, group identity goes beyond religion, involving history and traditions which have sustained us for over three thousand years against the threats of genocide and assimilation. We share recipes, humor, and a distinctive take on life. Many of the same factors unite the black community. It is therefore possible to feel Jewish without being religious, or to feel black without exhibiting African features.
Yet, how biracial people look often leads to assumptions that we do not belong with one or more of our racial/ethnic groups. We are often seen as outsiders by people in our own groups. This has made claiming membership in these groups challenging.
I grew up in Manhattan, surrounded by families like mine: where Dad was black and Mom was white and Jewish. We also knew many adoptive families with members of all races and faiths. I remember as a child, staring at mono-racial families on the street, wondering why they were all the same color. To me, family was about diversity.
My parents were married in 1950 — when interracial marriage was illegal in more than a few states. Though they differed in race, they shared politics — as did many blacks and Jews in those days, drawn together by parallel struggles against oppression. Black and Jewish intellectuals joined forces in the fight to end oppression of all minorities.
My mother was raised in a secular Jewish family in Chicago. My father, despite his parents’ ardent Protestantism, was agnostic. Nevertheless, he always believed in the value of the black church and its importance to the community.
My parents taught me about their respective cultures primarily through discussion and recommended reading. On some level we identified as a Jewish family, though we were not religious. I didn’t miss religion growing up because my parents were so connected to their community of friends (all of whom were Jewish and/or black) who knew my parents from the old political days.
As a young ballet student and later, as a professional ballet dancer, I was part of another community. Ballet is its own religion. It shapes not just your body, but also your worldview and your self-concept. I had far less connection to black or Jewish culture than I’d had to the culture of ballet.
Then, I went to college and learned that blacks and Jews didn’t get along. People asked me questions I’d never considered: Was it hard growing up mixed? Did my parents fight all the time? Were they divorced? (They’d actually been married forty-six years when my father died.) For the first time, people put pressure on me to “choose.” I avoided the issue — and the choice — by continuing to dance.
When I stopped dancing; I was suddenly forced to ask myself: Who am I? Yes, I knew I was Ashkenazi Jewish and African-American — genetically, ethnically — but I couldn’t have told you what either of those things meant.
In graduate school, we talked a lot about diversity. This was part of the study of social work, and we began by attempting to understand ourselves and one another. Here I met plenty of critics who said that if I identified myself as Jewish I was denying my blackness. Forced to stand up to my critics, I realized that I had to integrate these two identities in my own way. I was black and Jewish; both were my birthright and it was imperative for me to claim both.
Since I look black — I have physical membership in the black community and no one questions it — claiming blackness was easier. But in claiming my Jewishness, I needed something more. So, I enrolled in a Torah class at the 92nd Street YMHA in New York. We read the Torah, took Hebrew immersion classes, and attended services together. At first, I felt self-conscious in synagogue. Mine was usually the only brown face and, since I’d yet to internalize the prayers, it was difficult to feel part of this community to which I was supposed to belong.
What makes me different from many other adult Jews who come late to Judaism is that I do not have physical membership, the way I do in the black community. If either my mother or my husband walks into a synagogue, no one bats an eye (though they know less about Judaism than I do). When I walk into a synagogue, no one is ever rude or hostile, but people look curious.
Caucasian Jews, like my husband — who were raised culturally Jewish but not religiously so — may struggle with the issue of whether to practice, but they do not need to defend being Jewish. Likewise, there are adult Jews of color who were raised with the religion — who went to Hebrew school and became Bar/Bat Mitzvah — who don’t feel defensive about being Jewish either. They own their Jewishness, despite lacking physical membership, because they internalized it in childhood. These Jews of color describe being stared at and questioned, but they never questioned themselves.
As for me, the need to understand my personal connection to both the black and Jewish communities has strengthened my dual identity. As a member of both groups I know that “black” and “Jewish” are not mutually exclusive terms. To choose one over the other is to deny who I am.