This is the first post in my Deepening Dialogue series, a series dedicated to making Jewish diversity discussions more productive and thoughtful of the feelings, histories, and identities of Jews of Color.
An increasing number of Jewish organizations, synagogues, and institutions are becoming aware of Jews of Color and more sensitive to their presence. This awareness is creating some positive and significant change in the way organizations operate and communicate. One such change is the language these institutions use to address their membership. Unfortunately, one of the largest language changes I’ve noticed is based on a faulty assumption. The assumption that Ashkenazi is proxy for white.
Discussions of diversity in synagogues and other organizations are turning into conversations about how “non Ashkenazi” Jews can feel more welcome and included. Yes, sometimes they also mean Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews, but more often this is the code phrase for Jews of Color…a euphemism for non-white. The problem… many Jews of Color are Ashkenazi as well.
Surprise! Ashkenazi doesn’t equal white. I know, I know, crazy right? That a moniker indicating European descent doesn’t necessarily mean white. How does that work? Yes, I’m fully aware of the history and migration of Ashkenazi Jewry. I’m not going to argue that Ashkenazi Jewry was at one point some wildly diverse rainbow of races. What I will say is that Ashkenazi Jewry didn’t stagnate when it reached the shores of North America.
Once here it absorbed people of a host of races and ethnicities through slavery, conversion, adoption, intermarriage, and other interracial relationships. There are Jews of color whose ancestors were slaves who adopted the Judaism of their owners, children who were adopted by white Ashkenazi parents, children born of relationships or marriages between white Ashkenazi women and men of color (and in the case of the Reform movement white Ashkenazi men and women of color), as well as people of color who converted through the progressive Jewish movements (the progressive Jewish movements are entirely an Ashkenazi phenomenon), and most people of color who convert through an Orthodox beit din.
For these Jews of Color their relationship to Judaism is as an Ashkenazi Jew. If they were to walk into a Sephardi or Mizrahi synagogue, the tunes, customs ,and differences in liturgy would be as foreign to them as they would any other Ashkenazi Jew. While sure their Ashkenazi Jewish heritage is not the entirety of their cultural identity…. Ashkenazi Jewishness is theirs to claim. Regardless of skin color, they abstain from kitniyot on Passover, say prayers from Ashkenazi prayer books, circle the groom under the chuppah, name their children after deceased relatives, and yes eat the occasional bagel with cream cheese and lox.
By continuing to differentiate between “Ashkenazi Jews” and “Jews of Color”, well-meaning institutions and individuals are negating an integral aspect of the identities of many, if not most Jews of Color. It denies their familial history and religious practice. Yes, distinguishing between Ashkenazi Jews and Jews of Color is an obvious delineation to a lot of people. Unfortunately, it’s an easy assumption and line to draw, but highly inaccurate. And as conversation and progress towards full inclusion of Jews of color advances, it is important that we avoid superficial classifications, preconceived notions, or assumptions in our efforts to advance diversity.