A Hard Row to Hoe

An African-American woman chooses to be a Jew

It was 1999, and time to go back to work. The previous year I had left my job as an operations manager at a literary magazine to finish a novel. Although I was now looking for a similar position, a tiny secretarial ad for a shul in Princeton, New Jersey, caught my attention.

The ad was an invitation that I, an African-American, had been waiting on since my conversion to Judaism eleven years earlier. In those ‘between’ years I had wanted to enter and participate in temple life, to institute domestic rituals, begin tradition-building for my future offspring. Yet somehow I had been in stasis.

I did not convert to marry Marty, my ‘nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn.’ Our wedding took place in 1988, when I was 25. The following year, I became a Jew. Marty was firmly Jewish in his cultural identity, but he was a non-practicing Jew, indifferent to ritual. His knowledge of Judaism was skimpy, yet despite his ambivalence, Marty had made it clear that if he ever had children he wanted them to be Jewish. The task of raising our future child Jewishly, I realized, would fall on my shoulders I was the woman. And it seemed to me that it is we women, much more than men, who pass down religion to our children. Religion, especially Judaism, I would discover, is inseparable from the home, typically women’s domain.

Besides, religion was important to me. As was family, which for me, an African-American, had been a source of both joy and pain. The oldest of the 23-some grandchildren of my generation, I spent summers as a child with my cousins down in Greenville, South Carolina, fussed over by aunts and friends. But when the summer was over I had to return to the bleak urban environment of Brooklyn, where rats and roaches marched through our apartment, and using the dimes that I had received as change from purchasing milk to buy candy resulted in a beating from my mother.

And I firmly believed that a family should share one religion. However, three years passed in my relationship with Marty before nerve and motivation converged for me, and I made the appointment with Rabbi Hillel Rudafsky, leader of a Conservative shul in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. Rabbi Rudafsky, a heavy-set man with a scratchy voice, appeared to be in his 60s. His gentle demeanor made me comfortable as he addressed the disadvantages of being Jewish: the restrictions on diet, on Sabbath activities, a history of oppression and anti-Semitism. Moreover, he wondered, why would I, as an African American with my own legacy of oppression, take on yet another burden? It had never occurred to me that being black and Jewish might be a double burden. Like Marty, I had grown up in Brooklyn. He came from Canarsie, then a largely white community where blacks lived in the projects at the margins. On his street Jews were the majority. But my Brooklyn was the ghettos of Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Bushwick, where my mother’s husband—not my father— beat her at least twice a week. Where I carried bruises from the same hateful hands to school until I was eight. For me being poor and black had specific consequences more immediate than the historical drama of living in a country that bled us for our labor and despised us for the color of our skin. I considered the rabbi’s question. It was evident that he was discouraging me. But I did not feel rejected because of my race. He knew what it was to be Jewish in the world as well as I knew what it meant to be black. This was our common ground, and as they say down South, it was a “hard row to hoe.” I had been breaking hard ground all my life. I went back to the rabbi.

Several months later, when he felt I had studied enough Torah, Hebrew, ritual and history, I was ready for the mikvah, the ritual immersion that would inark my change of status from student to Jew. I dipped nude in the lukewarm pool, answered a few questions I don’t remember, and said the necessary prayers to the group of rabbis listening beyond the door I emerged, wet and freshly birthed, with a new name and adopted ancestors, a member of the House of Israel.

After my conversion, I felt I was Jewish by myself In the 20-odd years that I have known Marty, I have never seen him do anything more Jewish than lighting candles at Hanukah. But despite what I learned during my conversion, I was at a loss as to how to jump-start my Judaism. I made weak stabs at a ritual or two: one time I tried to attach a mezuzah to our door post, but of the handful of Jews present, none knew the prayer. On another occasion, I tried to have a seder, but again my Jewish guests were as ignorant as myself.

Turning up at a shul was even more intimidating. Passing by synagogues, I felt paralyzed by my race. I felt wary and apprehensive. Some Jews treated me like a person. And others, like a schvartze.

On the whole, I’d had positive relationships with Jews before I met my husband-to-be. The first Jewish person in my life was Mrs. Brodsky, a lady my mother worked for. As Mama cleaned her Westchester mansion, Mrs. Brodsky encouraged this high-school-dropout mother-of-three to get an education. She told Mama that she was too smart to spend her life using a mop instead of her mind. Eventually, my mother took Mrs. Brodsky’s advice all the way to a college degree. I met my first Jewish friends, Ellen Sandberg and Robin Muntner. in the sixth grade, when I went to live with my aunt in Canarsic. We became a trio and remained close that whole year. Cecily Salzman, my 10th grade English teacher, gave me precious moments of her time many years after I was no longer her student. And at Erasmus Hall High School, another teacher, Linda Fisher, helped me through a crisis, even as . I was a bottle-a-day. Excedrin headache to – her. I felt comfortable ., with these Jewish women. When I was a teenager, I thought all Jewish people were like them. In fact, I didn’t think of Jews as white people at all. Jews, I believed, didn’t have the racism disease that white people had. I was 20 when I discovered that they did.

Marty’s parents did not want to meet the black woman he was seeing. I was barred from their home. As my relationship with Marty developed, I had emotional telephone confrontations with his parents. They made lame protestations. ‘And what if you have children? No one will accept them!” I felt diminished. The battles were constant. Each stripped me of a little bit more of my humanity. Toni Morrison, in Beloved, speaks of white people’s fear of blackness. But this thing that they fear and hate, she says, is lodged in themselves. I copied down Morrison’s words and sent them to Marty’s father, who, I thought, was less committed to our race war Morrison’s words had some effect. At least for a while, outright hostilities ceased.

Still, I was getting along well with Marty’s sister, Patty. A few months before her wedding, which took place a year before ours, we invited her and her fiance over for dinner After we had eaten, she asked me not to attend. Me, not Marty. If I were invited, she said, her parents would not pay for it. “But I wanted to ask if you would let Marty come without you,” Patty said, with my chicken on her breath.

Despite that bitter request, the wedding invitation arrived addressed to both Marty and me. But when it came time to take pictures, his family excluded me. They did not want my dark brown face to deface their memories.

Marty’s family continued to hurt me even after we were married. Family members made insensitive comments about my wearing African prints. They said that I was cool to them. That I acted like I had a “chip.”

My heart and my skin remember those experiences. When my husband asked mc to sign his parents’ birthday cards, I refused. Our daughter, age 6, wanted to know why. “Mommy, maybe you would get along if you tried to be nicer to them,” she said. She was too young to understand that a family she loved had put me through agonizing racial trauma, and that her innocent words refreshed a pain that is never far away.

I did not choose this grief It came with my skin. Jews, of all people, should know the pain of being punished for Who They Are. Marty has said, “Get over it.” In my head, I answer, “F-k you!” This forgiveness is in my time, not his. So far I have succeeded in tamping my anger, and hiding behind equanimity, because I love Marty and our daughter. Eliane, and these people are their family. His parents, too, have mellowed over the years. They treat me kindly. We can hug each other now without cringing, though their damage is indelible, like ink.

Still, I remain committed to Judaism. I am a Jew with travelling shoes. The road rose up under my feet long before I realized where I was going. Judaism, a system of ethics and values that I believe in, chose me. My travels have taught me that even Jews with no religious inclination unconsciously subscribe to a Jewish moral code. My Christian background began and ended with faith. You believed, or you burned in hell. But Judaism makes no such demand. We Jews do not have to believe, but behave, justly and righteously. In Judaism I found the articulation of ideas that used to hover somewhere in the back of my mind, unformed.

Rebecca Walker, daughter of a black mother and a Jewish father, in her recently-published biography Black, White and Jewish (see p. 16), writes that she does not feel an affinity with what Jewishness has become. But what does Walker know about Jewishness? Yes, she lived in a Jewish home for years at a time, went to Jewish summer camp, had Jewish friends. But she has no identifiable Jewish values. Walker’s decision to excise her Jewishness as a solution to her identity angst is based on the false premise that she is both black and Jewish.

I am black and Jewish. I am immersed in Judaism. These days, as I prepare a handbook of Shabbat prayers for novices, I am learning the service. As I assist our congregants, I expand my own knowledge of life-cycle events. I’m discovering Jewish obligations like giving tzedakah, performing mitzvot, and tikkum olam. I am studying Hebrew, taking classes for my adult bat mitzvah. My daughter, a third grader in public school, is in the Gimmel class at Hebrew school. Last January, she was consecrated along with her class. Eliane is way ahead of me. She already knows the entire Shabbat service. I am still struggling.

Mo Fleming is a writer and textile artist specializing in lap quilts. Her book reviews and interviews frequently appear in QBR:: The Black Book Review. Her full name is Janice Monique Lafaye Fleming Berg. She signs her writing Mo Fleming, and in her synagogue work she goes by the name Janice Berg.