Last weekend, I took my three kids, ages 14, 10, and almost 7, to a performance of African acrobats. It’s a terrific show, and I highly recommend it if you’re in the NYC area before January 5th. It’s totally not Mother Africa’s fault that, in the middle of it, I was thrown into an existential crises (I am prone to those).
Here’s the thing: I am a Soviet-born Jew. My husband is African-American. Our kids are Jewish African-Americans who sometimes speak Russian. At our house, I’m in charge of the Jewish and Russian part, and my husband is in charge of the African-American part. So you’d think we’d have everything covered.
I thought we had everything covered.
Until I sat in a theater on 42nd Street watching a troupe of amazing acrobats and it occurred to me that my kids know nothing about their African heritage.
Not their African-American heritage; their African one.
Shouldn’t one be a part of the other? After all, when attempting to connect my children to Judaism, I also try to connect them to the land of Israel, both biblical and modern. (If nothing else, my poor children burdened with a mother who studied Media Analysis are regularly forced to ponder American press coverage of the Middle East and answer questions like, “Why do you think they chose that image? Why do you think they used that word? Why do you think they started the story there instead of elsewhere?”)
But, that’s not the case when it comes to Africa.
For one thing, while Israel is a single country (albeit filled with a multitude of people and cultures, and opinions), Africa is an entire continent (despite–there goes my degree again–the media’s attempt to lump it into one entity). In fact, one of the many reasons why we don’t celebrate Kwanzaa at our house (on top of its Marxist origins) is that the name Kwanzaa derives from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning First Fruits of the Harvest. Swahili is an East African language. The majority of 21st Century African-Americans are descendants of slaves who were kidnapped and brought from the West Coast of Africa. No, the areas are not interchangeable.
And yet, in spite of all that, I realized–mind you, this is still while watching the acrobats–that I want my children to feel the same sort of kinship towards Africa that they do (or hopefully one day will) towards Israel.
I also realized that, if I want that to happen, it will be up to me to make it happen.
Now, shouldn’t my husband take the lead on this?
In theory, sure.
But, Chris Rock has a joke that goes, “If Johnny can’t read, that’s Mama’s fault. If Johnny can’t read because the electric bill hasn’t been paid, that’s Daddy’s fault.”
Despite my husband’s and I quitting our respective corporate jobs to spend more time with our kids, he still works much longer hours than I do. (He’s a teacher; when he’s not actually at school, he’s grading papers or making tests or crafting recommendations.) I write freelance from home while the kids are at school, so that I can be with them the rest of the time.
And that means their African education, like their Jewish education (and their secular one), is up to me. (My husband isn’t against the idea, but neither does he feel it’s as important as I do. I suspect it’s my Jewish background, which puts another nation so front and center to identity, that’s the primary driver of my desire to see my kids learn about their African roots. Or, in a nutshell, my Judaism is prompting me to teach my kids about Africa. Oy, America–what a country!)
Of course, when it comes to Africa, I don’t know what I’m doing. (Not that I know all that much about Judaism. Hence, a day school for my daughter.)
So we’ll all learn together. Hopefully.
And perhaps keep further circus-triggered existential crises at bay.