Please Don't Say This About My Jewish Kids of Color – Kveller
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Please Don’t Say This About My Jewish Kids of Color

I believed so deeply in what our Jewish community can offer to each other and still do, but I’m recognizing that there is work to do.

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My parents had said I should never date someone I wouldn’t marry. Meaning I should only date someone who was Jewish, because I wasn’t going to marry someone who wasn’t Jewish. Well, I dated someone who wasn’t Jewish, fell in love… and he converted to Judaism. Ha, I thought, I found the loophole! 

My parents still worried, as parents do. However, with my Chinese Jewish husband, it was no longer a question of which religion our (eventual) future children would practice. It was a question of their genetic makeup, how that would manifest in their appearance and the implications for how much harder their lives could potentially be. My parents felt that it was already hard enough to be accepted, to fit in. Why add any more unnecessary difficulty to their lives?  

I scoffed at their concern. I blew it off. A Jew is a Jew is a Jew, I thought naively. Because as an Ashkenazi Jew with dark curly hair, I had never experienced or been exposed to othering within the Jewish community. The Jewish community was, in fact, my refuge. 

Fast forward more than a decade. We are now living this experience with our children. And my parents’ premonition on how our children would be experienced by the community was not too far off the mark.  

Not long ago, I attended a synagogue Shabbat dinner with my husband and children, where a well-meaning congregant, who I didn’t know, said to me, “I thought how sweet it was that you adopted… Then I saw your husband.”

Talk about a sucker punch to the gut, when people react first to how your children look and assume they know who your children are just from a quick glance. That there isn’t any more to them than their appearance. That it’s OK to speak those hurtful assumptions out loud. A knot formed in my throat, preventing me from expressing the heartbreak I felt. I didn’t have the polite words, or maybe the energy, to explain the situation or express to her how the statement landed with me. 

So instead, I smiled weakly and had my older kiddo come over to show off her Hebrew language skills. As if I could prove her Jewishness and in some way offset the perception that she didn’t belong. My own actions embarrassed me. What did I have to prove? Why should my daughter have something to prove?

Around the same time, we were on a video call with a family friend. She whispered to someone else in the room, who was meeting the kids for the first time, “Aren’t these kids so beautiful? They look,” she said, before lowering her voice even further, “exotic because they’re half Asian.” I wish I hadn’t heard this. I wish my kids hadn’t heard this.

This idea that my children look unusual or exciting and different is exhausting to me. That this is the first (and only) thing many people comment on about them makes me feel like my children aren’t truly seen. That what lies beneath their appearance is not more important. That their essence, their personalities, everything that makes them actually unique, is overshadowed by something outside of their control. Something literally skin deep. It deeply troubles me. 

My Judaism is so rooted in community and connectedness. Every time I’ve relocated to some new destination for work, the first thing I’ve done is seek out the Jewish community. And when I was single, it never disappointed me. In fact, the connections created through synagogue, the Jewish Federation and Moishe House often exceeded my expectations and created lifelong friendships. 

But since my now-husband joined the Jewish community and we had children, I’ve started to see the imperfections — the small but not inconsequential missteps that send the message to our kids that they are not the same as everyone else, that they do not belong. 

It’s humbling to me. I’ll admit, in my small, largely white Jewish community, I never saw this side before. I believed so deeply in what our Jewish community can offer to each other and still do, but I’m recognizing that there is work to do. It’s taken having my own Jewish children of color for me to see it, and I’m now committed more than ever to doing the work of true inclusion, especially as our Jewish population becomes more diverse. What does it mean to create a welcoming community for all Jews?

Here are some places we can start:

  • Notice how you perceive differences: Our brain is trained to notice differences in people. Rather than articulating those differences, pause when you see someone and notice what it is you’re seeing. Ask yourself: What is it about those differences that lead you to make assumptions?

  • Practice empathy: Listen, really listen when someone shares their experience. Recognize that their experience might be different from your own. Even within the same community, even when it challenges your beliefs.

  • Try not to get defensive: If someone points out what you said might have been insensitive, recognize it likely took a lot of courage for them to do that. Our immediate reaction may be to become defensive. They’re not questioning whether you’re a good person, they’re just trying to help you understand that your comment may have been hurtful. 

While change is hard, individual self-reflection and action goes a long way towards making our Jewish community more inclusive and more welcoming for all Jews. And that is a future worth striving for. 

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