Letter from a Jewess of Color
Updated: Feb 15, 2021
By Noa Fay.
A Jewish woman.
If you are an American reading this, you likely pictured an Ashkenazi woman—a Jewish woman of European descent. And while not all Ashkenazim are white—I am a descendant of solely European Jewry, though you probably wouldn’t know it because my Black and Native American roots have darkened my skin tone a bit—your Ashkenazi image was likely that of a white woman. Because the majority of America’s Jewish population is Ashkenazi, assumptions like these are common; Ashkenazi culture is thought to apply to all Jewish people. But I’ve learned that many Americans are utterly unaware of other Jewish ethnic groups: Sephardim come from North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula, Mizrahim come from Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon, and the Jews of Beta Israel are from Ethiopia. This is, of course, only to name a few.
This frequent ignorance is the reason I received baffled looks as a child upon clarifying in class that I would, in fact, be celebrating Chanukah—not Christmas. It is why, while in shul, a woman began explaining to me what a rabbi is before my mother cut in angrily, “Her bat mitzvah was five years ago. She knows what a rabbi is.”
It is why we have Ashkenormativity.
Ashkenormativity is the Eurocentric perception of the Jewish community. People both forget and do not know that a Jew does not have to be white, leading to microaggressions like the ones I’ve experienced. While this is only my first year at Barnard—and I’ve not even lived on campus—it is clear that where it is present on campus, Ashkenormative thinking is rightfully challenged. The Jews of Color Caucus at Columbia provides a space for Jews of Color to gather and connect, a concept that is new to me; its presence alone counters Ashkenormativity. And more directly, Hillel programs like Judaism & Us ask participants to explore Judaism through an intersectional lens in order to better understand that there is no such thing as one kind of Jew.
Now picture a Jewish woman. Hopefully, your visual idea has expanded. If it has, you could have pictured me, a multi-racial Ashkenazi woman. A Black, Native American, Jewish woman.
One tenet of Ashkenormativity is identifying Judaism only with Ashkenazi traits. I am embarrassed to say that I was only recently exposed to one of Judaism’s many subcultures. I come from a French Ashkenazi family, and while historically France’s Jewish population was largely made up of Ashkenazim, this is no longer the case; today, much of France’s Jewry is Sephardic. I learned this last year, when family in Paris invited me to share Rosh Hashanah with Sephardic friends.
That was the first time I had ever met a Sephardic Jew! I began to understand that each Jewish ethnic group has different ways of observing our religion. While celebrating Rosh Hashanah, I learned that Sephardim have an entire seder. My Ashkenazi family does no such thing; to us, seders are reserved for Passover alone. I also learned that because of France’s large Sephardic population, cultural signifiers are vastly different. Whereas in America, matzo ball soup, gefilte fish, and bagels may come to mind when thinking of classic Jewry, the French think of lamb meatballs, homemade nougat, and kefte de pescada, or Sephardic fish patties. (The more insidious stereotypes depicting Jews as money-grabbers plotting world domination, unfortunately, proliferate on both sides of the Atlantic.)
On a more serious front, though, Ashkenormativity often forces Jews of Color to “decide.” I intentionally reject the “I” perspective in this statement because this is something I know all Jews of Color deal with. The decision is forced through an implicated question of loyalty: if you are a Jew of Color, you are Jewish and. Jewish and what? White Jews are not forced to decide between any identities of theirs because they are seen as purely Jewish. Why must I be Jewish and Black, or Jewish and Native American, and not just Jewish as my white Jewish counterparts are?
The question can present itself in more ways than one, but the starkest memory I have of being forced to choose between my identities is from a national conference designed to connect students of color at private high schools across the country. On the last day of the conference, the acclaimed news reporter Marc Lamont Hill was slated to speak. Earlier that week, he had been fired from CNN for anti-Semitic comments; still, he remained on the docket. This alone made me uncomfortable. Here I was, at this conference for students of color, ready to be inspired by a fellow Black American, but how could I endorse him without betraying part of myself?
Before he began his planned speech, he spoke about the injustice of his termination from CNN, citing a contrasting incident in which Bill Maher said the n-word live on HBO without consequence. He went on about this charismatically and was met with a standing ovation.
A standing ovation except for one, of course.
Whether he was aware of it or not, his words perpetuated a common discourse between Blacks and Jews—though more often now between everyone and Jews—known as the “discrimination olympics,” in which two or more marginalized groups compete to decide which of them has suffered more. It goes without saying that Bill Maher should have been reprimanded for saying the n-word, but HBO’s failure to do so does not exempt Marc Lamont Hill from punishment over his own comments. Invoking the “discrimination olympics” places Jews of Color in a difficult and uncomfortable position: which “side” are we meant to fight for?
But of course there are no sides. One group’s suffering—be it more or less—does not cancel out the suffering of another.
So I did not stand for Marc Lamont Hill. I did not feel I could stand in support of this man who so clearly did not stand in support of me. Perhaps he supported one part of me—my Black identity—but his comments on that day, as well as the comments that got him fired from CNN, showed he did not support the part of me that is Jewish. He was making every Black Jew decide between two identities, something that no one should ever ask of us.
In much more explicit and personal displays of Ashkenormativity, I have been asked on more than one occasion which group I identify with more: the Black or Jewish community. The question is always asked out of mere curiosity, which I can understand among close friends—after all, it is a question I often ask myself and reflect on. And while I do have my answer, the fact that it is a question at all is a serious problem. There is a unique bond between people who share the same oppressed identity. Many, though, believe the bond to be so unique that it can really only be forged and shared within one group. To acknowledge that another minority group faces trauma equal to—or even similar to—one’s own is seen as a form of concession or disloyalty.
After getting involved with both Columbia’s Jews of Color Caucus and Hillel’s Judaism & Us fellowship, I am confident that the Columbia community is on a trajectory towards eliminating Ashkenormative thinking. But these are just two examples of what everyone needs to be doing. The task to create inclusive and intersectional spaces should not fall only in the hands of Jews of Color. Everyone benefits when we understand that “Jewish” does not equal “Ashkenazi.”
If you are a Columbia student, keep this in mind as you continue studying at an institution with such a large Jewish population. While most of the Jewish students you meet are likely Ashkenazi, many are not. And when you do inevitably meet those Jews of Color, don’t make them decide.