Ten-year-old Jada Brown speaks Hebrew beautifully. She knows the names of important historical figures in Judaism, and loves dressing up for Purim. When it’s time for prayers and songs every morning at El Cerrito’s Tehiyah Day School, where she is a fourth-grader, her voice is among the most enthusiastic.
Unlike most of her classmates, however, she also attends church every Sunday morning with her family — her 100 percent Christian family — in Oakland. Confused?
Jada’s not. At least, not anymore. In “Mommy, Am I Jewish Now?” a new self-published picture book written and illustrated by Cathy Fara Brown — Jada’s mother and the receptionist at Tehiyah — the young black protagonist explores faith, cultural identity and what it means to be different from those around you.
Through it all, she learns (as do readers of all ages, Brown hopes) that no matter your skin color or the name of your religion, people from different cultures can celebrate each other’s customs, history and values — and usually have more in common with one another than we initially think.
Brown, a first-time author who lives in Oakland with her husband, Wilbert, says she chose to send Jada to Tehiyah after working at the school for a year and becoming enamored of its vibrant, close-knit community.
“Watching Jada go through this experience for almost the past six years has been incredible, because she’s just so excited to be part of this Jewish community, to learn Hebrew and different Jewish rituals,” says Brown, the daughter of a preacher whom she says spoke often of his respect and admiration for the Jewish community. However, Brown also wanted her daughter to understand that despite the school she attends, she is Christian.
“She would come home and tell me all about everything she learned, and after a while it was always followed by the question: ‘Mommy, am I Jewish now?’ ”
At first, Brown says she avoided the topic; she didn’t know how to answer her daughter’s question. Ultimately, it was Jada who came up with a fun way to think about her religious identity: as a secret agent for both Christians and Jews, who could help the cultures understand one another.
Rabbi Tsipi Gabai, the head of Judaic studies at Tehiyah, calls Jada “an extraordinary child.”
“A lot of the other kids admire her. She’s a brilliant student, she sings beautifully, she’s so enthusiastic.”
Jada has “helped open the minds of other children at school,” the rabbi says. “We’re trying to instill in our kids that everybody was created in God’s image, everybody was created equal.
“When people get to know each other’s traditions and cultures, it creates understanding, it helps create peace and tikkun olam [repairing the world],” adds the rabbi, who introduced Cathy Fara Brown at her book launch party at Tehiyah on March 17. Roughly 50 members of the school community attended.
As for Jada, her mother says she’s been thrilled so far with the excitement her book has created. And having decided that she’s a secret agent certainly hasn’t deterred her from wanting a bat mitzvah.
“She wants to do a kind of blended one, part Christian, part Jewish,” says Brown. “We’ll figure it out.”
“Mommy Am I Jewish Now?” by Cathy Fara Brown (24 pages, Essence Publishing, $9.99)