Jew of color finds intrusive questions a synagogue turnoff

My dad is Chinese, not Jewish; my mom is white and Jewish. They raised me Jewish. My last name and my looks are Chinese. In my home congregation, no one pays any attention to my mixed race, but in other Jewish environments Jews always remark on it. “So, how did you get to be Jewish?” “Are you here to convert?” “What’s your Hebrew name?” I am so sick of it that I pretty much don’t go to synagogue unless I’m home with my folks. What can I say to people so they will shut up? How can I go to a synagogue and like it if I’m always put off by my first encounters? — Jewish and Chinese, So Get Over It!

Dear Get Over It: I hear you. Let me begin by saying you are not alone. A recent study of the Bay Area Jewish community estimated that 20 percent of Jewish families are multiracial. Unfortunately, most American white Jews think that all Jews are white. Jews of color echo your experience in my conversations with them. Interestingly enough, even white Jews in multiracial families often feel their family members are the only Jews of color.

I have asked rabbis from Reform, Conservative and Orthodox shuls, “Is there ever a need for one of your members to ask a stranger, are you Jewish?” They all said, “No, never.” So we’ve established that this is not a question of necessity but one of crude curiosity.

What to say? I’m betting that in different environments you may want to handle this differently, so I’m going to give you a few options.

One response that fits just about any occasion is, “Why do you ask?” If their reply is, “Well, you don’t look Jewish,” You can say, “What do Jews look like to you?” At this point either they realize how rude they are being and bumble off, or you can simply turn away and go get a glass of water, speak to someone else or move across the room.

To the question, “Are you Jewish?” you can respond, “Are you Jewish?” When they answer, “Yes!” You can say, “Oh, I’m surprised. I guess you didn’t learn that that question is forbidden 36 times in the Talmud.”

To the question, “What’s your Hebrew name?” you can say, “Are you planning to say a Mishebeirach [prayer of healing] for me? No? Then you don’t need it.”

My own rabbi is part of a large multiracial Jewish family. Her brilliant father taught her and her siblings that they didn’t owe anyone an answer. It is just fine to turn and walk away. In other words, someone else’s curiosity is not your problem.

What to do about finding a synagogue? Don’t let people you don’t know  determine your life path! You need to find a synagogue that you like. If you were raised Reform, consider your local Reform shuls; if Conservative, go there, etc. Most likely there will be members who are Jews of color. Meet with the rabbi and share your experiences. If he or she does not assure you that such behavior is not tolerated at that shul, move on. Your rabbi should be your advocate. Connect with other Jews of color so you don’t feel alone or singled out. Then get to know the members. Once you are familiar with them and they with you, it will begin to feel like home.

You’re not in this alone. You reached out to me, and I’m going to help you make the Bay Area home. Consider connecting with Be’chol Lashon, an S.F.-based advocacy group for Jews of color, if you’d like to be an advocate. Or you can simply be a member of a shul if that’s what you want. This is about your choices.

Last year my African American, born-Jewish niece was giving a talk at her East Bay shul. Her rabbi, who has always been her cheerleader, noticed that some of the adult members were being less than sensitive. Her rabbi asked his 12-year-old son, “What do you think when you see a person of color in our shul?” His son replied, “I figure they must be Jewish. People who aren’t Jewish don’t usually go into a synagogue.” There is the logic of the next generation. If you’re here, you must belong here. As this next generation grows into leadership, not only will many of the leaders be multiracial Jews, the white ones just won’t care what color anyone is.

kepler-dawn-WEB
Dawn Kepler

Dawn Kepler leads Building Jewish Bridges, a program of Lehrhaus Judaica that embraces Bay Area interfaith families. “Mixed & Matched” offers advice for Jews in interfaith relationships and families. Send letters to dawn@buildingjewishbridges.org.