When I was around 8 or 9 years old, my grandfather told me that when he was younger he tried to get into a pool which had a sign on the gate which read, “No Jews, No Blacks, No Dogs Allowed.” From the youngest age, I saw so many similarities between the histories and plights of the Jewish and gentile Black communities. We carried a similar baggage of being hated and othered across time and space.
Several years ago, I was invited to an event at YouTube’s headquarters in New York City which was an evening dedicated to their minority creators. When I showed up, I saw that as an Orthodox Jew, I was a minority among the minorities, as the group was nearly 100% Black and Hispanic. I immediately jumped in and began speaking to a lovely Black woman who was sitting to my right. When she asked what our channel is about, I explained that Jew in the City is dedicated to confronting the negative ideas people have about Orthodox Jews. It’s about the world seeing us as individuals and not judging us as part of a group. It’s about calling out the media for stereotyping us. As I was talking, her face lit up. She was inspired. She understood all that I was talking about in a very deep and personal way because this was her story too.
Then, the panelists began to speak. One was a funny and captivating Black woman. She described her frustration in seeing the same Black female characters on TV shows – always sassy and with an attitude. As she described the stereotypes she was sick of seeing, I realized I could think of several TV shows with that exact character on it. I had never seen the sassiness as a stereotype, I just watched the shows without much afterthought. I had been tuned into how Orthodox Jews are depicted on TV and movies, but I was so thrilled to listen and learn how the Black community was being unfairly represented in fictional media too. Again, the connections were so clear.
While I’ve always seen the similarities between these two groups of people, unfortunately, there is a wedge that has grown between parts of the Orthodox Jewish community and non-Jewish Black community in recent years. As we watched in horror the uptick of Orthodox Jews being attacked in the New York area over the last couple of years, predominantly by members of the Black community, leading up to the Jersey City Shooting and The Monsey Chanukah Machete attack, we at Jew in the City wondered what we could do to help build bridges and remind each other that we have so much shared pain and that we should be united. In January, we created a pop-up in Harlem, called “Meet a Jew in the City. Make a Friend.” In a few short hours, we met with dozens of locals who shared words of solace and hope. It was a wonderful reminder that more connects us than divides us.
At the end of our time there, there was a slightly unpleasant encounter. One passerby tried to justify violence against Jews by claiming that we (the collective we) were gentrifying the neighborhood. Besides the fact that violence against innocents should never be condoned, I tried to explain that most of us have nothing to do with the real estate dealings in her neighborhood, we are just good people going about our lives. The woman commented that based on how we looked, it seemed otherwise. I retorted that just as Black people don’t want to be judged as a group by how they look, so too, Orthodox Jews don’t want to be either.
Then she said something that shocked me. Here I was trying to explain how our communities were afflicted by shared prejudices and she separated herself from us, “Well, I think it’s a little bit different because you could just stop dressing like that.” Now let me make something clear – I understand that there is a difference between having a skin color you can’t remove and having clothes and hair styles you can change. A Jew could change his clothes, his name, and move to the middle of nowhere and most likely blend in forever.
Then again, as we saw in Nazi Germany, our enemies found a way to get so many of us who went into hiding. As we saw with the Spanish Inquisition, Jews who dressed liked gentiles and practiced in secret were still discovered and tortured, expelled, or murdered. There are, of course, differences in our situations, but it is not so simple to say that a Jew can simply remove himself from danger by changing his dress.
When I recently wrote about another shared phenomenon that the Black and Jewish community can relate to – a talk we have to give our children, telling them we are hated, we are different, and one day we could face danger due to who we are, again I was confronted with the same message I heard from the woman in Harlem:
Well, a Jewish man could just remove his yarmulke and stick on a baseball cap.
Well, Hasidic Jews could just cut off their peyos.
You could just stop dressing like that.
As more and more people (many of them non-observant Jews) offered these suggestions, I became more and more infuriated. No, we will not change our dress, no we will not change our names, no we will not stop visiting our Jewish institutions, even though synagogues and kosher stores have been sites of massacres in the recent past.
As I thought of the things we will not give up, I was reminded of the Midrash which tells us of the things that the Children of Israel were praised for when they lived in Egypt. Even though they had fallen to the second to lowest level of spiritual purity, it was because they kept their names, their clothes, and their language that they were redeemed from slavery.
I got to thinking about how when we lose our distinctions, it is the death of the Jewish people. Take a look at the recent Pew Study on Jews – the future of world Jewry is among those who are willing to separate ourselves and consistently observe, even if it means possible danger.
No one should ever DARE tell a religious Jew that we can just stop looking and practicing in such conspicuous ways. We will never stop. And that is why we’ll survive. Am Yisrael Chai!