Thursday, August 30, 2007

Straddling The Color Barrier

Ernest Adams

Impending daddy-hood, for the first time I might add, has left me with unmitigated happiness and mitigated concerns. I was diagnosed with prostate cancer nearly 13 years ago, so the surreal dances with the real, and as the reality spins in joyous anticipation, I say to myself, with boundless ecstasy, “I am going to be a father in December!”

A salient concern I have at this moment is how my interracial child will fit into two communities — black and Jewish — fraught with tension.

Before I chose to be a Jew, I had to renegotiate the irrational and rational fears of whites that derived from growing up in a culture permeated by racism — a social cancer, as it were — and disavow the anti-Semitism I imbibed growing up in the black community. An unlikely event occurred: I met Meyer Goldstein, we became as close as brothers and Meyer’s father, Rabbi Baruch Goldstein, virtually adopted me and became a second father. It was the alchemy of the Goldsteins’ love and unconditional acceptance of me as a human being that influenced and transformed my rigid and rancid racial posture.

It took 20 years for me to trust the Goldsteins as white people and Jews, but finally, all my fears and anti-Semitism found a new resonance. My father was supportive. Mom was disappointed I did not become a Jehovah’s Witness. My two sisters were baffled. But all lovingly accepted me as son and brother. Black friends felt I had betrayed the black community; white Christian friends were stupefied as to my motivation, and all warned, in united voice, that upon converting, my Jewish life would be filled with racial quagmires.

I first spoke with Rabbi David Woznica who “warned” me “that some people will want to be your friend because you are black. How do you feel about that?” Afraid he might have possibly alienated me, his face twisted with uncertainty. He gave me four synagogues from different denominations to explore.

I attended Reform and Conservative synagogues, but when I told two Jewish friends I was going to attend an Orthodox synagogue they said, “Don’t go to the Orthodox; they are rigid and racist.” When white Jews say with disdain and conviction that an entire “race” of fellow Jews are racists and to be avoided, it is both damning and credible. With no knowledge to rely on except that spewed out of their mouths, I rationally complied and did not attend an Orthodox synagogue nor explore Orthodox Judaism.

Coiled and coded to protect myself, my fears were stoked and, concerned about my safety in broad daylight on the Upper West Side, I roamed cautiously as Jewish men in black hats or yarmulkes passed me on the street.

B’nai Jeshurun was my synagogue of choice, and when Rabbi Roly Matalon decided I was ready for conversion, he asked, I thought, a germane question: “How are you going to deal with the racism in the Jewish community?” Rabbi Woznica had said Jews would love me; Rabbi Matalon warned some Jews would hate me; my friends painted in one broad stroke, all Orthodox Jews as racists.

After I converted, social acceptance came easily. Dating was a non-issue, although one Conservative woman claimed she loved me but then rejected me because I was black. A Conservative rabbi told me his daughter was available for dating, and Orthodox rabbis and congregants were veritably welcoming, with one prominent Orthodox rabbi promising to find me a wife as he encouraged me to move into his Brooklyn community. Then, an unexpected sentiment: some Orthodox consider non-Orthodox as “not real Jews.”

I met a white Jewish woman, Karen, on the M104 bus, and after we fell in love she introduced me to her mother with trepidation, afraid her mother would disapprove of me because I was black. Her mother, Ilse, and I hit it off from the very first time we met, and when we left her home I said to Karen, “I am in love with two Sander women.” I was struck by Karen’s unnecessary fear, then realized she projected her racial doubts onto her mother.

A year after Karen and I met, Ilse and I were in conversation when I told her Karen would have gone out with me even if I was not Jewish. Ilse was shocked: “I want my grandchildren to be Jewish. I see in my synagogue that some have married non-Jews and they are involved, and that is really OK, for them. But for me, mixed marriages, they just don’t work.” n
Ernest Adams is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and writing a memoir: “From Ghetto to Ghetto: An African American Journey to Judaism.”

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