On this weekend dedicated to the memory and legacy of Martin Luther King, when Barack Obama will again be sworn in as President, it is natural to assess the state of racism in America, and also among Jews.
It is hard to make a case that it is over, when in Israel, Price Tag attacks routinely deface churches and mosques, with the attackers occasionally competing with President Morsi in comparing the Other to various barnyard animals. (Incidentally, I love how Morsi supporters are claiming that he was “misunderstood” in comparing Jews to pigs and apes. No, he meant to say “chimpanzees and warthogs.”)
Racism also has reared its ugly head in Israel’s election campaign, with the Shas anti-Russian campaign ad that was quickly pulled.
But while racism is far from behind us, it should be.
“Look not at the flask,” we learn in tractate Avot, “but at what is within it.”
Long before Gutenberg, Jews were teaching their children not to judge a book by its cover. But while our sages dared to hope for an end to worldwide prejudice and our liturgy resounds with the desire for Oneness, after services we retreat to psychological ghettos of similitude. We cry for unity but settle for uniformity. It is understandable to want to live among like-minded neighbors who can reinforce our deepest values. But somewhere along the line, we convinced ourselves that like-minded people have to look alike too.
Fortunately, the Internet generation has grown up in a much smaller world, where those barriers have begun to dissolve. That old joke, “Funny, he doesn’t look Jewish,” isn’t so funny anymore. With the proliferation of conversion, adoption, donor eggs and surrogate motherhood, most Jews simply don’t. Interracial Jewish couples are becoming more common both in America and in Israel, where, while Ethiopian Jews still face challenges, the assimilation of Ashkenazim and Sephardim is nearly complete. Increasingly, we’ve become fascinated by exotic Jewish communities like the Abayudaya of Uganda, Cochin and Bene Israel of India, the Igbo of Nigeria and the Ethiopians.
The Jewish family tree is more colorful even than Barack Obama’s. He may hail from Kenya and Kansas, but we come from Babylonia and Beverly Hills, Yemen and Ypsilanti, Toledo and, uh, Toledo, and in my case, Brooklyn and Brookline.
So maybe we are getting closer from the time when we’ll truly be able to drink the contents without looking at the flask. On MLK Weekend, nothing could taste sweeter.