Harry Zeitlin
Grateful Every Day, Modeh Ani Lefanecha!

All Jews are Jews of Color

There hasn’t been a lot to feel good about this just-past Chanukah as Corona infections, hospitalizations and deaths are, world-wide, once again peaking. Despite the imminent roll-out of both the Pfizer and now the Moderna vaccines, it was difficult, to say the least, to feel much Simchat Yom Tov, joy in the holiday.

Perhaps it was only to put a crack in the doom-and-gloom that the internet exploded with the feel-good video, Puppy For Hanukkah, by Daaveed Diggs, an immensely talented musician and performer, by all accounts a very personable young man who has probably accumulated a giant pile of Tikkun Olam points, but very little knowledge of Judaism and Jewish history. By combining his Jewish as well as his African-American heritages, he is also immensely proud of striking a blow to celebrate Jews of Color. (https://www.jpost.com/diaspora/daveed-diggs-speaks-about-representing-jews-of-color-in-hanukkah-video-652148).

What’s wrong with the picture–a “progressive,” Orthodox rabbi, jazz  musician and artist like me, frothing at the mouth with my hackles fully raised?

A great conceit of the progressive left is that there are two categories of Jews. The first, the “Good Jews” are all similarly progressive and woke, disdain  “whiteness” and “white privilege” like all good progressives. It’s a basic assumption, an article of faith, as it were, that social action, which means advocating for whoever has newly entered the ranks of victim and attacking all of the intersected groups of oppressors, burning a flag or two or tumbling a statue if available. Since all are agreed that the saddest, gr, eatest and most aggrieved victim in todays world are the Palestinians, Jews are now not only fair game, but if hunting were permitted, the highest value trophy to bring down. Which proves, of course, that Jews are White, and tarrable with the White Privilege/Colonialist/Oppressor brush.

It’s true that the stereotyped cliché of an American Jew is and Ashkenazi i.e. Eurpopean, i.e. White, Yiddish cracking zionist. Of course, America has long turned a blind eye to Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews, Jews from round the Mediterranean and from Northern Africa (just as it has long turned a blind eye to people from Spanish/Portugese speaking backgrounds, all lumped together as Latinos, which really just meant either Mexican or Puerto Rican, depending on where in the US one is standing. Perhaps in America, for those trying to fit in and provide a safe haven for their children, it’s already hard enough for a Jew to fit in, so why bother trying to establish a secondary identity?

But step off the plane at Ben Gurion and at least half of the Jews you see at first, second and third glance are, indeed, Jews whose families fled Arab countries in 1948, rather than those who fled Europe before and right after the Holocaust. Not only that, you hear a veritable Babel of languages, or at least accents and pronunciations. Jews whose first language was Arabic, Yiddish, Ahmaric (the language of Jews from Ethiopia), French, English, Russian and, yes, even a few native Hebrew speakers. And when you look around, it’s immediately obvious that no, you’re no longer in Kansas any more, nor on location for any number of early Coen Brother films. Jews come in the full variety of human skin color, finally returned home form 2000 years of exile Beirut and Krakow, Chicago and Minnepolis, Damascus and Cairo and Kiev and Moscow and Berlin and London and Fukien and Cochin and Mumbai and Nairobi and Kabul and Herat and Saana and Fez and…… Get the idea, we have established communities all around the world. And, guess what, after a few generations (since there was always mixing with the host population) we look exactly like people from all those countries and regions.

In other words, all Jews are “Jews of Color”. So, no, you don’t have permission to split us into Jews, the bad, white guys, and Jews of Color, the good guys, oppressed Africans and swarthy Lebanese. And those Jews who, unfortunately, never received very much information about Jewish history over four thousand years, and who are being exploited by people with no interest in their Jewish traditions and identities except as a weapon against those bad bad Ashkenazi stereotypes, so familiar from Nazi and PLO (or French or English or Russian, etc. etc. etc.) propaganda.

Guess what, if  you go back just a few generations to where those so-called “white” Jews previously lived, they were likely just as oppressed, just as much the other, just as much “the dreaded-N-word” of those societies.

So, please remember in all your intersectionality nonsense, every Jew you meet, be he from China or Kenya or Yemen or Brazil or Duluth is a Jew of Color. And we’re proud to be.

About the Author
After almost 30 years, Harry Zeitlin returned home to Jerusalem! Growing up in Denver, CO, he began Torah studies at an early age. He also had the privilege of knowing and studying with Rabbi Shloime Twerski zt"l. He graduated from Yale College (BA 1974) with an independent degree in communications, theory-and-practice, focusing on filmmaking and linguistics. Harry had a 45+ year career as a professional artist (photography, to which he is just now returning!) and has played guitar for more than 50 years, in addition to his 30+ years as an orthodox rabbi teaching Torah across the denominational spectrum. He lived in Israel from 1982 - 1989 and returned in 2016. I'M BACK! Grateful every day! Follow his spiritual adventures. He is always available to speak, teach, present a Shabbaton or other workshop. ......or to serenade your group with his guitar.
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