Barack Mandela
American Soldier/Israeli Soldier

Black and Jewish: Memoir of a Shifting Self


Barack O. Mandela growing up in Long Beach, California.

This essay is the first of a series of articles about my experiences as a black, Jewish, American, Israeli. This will be an exclusive “memoir” published on the “Times of Israel”.

I was born and raised in East Long Beach, California which is considered an inner-city ghetto or “hood”. While I was a law student, I converted to both Reform and Orthodox Judaism. I then moved to Israel for nearly six years where I served in the Israel Defense Forces. After 9/11, I served in the United States Army.

I have struggled to combine my African American traditions with my Jewish traditions. For guidance, I read Rebecca Walker’s “Black, White, & Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self”. In addition, I met with Ethiopian Jews to talk about their traditions, culture, and history. I wanted to understand the “black-Jewish” experience.

My earliest memory growing up in the “hood” in California is eating free government cheese. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, the US government distributed free cheese to needy communities. We stood in line to collect bricks of cheese in tan boxes. My mother cooked Mexican-style quesadillas, nachos, and enchiladas with the free government cheese.

I also remember using paper “food stamps” which were given by the government to poor and struggling families. Some people felt somewhat “humiliated” to use the food stamps to purchase food. However, I enjoyed using the food stamps. I didn’t feel inferior because we were poor. Instead, I enjoyed life in our urban American shtetl.

The most vivid memory of life in the American ghetto was eating the “ghetto candy” and snacks that were sold in local stores such as: Now & Laters, Jolly Ranchers, Blow Pops, Red Hots, Johnny Apple Treats, Alexander the Grape, Funyuns, Cheetos, Doritos, and Sugar Babies. I ruined my teeth by eating candy and taffy all the time.

When I moved to Israel and enlisted in the IDF, I enjoyed visiting the Shekem store on base to buy Israeli snacks such as Bomba and Bissli. Moreover, I enjoyed eating Falafel and Shawarma from local stores and street venders.

The Israeli music I listened to was very different from the music of the American ghetto. While in Israel, I loved: Aviv Geffen, Rita, Eyal Golan, Shiri Maimon, Shlomo Artzi, Shalom Hanoch, Yehudit Ravitz, Yehoram Gaon, Boaz Sharabi, Ninet Tayeb, Mashinah, HaYehudim, Teapaks, and Stella Maris.

However, in East Long Beach, I listened to: Run DMC, Beastie Boys, Kurtis Blow, Sugar Hill Gang, Grandmaster Flash, LL Cool J, JJ Fad, Salt n Peppa,  Kool Moe Dee, Ice-T, NWA, Ice Cube, Eazy E, Afrika Bambaataa, and Roxanne Shante.

During my childhood, my friends and I would form a “Soul Train Line” which was two parallel lines of people featuring dancers moving down its center. “Soul Train” was a popular dance and music show.

While living in Israel, I also lived in a ghetto called Ramat Amidar between B’nai Brak and Ramat Gan. In the Israeli ghetto, I loved visiting the local falafel and shawarma shops and relaxing in Eli Cohen park. I also watched the first season of the Israeli show Kochav Nolad which was won by Ninet Tayeb.

While living near B’nai Brak, I visited each of the Hasidic communities in the town including: Vizhnitz, Satmar, Sanz Zhmigrod, Nadvorne, Bubov, Leilov, Belz, Ger, and others.

I enjoyed eating tasty cholent before Shabbat. I also enjoyed attending a Hasidic tisch after Shabbat featuring prominent Hasidic rebbes including the Vizhnitzer Rebbe Moshe Hager and the Viznitizer Rebbe Motti Hager.

As an African American Jew who is both American and Israeli, I feel that I belong to a “Third Culture”. My “Third Culture” is a mix of America and Israel, black culture and Jewish culture; however, this new culture is not purely Israeli nor purely American. I live in an “in between” Third Culture that lies somewhere between Israel and America.

Today, I listen to Jewish singers such as: Yaakov Shwekey, Avraham Fried, Benny Friedman, and Ohad Moskowitz. I also listen to urban artists such as: Drake, Lil Wayne, Chief Keef, Snoop Dog, Jay Z, Tupac Shakur, Biggie, 50 Cent, Meek Mill, Travis Scott, DaBaby, Lil Dirk, Juice Wrld, Pop Smoke, and Lil Baby.

I am a combination of both Israeli and American waves of identity, culture, traditions, and memories. My unifying principles are my love for the God of Israel and unconditional self-acceptance.

Welcome to my “Third Culture” which combines American identity, Israeli identity, Jewish identity, and African American identity. I hope to make a film/movie about this combined culture. Welcome to my world!

About the Author
Licensed Attorney. I earned a Doctor of Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law (1997). I earned a Bachelor of Arts from the University of California, Riverside (1994). I was an international student at the University of Costa Rica Faculty of Law (1991-1992) and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Faculty of Law (Summer 1996). I am a military veteran of both the United States Army and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). I am a laureate of the National Defense Service Medal from the Pentagon (2006). I am a financial donor to following: Harvard Law, Yale Law, Stanford Law, Berkeley Law, UC Hastings College of the Law, UC Davis Law, Columbine High School, Choate Rosemary Hall, Phillips Exeter Academy, Sidwell Friends School, Viewpoint School, Beverly Hills High School, Eton College in the United Kingdom, Special Olympics, Children's Defense Fund, Obama Foundation, Clinton Foundation, Barbra Streisand Foundation, and the British Red Cross. I am former special assistant and staff attorney to Governor Pete Wilson of California. I was public affairs assistant to US Senator Barbara Boxer and Mayor Ehud Olmert of Jerusalem and Jerusalem spokesperson Haggai Elias.
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