Ian Pokres
Ian Pokres

On ‘Jews of Color’: To Ilana Kaufman

Many people don’t know, but Orthodox Judaism classifies Jews not brought up “within the fold” as “kidnapped” persons. Think about it: We are an exiled, vilified people run off from every location we’ve ever set foot. Jews have always tried to assimilate as a result. You can read it from Ezra/Nehemiah to PEW surveys. But Judaism doesn’t judge us harshly; we are only human. Rather than cast them to Hell, issuing non-observant Jews the “kidnapped” pass excuses them from their transgressions. But this is only the case for those ignorant of Jewish law. And while the rabbis who formulated Conservative and the various forms of Liberal Judaism were not necessarily so, they have created a situation in which the vast majority of Jews believe that not keeping kosher and not observing Shabbat is as “Jewish” – as halachically, traditionally, and culturally valid, deserving of the vaunted title “Jewish” – as following Jewish law and practice as it has been kept and maintained for 3300 years. Thus, they created the conditions for the vast majority of Jews (at least in America) to be “kidnapped,” brought under the spell of teachings claiming the mantle of our forefathers, but only in fact entrenching the colonization of our people…yes you, Progressive Jew!

And now begin the conversion controversies! We Orthodox and traditional folk are accused of racism (today’s ultimate offense) for rejecting well-meaning Jewish converts to non-traditional streams of Judaism. But wait, I met black converts accepted by all. There goes the argument. We simply don’t want to add to the “kidnapped” ranks. We are shomer mitzvot, not shomer people’s feelings. If one doesn’t like halacha, they should not become a Jew. And people that didn’t convert per halachic regulation are not Jews. Simple. There’s no such thing as “Jew-by-choice.” A convert enters the Jewish community with approval, they don’t simply choose. It’s a two-way street, a group endeavor, and not about race.

And now comes the patrilineality controversy! We traditional folk require Jewish women for the sake of the generations. Our holy mothers made us who we are. Out go the traditions-are-sexist arguments. You may cite some verses out of context to prove your points, but from the time Jews came into the historical record, it has been so. If your mother isn’t Jewish, neither are you. Simple.

(And for clarity on my position, so no one can accuse of me of being lacking awareness of the diversity of Jewish experience, if one is the child of a Jewish mother, and a non-Jewish father, one takes the minhag of their mother. So a black-presenting Jewish child with an Ashkenazi mother is Ashkenazi. Because these labels we so flippantly mistake for ethnicities these days are first and foremost minhagim, and only by force of history have they taken their ethnic connotation. And if one is a multi-generational Jew who presents other-than-white, and someone says something that makes you uncomfortable, tell them what’s what, quote your Codes, and move on, but don’t cast aspersions on the majority of world Jewry in the process.)

And here come the culture wars! Don’t cancel me! Please! We traditional folk who care to live how our ancestors wanted us to, to protect our religion from outside forces are now daily maligned by a combination of “the kidnapped” Jews, the non-halachically converted, those whose fathers rejected Jewish women, and all those who support such people and use their rhetoric for their own purposes (*cough* Miri Regev). We hear “Judaism has always been diverse and welcoming of outsiders (it has never been closed off ethnically).” Wrong! Email me for the source-sheet (and that’s not to say it should be, just that it’s historically inaccurate to say otherwise). We read ad nauseum about “Jews of Color.” But wait! I thought all Jews are descended from exiled Judeans. Does that not make us Ashkenazi folk “People of Color,” too? Centuries of oppression and horror brushed over so easily because we’ve found success in the US? It seems as though Social Justice laden voices are trying to elevate themselves at the expense of their supposed brothers and sisters. Not to mention half the people called POC are paler than me, and no small amount of Ashkenazim are tan as can be. 

“One in seven Jews in the United States identifies as a person of color,” according to Ilana Kaufman, executive director of the Jews of Color Initiative, in her recent post, citing a study that her own organization oversaw (grounds for suspicion, any critical thinkers out there?! And the study being characterized as ‘noteworthy for being led and authored by a multiracial research team housed at Stanford University’…also has no bearing on the results of the study. Finally, the study’s 1,118 ‘Jews of Color’ might have included five halachic Jews for all I know. We just don’t define Jewish the same way.). Well, you know what Ilana: I, an “Ashkenazi” – who recites his prayers with Yemeni pronunciation and lived in an Arab country longer than most living ‘Jews of Arab Lands’ – boy from New Jersey also identify as POC. That is, I would if the term had any meaningful descriptive value whatsoever outside of raising everyone’s blood pressure. Stop calling me white. I won’t claim to know your lived experience if you would kindly stop trying to define mine. Thanks.

“Jews of color are underrepresented in organizational boardrooms, executive leadership teams and even in those groups whose explicit aim is to engage in the work of justice,” Kaufman goes on…Maybe that’s because historically, the wide majority of Jews in this country are Ashkenazim. And the pre-20th century, Sephardi communities did not identify as “POC” as far as I know…People wanna cry ashkenormativity – but that’s because Ashkenazim built the Jewish infrastructure of this country, fought for Jewish equality in law and society, and created many of the cultural touchstones that define not only American Jewish culture today, but American culture writ large. It may not be PC to say, but “Jews of Color” – people who specifically identify as such and break themselves off from the mainstream Jewish groupings – are a new phenomenon. “White” Jews (AKA Ashkenazim and probably many if not most Sephardim, AKA the vast majority of Jews in America) are used to themselves because they were the Jews until not that long ago. If they ask a newcomer to their congregation for their background, it’s not discrimination, it’s not assault, it’s due diligence, not to mention perhaps a great way to get to know someone.

Moreover, when Kaufman describes the “troubling” “pain points” revealed by the survey, the results show nothing unique to “POC.” What Jew has not felt “disconnected from their Jewish identity at times”? We are living in a foreign land surrounded by hostile forces – nothing to do with race. What Jew doesn’t “speak, dress or present themselves [differently] to conform to predominantly white Jewish spaces”? Are haredim all born wanting to wear, and being comfortable in black and white? No. Are “white Jews” who visit each other cross-denominationally not forced to code-switch, or to be extra cautious and respectful? I – a so-called “white” Jew – have never found a community where I really belonged and could express myself. Nothing to do with race. When it comes to “discrimination,” I’m not ignorant. I don’t deny you face it; I’m from South Jersey – we have all kinds here. But if we are counting being asked if one converted as discrimination (as the recent JPost article on this same survey seems to suggest), while perhaps not very tactful, I have to vigorously disagree. One might get the same treatment showing up to an Orthodox shul in jeans – in fact, I have: I was called a goy by some little boys in Beitar Illit, probably for wearing a kippa sruga. And even recently, I was in a yeshivish setting, and despite my countless hours devoted to Jewish study, I was still patronized with lessons on aleph-bet. The way one’s parents dress and behave is grounds to keep kids from certain Jewish schools. What do you want from people, though? Judaism is communal, and if an unfamiliar element enters one’s little insular community, people are going to notice…and not necessarily know how the newcomer wants to be approached. That doesn’t make them racist or hateful, but only as ignorant as – say – calling Ashkenazim “white.”

So stop making it about race. It’s a problem of education and decolonization (if you must). And in that – even if I don’t believe many of the people across this artificial divide are halachically Jewish – you only have Jews as allies, the Progressive movement doesn’t care about you unless it is to use your pain against your so-called “white” counterparts. And you won’t be cultivating that bond by slinging the “white” (what-I-say-is-a) slur at 85%+ of your ostensible coreligionists. In fact, by labelling us as such, you are erasing us and aiding our enemies – these slanders are an attack. When I, a traditional Jew, see a cohort of people that I do not even consider Jewish for the most part, or who misrepresent Judaism as some Progressive ideal, telling me how to define Judaism contrary to halacha and history, I see colonialism and the consequences of colonialism. It’s not the other way around. Jews lost real power over our communities long ago. We as a people, especially in America, are disintegrating under the force of assimilation and intermarriage. And for the traditional among us, non-traditional forms of Judaism are leading that charge. If we want to build inclusive, open, respected, well-adjusted, shared, sustainable communities (and yes, I do too, and you should be heard), we must do it as Jews, a colorful people – not as “Jews of Color” and “everyone else.”

About the Author
South Jersey native, Reform Jew turned former Baal Teshuva, Ian studied human evolution and religion for his BS and religion for his MA, where he focused on Ottoman Islam and modern Islamic fundamentalism. An EMT by day, his current project is a (very) deep-dive into what the three "Abrahamic religions" (he hates the term) have to say about each other. A year spent in Jerusalem and a year in Fes shaped him profoundly. He hopes you will learn, enjoy, and use "Contact Me" to send him questions and comments!
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