My friend, Avi Shemtov, wrote a really good piece in Jewish Boston about some of the controversies and opportunities there are for dialogue between Jewish folk and Black folk. I thanked him for his insight on Facebook, but didn’t want to write anything long there, people should read his article. But I also wanted to talk about this, because it is a meaningful discussion and one that has been present in my life.
There are so many touch points here. First, it is important to acknowledge that there are many Jews of Color, and it must be difficult, more difficult than ever navigating one’s identity now. It is a real challenge, at all times. While not my lived experience, it is one I and others need to listen and understand more.
When I was young, like 4th-6th grades, I lived in Mattapan. There was a a period of time that it was very much a Jewish section of Boston. We moved in there towards the tail end of that. A change was happening, a change systemic ally created through redlining, that had Black families moving in, Jewish families moving out. I can remember resentment and racism among the adults, not knowing the background on why this was happening.
I guess even then I had enough of a rebellious streak to question what I was hearing. My experience was different. My street, still with mostly Jewish families and kids was where I hung out a lot. But I also got to know Black kids that were around. David Warner, one of the funniest people I knew, when Elvis released the dong, In the Ghetto, he did a great, humorous rant about what would Elvis know about the ghetto? Billy Grant, one of the smartest and nicest kid I met, I always thought, I will never be as smart as Billy.
And bless Ruth Brown, my 6th grade advanced class teacher. I have forgotten a lot of teachers I’ve had. Never Mrs. Brown. She got me, I guess sensed some of the turmoil inside me from my life, and still got the best from me.
One day, I remember being out and about with some of my friends in the neighborhood, probably rambunctious, probably noisy and all over the place. A Black woman came out to find out what all the ruckus was. I don’t remember the entire interaction, but one thing stuck with me forever, to paraphrase, if ever two groups of people should get along with each other, it is Jewish people and Black people. I’m updating, she wouldn’t have said “Black” at the time. But what she said, has never left me.
Now to be clear, I sure do not want to claim to be a paragon of knowledge and virtue. I mean, there are plenty of things I always learn new about the Jewish Experience, and more so, the Black Experience. And to me, that’s what it should always be about, listening, feeling what people are or have experienced. And if ever there are people who should understand the negative tropes that are put out there, Jewish people and Black people should get that.
I hope there are more of the best of us that understand that. We both have faced violence and been murdered for whom we are. We both have had histories where people considered us less than human. And we both have lived with people using some anecdote to negatively characterize all of us. We both have been victims of violence in modern America.
So this is my prayer, my hope that we can have the dialogues that need to be spoken, that we do not fear some hard conversations because there will be an underlying respect that we will be better by this. Start with a core of the history which exists, of times we stood together and made each other stronger.
I hope I’ve made you proud, Mrs. Brown.