This article mostly involves the history of multiracial half-Jewish people within Jewish communities because that is what we have the most information about.
We would welcome additional information about the history and experiences of half-Jewish multiracial people in Christian, Muslim and other faith-based and secular communities. We have placed some of the information that we have about their experiences in this essay and would welcome more.
We have also listed resources in this article — organizations and books. Please go to our web page “Half-Jewish Films” for DVDs of interest to half-Jewish people of color. If you know of more resources that we could list, please contact us.
MULTIRACIAL HALF-JEWISH PEOPLE IN JEWISH HISTORY
Biracial, multiethnic, and mixed heritage half-Jewish people and Jews of color have always existed from the beginning of Jewish history. In some eras they’ve created beautiful new Jewish cultures, among them, the Beta Israel Ethiopian Jewish civilization, the varied Jewish groups of India, the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng, and many other communities in Africa and Asia.
SOME JEWISH COMMUNITIES UNWELCOMING
But in the last few centuries, as their communities have come into closer contact with the Ashkenazi Jews (white Jews of northern Europe and America) — and the Sephardic Jews (Jews descended from Spanish, Italian, and Arabic communities) - and as more of them have been born to intermarried white Jewish parents and people of color — or been adopted by white Jewish families — as many of them have made aliyah to Israel — biracial and mixed heritage people who are also half-Jewish, and Jews of color have had to deal with a lot of racism and ethnocentrism from the some of the Ashkenazi and some of the Sephardic Jewish communities in the Diaspora (outside of Israel) and in Israel.
Many biracial/multiracial half-Jewish people live in their Christian, Buddhist or other faith-based or secular cultures rather than living as Jews because of the Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish communities’ rejecting attitudes.
The good news is that over the last twenty years some Jewish organizations and resources have appeared to welcome Jews of color and mixed heritage half-Jewish people to the worldwide Jewish community.
ARE WHITE JEWS REALLY ‘WHITE’?
There is some question as to whether Askenazi Jews are really ‘white’ — their ancestors in the Torah are described as Semites — and historically, white Jews only remain ‘white’ as long as a society accepts them — the German Jews went from being white German citizens to being alien “Semites, ” marked for death, very abruptly during the Holocaust.
Current DNA studies indicate that many white Jews had Middle Eastern ancestors, who migrated to Europe and other parts of the world. Some white Jews identify loosely as “Semites” or “people of color.”
Nevertheless, fair-skinned Jews are generally accepted as “white” in many sectors of the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Europe and Israel, and have what is called in analyses of racism, “skin privilege” — they are often given preferential treatment in situations where people of color, Jewish and non-Jewish, are discriminated against.
These discriminatory situations occur in both Jewish and non-Jewish communities.
It is a myth that Israelis a happy melting pot of Jewish nationalities. The Yemenite Jews have experienced a certain amount of prejudice, due being “darker” than many other Israelis, ever since their arrival in Israel in 1949.
The black Ethiopian Jews have experienced enormous social, economic and religious discrimination in Israel since they began arriving in Israelin late numbers in the 1980s, and their societal problems in Israel are analogous to those of African-Americans in the United States.
While American Jews gave generous financial and leadership support to the aliyah of the Ethiopian Jews to Israel, and frequently supplied assistance to Ethiopian Jews in Ethiopia and Israel, American and European white Jewish communities have, until recently, often been unwelcoming to Jews of color, including half-Jewish people of mixed heritage.
Things are so bad in Israel for the Ethiopian Jews that their leaders have recently asked for the passage of affirmative action laws to protect the Ethiopian Jews of Israel, stating that decades of attempted integration efforts have failed, due to Israeli society’s racism.
For more information about the Ethiopian Jewish struggle in Israel, please visit the website of Tebeka, an Israeli organization that provides “legal aid and community capacity building for Ethiopian Israelis, and advancing the just rule of law for all Israeli citizens.”
Tebeka’s vision statement says:
“Tebeka’s vision is of a socially and economically empowered Ethiopian Israeli community that retains its rich cultural heritage and participates fully in a pluralistic Israeli society that guarantees equal protection of the law for all its citizens.”
Tebeka would welcome your donations. Tebeka has a free email newsletter you can sign up for. They can be found here:
MIXED HERITAGE AND NON-WHITE JEWS SOMETIMES SHUT OUT
Ways in which mixed-heritage half-Jewish people and Jews of color have sometimes been shut out of both Diaspora and Israeli Jewish communities include:
* the refusals of some Ashkenazi Jews and some Sephardic Jews to include Jews of other ethnicities or races in their Jewish organizational and social activities;
* the insistence of some Ashkenazi and some Sephardic Jews that Jews from non-Ashkenazi traditions, including Jews of color and half-Jewish people of mixed heritage, conform to Ashkenazi religious rites, foods, social customs, etc., at all times or not be considered “real Jews”;
* the refusal by some Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish communities to recognize the religious leaders, synagogues, sacred writings and religious movements of Jewish people of color as legitimately Jewish; and
* the ignoring or silencing of Jews of color and mixed heritage half-Jewish people by some Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews in Jewish internet forums, Jewish media, etc.
DUTY OF ASHKENAZI AND SEPHARDIC JEWS TO REACH OUT
Some white Jewish people are reluctant to admit that Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish communities often discriminate against Jews perceived to be partly or wholly members of another race or ethnicity.
Instead of constructive outreach to Jews of color and mixed heritage Jews, some Ashkenazi Jews and Sephardic Jews instead cite the “we’ve-suffered-too-look-at-the-Holocaust-and-our-expulsions-from-Arab-countries” line of thought or point to Jewish participation in the American civil rights movement of the 1960s as excuses for doing little or nothing to assist mixed-heritage half-Jewish people and Jews of color, or for leaving in place barriers that prevent Jews of color and mixed-heritage half-Jewish people from participating in some Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish communities
What Jewish communities should learn from the Holocaust and the U.S.civil rights movement is that it is a positive duty for Jewish communities to reach out to all Jews, regardless of their racial and ethnic heritages.
Jewish communities in the U.S., Europe, and Israel also need to work on their “Ashkenazi superiority” outlook, which leads to the neglect and denigration of alternative Jewish Sephardic (Jews of the Mediterranean basin) and Mizrahi (Jews of the Arabic world) cultures, and other non-Askenazi Jewish cultures, such as that of the Ethiopian Jews, leading to demoralization, anger, and alienation among the Jews belonging to those cultures.
But in the last twenty years, there has been a gradual growth of Jewish organizations working on welcoming Jews of color and mixed heritage half-Jewish people to the Jewish community. Later in this essay we provide a list of resources, Jewish and secular, which hopefully will grow in the future. We also welcome lists of resources from other faith-based and secular communities.
CHRISTIAN COMMUNITIES AND MULTIRACIAL HALF-JEWISH PEOPLE
One of the earliest accounts of half-Jewish multiracial people in American history involved a dispute in a New Orleans synagogue as to whether the half-Jewish, half-African American children of Jewish slaveowners, who had freed the children, would be allowed to join the synagogue as full members. The answer was no.
Half-Jewish people of color in America, prior to the abolition of slavery — as far as we can determine — were mostly the children of Jewish slaveholders, who are said to have usually freed them when the slaveholders died, in contrast to many Christian slaveholders.
After slavery ended in 1865, it is our current understanding that most of these children belonged to African-American Christian communities. They do not appear to have been sought out or welcomed by white Jewish synagogues.
The end of slavery resulted in many African-Americans being forced to create black churches that were branches or theologically related to the mainline Christian denominations, since they were also not welcome in white Christian churches. For example, the Episcopal church had, as late as the 1920s, at least one entirely African-American congregation in New York City. Episcopalian congregations in one area of Alabama remained segregated through the 1960′s.
This situation was ably described by author Julius Lester, an African-American with Jewish ancestry, in a book called, “Lovesong: Becoming A Jew,” who spoke of how he was warned as a young person growing up in the American South not to publicly acknowledge his white relatives.
Lester, upon converting to Judaism as an adult, sought out his white Jewish relatives in the South, only to discover that they had become Christians.
CIVIL RIGHTS ERA
Many mainline churches became involved in the civil rights movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s and began questioning their past and current history of racism.
While the Episcopal church and other mainline churches have been doing a good deal of anti-racism work and apologizing for past racism — for example, a number of Episcopalian congregations are now multiracial — the legacy of the past lingers in some Christian communities.
CHRISTIAN, MUSLIM AND “OTHER” HALF-JEWISH PEOPLE
We have heard anecdotes suggesting that half-Jewish people of color who opt to live in Christian and other faith-based and secular communities have sometimes done so because they were raised as Christians or in other communities, found those communities as adults and were passionately drawn to them, and in other instances they were turned off on Judaism by unwelcoming Jewish communities, but they were able to find welcoming Christian and other faith-based and secular communities.
We would welcome additional information about the perceptions of half-Jewish multiracial people who have chosen to live as Christians or in other faith-based and secular communities.
1. Be’chol Lashon – Be’chol Lashon asks the Jewish community to “imagine a new global Judaism that transcends differences in geography, ethnicity, class, race, ritual practice, and beliefs. Discussions about “who-is-a-real-Jew” will be replaced with celebration of the rich, multi-dimensional character of the Jewish people.
2. The Jewish Multiracial Network — The mission of the Jewish Multiracial Network is to build a community of Jews of color and multiracial Jewish families for mutual support, learning, and empowerment. Through education and advocacy, they seek to enrich Jewish communal life by incorporating our diverse racial and ethnic heritages.
3. Jews In ALL Hues — Jews in ALL Hues is a grassroots organization whose purpose is to create diverse, welcoming communities for dual (or multiple) heritage Jews through dynamic workshops and events; creating inclusive educational, social and professional initiatives approaching many topics that face the Jewish community today.
Note by Half-Jewish Network: In recent years “Jews in ALL Hues” has expanded their mission to encompass Jews of color who are not children of intermarriage but descendants of long-existing Jewish people of color communities. They also welcome converts to Judaism from people of color families.
4. A book — there is a growing literature on this subject — on growing up with a Jewish parent and an African-American parent — “Black, White and Jewish” by Rebecca Grant Walker at:
Walker, who eventually became a Buddhist, spent her childhood going back and forth between her divorced parents, who lived very different lives. For example, she describes being mistaken as a teenager for the nanny of her two much younger half-siblings, who are white.
5. The synagogue of Rabbi Capers C. Funnye, Jr., Michelle Obama’s cousin, and a leader within the African-American Jewish community:
6. Swirl, a secular organization for mixed heritage individuals, couples and families, was founded by Jen Chau, daughter of a Chinese father and a Jewish mother, and has much to offer:
7. Information on the Jews of Kaifeng, China:
8. Dave Matthews’ book, “Ace of Spades,” about his long struggle with his African-American/Jewish parentage, his upbringing by his African-Amercian father, and his search for the truth about his missing white Jewish mother and her troubled Orthodox Jewish rabbinical family:
9. James McBride’s memoir, “The Color of Water,” describes his Jewish mother’s escape from an abusive Orthodox Jewish rabbinical family, her conversion to Christianity, and her happy marriages to McBride’s African-American father and stepfather. McBride memoir chronicles his upbringing in New York City’s African-American Christian community and his later search for his missing Jewish family. McBride describes the lukewarm reception he received from his mother’s childhood Jewish congregation, who told him it was best that his mother had raised him as a Christian.
10. “Love Across Color Lines: Ottilie Assing and Frederick Douglass” by Maria Diedrich. Biography of Ottilie Assing, a half-Jewish German writer (German Jewish father, converted to Christianity and German Lutheran mother) of the 19th century and her tragic, decades-long love affair with Frederick Douglass, a biracial leader (African-American mother, white father) of America’s movement to abolish slavery.
11. “Douglass’ Women: A Novel,” by Jewell Parker Rhodes, is a novel about the romantic triangle formed by Frederick Douglass, his African-American wife, Anne Murray Douglass, and his white, half-Jewish, German lover, Ottilie Assing, and the tragic end.
12. “Fifty Miles Tomorrow,” a memoir by William Hensley, a famous activist on behalf of the Inuit of Alaska. His well-off Jewish father abandoned Hensley and his very troubled Inuit mother. Hensley had a very bad childhood until he was rescued by his mother’s cousin. Hensley grew up to be a remarkable and talented advocate for the Inuit.
13. “Lovesong: Becoming A Jew,” by Julius Lester, described above: