It Should Be a Haven From White Supremacy
One of the strangest things about U.S. Passover traditions is the way some white Jews apparently integrate Negro spirituals and Black civil-rights history into seders. I don’t know how many people do this, but it’s enough that this content is integrated into the Reconstructionist Haggadah, A Night of Questions, which I own 15 copies of.
I never really paid much attention to this or thought much about what it would be like for this Haggadah to be used by a non-Black seder leader until last year, when due to the pandemic, my spouse and I attended a seder led by white Jews from our synagogue. We, a Black Jew and a Taiwanese American Jew, were the only two Jews of color at the seder. I cannot express the intensity of awkwardness and even pain that we experienced watching these white Jews perform Blackness by singing Negro spirituals and reading clips where the word “Negro” appears repeatedly. My spouse changed each instance because even he did not feel that it was necessary or appropriate for him to use that language.
In some ways, the specific meaning Passover would hold for me as a Black Jew was determined for me by a fight about what to name me as a baby. My white Jewish paternal grandmother — the feminist activist Selma James — insisted that I be named after Sojourner Truth, the 19th- century formerly enslaved Black feminist abolitionist activist. My Black, maternal grandmother wanted to give me a family name. My mother, not wanting to upset anyone, compromised by selecting “Chanda” from a name book and giving me two middle names, one of which is Sojourner. As a result, my earliest memories of learning about a historical figure are all about Sojourner Truth, whom I understood to be a heroine that walked to freedom and then vigorously demanded it for others. Her activism was inextricably tied to the name: in Dutch-speaking New York, she discarded the name she was given at birth into slavery because G-d had told her to sojourn through the land, spreading the truth.
My earliest memories of Torah are also connected with this name: I knew that “sojourner” appeared in Exodus, which was the book that told the story of slaves leaving Egypt. As a Black child growing up in the United States, raised in a Caribbean family, to me the Exodus story didn’t seem like ancient mythology. It sounded like something that had happened to my family — and fairly recently, too. It wasn’t an allegory; it was Black history.
Not surprisingly, Passover is therefore an important time of the year for me. Part of this is because it is the last holiday I experienced with my paternal grandfather, with whom I was very close. I recall going to his cousin’s house and searching for the afikomen. I did not find it, but the child who did gifted me the silver dollar that was the finder’s reward. We were the poor side of the family; I treasured that John F. Kennedy silver dollar for far longer than was merited.
By my Grandpa Norman’s side, I had no sense of being different from the rest of the family at the table. I didn’t pay much attention to the fact that they were a different color than me, nor did I really notice that they were incredibly rich, while we were not really. That last seder we had together was also the last time I remember entering a Jewish space without feeling hyper aware that I was entering it as a Black Jew. I was 6.
Grandpa Norman was born poor and Jewish in Brooklyn right before the Spanish Flu pandemic killed his father. When he was born, he was not white, though he was white when he died about 70 years later. He had spent his life a labor organizer, and I know he welcomed my Black, non-Jewish mother into his family without question. But importantly, part of the power of whiteness is having the option to not be welcoming. The story as I heard it is that my parents were afraid to introduce me to my father’s maternal grandfather; they did not know whether he would welcome a “n***er baby” is how the story was relayed to me later. The only photo I have of us together is him smiling as he holds me. But the nature of white supremacy is that he could have chosen to reject me, and the force of American history would have backed his decision.
In the 30-plus years since my last seder with Grandpa Norman, I’ve had to learn how to navigate talking to white Jews about their whiteness, in part because the failure to reckon with it means that Black Jews like me and other Jews of color often feel alienated in Jewish spaces. Though contemporary translations of the Torah use the word “stranger” instead of “sojourner,” I can safely say that I understand deeply what it means to be the Sojourner of Exodus 23:9, which reminds us, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”
I am grateful to the ancestors who fought to end slavery so that I was not born a slave. So this is not to say that moving among white Jews is like being a slave. But I know what it is to feel like a stranger, sojourning through Jewish spaces that struggle to figure out how I belong. Being called to the Torah only when large numbers of guests will be at the temple. The maybe well-intentioned but Ashkenazi-centric, “So are you Mizrahi?” The construction of Ashkenazi as “white,” when here I am, both Black and Ashkenazi simultaneously. My spouse and I felt forced to leave the synagogue where he became a Jew because the rabbi insisted that there were no Jews involved in the slave trade, or at least not in any significant numbers. Mainstream discourses about Jewish history, Ashkenazi-centrism and whiteness struggle to reckon with the fact that some Sephardim were deeply enmeshed with the slave trade — not just in North America, but also in Barbados, where my mother was born, and all over Latin America and the Caribbean.
Passover is the week when I deal with what it means to be simultaneously Black and Jewish in America. I organize a seder; I invite people I care deeply about into my home. I create and print a custom Haggadah each year. We get wasted drinking two sizable grape dranks on empty stomachs (wine, gin/vodka/soju and concord grape juice, take your pick). We laugh our way through whatever play-version of the Maggid my spouse has picked out that year. We also make sure to talk about Black and Palestinian experiences around the world. It is through this joyous experience that I reconcile being Black and Jewish at the same time, getting to craft an environment where my identity is whole. I know that everyone there understands this is a time when I honor my ancestors, biological and spiritual, who toiled under the Pharaoh of white-supremacist capitalism and colonialism. Passover is the part of the year when I bring my community together and call on us to lift up Black history, Black joy and bountiful Black futures.
It took me a long time to realize that white Jews don’t quite have the same experience — and can’t. Intergenerational slavery did not systematically happen to their biological ancestors. They do not have to negotiate the complexity of color the same way that Black Jews do — wading through understanding our skin color as a mark, as a site of danger, as a representation of legacies of rape and dehumanization. For those of us who are Black Jews, this discourse has its own unique manifestations, though the contours are familiar: Those of us who are darker are treated worse, and those of us who are lighter don’t always take responsibility for noticing that.
This is not to say that Jews of all kinds don’t have trauma. I remember an Iraqi American Mizrahi woman telling me that her family’s trauma was not the Holocaust; it was being forcibly relocated to Israel. My great-uncle and his family escaped Germany just in time; when he returned as a soldier in the U.S. Army, he could not believe how bad things had gotten. Much of my grandmother’s father’s family escaped pogroms in Poland, only to face poverty and antisemitism in the United States. I have no interest in comparing these traumas with slavery or ranking them. But I need people to understand that they are not intergenerational chattel slavery. Nor do they need to be.
Yet Black Atlantic experiences are deeply integrated into American seders. I think the two most common justifications for this are: “But we do this because we recognize the journey of Black people through slavery and segregation” and “Jews sang these songs side by side, arm in arm, as they marched for freedom.” I appreciate these intentions, the symbolism and the history. Importantly, I want non-Black Jews to think about the significance of this symbolism and the extent to which this annual practice is supported by daily activities that uplift Black well-being. They should also ask themselves: How would they feel about gentiles taking Jewish traditions and treating them as their own — without any Jews in the room to be accountable to as they do it? There is a difference between singing side by side with Black people as you put your body on the line to fight the forces of white supremacy and doing the same at a festive celebration where there are likely no Black people at all. It’s important to think carefully about this, in part because it has been decades since mainstream Jewish organizing was strongly linked to contemporary Black calls for liberation.
There are days when I wish I could stop being Jewish because I experience so much alienation in the Jewish community, and frankly, it would be easier to fit into the Black communities I am a part of if I were Christian. But I never wish I wasn’t Black because at the end of the day, I can find diverse Black spaces where I am embraced without hesitation. This Passover, I invite white Jews to discuss what they will do to ensure Black Jews and other Jews of color can find Jewish spaces like that, too. This means rethinking what exactly you may be doing when you invoke Black trauma and the art created in response to it as part of your Passover celebrations. Instead, perhaps you take should use that time to ask difficult questions of yourselves. You may find yourself feeling like you do not know how to ask. That is a fine place to begin the story.