Art and Literature

when jews aren’t white, part 1: “Little White Lie” and questions of color — 03/27/15, coloring books project

Friends —

My daughter and I were talking about funerals the other day because we just went to a very sad one.

“Why are these services always so Lutheran?” my daughter asked. Then we looked at each other.

“Remember that Passover we went to at Jenny’s family’s house?!!!” we both shouted simultaneously.

Let me explain.

I am a Russian-Norwegian Jew by choice. My husband is the child of European Jews, aka Ashkenazic Jews. My daughter is a blue eyed blonde.

By contrast, Jenny’s family are Iranian. The Passover we experienced at their house — while having the same prayers and basic storyline — had different melodies and a completely different tempo and feel than the polite — if funny — ritual dinner held at my friends’ and family’s seder tables.

For example, at Jenny’s house we were all given these giant green onions that we hit each other with until the onions fell apart into battered green strings. The kids chased their parents around the room with them. This was some sort of ritual enactment of the overseers and the Hebrew slaves from the Exodus but it was a riot of yelling and screaming and laughing and it continued sporadically and surprisingly throughout the evening at odd moments. Just when things were settling down — someone would come at you with an onion.  It was really fun and wild and celebratory.  It felt like a REAL party.

“I hate how Jewishness has gotten completely white-washed,” my daughter declared after we had reminisced.

I’ve been thinking alot about this lately — how a group of people who were originally from the Middle East and a religion that was most emphatically not Western have come to be both white-seeming and Anglo-European.

But if Jews weren’t originally white, it’s also true that many Jews both in Israel and in the diaspora are not viewed by others as white and do not identify in any way as European.

I appreciate attempts to raise and talk about this issue.

One recent attempt is the documentary Little White Lie, which I watched on PBS a couple of nights ago. In this film, the director/narrator Lacey Schwartz tells a compelling story about how she grew up with her white Jewish parents, thinking she was white, when in fact she was biracial.

The success of the lie her parents told her depended (and for a long time succeeded) on a photograph of her grandfather —  an Italian Jew who had dark skin. Lacey was told she looked like the grandfather and that explained her dark complexion and very curly hair.

What doesn’t get explored in the film is how we should think about the — probably Sephardic — grandfather. A colleague of color from a private college I taught at said once that Italy was an interesting place because in some places it was hard to know where Africa ended and where Europe began.

My colleague’s remark and the ambiguity of the grandfatherly photograph make me wonder how long the process of whitewashing Jewishness has been going on for, and how we should confront and deal with that history now. I’ve heard that Sephardic Jews in Israel feel themselves to be very much the objects of discrimination there. I think about the congregants of color in my synagogue and I wonder what my fellow congregants think about the issues of race and whitewashing of Jewishness here in the US.

Lacey Schwartz still identifies as Jewish, and her last name — ironically? poignantly? — points to the aptness of her biracial identity. Her film begs many questions: How many people named Schwartz can claim connections to blackness? What do Jews need to do to open back up the spectrum of color? How do we summon, explore and celebrate without essentializing and trivializing the wealth of traditions in the Jewish diaspora that are emphatically not European?

I don’t know, but I’m excited by these questions, and I’m grateful to Lacey Schwartz and to her film for helping me think about them.

7 replies »

  1. I had the pleasure of seeing the documentary at Temple Emanuel — perhaps I am naive, but I, as a person born to Jewish parents who were the only members of their families who survived the Holocaust but still maintained their Jewish, felt sad that Lacey felt alienated from her Jewish side.

    • Thank you for reading and commenting. I don’t think your reaction is naive at all. You’re implicitly asking an important question it seems to me: What would have happened to Lacey Schwartz if she had been raised as both Jewish AND a person of color? I can’t help but believe that affirming both Jewishness and the filmmaker’s connection to blackness could have been deeply empowering and important. So — the onus is now on us to open up these questions. Thanks again.

  2. I have often wondered whether there was any discrimination towards other Jews in Israel. You raise excellent points and I wish you could get this into a journal and widen the audience. My mother is dark with black curly hair and a large nose and obviously of another “race” She suffered anti Semitism in Australia during the fifties and felt alienated and alone in a white Australia. My father was a white Anglican. I always felt that my mother was “odd” looking and different. Thanks for bringing this up. Please discuss this further. Kaye

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