by Guest Contributor Collier Meyerson, originally published at Be’Chol Lashon
When I first saw Off and Running I was immediately taken, but then again, my own personal investment in the film’s subject matter was considerable. Like Avery, I’m an adopted Jew of color from New York City. I see only dualities in my maturation, which has been a series of racially charged incidents quelled by moments of encouragement by people and institutions that worked together in a bizarre alchemy to create me.
As a young child my parents sat me down and explained it was important for me to find a faith of which to be a part. I grew up in the predominantly liberal and Jewish bastion of New York City called the Upper West side and at the ripe age of 9, it was Judaism that I felt most connected to; it was what I knew best. I began to attend a Schul after school where we were taught stories from the Bible, Yiddish and about our history and culture. I liked the friends I made and the stories I heard at Schul. The formation of my Jewish identity at that age was informed by Schul where there were transnationally adopted Jews to my right and left and by my neighborhood where I felt my family the apotheosis of what the 21st century family looked like. At 9 years old, I thought being bi-racial and Jewish was a magical marriage of identities.
At 13 years old, in the planning stages of my Bat Mitzvah, my Hebrew School teacher called a meeting at his home to discuss details. He opened his door to see me, my father who is an Ashkenazi Jew and my black mother. Upon seeing my family, without asking, he regrettably informed us that the synagogue, would not allow me to perform the right of passage in their temple because my mother wasn’t a Jew. My wily mother, coyly and smarmily responded “oh, but her mother is Jewish.”
Yes, it turns out my biological mother is a white Ashkenazi Jew.
And with these words, my Hebrew school teacher, as though I was caught in the Woody Allen version of my own life as a film, threw his hands into the air and exclaimed “it’s Bashert [it’s destiny] then! You’ll have your Bat Mitzvah in the Temple!” In that moment I felt a definitive rage. I wanted desperately to be a part of the Upper West Side’s most exclusive and popular clique, Judaism, but felt what would prove to be an indelible stake in this idea of blackness, something pitted against Jewishness. And so there it was, in the home of my Hebrew School teacher that the two were separated, like oil and water.
I was Black and Jewish but I couldn’t be both, I couldn’t be a Black Jew.
I chose not to have a Bat Mitzvah. I did not want play into the manipulations of the Jewish matrilineal system, making me Jewish because my adoptive mother, my actual mother, was not Jewish. My Jewish “blood line” felt tenuous and foreign and I did not want to take part in a brand of Judaism that did not accept that I was Jewish because my father was Jewish. And so I began to create my own rules.
My Jewish identity became an amalgamation of the cultural extensions of the religion. I ate bagels from Murray’s Sturgeon Shop on 90th and Broadway, sang Yiddish songs and memorialized the Holocaust in the “Culturally Jewish” Camp Kinderland and attended Seders at my aunts house. But my connection to the religion was jaded and superficial. It was as though I wore a “Jewish” badge when I felt as though it would benefit or help me to fit in better, but didn’t believe in it at my core, having been turned away because of my race. I could wear Judaism like a person wears a cloak, removing it when I came into my room, putting it on to perform for others.
Last December my roommate decided to throw a Shabbos dinner. It was also the first night of Chanukah. I created a makeshift Menorah in our kitchen, since we did not have one. When I emerged from the kitchen with my creation, I stood in front of it like a proud mother. I quieted the small living room and began to recite the prayer. Most people, even the one or two that weren’t Jewish knew (at least) some of it, the beginning, “Barukh atah Adonai” being the loudest, but by the third verse, the one that you recite only on the Friday of Chanukah, all but three of the twenty people dropped out; me, my roommate and one young man.
After it was over I began to exit the room and was stopped by the same young man that had accompanied me in the last verse.
He insisted, “You’re not Jewish, are you?”
I replied calmly, coolly “Yes, yes I am.”
He replied “But you’re not like, Jewish, Jewish, right? I mean, you don’t look Jewish.”
I walked out of the room. But not without overhearing him whisper to his friend “I mean, c’mon, give me a break, she looks Indian or something, did Sara teach her that prayer do you think?” I left the house after that. It was the first time I’d cried since the day I left my Hebrew School Teacher’s house and written off any formal tie to Judaism. It was then that I realized I was unable to remove my imaginary cloak. The cloak, the performance of Judaism, turned out to be a projection of real desire to feel accepted. I realized I the liberal isolation I had grown up with was not a reflection of race in America and if I wanted to be Jewish I had to make a concerted effort to make people accept me as such.
A few short weeks later I watched Off and Running. In it was one young woman’s unapologetically raw quest to join all identities. Instead of pushing her Judaism away, only allowing it to appear when convenient and comfortable like I had, Avery did not let it go. She allowed Judaism in, steadfast that it was a part of her fabric just as her blackness was becoming. Avery had an incisive understanding that identity is a construction, her blackness another layer of herself that she needed to explore and take from to create. In one of the most poignant moments in the film a therapist asks her “Do you feel black?” to which Avery responds “African-American? I don’t know what that means.” Avery’s transparent and unadulterated battle to find confluence urged me to do the same.
In the time since watching Off and Running I have approached my blackness and my Judaism as two of many other parts working together. I have encountered many Jews of Color who are doing the same. In a recent New York Times article well-known African-American Jewish blogger, Ma Nishtena, asserts that he eats his “gefilte fish as his mother prepares it, seasoned with Jamaican peppers and spices,” harvesting a Judaism that unites his other identities. The documentary Off and Running comes during a moment where American Jewry is at a crossroads. Its face, like Ma Nishtena’s mother’s gefilte fish, is sprinkled with color. The lockstep of conservative American Jewry needs to streamline their identities to complement the generally shifting American consciousness, away from exclusivity, toward sprinkled gefilte fish.
Editor’s Note: Off and Running airs tonight, at 7 PM ET, on PBS. It is also available on Netflix. – LDP