Thoughts On Race and Gates

A Lesson for Jews in Gates’ Arrest?
By Aliza Hausman


Did you hear the one about the black Harvard professor who got arrested breaking into his own home? No, this is not a joke. It was the beginning of a Shabbos lunch that left me traumatized.

It’s always the same. I feel safe, comfortable and carefree, and suddenly, punched in the gut, violated, uncomfortable, and all the cares of the world weigh on me. When I feel safe, I feel part of the Jewish community, but when I do not, I feel like an outsider on the outskirts, not fitting in.

My husband and I started speaking out about racism in the Jewish community when a friend asked us to speak at a synagogue in Washington Heights, in my hometown of New York City. As an interracial Jewish couple (my husband is white, I am Dominican), our friend was sure we’d have plenty to say. I wasn’t. But as I started to write about my experiences in Washington Heights (from both white Jews, who thought I was dark and foreign, to Dominicans, who thought I was too light and American), I filled four single-spaced typed pages. I knew from the stories of other Jews of color that this meant I was lucky. I learned still others had been even luckier.

When every inch of my kinky hair is hidden away under a head scarf, people assume there is no one in the room to offend with their racist comments. My husband and I have sat in stunned silence around a Shabbos table. Non-Jews, blacks, Mexicans … no one was safe, especially not me, a convert with non-Jewish family, a light-skinned Latina with a brown mother and African roots. Even our Jewish real estate broker told my husband and his parents that our new neighborhood would be better because there weren’t many Hispanics. My husband informed her there’d now be one more (me!).

Topics unsafe for the Shabbos table: skin color, class and especially affirmative action, which people have insinuated might be the only reason I got into college. These loaded topics can lead to comments like “Why are they always playing the race card?” and “Jews didn’t use slavery as an excuse never to work again” and “Their cultural values are the reason they can’t get ahead.” When you are the darkest person in a room full of angry white people, your eyes dart for the exit, looking for the best escape.

But something changed recently. When the arrest of black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Obama’s initial response came up at the Shabbos table, my husband was not silent. He highlighted the issues between people of color and law enforcement. He tried to get everyone to look at the situation from every angle. A conversation that started out, “Doesn’t everyone agree Obama was stupid for speaking out about this case?” changed because of my husband’s input.

The longer we’ve been married, the more my husband has seen racism up close. He has watched me be subjected to routine, tactless interrogations and commentary about my race, my culture and, of course, my hair, in the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. By seeing the world through my eyes, he has realized that even he is not without taint from the racism that pollutes us every day in the very air we breathe, no matter how much we fight it. And yes, we must fight it.

My husband’s new thoughts on racism are unwelcome outside of the classrooms we teach in. People have worried aloud that he is a race traitor. (I have been accused of the same for marrying him.) My husband says he has finally learned to really listen to the stories of people of color, especially Jews who are mistaken for the help at Jewish events, who must always defend their Jewishness and who ponder leaving the community altogether because the color of their skin makes things, like dating, harder.

I have been guilty of common mistakes. I didn’t listen wholeheartedly when Jewish friends of color discussed their dating woes. I wondered if they were exaggerating. I made it about me. After all, it hadn’t been harder for me to date in the community. My “exotic” looks drew in Jewish men. My black Jewish friends said that many white Jews dated them for an “exotic” adventure, but ended things with “Well, I can’t marry someone black.”

I couldn’t put myself into their shoes until a white Jewish friend told me point-blank she would “never date a black guy,” because it would kill her grandmother. “What if the black guy were Jewish?” I asked. Silence. She added further thoughts on interracial couples: black and Hispanics are less “jarring” together, as are whites and Asians together. She didn’t realize she was tearing my soul out from my body, telling me my marriage was “jarring,” and people like me should stick to our own kind, that white Jews and black Jews were not the same “kind.”

I wish the conversation had ended there, but like so many white Jewish friends, she began an intimate conversation about how blacks and Hispanics have unsavory cultural values. They assume I will agree with them, and they assure me quickly that as an educated, Hispanic woman, I am a “credit to my race.” I am not one of those people.

“Oh, it’s amazing your English is so good.” Hey, English is my first language. “Oh, you’re so articulate and educated for a Hispanic person.” So articulate and educated, a white college professor accused me of plagiarizing a paper, even consulting my other professors. I guess I didn’t expect to hear the same racist comments from Jews. I knew plenty about racism before becoming Jewish, having made an art of answering stupid questions about my skin color and hair. I just thought Jews were different in this way. I was naïve.

“How can a people that has experienced the Holocaust be so racist?” a young black prospective convert asked me, wringing his hands in total heartbreak. And on a regular basis, a white Jewish friend tells me “You’re too sensitive about race” and “I’m not racist, but…” So I have created a network of Jews of color, of white allies. With them, I know I can safely discuss the latest racist Jewish encounter that has left me raw, exposed, dying from the inside out.

When my husband and I feel safe, we still go out into that scary racist world and teach people (the non-Jews who call all Jews racist, the Jews who call all non-Jews anti-Semitic) about making this world safer for people of every color, every religion, especially our unborn Jewish children. These conversations are always painful, because change starts with getting out of our comfort zone, accepting that “everyone is a little bit racist” and, from there, becoming more sensitive and aware of our own personal biases in a way that will truly change the world.

Aliza Hausman, a Latina Orthodox Jewish convert, freelance writer, blogger and educator, blogs daily at Memoirs of a Jewminicana. This article originally appeared in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and is reprinted with her permission.

About tolerantamerica

On her recent tour for her book, Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe, Lisa was inspired by the inauguration of Barack Obama, the first African-American elected president of the United States, to encourage cross-cultural dialogue about multiculturalism in America. To increase tolerance and understanding across communities, Lisa launched "A More Tolerant America" to feature guest bloggers, authors, activists, artists and other writers, who, like her, are multicultural. Klug's father is a German-Jewish Holocaust survivor from Poland and the descendant of a Spanish Jewish family that escaped the Spanish Inquisition. During her tour, Lisa encountered ignorance and bigotry toward Jewish Americans. As part of her campaign, this blog will giveaway books and other materials that promote cross-cultural dialogue.
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11 Responses to Thoughts On Race and Gates

  1. Pingback: Jewlicious » Thoughts On Race and Gates

  2. A White Jew says:

    This article is filled with emotion but what about some facts? Some historical data to explain that this simple black and white is more gray than anything. What about the history of the blacks and Jews? Africans and Hebrew? Both Ghettotized by White Christians of America. “How could Jews be racists after the holocaust?” Ill tell you why. The Holocaust taught Jews to trust NO ONE but Jews. Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews have had strife for centuries so it doesnt matter if you are a convert or not. In the 1800’s Ashkenazi Jews were forbidden to live in Jerusalem by the Chief Sephardic Rabbi.

    If Jews cant even love themselves how can they love the Convert which is an explicit Torah commandment let alone the Non Jews.

    All these signs are the Heels of Moshiach! So hang in there and know this. You are now a Jew and whatever pain you are caused in this world means you will have that much MORE in the world to come.

    Imagine if your mother was a convert but didnt convert orthodox then became religious and had to convert again and then when you became religious you had to convert. I should be bitter for the 20+ years I delt with harassment for being Jewish in public school and secular society prior to my conversion. I wasnt even really Jewish!

    We all have problems. If you are pious and hold true to Torah Hashem will keep you safe.

    A chief Rabbi who was a Ger in the times of Rambam wrote a letter to the former asking him if he was obligated to say Baruch Ata….Sheloh Asani Goy. Rambam ruled yes because we thank Hashem we wake up Jewish everyday. Hashem could switch our bodies and we might never know!

    Good Shabbos and Hashem should bless you.

  3. Adam Hyman says:

    “Did you hear the one about the black Harvard professor who got arrested breaking into his own home? No, this is not a joke. It was the beginning of a Shabbos lunch that left me traumatized.”

    You heard about and were immediately traumatized? Why?

    Because you AUTOMATICALLY ASSUMED the cop did it because he was racist.

  4. R Kantor says:

    The problem is that you live in America, the galut. Come home and you will see a world without this Tumah.

  5. My wife is a g’oret and we always “enjoy” hearing people go on and on about how “evil” all non-Jews are and the like. We recently bought a house and got garbage from “friends” because our neighbors are not only non-Jewish, but *gasp* have darker skin tone!

    I get really, really tired of people who act like Moshe Rabenu was Ashkenazi and Avrohom Avinu spoke Yiddish.

  6. Anonymous says:

    As a woman of color who is also Jewish, I was so angry when I read this article. I got even angrier when I read some of the responses (I’m assuming the assumption of a racist cop comment was a joke).

    Racism pervades every aspect of contemporary Jewish culture. It fills my hearat with a lot of pain, rage, and revulsion. It makes me sad because I don’t know how I can connect to the tradition of my (Ashkenazi) ancestors when I imagine them as people like those described in this article (some of them, like my grandparents, I knew in real life. They were very loving towards me and have given me so much in life, but they were also racist and made some horrible comments).

    What made me feel better today was an article I glanced at, about desecration of a Jewish school bus by Black folks in the US. This makes me feel better because it reminds me that there is never a ‘perpetual victim’ (despite one group or another’s desire to claim the title).

    And what’s more, people who support the rights of all people, all beings, who pour out love and anger in the name of oppression come from all walks of life. In my opinion, these are the true ‘chosen people’. People like Emma Goldstein, just one example of a someone choosing to fight in the name of freedom for all, most times being raised in environments that did not support this at all. These are among my ancestors. Even the ones who have said and done disgusting things to oppress others, which we do in this life, even if we do it with our shopping choices, food choices, and lifestyle choices, have felt that oppression. We have been, not just a minority, but a minority WITHIN a minority, where the truth is really apparent in a way that you don’t see when you can create an us vs. them mentality as a ‘minority’. These are also among my ancestors. The mentally ill are, and we’re all trying to heal together on this plane of existence or another.

    I hope this writer continues to speak out, because her words are sorely needed, and I want to thank her for taking the time and raising the courage to do so.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Correction: I should say, black folks who were NOT Jewish, because being Jewish is not synonymous with a certain skin color, prayer style, geographical location or cultural custom.

  8. sheela says:

    It made you feel better to know that a Jewish school bus was vandalized?
    And you wonder why you don’t “connect” with other Jews in your family? Wow. Just… wow.

  9. It is obvious that their is racial animus toward each other.

    We, who claim to be victims must try to explain and understand what it is that makes others not like us.

    Can we be open and honest? Not easy—maybe you should start and I will then have the courage to follow. Thank you.

  10. Thank you Aliza Hausman for your courageous and moving article. As I age, I become more and more grateful to my parents for raising me with the values of tolerance, respect, equality for all people. They were both children of immigrants who had come to America well before the Shoah, but who had suffered plenty of persecution as Jews in Eastern Europe. My mother’s mother, whom I knew best of all my grandparents was a member of the Arbeiter Ring, or Workmen’s Circle, part of the Jewish Socialist movement that, in Europe, was known as the Jewish Bund. (Bund is a word in both Yiddish and German for “alliance”) The Bund insisted on their own deep cultural identity and, at the same time, insisted on solidarity with all ethnicities. All my life I’ve tried to live that wonderful paradox: difference can bring us together just as it can separate us. Though I have not, so far (I’m 64) become an observant Jew, I don’t feel only “secular” either. Spirit, soul, neshoma, a sense of the sacred is a central part of my life. Naking ark, theatre specifically, has been my chief mode of expressing my Jewishness and of partaking of the numinous.

    I also love, passionately, the art of many cultures other than Jewish, and am fascinated by the cross-cultural collaborations that happen so easily and richly in world music.

    I also go completely nuts when faced with, on one hand, Jewish racism, and, on the other, anti-Semitism from otherwise progressive people. I don’t believe that *all* criticism of Israeli policy is anti-Semitic, but I also believe that no one is immune from anti-Semitism and racism.

    Right now I’m acting in an adaptation of The Chosen, from the novel by Chaim Potok. The central them to both the play and the book is a concept that exists in the Talmud. It’s a phrase used when two commentators held contradictory, irreconcilable opinions. It says, to paraphrase, “Both this one *and* that one are the word of the living G-d” So maybe it all comes down to the crucial necessity of learning how to carry “irreconcilable” ideas in one’s mind. “Both and…” rather than insisting that only one idea, one nation, one religion can be right or true.
    And if that’s too abstract, how about the fact of our biology? We all carry DNA that is infinitely more similar, nearly identical to the DNA of — not only other humans, but of — all life than it is different. We are all “of color” thanks to our common African ancestors. Auden said it the best: “We must love one another or die.” (

  11. Typo: in second-to-last paragraph, second line, the word should be “theme” not “them”

    (The central theme to both the play and the book…)

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