Finding My Village of Black, Jewish Moms
This is the first in a series of pieces to mark Black History Month. Check back for more essays throughout the month of February!
The first time I went to bed with Juan, I was relieved to see he was circumcised. As things became more serious between us and I contemplated marrying him, I felt safe knowing that circumcising a son, if we were to have one, wouldn't be an issue.
Juan isn’t Jewish, but Afro-Puerto Rican— a Black man, like most of the men I’d dated. I knew if we wound up together, any child of ours would have his or her Judaism questioned, as I had all my life. I’d heard it countless times: You’re not really Jewish unless your mother is Jewish. According to this definition, I wasn’t “really” Jewish—my mother is Black, from Jamaica. Her parents were Christian and raised her as one, though by the time she was an adult, she was done with religion.
I grew up with a clear sense of who my family was and spent time with my immigrant grandparents on either end of the IRT train line in New York City—West Indians in Brooklyn, Polish Jews in the Bronx. I was Jamaican and Jewish and proud of it. But my appearance confused people. Because of my fair complexion, to many people, I didn’t look Black. Seeing me as Jewish was less of a stretch to some, but there was always a little...question. Was I Sephardic? Most people assumed I was Puerto Rican, and still do today, especially since I added the last name Torres when I got married.
As it happens, my Jewish roots are Ashkenazi. My paternal grandparents were survivors of Stalin’s labor camps. They fled Poland to avoid Hitler but got arrested and sent to Siberia. Almost every relative of theirs who stayed behind in Warsaw was killed, in who-knows-which camp. They came to this country as refugees. Every weekend, my brother and I stayed with our Buba and Zayda in the Bronx and got to know their community of Yiddish-speaking Socialists, card-carrying members of the Jewish Labor Bund, all of them atheists. My psychoanalyst father was also deeply opposed to religion. He kept us away from Hebrew school and wouldn’t hear of my brother and me becoming bar or bat mitzvah.
As a child, it didn’t seem strange to be a Jew without religious practice. Remembering the Shoah was our observance. We had no Torah, but we had other books—Image Before My Eyes, Night, and Survival in Auschwitz—lining the walls of our living room. Instead of going to synagogue, we learned our family’s history. I slurped it in with my Buba’s soup, listening to the stories about the War that my grandparents and their friends never hesitated to tell us. I took it seriously, to never forget—neither what happened nor who I was. Despite what others didn’t always see, I knew I was Jewish: I was who was left.
Because I was “different”—no religious training and a Black mom—it had always been hard to find a place to land in Judaism, a community of my own. I’d always had a quiet hunger to become just a little more observant. Growing up without faith, the Jewish calendar and its rituals gave me a taste of what spirituality was. Coming together with family in the Bronx for Rosh Hashanah and Passover gave shape to my year.
Over the years of my adolescence and young adulthood, both of my grandparents died, followed by my father. By my early 30s, I started to long for more connection to my Jewish roots. I wanted more out of the holidays. I’d gather with what little Jewish family I had, but my two younger cousins, who’d grown up in a suburban town with no Jews, were disconnected from Judaism. Each seder seemed like a lot of cooking and organizing and figuring out how to read as few passages for the shortest meal possible to keep everyone happy—a lot of work, with very little meaning or spiritual uplift in return.
I waited until I was 39 to have my son Naftali. When he was born, I became consumed with the question of how, without family to provide a Jewish space, my son would know he was a Jew. My friend Zev, who’d become like an adopted father after mine died, reminded me that when the Jews accepted the Torah from Moses, they said na’aseh v’nishma,“We will do and we will hear/understand.” We’re a people of actions, not of abstract beliefs. People could question my membership, but I could do. I could circumcise my son, I could sing him the Shema each night and when he was old enough, he could join me. We could light candles and eat challah for Shabbes.
But just as Jews don’t pray alone, I couldn’t give Naftali a Jewish identity all by myself. I started cooking and having friends and their children over for Shabbat more regularly. It didn’t matter if they were Jewish, but it was nice when they were. It was sometimes awkward to go through motions that I hadn’t practiced growing up—stumbling over transliterated prayers, saying the blessing over the candles without singing it to any particular tune—but I loved even my nominal observance.
As good as it felt to be the hostess of a Jewish table, I still longed for a deeper sense of community with people who would just get me. I ended up finding it with a few close girlfriends who were also Black and Jewish. My friends Amilca and Tasha had children close in age to Naf, and Brook was the mom of the first friend Naf made on his own as a toddler. I realized I already had a village—none of us religious, but all of us caring that our children knew who they were.
The first time we all came together was for Passover. As Black Jewish women, none of us were from households where anything was ever just one way, but the word seder literally means “order,” and we wanted to find our own set of rituals. None of us had a traditional Reform or Conservative upbringing, so we made our own order, knitting together our prayers, readings, and explanations from various Haggadot and books. We negotiated the details, like whether to meet for the first night or the second. Amilca had her mother’s giant extended family’s queer feminist seder; I still wanted to be with my few Jewish relatives for one of the seders. Most important was the food: Brook was the brisket queen, I made veggies, Tasha always brought dessert.
I’d been grateful, over the years, to be a guest at other people’s seder tables, where I’d learned many of the different Jewish traditions that had been absent from my home. But as I went through what I’d dubbed the “Afro-Semitic Sisters’ Seder,” I realized that, more than anyone, I’d been influenced by my grandfather. In the Socialist Haggadah he edited, the Exodus was compared to all the escapes Jews had made from one or another calamity, from pogroms to the modern-day departure from the Soviet Union. Working with others, he helped his Socialist community celebrate their Jewish identity in ways that resonated with their opposition to organized religion. By coming together with these women who were, like me, Black and Jewish, but not always at ease in Jewish spaces, I was doing the same. We were building a way to be Jewish and showing our children that we could do it just as we were—Black women and Jewish mothers.
That first seder was a bit of a mess: a pile of toddlers and preschoolers and an ambitiously long cut-and-pasted Google Docs Haggadah. We could barely keep the children in their seats long enough to light the candles. I’d assigned each person a passage to read, but inevitably, when each of our turns came, we were out of our seats corralling a child who was trying to escape from the table. It was a relief when we reached the fourth cup of wine, and we barely remembered to crack the door for Elijah. Once the kids retreated to Naf’s room to pull down every toy in sight, we could settle in and enjoy just being together. At this table, there were no contradictions, no question of who belonged.
Though I moved from New York City to Oakland, CA, I go home for at least one of the holidays to be with my Afro-Semitic Sisters. For these last two years of the pandemic, it’s been a blessing and a loss to gather on Zoom instead. We struggle even more to keep the children at the table and the screen. Virtually, we break bread (or matzah) and drink wine and wish for a release from bondage for all our people, Jews and Black folks, in these deeply troubled times. Next year, in Jerusalem, next year in Harlem, we say. Though we’re not religious, all of us pray that for our next seder, our seventh, we’ll be back around the table together.