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Yes, You *Can* Be Native and Jewish

(Clockwise from top left) Isabella Robbins, Brixton Lieberman, Anna Eckert, and Daniel Delgado. Photos courtesy of sources. 

“Wait, you’re Native and Jewish? How can you be both?”

“Does that mean you follow two religions? Is that allowed?”

“But you’re more of one than the other, right?”

“I’ve never met someone who’s Jewish and Native.”

 

These are some common responses from strangers when they find out someone is, in fact, a Native Jew. Other responses range from flat-out disbelief and dismissal to open hostility.

Anna Eckert, who is Bad River Ojibwe and Ashkenazi, says a lot of non-Native Americans have not met a Native person in real life—or, at least, they think they haven’t. “People are especially confused when they meet a Native who doesn’t follow Christianity or what they think of as traditional tribal religions,” she explains.

It’s true that being both Native and Jewish is somewhat rare. In 2020, a Pew Research Center poll found that Jews make up around 2% of the overall population, and less than 1% of American Jews identify as Native.

But as populations grow and shift, being a Native Jew might no longer be such a rarity. According to Indian Country Today, the number of people identifying as American Indian or Alaska Native on the 2020 U.S. census, either alone or in combination with another racial identity, had risen to 9.7 million, an 86.5% increase from 2010.

Of course, census data only gives us a surface view of any given demographic. For both Native and Jewish communities, conversations of identity and belonging are ongoing, as definitions shift over time and place.

One of the challenges to greater Indigenous inclusion in mainstream media representation is erasure. Instead of being clearly identified, Natives (and other minorities) are often forced to select “other” or “identity not listed,” and are categorized with labels such as “something else.” When audiences see “other,” it often represents an amalgamation of identities deemed too insignificant for individual attention. What does that say about how mainstream media view survey respondents and their respective identities? When this happens repeatedly to minorities who are already ignored, dismissed, and underrepresented, it sends a message of deliberate erasure.

Within Jewish institutions, it is difficult to find any kind of solid representation of Native Jews, and a general lack of awareness or understanding about Natives is not uncommon. For most Native Jews, the situation is frustratingly similar to what they’ve experienced in other non-Native spaces, where they’re used to encountering ignorance or miseducation about Native histories, peoples, and cultures.

Daniel Delgado, who is Quechua and Ashkenazi and whose Indigenous relatives mostly live in Peru, wishes mainstream Jewish communities understood being Native not as a racial identity, but as a political and cultural form of belonging. “Nativeness is not about race,” he says. “It is a complete, relational, land-based peoplehood.”

Brixton Lieberman, who is a Diné (Navajo) and Ndé (Mescalero Apache) Jew, describes the usual responses he gets from non-Native white Jews. “There’s usually some question about blood quantum, which is the amount of ‘Indian blood’ a person has,” he explains. “And some joke about how ‘we all have a little Native in us.’ A lot of people get confused because I’m Jewish and brown!”

Native Jews can also feel fetishized. “White Jews try to get a sense for how Indian I *really* am,” Daniel says. “And they’d rather hear about my Quechua customs than my thoughts on Torah.”

These comments might not be meant maliciously, but they reveal the systemic racism and ignorance embedded in mainstream American institutions, of which synagogues, Jewish day schools, and summer camps are a part. It is not uncommon for non-Native Americans to speak of Indigenous people in the past tense, or to forget that the struggles against violent colonialism are still being waged every day. The brutality of colonization continues to erase Native presence and deliberately create a sense of invisibility. The simple exclamation “We Are Still Here!” is at the forefront of contemporary Native art, media, and activism, including as the title of a children's book, photographic collection, and documentary.

It’s important to remember that because Indigenous people have always been here, connections between different Nations have always been made, and cultures have always grown and been shaped by those growing around them. While Native peoples are each distinct and unique, nobody has existed in a vacuum, and resources and ideas are actively exchanged between tribes.

“Native people, especially early contact nations like mine, have a long experience of creating syncretic relationships between our traditional worldviews and other systems,” Daniel says. “If we do that with Judaism, it is not immediately avoda zara [a form of idolatry] or an attack on Judaism.”

Just because you’ve never met someone who is Native and Jewish, does not mean Native Jews are not out there. Yet curiosity about Native Jews can become problematic when Jewish communities perpetuate stereotypes about Natives, or even about what it means to be a Jew.

“I’ve felt very welcomed by my Navajo family,” says Isabella Robbins, who is Diné and  Ashkenazi, “but I feel less comfortable in Jewish spaces. I’m from the rez [reservation], where the nearest synagogue or Jewish center is at least three to four hours away. Sometimes other Jews look down on me for how little I know.”

Because most Native communities don’t have a large Jewish presence, many Native Jews, like Isabella, have trouble accessing mainstream Jewish life. Especially in areas that are dominated by American Christianity, it can be difficult for Native Jews to find like-minded religious communities.

Sometimes even practicing their traditions can create uncomfortable situations. “There’s a lot of food in my pueblo I can’t eat due to kashrut,” Daniel explains, “which is awkward, because declining food that is offered to you is not something [Quechua people] really do. Also, alcohol is important to both Quechua and Jewish ceremonies, and sometimes Jewish restrictions on the use of wine have created minor conflicts.”

Sometimes Native Jews have to navigate competing considerations. For example, in Jewish practice, many types of fish are considered kosher, but Anna will only eat those harvested by Indigenous people and practices.

“Growing up on the reservation, I ate spam, which is obviously not kosher,” Isabella adds. “I also had to choose between having a bat mitzvah and having a kinaalda, which is a Navajo women’s puberty ceremony. It was just a matter of time and resources.”

Despite conflicting traditions or narratives, Native Jews also find that their cultures’ histories can invoke similar stories and emotions. “Both our communities faced horrendous acts of genocide,” says Brixton. “We carry intergenerational trauma. I think of the similarities to our Black Jewish relatives, and of the burdens of ancestral trauma.”

Being Native and Jewish can place these historical narratives in relation to each other, highlighting similarities as well as differences. Anna discusses Ojibwe ties to her land, and how they shape her culture and way of life. “Being Indigenous strongly centers connections to our lands, but I don’t feel that as a Jew. There have been a lot of diasporas. I can’t speak for other Jews, but I do not see my Judaism reflected in Israel, and I don’t feel connected to it as a homeland. My grandmother didn’t claim Poland and Poland didn’t claim her. I wish I had the feeling I have about the area around Bad River for the places where my Jewish family grew up.”

Isabella emphasizes the importance of recognizing Judaism as a cultural marker. “Judaism isn’t just a religion—it is culture and family. My culture and family is also about Navajo language and community. I don’t have to choose—I can make things work for me in the ways I need to, and take care of all parts of me. My parents always encouraged me to take part in ceremonies and learn the language...It’s sweet to see the way they treat each others’ cultures and honor both for me.”

Like other multicultural Jews, this is what Native Jews want the larger Jewish community to understand—that they are not “divided” between two cultures but expanded by them. There is no one “correct” way to be Jewish. Native Jews are complete and beautifully diverse.

 

12 Comments
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What an unexpected find! As a Jew who was engaged to a Chiricahua, I was amazed by how many of our values and beliefs paralleled. I always had indigenous friends. My first best friend 45 years ago was Didi Lonewolf...and she was suddenly taken from me due to the horrors still existing in the 1970s. To this day, both the fetishizing and the ignorance of these nations astound me. Two of my closest friends are both Jewish and Native American. They honor both parts of their heritage. One is not mutually exclusive to the other...though if you are observant Jew, there are things that take precidence over the native culture. It's beautiful to see both walk hand in hand.

So glad I found this article. I'm Latina born in the USA, and on my mother's side my bisabuela is Quechua, and I seek to reconnect with her pueblo as neither my abuela nor my mother retained any of the customs from the pueblo nor do either of them know how to speak Quechua. Thing is, I'm also seeking to convert to Judaism. I know the process is long, and I'm 100% prepared to commit to it and complete it, but admittedly I have some conflicting emotions since I'm incapable of finding any Jewish Native Americans online to chat with and befriend, so I felt like I wouldn't truly be able to reconcile and live in two different and unique-to-each-other cultures. I guess I was afraid of overstepping my boundaries as a goy seeking conversion, AND of being a fraud amongst the people of my bisabuela's pueblo. I guess was always afraid of never being seen as Jewish enough or Indigineous enough. But now I know it is not impossible for me at all. Thanks again so much for writing this article. My confidence in myself and my desire to reconnect and to convert are now stronger than ever. Thank you ♡

It's really cool to see how the cultures overlap! I am Jewish (Ashkenazi and Sephardi) and my respect for Native Americans is immense! We should all stay strong and help our brothers and sisters restore their indigenous lands, and preserve our incredible, diverse cultures!

My Mother was Jewish. My grandfather’s family disappeared in Kiev when Hitler invaded. I have always felt great compassion for the suffering Native Americans endured when colonists arrived in America. I had a Puritain ancestor on my father’s side. In the last few years not only did I learn about what happened to my Jewish family in Ukraine, but I discoved that I am part Native American. I am a rainbow of cultures

Interesting article. Thanks for posting this story. 5 Stars. By Gregg L. Friedman MD

Jews aren’t white they are Levantines. Israel has over a million black African Jews. They have all kinds of Jews. August Shellenberg (famous actor), Robbie Roberson (famous singer actor) and Sarah Podemski and thousands more are indigenous and Jewish. Jews and Native Americans fought in the Revolutionary War, Civil war etc. Jews were hung in Tennessee and Georgia. Generational Trauma from the Romans,Crusades,Pograms , the Holocaust, coupled with Native American trauma and the fight for Indigenous land of the Us, Canada and Israel is a lot to live with. I’ve been privileged to have Native American friends and have seen their struggles and one friend died a Lakota. The city can make or destroy Native Americans. Knowing the History of Both cultures is a blessing.

In reply to by Not a Wasicu

Not all Jews are Levantine, denying the reality of the existence of white Jews and the social benefits that come with that experience is disingenuous. You acknowledge that there are all kinds of Jews of all races but can't wrap your head around the fact that there are white Jews and Jews of European descent? Also don't use our identity as Native Jews to insert indigeneity politics into YOUR claim on Israel.

In reply to by Adam G.

Not all Jews are Levantine, denying the reality of the existence of white Jews and the social benefits that come with that experience is disingenuous. You acknowledge that there are all kinds of Jews of all races but can't wrap your head around the fact that there are white Jews and Jews of European descent? Also don't use our identity as Native Jews to insert indigeneity politics into YOUR claim on Israel.

Im Choctaw Chickasaw from Louisiana and My people are part litvak. Last Name Levias

I am presently in Oklahoma and fled my home state of Alaska on 9/11/2020. I have been targeted because of my bloodline which is of royal bloodline by way of the Snider and Rosenthal lineage (both of Germany and Jewish at the time of Hitler). One brother became loyalist to America and 3 brothers remained loyal to the British Crown in order to flee persecution. This bloodline is directly royal in all rights and has passed rare genetic conditions along the heirs to which I am one. I have been surviving the last decade and was victim to a pharmaceutical war crime which occurred in 2016 in Alaska. I was placed on a DNA altering antiviral and it nearly killed me. I was left to survive a 18 day coma and survived only because of God and my strong genetics. I had to learn everything all over again and the poison has caused extreme damages and permanent disability. On 9/11/2020 I received confirmation that I had been involuntarily used in this trial which killed 249 in country of Georgia and this is now clearly a antisemitism case. I fled my home state the day of conformation and have been brutally attacked since the release of the war crime and my husband and I filed a federal case which only caused violent targeting as whistleblowers to the manufacturer Gilead Sciences. I know I have roalties here and I need help before I am erased by this country. I want to live and because of my lineage, I am being persecuted. Can someone please help me? Thank you and please be blessed.

Thankful for this sensitive and eye opening description of these four individuals’ experiences and perceptions as they navigate the complexity of identity and interactivity. Our journeys lead us hopefully to rich, meaningful knowledge and connections within our multilayered world. May we all be inspired to be sensitive and welcoming!

I am among those Jews who never thought that there could be a native Jew.... But of course that was very shortsighted. I am delighted to know that there are Native Jews and I would love to meet some of you. If one of you wants to spend a week in Montreal, I'll invite her or him to stay in my house and we will be able to exchange and have fun. I am a musician so we could share on that level too!

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How to cite this page

Barthold, Emma. "Yes, You *Can* Be Native and Jewish." 1 March 2022. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 3, 2024) <http://jwa.org/blog/native-and-jewish>.