Celebrating African American Jews
What do prominent legal scholar Lani Guinier, bestselling writer Walter Moseley, and renowned late singer and actress Nell Carter have in common? They are all outstanding achievers who are African American and Jewish. In honor of African American History Month, the Dorot Jewish Division celebrates African American Jewish authors and achievements.
According to the Pew Forum’s 2014 survey, 2% of Jews in the United States described themselves as black, and a 2011 population survey by United Jewish Appeal (Federation) found significant racial diversity in the New York Jewish community, noting that “the large number of biracial, Hispanic, and other “nonwhite” Jewish households—particularly pronounced among younger households—should serve as a reality check for those who are accustomed to thinking of all Jews as ‘white’.”
Among African American Jewish authors you’ll find numerous award winners, such as author and scholar Carolivia Herron, known for her children’s book, Nappy Hair, as well as Always an Olivia, and many other works about African American and Jewish heritage and history; the late author and scholar Julius Lester, whose prolific works for children and adults address topics including racism, African American history, and his path to Judaism; the Antiguan-born Jamaica Kincaid, a writer of fiction and nonfiction for adults and children; Walter Moseley, a bestselling writer of mysteries and science fiction; author and musician James McBride (watch his NYPL performance here); professor and memoirist Carol Conaway; author and Third Wave Feminist leader Rebecca Walker; philosophy professors Lewis R. Gordon, Naomi Zack and Laurence Thomas, cartoonist and author Darrin Bell; and professor Ephraim Isaac, pioneering specialist in African, African-American and Semitic Studies.
The Library’s collection of memoirs by African American Jewish authors includes Yelena Khanga’s Soul to Soul : A Black Russian American Family, 1865-1992 (written with Susan Jacoby); as well as her mother Lily Golden’s My Long Journey Home; Ahuva Gray’s Gifts of a Stranger: A Convert's Round-The-World Travels and Spiritual Journeys; James McBride’s The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother; Rebecca Walker’s Black, White, and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self, Julius Lester’s Lovesong, Rain Pryor’s Jokes My Father Never Taught Me: Life, Love, and Loss with Richard Pryor (written with Cathy Crimmins), several books by and about Sammy Davis, Jr.; Carol Conaway’s essay "Journey to the Promised Land: How I Became an African-American Jew Rather Than A Jewish African American" (Nashim, no. 8, Fall 5765/2004) and filmmaker Lacey Schwartz’s Little White Lie.
Use the subject heading “African American Jews” in the Library’s catalog to find scholarly explorations of of African American, Jewish and multiracial identity, including Joslyn C. Segal’s Shades of Community and Conflict: Biracial Adults of African-American and Jewish-American heritages; Black, Jewish, and Interracial: It's Not the Color of Your Skin, but the Race of Your Kin: and Other Myths of Identity by Dr. Katya Gibel Mevorach (Katya Gibel Azoulay) and Black Jews: A Study of Malintegration and (Multi) Marginality by Jacqueline C. Berry.
African American rabbis of today and tomorrow are making a difference through groundbreaking leadership: Rabbi Alysa Stanton, a professional counselor who worked with students in the wake of Columbine, is the first African American female Reform rabbi, ordained in 2009 at Hebrew Union College; Rabbi Gershom Sizomu is leader of the Abayudaya Jews of Uganda, and the first black rabbi from sub-Saharan Africa to be ordained at an American rabbinic school (Conservative movement, 2008); Rabbi Tiferet Berenbaum, ordained at Hebrew College leads Temple Har Zion; and Reconstructionist Rabbi Georgette Kennebrae leads West End Synagogue. Sandra Lawson, a rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College , is set for ordination in 2018. Both Kennebrae and Lawson are openly lesbian.
Rabbi Capers Funnye, famously a cousin of First Lady Michelle Obama, heads Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago and is the first African American member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis. Funnye underwent a Conservative conversion and hopes to unite the Hebrew Israelite community, of which he is the also the new chief rabbi, with the major denominations of American Judaism.
These inspiring leaders are making a difference through advocacy and public service, including creating more visibility for African American Jews and addressing racism in the Jewish community: Chava Shervington is President of the Jewish Multiracial Network and a legal professional specializing in corporate governance and non-profits; MaNishtana creates films, blogs and articles, including Black Jews You Should Know; April Baskin is Vice President for Audacious Hospitality at the Union for Reform Judaism and past President of the Jewish Multiracial Network, Ilana Kaufman, is a Jewish communal professional and advocate for a more inclusive Jewish community.
Jonah Edelman runs Stand for Children, an education reform group ; Dr. Ada M. Fisher is a retired doctor and GOP committeewoman; Mona Sutphen is an author and former White House Deputy Chief of Staff for President Obama, Professor Michelle Frankl (formerly Stein-Evers) is an author and founding member of the Alliance of Black Jews; and Robin Washington is a newspaper editor, columnist, media personality and producer. The late Reuben Greenberg was an innovative leader and the first African American to serve as Charleston's police chief.
Given the incredible contributions of African American and Jewish heritage to American culture, it’s no surprise to find amazing creative professionals including the comedian and Comic Torah author Aaron Freedman, the teacher, writer, diversity consultant and performer Yavilah McCoy; the Afroculinaria specialist and kosher Jewish foodie Michael Twitty, and Erika Davis, blogger at Black, Gay, and Jewish and board member of the Jewish Multiracial Network.
Celebrated actors include TV and movie star Lisa Bonet; sisters Kidada Jones, a film actress and model, and Rashida Jones, the Parks and Recreation actress; model and TV actor Borris Kodjoe; actor and writer Yaphet Kotto; model and actress Lauren London; actress and producer Tracee Ellis Ross (of TV’s Blackish); comic actress and musician Maya Rudolph, openly gay Empire actor and musician Jussie Smollett; and rising young film actor Khleo Thomas, to name just a few.
Outstanding musicians include rapper Nissim Black, rapper and actor Drake, genre-bending singer and songwriter Goapele; Grammy-winning rock, folk and blues artist Ben Harper; multi-talented rock star Lenny Kravitz (another Grammy winner); jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman; Yiddish opera bass and openly gay Sidor Belarsky revivor Anthony (Mordechai Tzvi) Russell; rapper Shyne, guitarist Slash; jazz great Willie “The Lion” Smith; singer and songwriter Justin Warfield; rock and roll singer Andre Williams; hit songwriter and soul singer Jackie Wilson; and openly gay, Orthodox rapper Y-Love (Yitz Jordan).
Sports stars include basketball’s David Blu; Jordan Farmar, Aulcie Perry, Alex Tyus; and Jamila Wideman—and even Amar’e Stoudemire is exploring his family connections to Judaism—plus baseball’s Elliott Maddox and football’s Taylor Mays and Andre Tippett.
Want to learn more?
Just For Fun
Baer, Hans and Singer, Merrill. African American Religion: Varieties Of Protest And Accommodation. Knoxville : University of Tennessee Press, c2002.
Berger, Graenum. Black Jews In America. New York: Commission on Synagogue Relations, 1978.
The Black Orthodox [photo essay]. New Yorker. December 23, 2012.
Chireay, Yvonne, and Deutsch, Nathaniel. Black Zion: African American Religious Encounters With Judaism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Gordon, Lewis. "Jews were all people of color: Center for Afro-Jewish Studies" (Philadelphia). pp. 172-181. in The Colors Of Jews: Racial Politics And Radical Diasporism. ed. Melanie Kaye/kantrowitz. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007.
"In Jewish Color" (Forward column).
Kaufman, Ilana. Waking Up And Showing Up For Our Jewish Youth Of Color – Because Our Community Is At Stake. January 11, 2016. E-Jewish Philanthropy.
Landing, James E. Black Judaism: Story Of An American Movement. Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2002.
Markow, Lauren. "Meet Sandra Lawson, Who May Soon Be One Of Judaism's First Black, Openly Lesbian Rabbis" Huffington Post. June 1, 2016.Spivack, Miranda C. "Jews Of Color In America: A Growing Minority Within A Minority." B’nai B’rith Magazine. Spring 2016.