Is Jewish the New Black?
From Alysa Stanton to, um, Charles Taylor, Judaism is winning ever more black converts. Maybe Sammy Davis Jr. had it right.
It's been a bit of a mixed bag for blacks and Judaism lately. In the heartland city of Cincinnati this month, 45-year-old Ohio native Alysa Stanton became the first African-American female rabbi. Sadly, Charles Taylor, the former Liberian dictator awaiting trial for war crimes, made news, too, as a convert to Judaism. Party crasher.
But crazy dictators aside, what’s going on? In our increasingly multicultural landscape, is Jewish the new black?
There are no precise statistics, but Diane Tobin, associate director of San Francisco's Institute for Jewish & Community Research, said in an interview with The Root, that she estimates that as many as 150,000 blacks practice Judaism in the U.S. today. Sure, that only constitutes about 3 percent of the country’s Jewish population, but that's more African-American Jews than ever before, and their ranks, she says, are continuing to grow. Sammy Davis Jr. would be kvelling.
Back in 1954, after the lone black member of the Rat Pack converted to Judaism following a near fatal car accident, many thought the idea of a black Jew was absurd. In a 1960 Time article titled simply "Jewish Negro," even some of Davis' Jewish friends admitted being confused by his decision, speaking about their religious birthright as less a faith and more a burden. "You have two strikes against you now," said one, referencing Davis' race and blindness in one eye. "We Jews have been oppressed for more than 5,000 years, and all of a sudden why do you want to get into the act? Quit while you're ahead." But Davis pressed on, attributing his interest in Judaism to the very same hardships his friends bemoaned. "Jews have become strong over their thousands of years of oppression, and I wanted to become part of that strength," he told Time. "As a Negro, I felt emotionally tied to Judaism."
Half a century later, blacks of all ages, in pockets of the country one might not expect—Stanton will serve in North Carolina—are following Davis' lead and leaving the Christian church, once a haven for more than 70 percent of African Americans. So what's the appeal? History, perhaps, is a starting point. Escaping persecution is obviously a theme that resonates across black and Jewish culture. "We've seen that there are many black Americans who are Old Testament readers," says Tobin, "The exodus story resonates with them."
It is a powerful link. According to the Old Testament, Hebrew slaves toiled under powerful pharaohs who would occasionally demand that entire generations of the serfs be executed. Salvation came in the form of the prophet Moses, the son of a slave who wound up being adopted by royalty. After fleeing Egypt to escape retribution for killing a man he saw cruelly beating one of his servants, Moses eventually returned to lead the Hebrews from bondage and to the glory of God.
In essence, the most important story in Judaism is a tale of rebellion against those who would smother goodness and decency, and Moses, the religion's most important prophet, is equal parts John Brown, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey and Martin Luther King Jr. Little wonder that Harriet Tubman, the great emancipator before The Great Emancipator, would come to be known throughout history as "The Moses of Her People."