From: Providence, Rhode Island
Currently Living: Manhattan, NY
They basically said, “You can believe whatever you want but you’re Black and Jewish regardless and you don’t have a choice about that” [laughs].”
Rhode Island is small but there were three Jewish communities that I was part of. I had my local temple, the main temple in the city, and my Havurah group, a radical multicultural Jewish cohort. It was always about pushing the concept of Jewish diversity and what that means. I got drama all the time because I was mixed and people would be like, “Oh are you really Jewish? Is your mom Jewish? Were you Bar Mitzvahed?” People were always challenging my Judaism.
My mom grew up in Spanish Harlem in a pretty Orthodox Jewish community. Her experience for the first part of her life was Judaism as sexist and exclusive. It wasn’t something she wanted to be a part of. When she had kids, she came back to Judaism in the Rhode Island community and saw that Judaism is much more than that. I attended my mom’s Bat Mitzvah three years before my Bar Mitzvah. Watching my mom sit in the living room and practice the chants is how I learned the chant for my Haftorah. Seeing my mom go through that process and learn everything was beautiful.
My dad’s not Jewish. My dad’s black and was raised Protestant but he and my mom made a conscious decision to raise me Jewish. They wanted me to have a good moral education and a supportive community and they basically said, “You can believe whatever you want but you’re Black and Jewish regardless and you don’t have a choice about that” [laughs]. Judaism is a culture, it’s heritage, and that’s something that I can’t leave.
That’s like my grandmother. She’s a total atheist and whenever I visit her she tries to convince me that God doesn’t exist. But she still wants to know if my girlfriend is Jewish.”
One of the reasons I went to the Washington University in St. Louis was because they have a strong Jewish community and a strong Black community. The Association of Black Students meetings were on Friday afternoons so I’d show up with my Yarmulke on and then walk down to Hillel for Shabbat. It was a statement, but also how I wanted to spend my Friday nights. The community was segregated. There’s Jewish racism and Black anti-Semitism. Those problems are real but those weren’t the people I was friends with, and if they were I would try and sit down with them and have a conversation.
We started a poetry-writing community in college that cut across different communities on campus. That was really important to me. I wanted the group to be multiracial, multi-religious, queer-friendly, etc. – basically as inclusive as possible. We wrote about identity and performed around campus and the city and the country. Being Black and Jewish is at the root of my art. It’s what I write about; it’s what I think about.
You want to know what it means to be Jewish? What does it not mean? It’s engrained in the fabric of who I am. There’s a set of things that I just don’t have a choice about and Judaism is one of them. I could not go to Temple for the rest of my life and I’d still be Jewish. That’s like my grandmother. She’s a total atheist and whenever I visit her she tries to convince me that God doesn’t exist. But she still wants to know if my girlfriend is Jewish.
I believe in choosing to be a good person over the fact that you pledge a loyalty. The most important thing is making the world a better place—Tikkun Olam above all else. I know I don’t believe in everything that is “Jewish” but I do believe that it’s important to be the best version of yourself you can be. I believe in the history and the strong culture of Jewish debate and argumentation and using tension and different opinions as a way to navigate towards truth.
Being Jewish is a framework for viewing the world. It’s one of the lenses I use to process the things that happens to me. It’s taught me to assume multiplicity, to be aware of oppression and preventing it, having a conversation. Few things in life I’ll accept at face value. Even if it feels right, I’m not going to accept it until we have a conversation about it. In that way it’s a framework and it affects how I think. But it’s also a part of who I am, my family and my communities.
There are a lot of problems in the Jewish community. It’s really divided, there’s a lot of racism, a lot of Jew-on-Jew hate. That weakens us. I get that we don’t all have to agree on everything but there’s healing that needs to happen in this community and I’d like to be a part of it. Part of identifying as a Jew is that this is something that I care enough about to fix. That’s what love it. Love is not saying I’ll accept this at all costs. It means you love enough to help it heal. And that’s how I feel about the Jewish community.
Check out Aaron’s new book of poetry, Yalmukes & Fitted Caps.