I was recently asked, “What are a Jewish girl and an Irish girl doing speaking Yiddish in an Upper Westside cafe?” There was a simple answer to this question. My friend and I (both Jewish) were laboriously learning Yiddish, a language that our grandparents had deliberately left behind. The man who asked this question was blond, blue-eyed, and bemused. Except for the yarmulke (skull cap) on his head, he didn’t “look Jewish” any more than I look…did he say Irish?
I thought about this incident when I read that Aaron Dwarkin had won the MacArthur “genius” award. Aaron Dwarkin founded Sphinx Music, which encourages African American and Latino young people to love classical music and to become professional musicians. As Dwarkin told the Jewish Week, his appearance often causes consternation. “I really freak people out. They see my last name and say ‘we were expecting someone old, white, balding and Jewish’ and I show up, young, black and seemingly not Jewish.”
But Aaron Dwarkin is Jewish. He was adopted by a Jewish couple as infant, but he was born to black father and an Irish-Catholic mother. That makes Aaron Dwarkin more Irish than I am. But somehow I doubt that the gentleman in the cafe would have seen the Irish in him. Perhaps he would not have seen the Jewish, either.
With intermarriage rates rising, American Jews form increasingly complex families. This complexity is not just a Jewish phenomenon, but an American one. It is reflected in the small but growing percentage of people who identified themselves as multiracial on the latest U.S. Census. American Jews may create a “big tent” that accommodates this diversity or, like my acquaintance in the cafe, they may attempt to force rigid categories on a fluid world. The choice will determine the nature of American Judaism in the new century.
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