Funny, You Don’t Look Jewish

The following is a guest blog from JeriAnn Geller. Ms. Geller is a writer, editor, teacher, artist, and occasional wrangler of adolescents. Judaically conservative, politically progressive, romantically infinitive.

Question: Which Jewish group has the most African genes?

A. Ashkenazi
B. Sephardi
C. Mizrahi

The answer, actually, is “all of the above.” According to researchers at the New York University School of Medicine, sub-Saharan African genes are consistently found in all Jewish groups at the rate of 3-5 percent. In fact, it is the strongest clue to date that there is a common biological ancestry among modern Jews. If you couple this with the finding that 20 percent of the current world Jewish population is non-white, you might begin to wonder—where did we get the idea that a Jewish person looks only one particular way?

Could it be a problem of perception? When many of us were growing up, images of Jews of Color in the media were usually limited to entertainers who had converted—Sammy Davis Jr. and Nell Carter. Few people knew that versatile character actor Yaphet Kotto came from a long line of African Jews—or that he was Jewish at all. In fact, many of us grew up with the misperception that there were only two ways a person could be black and Jewish: conversion or having Ethiopian ancestors.

Today we may have expanded this a bit to include entertainers who have one white Jewish and one African-American parent: Rashida Jones, Drake, Lenny Kravitz, Lisa Bonet, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Rain Pryor to name a few, but too often we still perceive Jews as being white. How many white Jews upon seeing an African-American person at their shul(synagogue) immediately think that person might also be Jewish? As black Orthodox blogger Shais Rison, known online as MaNishtanah, relates from his own personal experience, black Jews are often mistaken for the help. And yet, Rison was not only born to black Jewish parents, he can trace his lineage back for generations. Why don’t we recognize our own diversity?

Perhaps hope lies in social media. The internet is making the world if not smaller, then a more visible place. The beautiful diversity of the Jewish people is more recognizable—our daughters adopted from China, our converso neighbors returned to the religion of their ancestors, the African-American family who can trace their Judaism as far back as any Ashkenazi. It is time to recognize our own diversity and embrace the rich variety of Jewish traditions. There’s room under the Big Tent for us all.

Here’s how Yitz Jordan, better known by his stage name Y-Love, a Los Angeles-based, African-American, Orthodox Jewish, gay, hip-hop artist talks about unity and the great diversity of the Jewish people.

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