“Black is Beautiful”
By Ted Belman
The Fifties was a conservative generation. Families were in and being good was in. Father knew best and nice girls didn’t do it. I was in college during the second half of it. Eisenhower was president, McCarthy began his witch hunt, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus and the US Supreme Court ruled segregation unconstitutional.
College intellectuals devoted themselves to national liberation in Africa at the expense of empire otherwise known as de-colonization.
But the movies were the greatest and starred the likes of Marlon Brando (The Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront), James Dean (East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause), Paul Newman (The Long Hot Summer and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof ) and how can I forget, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. I can’t.
The Sixties were entirely different. JFK stirred the nation with his inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. His assassination stunned the world.
And most important was the enormous adrenalin rush we Jews all over the world experienced as a result of Israel’s glorious victory in the Six Day War.
This was the age of rebellion. By the end of the sixties, the baby boomers ruled the campuses and demanded the end of the Vietnam War, civil rights for all and, of course, free love thanks to the pill and lots of weed.
In keeping with this rebellion, Hollywood broke new ground with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner starring Sidney Poitier. This movie explored the issue of mixed-race marriages with Katherine Hepburn, the liberal mom, and Spencer Tracy, the conservative dad, duking it out. I remember thinking at the time that I wasn’t in favour of such marriages. I thought that a black and a white could marry but as Tuvia the Milkman said in Fiddler on the Roof, “Sure a bird could marry a fish, but where would they live?”. I believed that the parents wouldn’t be accepted in their respective societies and nor would their kids. Why ask for trouble. Perhaps I was reflecting my own prejudices. I also questioned the motives of those who wanted to marry out of their race thinking it was a matter of rebellion. Perhaps my feelings were typical of the times. This was when Anne Durham consorted with Barak Obama Sr and Barak Obama was born.
Over time thanks to Hollywood and television, blacks, were presented as normal people, just like you and me, and I began to loosen up and see them as such. Racial mixed marriages became more common and more accepted. Just look at Angelina Jolie who lived her values by adopting three children, a Cambodian, an Ethiopian and a Vietnamese to which she added three of her own. Along the way Brad Pitt who fathered the three kids adopted the others. You have to admire this couple and their international family.
Notwithstanding my original predisposition, I never discriminated against blacks and totally supported their quest for civil rights.
I raised my family to be Shomrai Shabbat. My father’s family was Communist in Poland and in Canada, to which they emigrated, worked for worker’s rights and other social causes. I was proud of this background and made sure to impart these values to my daughter Aliza to broaden the outlook she was given at her religious day school.
In the late seventies, when she was pre-teen, she was asked by her orthodox grandfather who her heroes were. She answered Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. He was shocked and angry and asked, what about Ben Gurion and Golda Meir.
Later I took Aliza aside and attempted to bridge the gap, not wishing to dismiss either side. I resorted to Rabbi Hillel’s famous quote, “If I am not for myself, who am I? If I am only for myself what am I?” I explained that first we must be for ourselves but we should be, not only for ourselves. It is the contest between the particular and the universal. There is a time and place for both. (See my article Particularism before Universalism)
To drive the point home, I told her about how Jews were in the forefront of the civil rights movement and wanted equal rights for everyone. i.e. universalism. But that didn’t cut it with blacks who coined the phrase “Black is beautiful”. They wanted the right to be black, not the same. They wanted to emphasize their particular. Liberal Jews had trouble with this because they were turning their backs on their own particular. And that remains so today. Alternatively, religious Jews coined the phrase “Jewish is Joyful”. She got the point.
On the question of mixed marriage, I recommend the book, The Color of Water by James McBride. It is an amazing true story.
The Color of Water tells the remarkable story of Ruth McBride Jordan, the two good men she married, and the 12 good children she raised. Ruth was raised as an orthodox Jewess and was abused by her father. So she ran away to New York City, leaving her family and faith behind in Virginia. Jordan met and married a black man, making her isolation even more profound.
The book is a success story, a testament to one woman’s true heart, solid values, and indomitable will. Ruth Jordan battled not only racism but also poverty to raise her children and, despite being sorely tested, never wavered. When her first husband died she married another equally good black man. As memory serves, eight of her children earned PhD’s.
So why am I telling you all this? I do so by way of introduction to Miranda Jones‘ story. I mentioned her in Israelis and Other Travelers. She is the daughter of a black American father and a Jewish white American mother. She was raised in a Jewish household and is a strong Zionist. She agreed to tell her story.
The Making of a Zionist
By Miranda Jones
I am an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia majoring in Middle East Studies and am entering my last year. I intend making aliyah thereafter. Once integrated in Israel I will likely continue on to post graduate studies in Middle East Studies at Ben Gurion University. I am currently an intern at JCPA.
My mother was born in Brooklyn and was brought up a practicing Jew. She was thoroughly Americanized because she was third generation. She received her BA in Humanities from the University of Chicago. When she was 30 years old she joined the Air Force which was quite unusual for a woman, let alone a Jewish woman. She worked in various locations throughout D.C. During her career she was appointed as Air Attache to Israel.
After a long career she retired having achieved the rank of Colonel.
My father is from Chicago and is the son of a mixed marriage. His mother is African American and his father is a mix of Black Native American and some Irish. His black grandmother believed herself descendant of Hebrews, however. My father has always told me that his grandmother had Jewish qualities/attributes about her, and spoke of his Hebrew roots. To fully understand these roots, I recommend you read The Lost Tribes of Israel in Africa.
My father is very educated in the sciences. He served in the Air Force for over 20 years. When he retired from the Air Force, he went on to work as a rocket scientist and engineer.
He always felt a deep connection to the Jewish people and was looking to marry a Jewish woman. My mother was looking for a spiritual man. They found each other in the Air Force. You might say, it was bishert.
I grew up in the D.C. metropolitan area, always attending good public schools. I never had an official Jewish education. I went to synagogue, celebrated Hanukkah and the High Holidays and always identified myself as Jewish.
I have one sister, Ariele, (16 months older than myself) who just made aliyah a month ago after graduating university.
Being the product of a mixed marriage has always been strange. I felt that I was never viewed as black. My father was removed from typical American black culture preferring motorcycles and classical music, etc. I have always spoken “like a white person” rather than using Ebonics or classic African-American lingo. At family reunions on my father’s side, my sister and I stuck out like sore thumbs because we were strangers to African American culture.
Obama also comes from a mixed marriage. — To be frank: I think he acts like a typical politician in terms of what he says about his diversity, embracing all sides when necessary, etc. His anti-white comments are to appease Blacks and pump up pride. His “siding with Muslims” quote may be slightly out of context but for the same goal: to remind the Muslim world that eh won’t abandon their interests completely (like Bush who seemed to stick a label on the Muslim world as anti-modernity) when it comes to his foreign policy. Anyway, I try not to give him too much undeserved attention
The area in which I grew up, was very diverse (Hispanics, Chinese some black, white, etc.) Generally I was well-received; I was always a part of the crowd. I was also pretty comfortable in a WASP environment. My best girlfriends were white, Protestant and blonde. I hardly thought of my ethnicity. I felt like I was not seen as a black person but simply as Jewish. I was the “Jew friend”. This was always a positive thing.
Boyfriend-wise, my high school boyfriend happened to be Jewish. In college, I dated mostly Jewish guys and have never been in a real relationship with a black guy.
My parents were committed Zionists. The first time I came to Israel was in 1998, as a family trip. We stayed for the month of August, rented a car and traveled the country. I didn’t know at this time but my parents were keeping an eye on property in Israel. I was getting ready for my Bat Mitzvah at the time for which I had to learn to read Hebrew.
I did not like Israel, mainly because of the foreign food, the smells, the language I didn’t understand and the heat.
Thereafter, Israel was barely in my mind. My parents always would tell me about Israel (current events, etc.) but I didn’t care much. My friends who saw me as Jewish never inquired about Israel, nothing. When I was 18, I entered college. I needed a foreign language and on my mother’s suggestion, choose Hebrew. Why? “Because it’d be good to know”, she said.
I met an Israeli who was studying at my school. She also came from a military family. We became fast friends and she burned a CD of Israeli music for me. Since I was learning Hebrew this helped me practice and I loved the music. She was a Zionist and planned to return to Israel after graduation. Her love for Israel was contagious.
From that point on my interest in the Jewish homeland was rapidly growing. I was going to Hoos for Israel events and staying active in Jewish life on grounds. I signed up for Taglit for that first summer. The trip was amazing. I had one other good friend on the trip who was as serious about Israel as I was. Meeting the soldiers and speaking with them in Hebrew was a major highlight. I learned a lot and saw the same sites I had seen eight years prior in a completely different light than before. It was no longer foreign to me.
Rather than return with my group to the States I extended my trip. I lived on an absorption center in Kfar Saba until the middle of August. While there, I worked in Tel Aviv at a PR firm. It was a wonderful summer. I made connections, practiced Hebrew and met Jews from all over the world who’d come to Israel for a variety of reasons.
For me the decision to make aliyah was a natural progression of events. I declared my major in Mid East Studies as I am fascinated by the entire region: the anthropology, language, and history and the peoples there. I continued to study Hebrew and began to learn Arabic.
This summer I have been living in Jerusalem, interning with Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs (JCPA). I work with eight others interns from all over the world conducting research for articles to be written on public policy. The Jerusalem Center has been a great match for me.
Israelis rarely mistake me for being Ethiopian, but they do ask me about my origins. I feel everyone views me as Jewish and not black. In Israel, Jews come in all colors shapes and sizes. So I don’t feel in any way unusual or abnormal.
I am soon returning to the States to complete my last year of undergraduate education. Then I will make aliyah. I feel like I will be coming home.
My daughter, Aliza, made aliyah eighteen years ago, She remained Shomrai Shabbat. Way back when, she used to say if she had to choose between marrying a white gentile or a black Jew, she would marry the Jew. Of course she was right. What matters is the shared values and beliefs, not the colour of the skin.