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As an African American Jewish woman, Dana Pina laments being regularly subjected to “verification questions” in some Jewish spaces

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Dana R. Pina with a Sefer Torah after her adult Bat Mitzvah service | Photo supplied

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In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, it became apparent that not only were protests and marches erupting across the US and Canada but much-needed, frank conversations were finally taking place. I found myself in a very unfamiliar position. I was asked to share my experience as a black mother, as a black Jew, and even as a black social worker.

White friends I’ve known for years called and texted to check on me, and each conversation started pretty much the same way. “How are you? I can’t imagine how hard this past couple of weeks must have been on you.” White acquaintances, I barely know clamoured for ways to get close to me, without making me feel singled out or tokenized. Strangers reached out, offering messages of support, and there were a few — because there will always be some — that chose that moment to promote their political agendas.

Suffice it to say, each was dealt with according to their intentions. The problem with these types of conversations is that they are inherently misguided. To say that the past few weeks have been difficult for me is to dismiss that every day of my life as a black woman, and the mother of a black man, is a day that my life could end as Sandra Bland’s did, or with the phone call that Trayvon Martin’s mother received.

In the beginning, I wanted to share, to teach, to engage. I felt a responsibility to be a part of the solution in educating about racism many have been oblivious to or comfortable ignoring until now. That was then. Now, I think I’m just sick of being “black.” To be clear, I thank God for my melanated skin, but the label of “black” I could do without.

In the Jewish community specifically, my racial experiences have been varied. My congregation has never made my family feel anything other than welcome and included. That has not always been the case in other Jewish spaces I’ve been in. To illustrate the point, I invite you into my world, the world of a black Jew. There are certain questions and comments you get used to hearing when you’re a black Jew. I’ll walk you through a few of them.

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1. “So, when did you convert?” This question is laced with prejudice and most people would believe it to be an innocent question posed purely from curiosity. The question, however, is laced with “otherness.” Why would you assume I’m a convert? Is it because based on my skin color you believe I don’t belong here? Think about it. When was the last time you walked up to any other white stranger after service and asked them when they converted?

2. “So, do you speak Hebrew and everything?” The implication here is that because I’m not really Jewish, I would be lacking in one of the major traits people have chosen to define Judaism. I’ve been asked a number of what I deem to be Jewish-verification questions. I’ll go ahead and answer them to squelch that burning curiosity I know someone is battling right now. Have I been to Israel? Yes. Do I keep kosher? No. Do I eat gefilte fish? No (and yes, I’ve actually been asked that numerous times). Have my children become b’nai mitzvot? Yes, two down and one to go. Do I know any prayers? Seriously?! Sorry, I mean yes, I do. Imagine how out of place you would feel in a setting that is described as being as much about a people, a community, as it is about religion, yet you are being treated as if you have to constantly prove your membership. This is the experience those test questions create for non-Ashkenazi Jews.

3. “Are you Ethiopian? I’ve heard of black Jews in Ethiopia!” For some reason, the person asking this always seems a little excited. It’s as if they’ve been waiting to meet a “real black Jew” and it was their lucky day. I kind of chuckle inside when their faces relax with the disappointment of learning that I’m not Ethiopian.

Dana R. Pina making challah with her daughters | Photo supplied

4. “So, what do you think about Israel?” Now, this question bothers me. Why is my allegiance to Israel or my position on the politics of Israel a question you would ask before asking how many children I have, or what I do for a living? For the record, after my 2014 trip to Israel, I strongly considered making aliyah, but I digress. The point is, should I be made to feel like I’m being questioned by a customs officer, rather than a part of my community?

5. “Do you observe Passover?” I find it peculiar that this is the only holy day I’m asked about my name. Sometimes I’m asked if I celebrate “the holidays” or “any of the holidays,” but Passover is special. I rather enjoy answering this one, because I like to brag about my soul food seder. In my house, we talk about the parallels between the Exodus story, and slavery in the United States. We eat foods that reflect our culture and hearken back to the traditions. Instead of being baked, my brisket is smothered with gravy. In lieu of tzimmes, we have Southern candied yams. Collard greens, “matzaroni and cheese” and matzah peach cobbler adorn our table. It is in describing how we observe Passover that I’m able to introduce the idea that I am fully aware that I am black, just as they have made it clear that they are aware that I am black. I am from a vibrant, southern background, of which I am incredibly proud. I am also fully Jewish, and I wear that title with pride as well. I chose it, after all.

There is much work to be done in the Jewish community as it relates to internal race relations. One of the main issues is that I am writing this as a black Jew.

Why is it necessary to have a black Jew or to be a black Jew? Who benefits from this labeling? I don’t know that I have ever heard an Ashkenazi Jewish woman casually call herself or anyone like her a white Jew. I also don’t think that she thinks of herself as a white Jew. She is just a Jew. Whatever she is, red hair or blonde, tightly curled or straight, pale or tanned, she embodies what Judaism looks like. 

Dana R. Pina overlooking the Western Wall plaza in the Old City of Jerusalem | Photo supplied

Not so, as a black Jewish woman. Ultimately, until we arrive at a place where black Jews aren’t stopped at synagogue doors and questioned as if they’re lost and don’t belong, we haven’t perfected the community aspect of Torah. Until black Jews are no longer “black Jews” or “Jews of color,” and no longer seen as the other, then there is more striving to do 

Yisrael means to “struggle with God.” One of the most unique things about Judaism for me is this deep-rooted struggle. The questioning and arguing over values, and the unquenchable drive to squeeze every bit of truth from the principles of Torah, are critical now. Now is the time to roll up our sleeves and do the painful, embarrassing, uncomfortable work of soul-searching.

I, like many black women, have been often referred to as “angry,” and usually I feel the need to apologize for that, and convince the accuser that I’m not. Not today. If you have made it this far in this article, and you can imagine, in your mind’s eye, what it might be like to have lived my experience every day for 40 years, perhaps you can understand the place from which the anger arises.

Until the rest of the Jewish community is angry with me, no change will come. In a recent Facebook post, I used the analogy of the country’s racism and ugliness as a mirror. I keep hearing, “we’re better than this.” 

How can we say that if the mirror is telling a different story? It is a futile endeavour to argue with the mirror because we don’t like what we see. The only way to change the reflection is to change ourselves. 

Dana Pina is a mother of three. She has been a Registered Nurse for over 10 years. She was raised in a religious Southern Pentecostal family, and in 2013, chose to formally convert, with her children, to Judaism. She and her family have found their spiritual home at Temple Beth El of Boca Raton, where she has been a speaker. On June 15, Dana was co-panelist on a Zoom event with Michaella Etienne of Montreal, led by Momentum Unlimited, titled “Listen to their voices: A conversation with black Jewish mothers.”

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

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