Blacks, the Jewish Faith and Hanukkah

At sundown Sunday, Jews around the world lit candles in observation of the first night of Hanukkah. Commentator Robin Washington says there's a misperception that black people are not Jewish — and he's doing what he can to dispel that myth. Washington is editorial page editor of The Duluth News Tribune in Minnesota.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

At sundown yesterday, Jews around the world lit candles in observation of the first night of Hanukkah. In this country, there's a misperception that black people simply are not Jewish. Commentator Robin Washington is doing what he can to dispel that myth. His father is black and his mother is white and Jewish. According to religious law, that makes him a Jew.

ROBIN WASHINGTON:

For Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish holiday that began last night, the black Jewish community in Duluth, Minnesota, is having a--let me rephrase that. There isn't a black Jewish community in Duluth except me. It used to be me and my daughter about 20 years ago, but we moved to Massachusetts and, now that she's grown, she had the good weather sense not to move back. I did return, and here I am.

Duluth aside, there are a lot of black Jews. Ethiopian Jews are well-known, and in the United States there are at least 200,000 black American Jews, some who are biracial with a Jewish parent, some who converted and some who belong to mostly black Hebrew congregations that formed at the turn of the last century.

For all American Jews, Hanukkah's pretty much the same thing, which is that it's not a major Jewish holiday. The real holidays are the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement in the fall, and Passover in the spring. But because of Christmas, everyone expects you to be celebrating something in December and giving presents, so Hanukkah fits the bill, especially since it's a celebration of freedom. It marks the overthrow 2,300 years ago of the Assyrians from Israel and a rekindling of the eternal light in the sacked temple. There was only enough oil to light it for one day, but--and this part is the miracle--it lasted for eight. That's why Hanukkah is eight days with an eight-branched candelabra called a menorah lit each night, one candle for each day.

All this stuff about presents came later, and ignore it at your peril. When I was growing up in Chicago and our neighborhood was mostly black, it kept changing. I knew the routine. `What you-all getting for Christmas?' I'd be asked. When I'd answer we didn't celebrate Christmas, I'd get, `Oh, man, you know what I mean. What you-all getting for Jewish Christmas?' My brother had less patience and would just say `Clothes and toys.'

Then there were the Christmas carols. As the only Jew in class, I did manage to get excused from singing them. That put me in the interesting position of being able to listen to the rest of the class. I never understood, if they liked Jesus so much, `Oh, come let us ignore him'? Things hadn't changed much by the time my daughter Erin was in the first grade in Duluth in 1986. She had to sing "All I Want for Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)," but later, in more multicultural Newton, Massachusetts, she was allowed to substitute `and up his rice' for `and up his Christ' in the "Hallelujah" Chorus.

There, she was hardly the only Jew in the school and not even the only Jew of color, but we probably were one of the few families in town celebrating both Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, which this year both happen to fall on the same week. If nothing else, that really is the special thing about being both black and Jewish today. Like the menorah, Kwanzaa has a candelabra called a kinara, and one candle is lit for each night. So what are the black Jews in Duluth and Massachusetts and across the country doing tonight? Going through a lot of matches.

CHIDEYA: Robin Washington is editorial page editor of the Duluth News-Tribune in Minnesota.

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