MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, you talk back to us, your comments and emails, and the Barber Shop guys on this week's news. But first, it's time for our weekly Faith Matters conversation.
The Abrahamson family draw some attention when they walk down the street. Why is that? Their dark skin color suggests they are African-American, while their traditional attire identifies them as Hasidic Jews. In fact, they are both. They are among a small minority within a minority in the U.S. of Hasidic Jews of color. The Abrahamsons belong to the Chabad Lubavitch movement, one of the largest Hasidic movements in Orthodox Judaism.
Earlier this week, I talked with Yosef, his sister, Sarah, and their mother, Dina, during our trip to New York. Dina explained that her mother was Jewish. Her father, Panamanian. Her children's father is Egyptian. They all lived in Omaha, Nebraska before moving to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, which is home to large numbers both of blacks and Hasidic Jews. I talked with Dina about how she was raised and how she has navigated what are for some the difficult waters of racial and ethnic identity.
Mrs. DINA ABRAHAMSON: I was raised with my grandparents for a large part of my growing up years, and my grandmother instilled upon me that I was a Jewish girl. You're Jewish if your mother is Jewish. And so she instilled that at an early age that that was what I was, and I participated in all of our Judaic culture. So, that was what I knew.
Upon the arrival of my children, they were taught the same thing. My grandmother happened to still be alive at that time, as was my mom. And so, they weren't really exposed to anything but the Jewish culture. Yeah.
MARTIN: So, being Jewish is the core of your identity?
Mrs. DINA ABRAHAMSON: Right.
MARTIN: The culture issue, secondary.
Mrs. DINA ABRAHAMSON: Yeah. It didn't even occur to me for many, many years.
MARTIN: But sometimes it occurs to other people, who bring it to your attention.
Mrs. DINA ABRAHAMSON: That's the main part - is that it's usually others who are very observant of that and want to investigate that a little bit more. Right.
MARTIN: But you know, growing up as - in Omaha, as I understand, Omaha doesn't have either particularly large Jewish community or a particularly large African-American community. Did you feel that you stood out, you and your family?
Mrs. DINA ABRAHAMSON: Not at all. The first time it was brought to my attention, I was in grade school, maybe second grade or third grade, and I had a birthday party. The school that I went to had a mixture of children of all racial identities. So, I had a birthday party, and the kids next - well, that next Monday in school was laughing and said, you have to have, you know, white milk. No, you can't have chocolate milk because your mom is white. They weren't saying it mean-spirited. It was joking, and I laughed even my own self, and we just kind of went on.
MARTIN: Do they - I want to ask the kids if they had the same understanding of growing up in Omaha being both of color and Jewish. Sarah?
Ms. SARAH ABRAHAMSON: It never really made any difference to me. I only ever saw myself as being Jewish. It was never an issue in Omaha or even here.
MARTIN: Yosef, what about you?
Mr. YOSEF ABRAHAMSON: Same. I always saw myself as just being a Jewish boy, and that's how I was raised - just to be Jewish.
MARTIN: So what prompted, Dina, the move to Brooklyn last year?
Mrs. DINA ABRAHAMSON: Actually, Sarah has been here for over five years. She had to come for seminary. Then she stayed, and she began working at a Chabad early learning center. And so, Yosef and I were still back in Omaha, still home schooling Yosef. It was increasingly more difficult for him. All of his friends lived to New York. So finally, last year, I understood that I could no longer hold him back from his friends, and it was increasingly hard to live in a city where there wasn't a large community.
MARTIN: Have you always been Orthodox? Has your family always been raised as Orthodox?
Mrs. DINA ABRAHAMSON: No. All the way from, I guess, secular to traditional and the journey and then on to Orthodox. Yeah.
MARTIN: But were you raised as Orthodox?
Mrs. DINA ABRAHAMSON: No. I was raised more traditional - knowing what I was and participating in the holidays, but not real observant.
MARTIN: What do you think motivated your embrace of the Orthodox tradition? Sometimes the kids lead on that.
Mrs. DINA ABRAHAMSON: Yeah. Well, they were small, and I was already pretty much on the journey of exploring the more observant areas of my life and became exposed to the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneersohn, and his teachings, the Lubavich teachings. And it was resonating, agreeing with everything that I was at that point also becoming. That's when I kind of took that leap about 15 years ago - 14, 15 years ago into becoming more observant and actually into the Hasidic lifestyle.
MARTIN: There's been some tension between the African-American community and the Jewish community in Crown Heights. This is going on for years, far predates your move to this city. Do you feel like you're in the middle?
Mrs. DINA ABRAHAMSON: Not at all because at this point, I know that a lot of people are reporting tensions, but there's really no tensions that I can feel. We walk the neighborhoods. There's no feel of tensions or racial tensions or anything like that. And actually, I've been speaking to my neighbors. I live in a mixed building, Jewish and non-Jewish, and there's really a calm. I don't think that it's anywhere near the 1991 era.
MARTIN: Yosef, what about you? Sometimes boys are more the target of tensions between groups than girls and women are, frankly.
Mr. ABRAHAMSON: Sure. Yeah.
MARTIN: Do you ever feel that way?
Mr. ABRAHAMSON: No. I go to the park with my friends from school, and there's also mixed there, African-American and Jewish, and a lot of the boys even play together, so there's absolutely no tension.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with Dina, Sarah, and Yosef Abrahamson about their lives as Hasidic Jews of color living in Brooklyn, New York.
A recent New York Times article describes a scene in an award ceremony for an essay you had written in a competition sponsored by the Police Athletic League. And apparently, an officer approached you to complain about your traditional headwear. Is that common scenario for you, that people somehow don't see you as part of a community to which - because this is not an uncommon attire in New York. But apparently, you raised eyebrows for this particular person. Does that happen to you?
Mr. ABRAHAMSON: I think with that particular incident, it was more about maybe he didn't see it as my skin color but more as what I was wearing and...
MARTIN: But do you think it would have been that way if you were white?
Mr. ABRAHAMSON: Probably. I think that just from the way he even spoke, it just - he hadn't seen anything like that before with my fedora or jacket.
MARTIN: In New York?
Mr. ABRAHAMSON: Yeah. That's just the way it seemed to me. It was...
MARTIN: Dina, what about you and the whole concept of - well, go ahead. You had an answer.
Mrs. DINA ABRAHAMSON: I was going to say, there was another police officer there who actually ended up being Jewish. He was familiar with the hat. He'd gone as a child - he wasn't a Lubavitch or Hassidim, but he'd gone through a Lubavitch camp as a young boy. But he'd seen the tzit-tzit, the tzit-tzit that Yosie had on. And so, he knew, whereas this other police officer...
MARTIN: Tzit-tzit - for people who don't know, the fringes...
Mrs. ABRAHAMSON: The fringes that...
Ms. SARAH ABRAHAMSON: On the corner of the garment.
Mr. ABRAHAMSON: Of the garment, yeah.
MARTIN: That observant men wear.
Mrs. DINA ABRAHAMSON: The men wear, right. So, he spotted those. And so he knew. And so he kind of walked this guy off to say, yeah, you know, like, he's Jewish. I think that the particular police officer, it just went over his head. It wasn't really a racial thing so much as he just never even thought. And he just looked, and he just said, oh, this teen is dressed like a gothic person. Yeah, yeah.
MARTIN: What about marriage, Dina? Are you concerned that perhaps people won't see your kids as eligible marriage partners for racial difference? Because sometimes, you know, people are fine until it's time for marriage. And then, all of a sudden, difference becomes not so fine.
Mrs. DINA ABRAHAMSON: Right. No, I don't - our way of doing things is a little bit different than the world does. But there have been offers...
MARTIN: Do you expect a matchmaker to be involved?
Mrs. DINA ABRAHAMSON: Yeah, there will be a matchmaker that is involved, and there have been interests.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mrs. DINA ABRAHAMSON: Previous offers.
MARTIN: Sarah, did you know about that?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mrs. DINA ABRAHAMSON: The thought really never had occurred to me, but because these offers had come rather early, you know, on, I don't have any real concerns. I suspect that anyone that would be really a hasinom(ph), a Lubavitcher person, it's really not a factor.
MARTIN: So, you feel someone as sincere in his faith or her faith...
Mrs. DINA ABRAHAMSON: Right.
MARTIN: Would understand what's most important.
Mrs. DINA ABRAHAMSON: Yeah, yeah, exactly.
MARTIN: Which is faith.
Mrs. DINA ABRAHAMSON: Which is the faith. Right.
MARTIN: And the person.
Mrs. DINA ABRAHAMSON: Yeah, and their personalities and the other things that make you up. I don't think that your color at all defines who you are.
MARTIN: Is there something you feel that perhaps the rest of us could learn from your experience as people of two communities that are, in this city at least, often seen as at odds, and you belong to both? I mean, you identify with one. You don't really iden - I mean, would it be fair to say you don't really see yourself as African-American?
Mrs. DINA ABRAHAMSON: Yeah.
MARTIN: You see yourself as Jewish-American...
Mrs. DINA ABRAHAMSON: Right.
MARTIN: Who happens to be of color?
Mrs. DINA ABRAHAMSON: Yeah, of color. Let me premise that by saying, there absolutely is nothing wrong with being African-American except for - when I think of that, I think of a culture which, unfortunately, I don't have a point of reference. It's not my point reference. My reality was brought up as to be a Jew and in a Jewish home. And so, that's the only culture that I've really ever adhered to and for my children as well.
So, we do identify wholly with the Jewish community. What I would like for people to take from this particular interview is that it's the 21st century, and I think we should be - we're not, but we should be way beyond the color issue, and we should be looking at each other as who we are, as people trying to make a society that is good for all regardless to color.
MARTIN: Sarah, what about you? Is there anything you think that people can draw from your experience?
Ms. SARAH ABRAHAMSON: I think pretty much the same. You have to look at the person. It depends on each person. When I see someone, I don't really see what color they are. I just see this person - if it's a nice person, a friendly person, a person that helps me.
On the subway, there are many different people, and you cannot tell from where they originate from by color. So, this nice person helped me up the stairs when I was carrying a bag. Color is not a point of reference, so that's what I think most people should be educated in learning on how each person is inside, not externally.
Mr. ABRAHAMSON: Yeah. I don't see color.
Mrs. DINA ABRAHAMSON: I think...
MARTIN: Dina, final thought?
Mrs. DINA ABRAHAMSON: I think that that was the - one huge attraction. Lubavitch, our teachings are that we're looking forward to a time when we are all people living in a time of peace and harmony. And I believe that this is the way that we get to that. My skin color doesn't mean anything about me, and we can get to know each other on a different level. We can live above that.
MARTIN: Nobody's ever - you've never been to a Hasidic function where somebody was like, what are you doing here? Never? No.
Mrs. DINA ABRAHAMSON: Never. Yeah, never. I was going to say, because we identify completely with being Jewish, it doesn't mean that we're ashamed of being brown or, you know, people of color. The color thing doesn't have, like I say, anything to really do with it. When I say African-American, the thing is that I think of the culture which we can't really expand upon because we wouldn't have that much knowledge.
Color wise, of course, we're people of color. We're not denying or feeling bad or ashamed because we are this color. Of course not. We acknowledge that. We are Jews of color, but I mean, it doesn't make us any less Jewish. It doesn't make us any more Jewish. We're Jews. That's what defines us - is more than the color of our skin, it's Yosie and his hat and his black coat, his tzit-tzits. These are the things that define who he is. He's a Jewish man - young man.
MARTIN: Do you ever feel that there might be some spiritual purpose to your unpacking this for people? Do you wonder in a way that there's...
Mrs. DINA ABRAHAMSON: You know, few years back, I thought this may be the reason why I had some opportunities to bring people in that had never really been exposed to, maybe not even Jews at all, but certainly not Hasidic Jews. And for them to - for the first ever really meet and to be able to, you know, just bridge, and these didn't happen to be African-American people. These were, you know, other people - just to educate. And I think, once we educate each other about each other, a lot of times, the color thing, it just falls away because you find out that everybody is human, and we're of the human race. So possibly, I mean, we don't know.
MARTIN: All things in time.
Mrs. DINA ABRAHAMSON: It's an issue that - my family and I, we've talked exploring for a while and, you know, Yosef, he's a writer, and so we're hoping that maybe we might be able to put together a book to help people.
MARTIN: Dina Abrahamson, her children, Sarah and Yosef, were kind enough to join us in our New York bureau and sharing their story with us. Thank you so much for coming to see us and sharing your story. Thank you all...
Mrs. DINA ABRAHAMSON: Michel, thank you for having us.
Ms. SARAH ABRAHAMSON: Thank you very much.
Mr. ABRAHAMSON: Thank you.
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