By AKILAH ALLEN-SILVERSTEIN
When people see my last name, “Silverstein,” there is no mistaking it: My Jewishness is obvious. But the question is, more often than not, “So, I guess you’re married to a Jew?” I am light-skinned and wear a Star of David, so the assumption that I could not be mixed race is odd. My favorite is when I’m asked, “How did that happen?” While I generally hold my tongue, I often want to respond, “how did your parents conceive you?” to point out how ridiculous that question is.
While I realize there isn’t an overwhelming number of people who look like me within the tight-knit Jewish community, we exist and we’re not going away.
The questions started even before I was born. “I don’t know if we can be seen in a restaurant together, and what would you do with the children?” My grandfather had – let’s call them “questions and concerns” – when my father, an Ashkenazi Jew, introduced my Black mother, who had emigrated from the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, to his family.
I can comprehend his disappointment at her not being Jewish, but I can’t help but wonder that if she were white, would the concern of being “seen” have come up?
I was raised in the Caribbean in a predominantly Black society, and the only remnants of a Jewish community are a synagogue and cemetery from the 1700s on the sister island of Nevis. I visited Canada at least once a year and would spend lots of time with my father’s extended family. I have many wonderful memories of Passover seders, Chanukah celebrations and trips out to London, Ont. to visit with aunts, uncles and cousins.
I have a wonderful relationship with my father and his family. Even my grandfather came around. After he passed away, I was overwhelmed helping to clean up his apartment, decorated with numerous photos of me, my sister, and her son, his first great-grandson, his absolute favourite.
When I returned to Canada and completed my undergraduate degree, I wanted to learn more and become more involved in the Jewish community. A Jewish coworker told me about Birthright Israel, and I was accepted on a trip in the spring of 2017.
I was nervous at first, assuming I would be the only Black participant. The voice in my head kept telling me I wasn’t Jewish enough. I had never gone to Hebrew school or had a bat mitzvah.
These fears were mostly unfounded. I wound up having a wonderful experience, and even celebrated my bat mitzvah on Masada. Meeting an Ethiopian Jewish woman and seeing many other ethnicities represented in Israel opened my eyes to the diversity of the Jewish people. And while I was the only Black participant on my bus, at least 15 others were from mixed marriages. I subsequently led a Birthright trip two years later.
My decision to lead a trip stemmed from my gratitude at being given such a wonderful gift, one that allowed me to develop a Jewish identity and be proud of my heritage in a way I did not understand before. I wanted to ensure no one feels like an outsider, and to remind them that being Jewish does not mean the same thing for everyone. I recently joined the Birthright Israel Foundation of Canada’s youth leadership counsel.
This is my story, but I’ve haven’t always felt as accepted as I let on. Many people in the community still don’t see me as Jewish, and when they do, it’s only because I’ve had to explain my existence.
Instances of blatant racism towards Black people are still far too prevalent. I was recently getting to know a new friend. She’s Jewish and has lived in Thornhill for 15 years after emigrating from Israel with her husband and son. She adapted quickly to the community and had many friends and relationships. But when she and her husband divorced, and a few years after she began dating a Black man, she was shocked by the hurtful and racist comments and responses she received from many Jewish friends who she had previously thought were open-minded, kind and accepting.
Late last year, I attended a diversity and inclusion workshop where a Jewish lawyer spent considerable time venting her frustration and shock towards the openly and unapologetic vocal racism her parents frequently expressed towards BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour).
Why is this behaviour so troubling? As a community, we have suffered immense trauma, oppression, and discrimination in the form of antisemitism. What group understands better how propaganda, harmful stereotypes, and systematic forms of discrimination and dehumanization can lead to unimaginable horrors?
We have, in many ways, become an insular society that prides itself on protecting and preserving our cultural heritage and religious traditions. This is beautiful, and many aspects of such a tight-knit community fill the stories my father tells me of his upbringing in London’s Jewish community.
However, Ashkenazi Jews in North America have benefitted immensely from their “white-passing” privilege, ensuring that they have been able to bypass certain systemic forms of racism which have disenfranchised BIPOC. As a Black Jewish woman, I cannot help but feel hurt and frustrated at the overwhelming silence from the Jewish community on most issues of race and the overt perpetuation and participation of racist behaviours towards Black people in particular.
Our Jewish teaching of tikkun olam is a concept defined by acts of kindness to repair the world. It’s a fantastic calling and crucial responsibility to which I want my Jewish community to take the lead, and to call out and be true allies against any form of racism against BIPOC.
While I have, for the most part, been made to feel welcome in many Jewish spaces, I often wonder if I were single and happened to be dating an Ashkenazi Jewish man, would his family accept me in time, as my grandfather had? Would my Blackness be an issue? Would someone in the family still be concerned about being seen with me in public?
I would be remiss not to mention that over the last few weeks, I have been inspired by the numerous posts, personal notes and a true commitment to listening, understanding and being part of the proactive change that I have seen from some of my Jewish peers.
I’m hopeful that meaningful change may come about as true allies are developed with friends who can support, fight for, and work to undo the systemic racism and oppression still facing BIPOC. As someone who proudly identifies as a Black Jewish woman, I am asking you to take a hard look in the mirror and decide which side of history you want to be on moving forward.
My dream is to see both of my communities united in the fight for equality, liberation and the right of self-determination for all.
Akilah Allen-Silverstein lives in Toronto. She is a Certified Financial Planner, passionate about community engagement, gardening, cooking, exploring the outdoors, and travelling.