By Ayelet Lipton
I’d like to tell you a story about a little boy. When this little boy was five years old, his kindergarten class at Jewish day school had a guest storyteller tell the tale of Queen Esther. She described what the queen looked like, which she normally does not do since she likes to let the children’s imagination flow freely, but she had just come from telling this story in the fourth grade–where a connection had been made to Ethiopian Jews–and so she described Queen Esther’s beautiful brown skin. As she did, the little boy jumped and cried out, “Like me! I have brown skin!” Needless to say, he was the only boy in his class of 24 students with brown skin. The storyteller continued, “She had gorgeous curls in her hair.” “My hair is curly!” the boy called out. She continued, “And she wore her hair in braids around her head.” And the boy, enthusiastic and pleased pointed at his own hair and said, “See? I have braids in my hair too!”
This little boy is my son. He self identifies as “Jewish like Ima and brown like Daddy.” He has many friends with various skin colors, but attends a school where a great majority of the 204 students have white skin and where all of the teachers, including me, have white skin. When the storyteller, who happens to be a parent at the school as well and a friend of mine, relayed this story to me she was near tears, as was I. She said that in her many years of storytelling she had never seen a child so joyful when realizing that they looked like a character in a story she was telling–not even little girls who think they look like princesses in her fairy tales. But here, in her story, on this day, this little five-year-old boy could not have been more thrilled that he looked like Queen Esther!
Interestingly, this happened shortly after I read an article in the New York Times, “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” which talked about the lack of black characters in American literature and the effect this has on our black youth. According to the piece, these students read and start wondering, “Where am I in this story? How come nobody looks like me unless the story is about racism?” This got me thinking about my own son, and how he feels growing up Jewish in a vastly white community. I wondered about the volumes in his classroom that told Jewish stories in which all the characters are white. Or at least the Jewish characters are. I wondered about how all of his Jewish role models, both in our family and in our Jewish community, are white. I wondered how this might affect him as he grows up and seeks out role models that look like him, which means they might not be Jewish, and what that will mean for his Jewish identity.
Lucky for me, a great event was about to happen where I could have a conversation with other people that care strongly about Jewish identity and education about this topic: JEDCAMP Boston. So on that Sunday afternoon, I shared the Times article, I posted my discussion topic on our big sign up wall in the center of JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day school, where the “unconference” was being held, and walked down to my 4th grade classroom, and waited. Several wonderful people showed up and began reading the article. I then told them the story from the beginning of this post. I asked them, “What can we, as educators, as people that care about the future Jewish generations, do to make sure that all Jewish kids feel that they are a part of our community? How do we ensure that the brown skinned child feels she is represented in Jewish history? What do we do so that the little boy who has two mothers knows that he is a part of our community?”
The discussion that ensued was quite interesting–but the most interesting part to me was that we were several white Jewish women talking about this topic. Now, I’m aware that the Jewish community in the northeastern United States is mostly white… but I wonder where everybody else is. I wonder why more minority Jewish people do not attend these events. Is it bad marketing? Do they feel that they do not belong? Do they feel that they do not have a voice? That their voice is less important? A couple of years ago, my school had a rabbinical intern who is a black woman. I was so excited for our students to have a positive Jewish role model who did not look like most of them. I wanted them to see that Jewish comes in many shapes, sizes, and colors.
So what ideas did our group say to each other? We talked about focusing on the values that people stand for, and the actions that they choose, instead of focusing on skin color. We talked about allowing kids’ imaginations to come up with what people look like and not feeding certain images into their brains. We even talked about using animals to represent characters in Torah stories so that we could ignore their outward physical features even more. But is this the answer? Is the answer simply to ignore people’s physical looks? I fear that because my child, and so many others, is inundated with images of “typical American Jewish families,” which consist of a white father, a white mother, and two-to-three children, that when he has to imagine a Jewish family, that is what he we’ll see. I fear that if we don’t explicitly and intentionally show our young children that the Jewish community is colorful and varied, with different family structures, that our kids will grow up with a certain image of “regular” in their minds and all others being “different.”
There are several organizations who are working on changing how we view “normal Jews,” such as Keshet, which put out a wonderful book, The Purim Superhero, about a little boy’s Purim experience. In this book the little boy has two fathers, but the book is not about him having two fathers – it’s simply the way things are. Another wonderful organization is “B’chol Lashon”; they help minority Jews find others like themselves and have a warm community.
The question is: What are we, as the “regular Jews,” the white Jews, the two straight-parent family Jews, doing to make our children aware? What are we doing so that all kids grow up feeling that they are a part of Jewish stories and histories? That they are represented in our rich and beautiful culture?
What can we all do so that my little boy doesn’t feel that he is not a part of our Jewish community?