By Cynthia Weisfield
PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania — I’m going to share some memories with you. One took place in1968, one in 1974; both were in different cities, but both involved a request by a black Jew to take part in synagogue-sponsored activities: services and a social event. In both cases, there was much discussion before he was let in. Women clutched their purses a little closer to their bodies. Men stiffened. The black man generally sat alone. Full disclosure: I did try to make conversation at the social event, but the gentleman was as nervous as I. In each instance, when the man left, there was an audible sigh of relief. My emotions were mixed, but they circled around feeling unsettled.
The above should not really be surprising. We all thought then of Jews as being white Ashkenazi, right? Or maybe white Sephardic. Perhaps we’d give a thought to the Moroccan or Yemeni Jews who were air-lifted into Israel in the ‘forties and ‘fifties. But black Jews?
All of that was about B.K.E., Before Kulanu Era. Now we – that is, Jews everywhere — know that there are black Jews, Indian Jews, Chinese Jews, Jews around the world of all stripes and nationalities. We embrace them. Or do we?
French black Jews would say otherwise. They speak about feeling the discomfort in French mainstream synagogues. Of seeing astonishment, sometimes incomprehension on the faces of their white coreligionists. Sometimes there’s a feeling of rejection, of “mockery.”
Enter Nduwa Guershon of Paris. Nduwa was a Congolese who converted to Judaism at age 28. He is the leader of a group of black Jews, the FJN, Fraternité Judéo-Noir or Jewish-Black Fraternity, which he founded in 2007. FJN was formed not as a statement of separation but to become another component of Judaism along with Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews.
Theirs is a group where all Jews are welcome. To emphasize the point, this is a committed group of Orthodox Jews who are seeking full meshing with the “customary” Ashkenazic/Sephardic communities while maintaining their own presence. In that sense, they are just participating in the time-honored Jewish practice of forming synagogues, for whatever reason. They do have rabbis coming from Israel and London to assist.
Sidney Davis, a Master’s Degree student in Jewish Studies at Hebrew College in Newton Center, MA, and a black Jew, has corresponded with Nduwa. Davis puts the case eloquently.
Nduwa Edouard Guershon seeks to raise the consciousness as well as the conscience of the broader Jewish community to the plight of the black Jewish community in France and the pan African Jewish community at large. He seeks to do thiswithin the context of Judaism’s ethical ideal of social justice by forging alliances with Jews of goodwill everywhere in addressing racism and anti-Semitism. His organizing effort connected with the Fraternité Judéo Noire is an effort to bring African Jews out of the religious and social isolation that they have experienced historically as the result of their perception as the “ultimate other” and to present them alongside the rest of the diverse Jewish community as one people.
There are now 170-250 FJN members of whom 50 are children; there is no Sunday school as yet. Although some members still attend established synagogues, the group typically meets at members’ homes.
It is interesting to take a moment to consider why there is a certain prejudice against blacks in Judaism. Guershon reasons that much of this prejudice stems from the story of Ham, who saw his father, Noah, naked. The descendants of Ham were said to be black because of their sins — in reality, the sin of their father.
Laurence Thomas, a member of FJN who flies between his homes in Paris and Syracuse, NY, where he is a professor at Syracuse University, has found anti-black biases in religious texts. Yet as he points out in his article “Social Justice and Jews” on the FJN Web site: “The Torah does not designate skin color as even a remote indication of who counts as a Jew. It is time that we stop doing so.”
There is no absolute theory about why blacks are not fully accepted as Jews. The Torah tells us that Moses married an Ethiopian or Kushite woman. That has been interpreted by Nduwa as Hashem frowning on discrimination.We also remember that the Queen of Sheba was black and well regarded by King Solomon.
The French have a longstanding history of anti-Semitism which, although quiescent for many years, is never far from the surface. They are still debating the Dreyfus Affair. The anti-Semitic “comic” Dieudonné has a large following. An increase in Muslim population and influence has cracked the quiet, as it has throughout Europe. The American Jewish Congress has reported an increase in attacks on Jews.
Shirli Sitbon, who writes in the Paris-Chronicler, reports on a rising tide of gang warfare against Jews in mixed ethnic neighborhoods.
Young men such as Rudy Haddad and Mathieu Roumi were beaten and tortured; Ilan Halimi died after his torture of three weeks’ duration. French Jews are worried. Indeed, my husband and I spoke with a Parisian couple who said that they figured they would have to emigrate to the United States at some point.
In this French cultural context, FJN efforts are courageous. Not only are they reaching out to mainstream Jews, who themselves may be afraid, but they are vocal in their various activities. A recent fundraising concert was held at l’Espace Rachi, a major venue in Paris.
They have a vibrant Web site (fjn-123.fr) that also has an English section) where they speak out vociferously on all manner of topics related to Judaism. They participate actively in demonstrations related to Israel, such as demanding the release of Gilad Shalit.
Despite the obstacles, Nduwa has great hopes. “We think…that we are in a favorable juncture where one can reconstruct a certain united community around important points such as questions linked to the Torah, study and life together,” he said. He realizes that it’s a long road, but he is committed to the journey of making all Jews comfortable with each other.
The community would welcome any religious materials, including texts in Hebrew or Hebrew/French for worship, or children’s’ education.
Yarmulkes, taleisim, menorahs and other ritual objects are also needed. The address is: M. Nduwa Edouard, 20 rue Cadet, 75009, Paris, France.
This is reprinted from the fall issue of Kulanu (http://www.kulanu.org/newsletters/2009-fall.pdf), a newsletter devoted to keeping Jewish groups throughout the world ware of each other. Cynthia Weisfield is retired and into a new career as a freelance writer with special interests in art, food and Jewish topics. She has been the Kulanu correspondent with French speaking groups for several years.