Identity Non-white and Jewish in America

What it means to be Black and Jewish in America

To be each, rather than either, is both confluence and challenge.

Did You Know? Tap to expand
Studies have undercounted Jews of color by failing to ask about race and ethnicity, or by being inconsistent with regards to those categories. Source: Stanford University and the University of San Francisco.

Hasidic Jew and rapper Nissim Black’s music library reflects part of the path of his religious journey. 

After following the Islamic traditions of his grandfather, a Sunni Muslim, as a child in his hometown of Seattle, the internationally known African-American entertainer was baptized as a Christian at 14. 

In 2004, at the age of 18, Black released the single “You Need a Thug,” a rap song that featured content laced with profanity and focused on sex, money, and violence. 

But his 2008 release “God Like” is in marked contrast.  Black, known as D. Black at the time, shifted the focus of his content with the song “God Like,” featured on Jake One’s album White Van Music. The song illustrates Black’s embrace of his spiritual growth: “Pray to the most high we define what we are/the God-like flow/what it hittin’ for?/The inside growth/what it hittin’ for.” 

Black studied the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, and the Torah. A decade later, in 2013, he and his wife converted to Judaism.

Nissim Black’s 2008 release “God Like” shifted the focus of his content with the song “God Like,” featured on Jake One’s album. The song illustrates Black’s embrace of his spiritual growth: “Pray to the most high we define what we are/the God-like flow/what it hittin’ for?/The inside growth/what it hittin’ for.” After a time of Bible and Torah study, Black and his wife converted to Judaism.

In 2020, Black released “Mothaland Bounce,” a confluence of references to his youth as a member of a street gang and to his coming of age as a believer in God.

“As an artist, you are constantly finding yourself. Music is an outward expression of those internal insights,” Black said. “Though I do know that my ultimate purpose is to spread God’s light, it’s an ongoing process learning the ways in which I will share that message.”

In 2016, Black, his wife, and their six children moved to Israel in the Beit Shemesh neighborhood outside of Jerusalem. There, the family regularly sees the diversity of Jews. 

“For Shabbat, my children’s friends often join us,” Black said. “There is definitely a variety of skin tones and hair textures among them, yet everyone is there for the same reason — to praise Hashem (God).” 

But Black and his family have experienced some resistance to their presence in Israel. 

His children were barred from attending the local Jewish school where the school’s principal claimed his children were not a right fit. Black thinks that his children were rejected because of the color of their skin. His kids now attend a different school that is more in line with the family’s desired Hashkafa (guiding philosophy).  

“I was upset at first, but faith is about having a relationship with Hashem and your fellow human beings,” Black said. “I had to adjust some things about myself when I moved here. My neighbors are having to do the same because very few have interacted with a Black, Jewish, American.”

A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2013 documents the expansion of Jewish identity in the United States. Among baby-boomer Jews, 81% consider themselves Jewish because of religion. However, among millennials, the group born after 1980, only 68% identify as Jewish because of religion, and 32% identify because of ancestry, ethnicity, and culture. 

Michael W. Twitty has been exploring the intersections of Jewish and African-American ancestry, ethnicity, and culture through culinary traditions on his blog, “AfroCulinaria,” and in his book, “The Cooking Gene,” (Amistad/HarperCollins, 2017), which was the winner of the 2018 James Beard Foundation’s Book of the Year award.

In Twitty’s follow-up book project, “Kosher Soul” (Amistad/HarperCollins, 2021), he provides a variety of evidence documenting that Black and Jewish cooking are similar because both groups are diasporic peoples, forced to leave their native lands and now living in various countries around the world.

Michael Twitty, culinary historian, in his garden in Rockville, MD. Twitty has been exploring the intersections of Jewish and African-American ancestry, ethnicity, and culture through culinary traditions on his blog, “AfroCulinaria,” and in his book, “The Cooking Gene,” which won the 2018 James Beard Foundation’s Book of the Year award.

“When eating in exile, people work hard to keep their culture alive in memory,” Twitty said. “In actual practice, and in Ze’chut avot, which loosely translated, means ‘in honor of the ancestors.’ ”

Twitty converted to Judaism in his early 20s; however, DNA test results confirmed what he already knew in his bones. “I wasn’t surprised at all to discover that 40% of my matrilineal DNA matches that of Ukrainian Jews,” he said, “so Hallakhically (according to Jewish law), I didn’t need to convert.” 

Taglit Birthright Israel connects Jewish people, whether by birth or conversion, to their heritage and culture by providing free trips to Israel for young adults. Since its inception in 1999, the nonprofit has financed trips for more than 750,000 people. Tiffany Harris was one of the participants. 

“It wasn’t until I went to Israel as part of Taglit that I felt an incredible sense of belonging,” Harris said. “And I realized how narrow the definition of what Jewish looks like in the United States.” 

Harris is Jewish by birthright. Her maternal grandparents immigrated to the United States from Hungary. However, being born Jewish and Black is still a challenge. 

“As a child, I was confused when people would say ‘you don’t look Jewish,’ because my mother told me and my siblings that we were (Jewish) and that was how I identified myself,” Harris said. “Black and Jewish, not half of each.”

“That trip (to Israel) changed my life,” Harris said. “While I was in Israel, never was my Jewishness questioned because of what I looked like. There are Ethiopian Jews, Sephardic Jews, Yemenis …one can see every skin tone and hair texture.”

Harris also understands the importance of proudly connecting with and embracing her Jewish and Black heritages. 

“I love observing Shabbat, the idea of stepping away from the busyness and centering on Neshama, the spirit, and knowing that Jews around the world – my extended family, if you will – are participating in the same ritual.

“I also share a rich and profound history and legacy with my Black brothers and sisters,” Harris said. “I feel that connection at the hair salon, or in the park of my D.C. neighborhood (when) the music is blaring and the meat is grilling. Both are a part of me. I embrace both.”

As a student of culinary history, Twitty’s mission is to illustrate in the kitchen that no single culture, race, or religion can claim a recipe. “My black-eyed pea hummus is neither African American nor Jewish; it’s both. 


“It’s not about which group ‘owns’ a recipe, or from which part of myself the recipe originates. It’s about whether it tastes good. It’s the vibe, the energy, and the flavor,” Twitty said. “That’s why I call it Kosher Soul. It’s an honor to embody the kosher and the soul, to preserve it, and to pass it on to the next generation.”

Share your thoughts

All Comments

  • Top
  • I Live It
  • I Get It
  • I'm Working on It
  • I Don't See It
Joe

I'm Working on It

Angie Chatman

Identity

Metamorphosis for the club scene

Stories left today Choose a subscription level (one is free) or login
Episode Non-white and Jewish in America

We bring you Life Outside Your Bubble.™

Join Us To Listen, Watch, Read and Ponder
Choose a membership option below to keep pondering.