Black and Jewish, Interfaith and Interracial, Hilarious and Offensive

I have two teenagers, and rapper Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow,” a tribute to his hometown of Pittsburgh, got plenty of play in our house this year. So when I watched the new parody video hit “Black and Jewish,” I got the joke on several levels. I also knew it was going to make a lot of people uncomfortable. After mulling it over, I wanted to weigh in with my perspective as an adult interfaith child.

First off, I realize that not all black and Jewish people are interfaith children. Some are Jews by choice, i.e. converts (most famously, Sammy Davis Jr.). And some African-American families have been Jewish for generations, including the family of brilliant blogger MaNishtana. The point is, being black and Jewish is not necessarily an interfaith issue: black is a race, Jewish is a religion, no necessary conflict or mixing involved.

Nevertheless, most “black and Jewish” people are a subset of interfaith children, including stars referenced in the video such as Lenny Kravitz (who identifies himself as Christian), Drake, and Rashida Jones. The lead actors in the video, Kali Hawk (“Bridesmaids”) and Kat Graham (“Vampire Diaries), each have one black and one (white) Jewish parent. In the video, they depict themselves as both 100% black, and 100% Jewish. I believe that all interfaith children have a right to choose their own identities. And there are historical and political and sociological reasons for biracial children to choose to be black, just as there are parallel reasons for interfaith children to choose to be Jewish.

The problem is that “Black and Jewish” trades on the broadest and basest stereotypes about both blacks and Ashkenazi Jews (“my nose and ass, they’re both big”). It’s a little bit Lenny Bruce, a little bit Dave Chappelle. The video is hilarious to insiders, but it also might be a bad idea for people in China who don’t actually know any blacks or Jews to view it (or people in Nebraska, for that matter).

Nevertheless, as an interfaith child, I cannot help responding to the optimism inherent in this video: all ages, colors, and religions dance joyously together at the climax. The fictional black father and Jewish mother appear to be a warm and loving couple, and the progeny appear to be anything but confused. These young women project defiance and confidence, claiming and celebrating both sides of their heritage. Unlike the cautionary tales of black and Jewish relationships from a generation ago (see James McBride’s The Color of Water, or Rebecca Walker’s Black, White and Jewish), this video hints at some of the benefits of interfaith and interracial marriage embraced by a new generation of interfaith children, and could help to offset some of the antiquated fear-mongering and tribalism of religious institutions and the press when writing about interfaith and interracial families.

 

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press.

Welcome Walker Diggs, Interfaith Child

It is easy to be cynical about celebrity marriages. And it is easy to fret about the obstacles faced by interfaith and interracial marriages. But I can’t help feeling thrilled by the birth this week of Walker Nathaniel Diggs.

Walker is the son of Broadway luminaries Idina Menzel (a nice Jewish girl from Long Island) and Taye Diggs (her African-American costar from the original Rent cast). The two started dating in the 1990’s, they married in 2003, they have endured racist harassment, and they waited until they were both 38 to have this baby. So in celebrity terms, they have already shown powerful longevity in their relationship, which bodes well for baby Walker.

For many interracial/interfaith couples, the faith issues take a back seat to more obvious race issues. But it is clear the couple have also thought about their interfaith status. They named their terrier after Sammy Davis Jr., the African-American entertainer who converted to Judaism.

Menzel is a role model to generations of girls for originating the feisty roles of Maureen in Rent and Elphaba in the girl-power musical Wicked. Last year, a reporter from the Jewish Chronicle asked Menzel whether they would raise their (theoretical) children as Jews. Menzel replied, “…I feel strong connections to my culture and, so yes, I would like to bring them up with knowledge of the stories and awareness of the history. I’m just not sure about the rest. I’m a spiritual person, not a religious person.”

Those are the exact words uttered by many of the parents who found their way to independent interfaith communities . I am sure Menzel will feel pressure from Jewish institutions to raise her son exclusively as a Jew. And she’s got the whole “matrilineality” thing working for her. On the other hand, in a Jewish context Walker Diggs, with his Christian last name and brown skin, will always be obvious as an interfaith child. Christians will make the assumption that he is Christian. So he will grow up with an interfaith identity on some level, even if he is raised exclusively as a Jew. In an interfaith community, he would grow up with “knowledge of the stories and awareness of the history” from both sides of his family.

 

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

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