AFRO-AMERICANS WITH JEWISH SOULS
And to his surprise, he found it with Jews.
According to a reporter for the Jewish Daily Forward, he says, “My grandpapa saved Jews; I married a Jew, and I’m raising my children as Jews.”
Mark Whitaker’s grandpapa did, indeed, help save Jews, famously so. Edouard Theis was the assistant pastor in the French Protestant village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, which bravely created a sort of underground railroad for Jews and other refugees fleeing Nazi rule during World War II.
Learning more about his French roots when he spent a year in Le Chambon as a teenager helped Whitaker appreciate how courageously his mother's family had fought persecution, because as French Protestants, they already felt like outsiders in a defiantly Catholic country.
His mother was raised in Swarthmore, Pa., where she eventually became a professor of French at Swarthmore College. That was where she met C.S. Whitaker — known as Syl — one of very few African-American students on that campus in the 1950s. A descendant of slaves, raised in Pittsburgh, and both fiercely smart and utterly charming, Syl Whitaker was unafraid to break convention, which he surely did by marrying a white woman who was on the faculty.
Whitaker’s parents’ bitter divorce, his father’s philandering and alcoholism, and his mother’s struggle to support her two sons all made for a painful childhood that left him thirsting for communal connection. He began to find it at Harvard, through a close friend who was a devout Zionist.
“I felt this incredible sense of solidarity with Israel, a sense of it being a piece of the family history,” he said. “Coming from two different traditions of being persecuted — black and French Protestant — I thought that Jews taking responsibility for themselves in the aftermath of one of the worst atrocities in human history showed great determination.”
But it wasn’t until Whitaker met and married Alexis Gelber, also a journalist, that he solidified his connection to Jews and Judaism. They found a wonderful rabbi who agreed to marry them, an interfaith couple, as long as they promised to raise their children “with a clear knowledge of what it meant to be Jewish.” They found a welcoming synagogue in Manhattan with a Jewish day school that both of his children attended through sixth grade. Photographs of his marriage under a chuppah and of his mother at his daughter’s bat mitzvah are included in the book.
He wonders aloud about converting someday.
He especially relishes the Jewish sense of humor. “I was looking for some laughter and levity in life, and a lot of Jewish friends I made in college were hilarious. Smart. Irreverent,” he remembered. “They are very motivated to make it, to be a mainstream success, but they still have an outsider perspective and a sense of humor about it. A lot of my black friends have it, too.”
of a Jewish soul.
1- You like to ask questions? But when you asked them as a child, you were told faith is a gift from God and you shouldn’t question it. This never satisfied you, although others didn’t seem to have a problem with this view.
2- The trinity never made any sense to you even as a young child.
You couldn’t believe that people who didn’t believe in Jesus couldn’t go to Heaven.
Even though you were told to pray to Jesus, you preferred to pray to God the father, rather than Jesus, the Son of God.
3- You always related to the stories in the Hebrew bible more than to the stories in the New Testament.
4- You found you related well to Jewish people you met at work or at school even though they were very different culturally and religiously from your own family.
5- When you first learned about the Holocaust you reacted more emotionally than did other members of your own family or your friends.
6- When you started to learn about Judaism; you felt Jewish ideas and values were very reasonable, and Jewish traditions and heritage were very attractive. You felt you were coming home.
If most of these statements apply to you, you probably have a Jewish soul. If you can find a possible Jewish ancestor you definitely have a Jewish soul says Rabbi Maller.
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