ACT 1: Scene 1:
“What church do you attend?” he asked.
“I am sorry?”
“What church in town do you attend?”
“Oh, none. I am not a Christian,” I take a deep breath and release it, “I am Jewish.”
“Oh,” he said with a confounded look on his face. “Are you a messianic Jew?”
“Um, no.” I said in a matter of fact manner. “No, I am not. Messianic Jew, is another word for Christian. I am a Jew, Jew.”
“So you don’t believe in Jesus?”
“Do you?” I ask.
“Well of course I do. You know you’ll go to hell without Jesus.”
Trying to push down my annoyance, “Well, I guess it’s a good thing that I do not believe in hell.”
“A Jew? How are you a Jew? Did you know that Jews sold us into slavery, that they hate us?”
“Really? Do you know history?”
“In that case, if you knew history, you would know that 1)during the time of the slave trade, Jews were escaping persecution in Spain and Portugal and throughout Europe and that the Muslims, particularly the Ottoman Empire, ruled most of Africa at that time. 2) That it was a Jew, a white person, and a black person who formed the NAACP and 3) it was Jewish Rabbis who funded the Civil Rights Movement.”
“Well, they still hate us.”
MLK Celebration at YXZ Synagogue:
Jewish lady walks up to me at the end of the service and everyone is high off of the gospel music–Jews love gospel music..
“You all sang beautifully. It brought tears to my eyes”
“Oh, no I wasn’t in the choir. I attend synagogue.”
“I’m sorry you didn’t come with the church?”
“No ma’am, I’ve been attending this synagogue now for over a year.”
“Oh, are you Ethiopian.”
“No,” I say, but I am thinking, ‘Do I look Ethiopian to you?’
“Are you a convert?”
Blank stare, no response. She and I both know she is not supposed to ask that question.
“Well, welcome either way.”
This is pretty much how many conversations go down, here in Texas. So, I decided that I needed to address these attitudes. I’ve been wanting to write this post for quite some time and I got the go ahead from Christelyn to do so weeks ago, but I am just getting around to it. I wanted to broach the topic of non-Christian and non-Muslim religious practices of black women. I decided to do so because 1) I tire of people ASS-uming that I am either a Christian or a Muslim, or even still a convert–that I won’t clear up either; and I get asked a lot of questions about my pen name, “Tanisha Shulamit”.
My pen name is a combination of my birth name and my Hebrew name. My Hebrew name is Tovah Shulamit and I wear it proudly. The name Tovah means “good” in Hebrew and is normally used in greetings such as, L’Shanah Tova (Happy New Year) or Shavua Tov (Have a good week) and my middle name Shulamit means “peaceful.” For you bible peeps, Shulamit is the chief character in the book, Songs of Songs, for whom King Solomon writes his passionate love letters to. She is a shepherdess who eventually becomes his wife and Queen of Israel–one day I will break down the erotic aspect about that book, and shock some of you Christians.
|Me at the Wall, March 2004, bundled in a friend’s coat. Its was cold, burrr|
In general, I tend to keep my religious beliefs to myself because honestly I am not a hard liner however, the beautiful thing about being Jewish is that we do not believe we corner the market on truth and the way to God and there is a lot of leeway in the way that you practice. I, personally believe in universal truths and in cultural rites and all religions are a mixture of both.
Nor do I discuss how it is that I am Jew because it is not a necessary conversation to have. No one asks how someone became a Christian or Muslim do they? Nope..
I will cover a few other alternative religious practices of black women and the way these practices shape their lives, but first I wanted to give you a few facts and highlight a couple of amazing celebrities, in this case women, that are both black and Jewish because frankly I am tired of the misconception that all black people are either Christian or Muslim–bow ties and bean pies. There are many of us who are Jewish, Atheists, Deists, Buddhist, Hindus and a slew of other things and for once, I think that we should see this diversity in the media.
Fact #1— There are over 400,000 practicing Jewish Americans of African descent (not Hebrew Israelites, that’s a different group). Many were the result of black and Jewish unions during the Civil Rights Movement. (Jewish Rabbis bankrolled MLKs movement in the 60s) and post civil rights 70s. Some were born Jewish– many slaves converted to Judaism after the Civil War and the Emancipation. And some converted for love and plain belief. And some believe that many of the slaves captured from Africa were Jews–Ethiopia, Ghana and S. Africa anyone?
Fact #2— There are two (there are others) major sects of Jews in the world, Ashkenazim–Jews from eastern Europe such as Germany, Russia, Poland etc and Sephardim (used to mean Jews from the Iberian peninsula(Spain) but now covers Italian Jews, Jews from Spain, Britain, North Africa and the Middle East.
Fact #3— Do you agree with everything Israel does? No, I do not but at the same time I do not agree with everything Palestine or America does. I believe in peace and joy for all and I truly believe that we all can have that peace and joy and not at the expense of others. I tend to see both sides of a coin and most times I am neutral. I will call you out when you are wrong and back you up when you are right. I also have family that lives in Israel.
Fact #4— What’s your favorite holiday? Well, my fave holiday(s) are Purim–it is the Jewish answer to Halloween where we celebrate the saving of the Jews in the Persian empire by Esther. This holiday you are permitted to dress up in costumes and get stinking drunk. In fact most people bring their rabbi a bottle of vodka (ashkenazim) or wine/Araq (sephardim). Its a big party where we forget to tell the difference between blessings and curses and it is one of the only holidays we celebrate a woman. I love Rosh Hashana where we celebrate the goodness of god. Its the beautiful Days of Awe and Yom Kippur (day of repentance) where we repent not individually, but as a community because we believe that what one person does the whole community does. And Simcha Torah, when we get to wave Israeli flags and dance around the Torah. We know how to celebrate!
For you who do not know. Here are a few fabulous celebrities –there are some actors but I prefer to focus on women– that are both black and Jewish, to learn more about other Black and Jewish celebrities check out this HuffPost article:
Another alternative lifestyle that women practice is Buddhism. The most famous black buddhist female is Tina Turner:
I interviewed a buddhist friend about her beliefs as a Nichiren Buddhist and this is what she had to say:
Buddhism originated in India, around 2000 years ago by Shakyamuni Buddha. Shakyamuni is known as the “original buddha”. He was born a prince and renounced his royal life to pursue find the cure for human suffering! In 13th century japan a priest, Nichiren Diashonin, discovered the ‘Direct Path’ to that “Cure”, the chanting of Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo! The practice for ALL people!!!
Nichiren Diashonin, a 13th century monk, studied for many years, the different writing of Buddhism, 1000 of sutras (teachings)… He discovered that from all the sutras the most significant was The Lotus Sutra. All the other sutras were based on the capacity of the people to understand…so it was mostly parables and similes, and stories to teach the basic principles of the path to enlightenment (to perceive the truth of life). On the other hand the Lotus Sutra was based solely on the depth if Shakyamuni’s advanced capacity to perceive the truth about life. Nichiren deduced the simply the title was the most profound sound found throughout the universe…and chanting it over and over would put you in rhythm with the universe. To perceive that life is Cause and Effect and that that is the Law of the universe!
The main practice of Nichiren Buddhism is chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. When chanting, you are fusing your life with the rhythm of the universe, you are able to tap into the deepest level of your being and bring forth the best most capable you, you are capable of being! Chanting is coupled with faith and study to increase your understanding and conviction in achieving world peace-through Each and Every person undergoing their own Human Revolution! At the age of 24 I was introduced to this practice by my best friend-her mother had at that time been practicing for 25 years!
Then there are those who follow either no religious practices or who have adopted a Pan-Africanist stance on religion like singer Erykah Badu:
Another friend of mine, Nikki DaVinci has no religious beliefs and this is what she has to say about her background:
“My mother was not religious until she got married to a religious man. Sometimes she would take us to churches all christian churches. She didn’t force me to go to church until I was about 15. I did have a family I stayed with for summer (Fresh Air Fund) that made church and religion seem magical. That fascinated me. They bought me my first bible. I liked reading it because the stories really interested me.”
Although I am Jewish, I truly believe that God, the goddess, is in all and is all and that our main purposes on this earth are to discover the god-like essence in ourselves and Tikkun Olam which in Hebrew means to ‘heal the world’ through healing ourselves and by extension healing others–basically discovering our humanity. I also believe that sin in the Jewish sense is a crime that I commit against another fellow human being or animal–the Commandments anyone?
I hope that this post will be a thing used to open dialogue among us to talk about our different paths to godliness/righteousness and most especially humanity–this is more what Judaism is about, our relationship with humanity–and to see just how much in common we have than not. And from this day forth, never assume that every black person you meet is either a Christian, Muslim or convert. Just as our personalities are a diverse and reflect different aspects of god so are our religious beliefs and practices.