From the Four Corners

By Alex Joffe
Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Are most Jews white? The impression that this is so is partially the result of the calamitous and decimating events of the 20th century, in which the great centers of Europe were lost to Nazi genocide while those of the Middle East and North Africa were lost to Islam. But beyond today's primary nodes of the United States and Israel, as was recently confirmed by the annual conference of the Be'chol Lashon initiative in San Francisco, other Jewish cultures continue to exist and, to a greater or lesser extent, flourish.  

The concerns of Be'chol Lashon (which means "in every language") are reflected in the rabbis involved in its activities. Colombian-born Juan Mejia undertakes outreach throughout Mexico and Latin America to the descendants of Jews forcibly converted centuries ago to Christianity but still retaining Jewish memories and practices handed down over the generations. Gershom Sizomu, ordained at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, is a leader of the thousand-strong Abayudaya Jews of Uganda, who converted to Judaism en masse in 1919. Capers Funnye leads the Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation of Chicago, a traditional Black Israelite congregation that also includes white members.

These hardly exhaust the list. Groups claiming or rediscovering their relationship with the Jewish people include the Lemba and Igbo of Africa and the Bnei Menashe of northeast India, considerable numbers of whom have settled in Israel. To cite an even more awkward case, there are the so-called Messianic Jews, Jewish by birth but proclaiming Jesus as their savior. Ironically, it appears that many of these are in fact Christians who are now moving in the other direction, jettisoning Christian doctrine and striving to become Jews either de facto or through formal conversion.

Behind these and other stories of communities is a myriad of no less exotic stories of individuals. What most of them share is the experience of being shunned by "normative" religious authorities and mainstream communal organizations. At the conference, Rabbi Funnye pointed out that no member of his congregation would dream of eating pork or shellfish—a fact that alone distinguishes them from a wide swath of North American Jews. Why, then, the need to prove their authenticity? Another participant, Ephraim Isaac of the Institute for Semitic Studies in Princeton, cited the 12th-century statement of Maimonides that if someone proclaims himself a Jew, the assertion must be accepted at face value.

That, of course, was then. In today's much more complex and ambiguous circumstances, it it still enough? Can an individual or group simply decide to be Jewish? Where does Jewish religious law, halakhah, come into play?

Such questions are especially acute in Israel, where the gatekeeper role is played by the chief rabbinate. In the case of Ethiopian Jews, essentially cut off from the post-biblical development of rabbinic Judaism and airlifted dramatically to Israel in the 1990s, they were declared Jewish by Chief Rabbis Ovadia Yosef and Shlomo Goren—but other authorities demanded that they go through a modified conversion ritual. This was met with vociferous protest but ultimately accepted, and their subsequent integration into Israeli society, albeit difficult, has been largely successful. (Holdouts include the ultra-Orthodox, or haredim, who may be the true "exotic Jews'" of the global community.)

The problem of acceptance is not peculiar to North America or Israel. One participant from Mexico noted that even Mexicans converted in Israel by the chief rabbinate are unwelcome in the established and insular Jewish communities of Mexico City. By contrast, his own, smaller congregation in San Miguel, a town three hours distant and made up mostly of wealthy expatriate Americans, is more welcoming of converts.

The conference provoked a number of unsettling observations. Israel and Zionism went largely unmentioned. Younger participants, especially those of mixed backgrounds, said they wanted to be recognized as unique individuals with distinct narratives, to create their own communities comprising those with similar experiences, and to be recognized as such by the larger community. Like their counterparts among other young Diaspora Jews, they do not assign a higher status to the Jewish component of their identity and evince no special commitment to the community from which they demand recognition. As one of them put it, being "obsessed with being Jewish is irrelevant."

This is, to say the least, naïve. Some may find the very idea of community absurd and defining, or deny that boundaries and conditions exist or need to exist. But all people evaluate the world around them, create categories, and draw lines. It falls to those truly concerned about the future to create a common culture and corresponding norms; the only relevant issue is whether the necessary boundaries are drawn to include as many and as much as possible while avoiding the trap of ceasing to define anything at all.

Intermarriage? Patrilineal descent? Conversion? Ritual practice? Will Jews now be required to create a plethora of new institutions to rule on these and other matters in competition with the institutions already existing and already too much at loggerheads with one another? How can a sense of peoplehood be created out of such diffuse and disaggregated pieces?

In the meantime, the practical needs of the dispersed and nascent communities are basic: rabbis and teachers, Jewish texts in Hebrew and local languages, cultural centers, organizational skills, and, inevitably, money. The community of San Miguel needs a traditionally trained scribe (sofer) to fix several donated Torah scrolls. For African-American congregations, the challenge is to cultivate leaders who can work patiently to break down the walls with the larger Jewish community.

Facing up to these needs is enough of a shared Jewish responsibility—and opportunity. For American Jews in particular, whose numbers have been stagnant for decades, one wonders whether the "mainstream" can truly afford to ignore those on the "margins." With some estimates of the population of crypto-Jews in Latin America and the southwestern United States running into the millions, the question is far from academic.

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research. 

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