One Minute Torah – Yes! to Identity

This week’s One Minute Torah is from the archives. When I arrived home yesterday, Janae, our children’s nanny, announced: “Yaara defended me at the park […]

This week’s One Minute Torah is from the archives.

When I arrived home yesterday, Janae, our children’s nanny, announced: “Yaara defended me at the park today.”   

“Uh-oh,” I thought.  Yaara, my 3-year-old, is very devoted to her nanny. Janae is African-American, and her work with our family often puts her in social environments where she is the only black person.  Janae has been targeted more than once in the two years I’ve known her. If Yaara was “defending” her, I was sure that meant they’d had an unpleasant encounter.  

Janae shared the story. “We went to the Magical Bridge park, and Yaara met a new friend, Morgan. Morgan’s caregiver was holding a baby, so I started pushing both girls on the swings together.  While they were swinging, Morgan said to me: 

‘Usually, I’m afraid of black people’ 

‘Why?’ I asked her.

‘Because they’re different,’ she said.  

And then Yaara said, ‘My nanny and her family are chocolate, and that’s ok.’” 

Janae wasn’t upset at all. She was mostly amused, and maybe a little pleased, that Yaara described her as “chocolate”. 

Janae and I often discuss racial issues. Some parts of her experience resonate with my experiences as a Jew. She knows all the black and biracial children in Yaara’s preschool (there aren’t many). She grapples with family and friends who view her choice to date a white man as a threat to their own black identity. 

But Janae’s experiences have an intensity that I only know second-hand, from my grandmother’s stories of life as a Chasidic girl in Warsaw, and from reading between the lines of old rabbinic texts. As a white Jew in America, I can remove my kippah and slip-in easily with the white majority. Janae can never escape her difference. She grapples with self-hatred (“I’m not black black,” she once told me) and black pride, in ways that remind me of Jewish experiences in other times and places. 

This week’s parshah, Pinchas, bristles with the complexity of racial identity. The Israelite men were tempted by the Moabite women. Pinchas is a zealot, and becomes violent in his defense of Israelite pride. Assimilation tenses against Jewish pride, self-hatred against hatred of other. 

Also in this week’s parshah is the story of Tslophchod’s daughters. At a time when only males inherited land, Tslophchod had no sons.  His daughters dared to stand before Moses and the circle of male elders, and challenge law and custom. “Why should our father’s name be removed from his family because he has no son? Give us a land holding amongst our father’s brothers,” they demanded (Numbers 27:4). 

Biblical scholar Avivah Zornberg sees a profound inspiration in these women. The book of Numbers tells the repeated story of a people rejecting their identity. “Send us back to Egypt,” is their ongoing lament. The daughters of Tslophchod are the first to stand up and say: “Yes!  We want the land! We want Israel, we want God, we want Judaism!” And God smiles back at their desire: “Ken bnot Tslophchod dovrot (Numbers 27:7)” which might be translated as “The daughter’s of Tslophchod speak correctly,” but literally means: “Yes, the daughter’s of Tslophchod speak.” 

The last time Janae had a racially charged encounter in our neighborhood, a woman approached her out of nowhere, shouting threats and obscenities. Such experiences shrink the soul, tear the “Yes!” from the heart. I wish for her an abundance of positive experiences, to return the “Yes!” to her heart.  May her chocolate color be as sweet to her as it is to Yaara. And may our Jewish identity be every bit as sweet to us.