I was around seven when I learned that my maternal great-grandfather was a German Jew, beginning a journey that culminated in my conversion to Judaism in 1982. Later, I was surprised by the antagonistic response I received from many blacks. The general consensus seemed to be that I was no longer black.
People told me that a person could not be black and Jewish. Blacks I had known for years acted differently around me, as if I had changed personalities. Yet, I knew that if I had converted to Catholicism, no one would have cared. If I had become a Muslim, blacks would have embraced me. But I had become a Jew, and somehow, for many, that obliterated my identity as a black person.
Identity is not simple. I learned that from a white female student in one of my black literature classes. She was the only white student in the class, and she was also the only student in the class who seemed to have a visceral feel for the literature we studied. She understood things I had to explain to the black students in the class. And she had grown up in a small town in Massachusetts where there were no blacks. Yet, as far as I was concerned, she was black, even though she had blonde hair and blue eyes. She had an understanding and grasp of the black experience that went beyond the intellectual. And she went on to become a professor of black literature.
Identity is mysterious. When I was a child I used to play over and over on the piano a simplified arrangement of “Kol Nidre.” I was haunted by that melody. I had no idea where it came from or what it meant, but I loved it. Many years later I attended synagogue one Saturday morning when the daughter of a friend was called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah. This was some years before my conversion, and I remember sitting in the service listening to the cantor singing the various melodies of the Shabbat morning service. I found myself almost in tears because I wanted to pray in song as the cantor was doing, but I never would because I wasn’t Jewish.
It was three years after my conversion that I finally began to lead parts of the Shabbat morning service, and I eventually became cantor for the High Holy Days. That first year I was surprised when Israelis, people who had survived the Holocaust, came to me after services to say that my singing reminded them of when they’d been children in synagogue with their grandparents. I didn’t understand how that could be, and yet, I knew that praying in song in Judaism meant so much more to me, evoked a passion and love from me that singing black music never had.
Identity is unfathomable. A few years ago I had my DNA done. I was not surprised to learn that my ancestry was 70% Sub-Saharan African and 29% European. Of that 29% European, however, 19% was European Jewish. I would never have dreamed that almost one-fourth of my ancestry was Jewish.
Identity is more than me. The African part of my DNA traces to Benin, Togo, Cameroon, Congo, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Sudan and Ethiopia. The European traces from Western Europe through Great Britain, and there is less than 1% which is East Asian. What was transformative was realizing that I am not only the child of W.D. Lester and Julia B. Smith Lester. I am also the issue of an untold number of women and men who knew each other, in the Biblical sense, over a period of 10,000 years, at least. (I am most intrigued by the East Asian who left 0.7% of her or his DNA as part of me.)
Who am I? There are not enough words to describe who am I, who any of us are, because we all carry within us traces of lives going back ten thousand years and more. What a shame that there are those who would reduce the wonder of being human to such a narrow and restrictive concept as race.
There is a woman in Spokane, Washington, who identifies herself as black. Her birth certificate says she is white. Social media has abused her viciously by calling her a liar; her picture has been on the front page of the New York Times. I keep waiting to hear what harm she has done to merit such scorn. But all I read says that she has done very good things in her work as a black woman. Yet, so many Americans are acting as if she has injured each of them personally.
In 1982, I drove my mother down to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where she was born and raised. Her grandfather, Adolph Altschul, is buried in the Jewish cemetery there; her grandmother, Maggie Carson, is buried on property the family owns. Most of Adolph and Maggie’s children are also buried there.
My mother was a very taciturn and angry woman, but on that trip she spoke to me as she never had, and it was only a couple of sentences: “I had a hard time growing up. White people didn’t like me because I looked white but I wasn’t. Black people didn’t like me because I was black but I looked white.” That was all she said, but it was enough for me to see into her life as I never had.
There is a woman in Spokane, Washington, being told by millions of people who she isn’t. But she knows who she is, and I hope she can hold onto her existential identity despite the anger and hatred she is being subjected to.
Identity is not only the color of our skins. Ultimately, who we are is as mysterious as the universe. I hope that Rachel Dolezal will one day be able to celebrate this mystery and be who she is without anyone being so presumptuous as to tell her she isn’t.