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You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow!

Jean Birkenstein Washington

Boston Herald

MSNBC feature

Robin Washington

Black Jews, rejoice: It's going to be a bright week

Aired on National Public Radio's "News & Notes" with Ed Gordon, Dec. 26, and published in the Duluth News Tribune, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Baltimore Sun and many other newspapers via Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services, Dec. 28-31, 2005

For Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish holiday celebrated this week, the black Jewish community in Duluth is having -

Let me rephrase that. There isn't a black Jewish community in Duluth, except me. It used to be my daughter and me about 20 years ago. But we moved from Minnesota to Massachusetts, and now that she's grown and established in her career, she has no immediate need to move back. I did return, and here I am.

Duluth aside, there actually are a lot of black Jews. Ethiopian Jews are well known, and in the United States, there are at least 200,000 African-American Jews - some who are biracial with a Jewish parent, some who converted to the faith and some who belong to predominantly black Hebrew Israelite congregations that formed at the turn of the last century.

For all American Jews, Hanukkah is pretty much the same thing, which is that it's not a major holiday. The real holy days are the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement in the fall and Passover in the spring. But because of Christmas, everyone expects you to be celebrating something in December and giving presents.

So Hanukkah fits the bill, especially since it's a celebration of freedom. It marks the overthrow 2,300 years ago of the Syrians in Israel, and the rekindling of an eternal light in the sacked temple. There was only enough oil to light it for one day but - and this is the miracle part - it lasted for eight. That's why Hanukkah is eight days, with an eight-branch candelabra called a menorah lit each night, one candle for each day.

All the stuff about presents came later, and ignore it at your peril. When I was growing up in Chicago and our neighborhood was mostly black - it kept changing - I knew the routine.

"Whatchu gettin' for Christmas?" I can remember a kid named Bo asking me more than one December. When I'd say we didn't celebrate Christmas, he'd say, "Aw, man, you know what I mean. Whatchu gettin' for Jewish Christmas?" My brother had less patience and would just say clothes and toys.

Then there were the Christmas carols. As the only Jew in class, I did manage to get excused from singing them. That put me in the interesting position of being able to listen to the rest of the class. I never understood: If they liked Jesus so much, why were they singing, "Oh come, let us ignore him"?

Things hadn't changed much by the time my daughter, Erin, was in first grade in Duluth in 1986. She had to sing "All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth," though she said it was literal because half the class was missing them.

Later, in more multicultural Newton, Mass., she was allowed to substitute "and of his rice" for "of His Christ" in the Hallelujah Chorus. There, she was hardly the only Jew in the school and not even the only Jew of color. But we probably were one of the few families in town celebrating both Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. And this year, for the first time I can remember (Hanukkah's about 2,270 years older than Kwanzaa), they both happen to fall exactly in the same week.

If nothing else, then, that really is the special thing about being both black and Jewish today. Kwanzaa has a candelabra like the menorah, called a kinara, and one candle is lit each night.

So what are the black Jews in Duluth and Massachusetts and across the country doing this week?

Going through a lot of matches.

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