I’m the definition of the word “mutt,” that lovable euphemism for a person who doesn’t quite fit into any single ethnic category.
My mother is of North and East African descent. My father is of East African and Goan descent. They both have varying degrees of Arab lineage in them. There is a bit of Dutch on my mother’s side, a bit of Portuguese on my father’s side. True children of the world, between my mother and my late father (he passed away in 2012 of heart complications), they managed to learn to communicate in 20 languages collectively. My family could easily appear in some corny multiculturalism public service announcement. However, one attribute held my parents together more than their shared diversity – a proud and fervent adherence to the religion they both grew up in as children: Judaism.
Settling in North America later in their lives exposed them to a new and inescapable truth: the amount of melanin in their skin made them black. And in light of the murky post-colonial legacy still alive and well in today’s America, that label came with some social realities that needed to be deliberately explored if we were to effectively navigate this new life in the West.
I was once asked as a teenager to write an essay describing my experience of being a “Jew of colour,” and I likened it to being on a lonely island. “Too Jewish to be Black, too Black to be Jewish” I titled the paper cheekily, its rawness causing my English teacher to pull me aside and ask questions of burning curiosity before she quietly give me an A+ and treated me with kid gloves for the rest of the term. Perhaps she felt sorry for me. To this day I still get people asking “Oy, what’s a day in your life like?”
The truth is, my life is great. I wouldn’t trade it for anything else in the world. I simply had to be given a dual education in the richness of my Jewish heritage alongside reminders of the responsibility that comes with being a black man. I was exposed to the legacy of the American slave trade, while learning about Maimonides and Rabbi Gamaliel. I learned about Frederick Douglass one day, and the next day I would be versed in the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch. I learned about the tragedy of Emmett Till, a black teenager who was murdered in 1955, and then we would light the candles for Chanukah and I would learn about Judah Maccabee. We learned about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey while learning about David Ben-Gurion, Vladimir Jabotinsky and Theodor Herzl.
Like many Jewish families, we would get a solemn yearly crash course about the horrors of the Holocaust, and my mother would make the hairs on our necks stand up recanting her emotional visits to Auschwitz and Birkenau as a young woman living in Europe.
In the next breath, my father would recall his experiences as a curiosity in scholastic circles as his Jewish faith was questioned daily by colleagues eager to get him to take a stance and focus on one or the other. Black civil rights, or Jewish struggles with anti-Semitism. A plea for a better tomorrow for all minorities is always in vogue, but what about when those perspectives overlap? Should one struggle take a back seat to another? A black, Jewish, non-American perspective? This was uncomfortable for some. It didn’t neatly fit certain narratives.
As an adult today, sure, I get double the heartache. My blood boils witnessing the plight of Jews just trying to live their lives while being callously murdered in the streets of Paris. I am outraged when I see black youths gunned down in the streets of Missouri or New York or Florida. I am in a constant state of incredulity when I see rockets falling on Sderot or Ashkelon, and yet the world continues to ignore the fact that Israel was forced to build an almost magical technology – the Iron Dome – simply to protect its citizens, as any country has a right to do. I am aghast that 2,000 Nigerians were slaughtered last month in what amounted to a footnote for most of the world media.
So what does a black Jew do to commemorate Black History Month?
I smile because I know that we are another year closer to that amazing future when our children will laugh at us for the misguided divisiveness we all lived in once upon a time. I smile because the wheels are already in motion where we leave these chapters in the book of history far behind.
I smile, because I know one day, there won’t need to be a Black History Month.
Moshe Modeira is a fashion marketing and digital media executive.