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Isn't it pretty?

Friday, May 25, 2007


Over Shavuos, I finished reading "Their Eyes Were Watching God" by Zora Neale Hurston. It's the story of a mixed race (part-black, part-white) woman and her life and loves. I was supposed to have read it in high school, but like many books I was supposed to read in high school, I skipped it. I was missing out.

The main character, Janie, is a beautiful woman who learns about herself through her relationships in life. She marries three times, the final marriage being to a person who really loves her, though doesn't offer the financial rewards of her previous spouses. To her, the love is worth more than the money.

There is an interesting passage in the book. It describes another character who is of mixed black and white heritage. This character holds herself higher than those of all black descent, and she states this position very clearly. She asks Janie numerous times how she can stand to associate herself with those who don't carry white blood in them. Janie doesn't pay a lot of attention to this, she doesn't judge others by their percentage of whiteness. But it's clear that the other woman doesn't agree with this lack of racial bias.

I read this passage shortly before having an interesting conversation with the cousin of my Shavuos hosts. This cousin grew up in Israel, in Bnai Brak. She is a Sephardic Jew. She told me how she grew up wishing that her skin was lighter, because the Ashkenazic classmates she had made her feel like she was not as good as them. She met her husband and left Israel, partially because she thought that she would not encounter such attitudes in America.

This cousin has a 3-year old daughter, who is absolutely precious. When trying to find a school for this daughter, my friend's cousin had a few priorities - mainly a good education and a good religious foundation. She didn't want to compromise on either one. So she spoke with the administration at several schools, both predominantly Sephardic schools and predominantly Ashkenazic schools. At one of the Ashkenazic schools, she was questioned about why she, as a Sephardic Jew, would want to send her daughter there. When explaining her reasons, the administrator told her that they wouldn't refuse her daughter, but it wasn't the first choice. She was made to feel like she was not as good, because of her Sephardic heritage.

She decided not to send her daughter there, because she felt that they wouldn't be teaching her daughter good values and attitudes, even if the education might have been better than at another school. I don't blame her one bit.

It's the same thing as in the book - judging based on the color of skin, rather than the inside of who a person is. Disregarding another person based on what they look like. And it bothers me so much in the story of my friend's cousin because we are supposed to be bound together by the fact that we are Jewish, not separated by our different factions and customs. But it unfortunately doesn't seem to work that way.

In the book, Black people had it rough. They worked hard with little money to make it, whether they had a little black blood or a lot. In life, Jews often have it rough - there are many who don't like us very much. We should, at the very least, help strengthen ourselves by supporting each other, rather than dividing ourselves and causing the chains to weaken link by link.


  • There definitely is sooo much snobberyism between the different sects and stuff.I've listened to friends tryin to get their kids into preschool and heard similar sephardi snobbery among other elitist ideologies.

    By Anonymous Jaded Topaz, at 5/25/07, 1:18 PM  

  • My favorite quote from that book is on page 86:

    "When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time andglittered all over. Then after some of the angels got jealous and chopped him intomillions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark has a shine and a song. So they covered eachone over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks make them hunt for oneanother, but the mud is deaf and dumb. Like all the other tumbling mud-balls, Janie had tried to show her shine."

    I love that. We all try to show our shine.

    The experience your Sephardi friend underwent is such a shame. I'm sad that this happens in the Jewish community and hope for a time when we are more accepting and less judgmental.

    By Blogger Chana, at 5/27/07, 2:40 AM  

  • a very interesting post, as usual. i have read black literature, and have found the attitude that "lighter is better" to be somewhat pervasive.

    this "racism" towards sephardim - if it could be called that - is nothing new. we need to work on it!

    there's a collection of essays by bi-racial young adults, that you might enjoy. it's called "black, white, other" by lise funderburg. i enjoyed it immensely.

    By Blogger Maven, at 5/27/07, 8:01 PM  

  • I never realized how important understanding evolutionary psychology was until recently when I read Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained. Although the topic is not pertinent to your point, some of its content is. Like you, I always had wondered why Jews are so fragmented and intolerant of other Jews (Ashkenaz vs Sephared or Hasidic to Modern Orthodox). Aren’t we all kindred brothers, after all? Theoretically yes, but realistically no, as we shall soon see.

    Boyer describes a well-known psychology study that showed that a large group of people spontaneously would divide into small subgroups each with its own very distinct identity. Each group will think that their own are smarter, braver, etc while at the same time they would demean or belittle their ‘rival’ group (or out-group). Much of their further actions and interactions would be governed by coalitional dynamics. See my post at http://shmuzings.blogspot.com/2007/05/curious-jew.html for further elaboration on this relating to a similar topic.

    So ideally this one large group we call Jews should be all part of the in-group but based on the size, demographics, scattered geography, differing customs, inevitably sub-groups will have formed. Our evolutionary psychology immediately applies all the inferences related to in-group/out-group. It takes conscious effort to recognize that our initial instincts are just that and there is a loftier goal of overcoming our baser analyses. Unfortunately, most people aren’t on that level and even those who are must constantly keep themselves in check. We all need to reflect on this and strive to become better human beings.

    By Blogger smoo, at 5/27/07, 11:28 PM  

  • It's so odd. I have a sephardi friend who has more or less mainstreamed himself to be more askenazic. I'm a believer in roots, so sometimes I try to encourage not to leave behind his rich heritage, and he admitted once that since kids in High school mocked his being a "Frank", he's been embarassed.
    Don't you love how the art of character assassination is being refined in our schools?

    By Blogger jewmaican20, at 5/30/07, 4:05 AM  

  • Such smallness...Its sad..

    I actually rmember growing up near Syrians..and they would look down on us ashkis and call us Peasants..

    By Blogger David_on_the_Lake, at 5/30/07, 11:15 PM  

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