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.