Thoughts on Race and Judaism by Jena Doolas

What do you call the German-born child of a nominally Greek Orthodox father who was born in Greece and an Ashkenazi Jewish mother born in Chicago? Throw in a grandfather who was born in Russia who lived for years in South Africa and some Middle Eastern lineage. What do you get?

When my parents married, these disparate identities were brought together in a wonderful mash-up. But when I was growing up all that was just background music. I was an American girl. National, religious or racial labels were didn't matter. In the foreground was the good guidance to study hard, do your best, discover your talent and be a good person that adds betterment to the world

I did not receive spiritual guidance or teaching about who I was, who I came from, how my mom's family and my dad's family differed from one another or even in what ways they might be the same. I was not directed how to reconcile Judaism, and Greek Orthodoxy, the secular and the religious. Without a basic understanding of the past there was no way I could be instructed how those family stories, traditions, beliefs should inform and ground who I was to become as a grown up. . No one in my family gave thought to how religion, cultural heritage or racial identity could be a cornerstone to building a life.

When I was little I told people I was German. I was corrected many times and was told to say that I was an American. It took me a long time to understand that while I was born in Germany, that did not make me German. But, confusingly,  I was also told that because my dad was born and raised in Greece I was Greek. My dad is an immigrant and so that made me part Greek too. 

My mother was born in Chicago. Her mother was born in New York, her father in Russia. So, does that make me Russian? And since my Papa left Russia and moved to South Africa to escape anti-Semitic persecution from his fellow Russians does that make him and me South African? No, I was told, of course not.  

How is one to account for the parts of ourselves that came to us from other places?

Like many others, my parents' solution to two religions was no religion at all. I did not attend religious school of any kind. Once a year, I went to a Rosh Hashanah Service and, for balance, the occasional Christmas Mass. The extended family celebrated special dinners for  Easter and Christmas. On Passover and Yom Kippur, the Jewish side of the family ate their own special dinners. But the Jewish stuff was not universal. Not at home and not anywhere else. I noticed that, unlike the Christian holidays which both sides of the family celebrated,  when it came to Jewish holidays only the Jewish part of the family showed up. While school closed for Christmas, it remained open for Hanukah. And for some reason, I knew I was Jewish. I did not know what it meant only that this was my religion. I did not know that there was a G-d to go with that or a language of Jewish prayer. 

Growing up my parents did discuss being Greek. My paternal grandparents lived part of the year in Greece and we visited them regularly. That's a relationship that I continue to keep alive through my regular visits to the family hometown of Salonika. My parents spoke Greek and were surrounded by Greek friends and family. My Yiayia (grandmother) cooked only Greek food and those are the tastes that formed my palate. Their whole sensibility was Greek and for some reason I took that identity on wholeheartedly. But when I search into the recesses of my memories Greek Orthodoxy is not there. It's not that there were no crosses or genuflection or church goings - there were. It's more that I feel in my soul that I was meant to be Jewish and have a spiritual relationship not with Jesus but with Adonai, the Jewish God.

I think Whiteness was not part of my racial identity when I was young because Judaism was still used as my racial marker. And because I came from an immigrant family which was still working on identifying itself as American=White. I was not black or brown or yellow or red. I was Jewish. I was Greek.  We were immigrants. And, I think, mostly, I did not know my race because in my family "White" was not a race. Race was only given to a person when they were something other than us who were regular, normal; what humanity was.

Eventually I came to name myself White and Jewish and Greek. If you've ever read the book As A Driven Leaf and/or celebrated Hanukah, and/or read the history of the German Occupation of my father's hometown Salonika , you will glimpse the kind of stories I continue to pursue in understanding who I am in these worlds. Technically I am not a Greek Jew. The Greek side of my family was not Jewish and the Jewish side of my family was not Greek. But the Greek side of my family grew up in the most Jewish city in Greece, home to the fishing community of Sephardic Greek Jews who moved and integrated there from Spain following the expulsion of Jews from Catholic Spain in 1492. 

During World War II Salonika was occupied by the Nazis. My non-Jewish Greek family gave food, shelter and other support to their Jewish neighbors. As a boy, my dad watched Salonika's Jews being forced into the town square before being deported to the death camps. I can't help but wonder if that traumatic event took root in my dad's heart and compelled him to create a Jewish Greek family with my mom.

For years I have engaged in serious study of Judaism. I have become aware of where whiteness intersects with Judaism in America. Reading about how parts of the White Jewish community was complicit in the racial segregation of Chicago, I have worked hard to place my identity honestly; to be accountable and show up for race work as a white Jewish person. In that journey I have found schisms and intersections within the Jewish community that I am just beginning to explore. How am I positioned as a Jew in the political dynamics that contain Jews of Color? Where does my stance on Israel-Palestine place me as a Jew? Am I a White Jew in American culture or a Jew of Color and should identify as Sephardic? 

Race. Religion. National identity. These can be confusing and overlapping labels. This continues to be a fascinating journey of discovery and I appreciate being able to share part of my story with you, my beloved Jewish community.