Jewish and black women try to bridge cultural gap

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In possibly the most powerful moment of the play "Crossing the Broken Bridge," Jewish actress Naomi Newman plays an elderly black woman recalling her frightening trip as a child in the hold of a slave ship.

In the same scene, African American actor John O'Neal plays a young Jewish boy in a cattle car to Auschwitz.

"Switching skins was a big leap of vulnerability," said Newman, member of A Traveling Jewish Theater and one of four panelists speaking last week on "Women's Voices on African American-Jewish Relations."

"The place to begin," she said, "is to hear and feel the other's human story."

Almost 90 audience members packed a standing-room-only lecture hall at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco to do just that, listening to both black and Jewish speakers talk about how they have worked to patch the broken cultural bridge.

Deborah Kaufman — who is currently completing a documentary called "Blacks and Jews" and who founded the Jewish Film Festival — moderated the discussion, which opened with Eva Jefferson Patterson, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee on Civil Rights.

"I don't want to get into who's more oppressed. Let's not go there. We don't need to go there," joked Patterson.

On a more serious note, she called the California Civil Rights Initiative "the fight of our lives," and took the opportunity to urge Jewish and black women to work together toward defeating the anti-affirmative action measure that will be on the ballot in November.

In addition to joining together to fight political battles, Patterson urged the women in the audience to "be real. Engage people here and outside of here. Take a risk."

But panelists agreed that reaching beyond one's cultural group isn't easy.

Dr. Denise Davis, a black physician and Jew-by-choice, said that minority women — blacks, Jews, lesbians — often suffer from a form of post traumatic stress disorder, which "can occur in those who have been victims or witnesses of trauma related to identity."

A constellation of symptoms marks this condition, including what Davis calls "hyper-vigilance. Our antennae are always up for the next hurt." Flashbacks, feelings of numbness and a desire to "stick with one's own kind" may also occur.

"We do that to protect ourselves," said Davis, "but it narrows our lives."

Departing from the mostly general discussion of race relations, Jewelle Gomez, an essayist, lesbian activist and professor, talked about a specific situation involving blacks and Jews in her own life.

Gomez, whose partner is a Jewish woman, was teaching a college course in popular black culture when she was confronted with a barrage of anti-Semitism from her black students.

"These young people said `we know Jews own Hollywood.' They said that Jews gave Spike Lee money to make `Malcolm X' so that the Nation of Islam would be blamed for his [Malcolm X's] death," Gomez recounted.

"They are so alienated, they can't figure out a way to explain their helplessness. Their perceptions keep them in such a tight, angry box, it prevented me from working with the class."

According to Gomez, the most dangerous misconception about Jews in the black community is that "there's no such thing as poor Jewish people."

Like other speakers, she suggested simply that members of both groups expose stereotypes by engaging in honest dialogue with each other, "making ourselves vulnerable, thinking we don't have all the answers." Such discussions were already beginning among the women in the audience, many of whom expressed a desire to plan future black-Jewish women's events.

"That's where we can smash myths," Jewel told the crowd, "and forge bonds."