Jews examine cultural rifts, racial issues at JCC forum

For Adele Brookman, an Ashkenazic Jew who grew up in Philadelphia, her white skin and blond hair were initially sources of comfort. They enabled her to "pass" in a college where the majority culture was WASP.

Later, her Jewish heritage gave her insight into her extroverted nature. "I would come into rooms where I was feeling much too loud, much too emotional — much too much," she said. "I was feeling more Jewish culturally and behaviorally."

Nowadays, Brookman said, she doesn't define herself as white. "But I have been confused about it, because physically I'm very white."

Geduldig and Brookman were two of 10 participants at a workshop on Jews and multiculturalism, held last week at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. The workshop, led by Berkeley-based author and musician Loolwa Khazzoom, focused on how Jews define themselves racially and how their definitions affect their relationships with members of other races.

"Ethnically, the Semite is very close to the white race — anthropologists call them both Caucasian," said Avi Eldal, an Israeli who was passing through the Bay Area before moving to New York.

"But who's defining these terms?" Khazzoom asked. "When is our choice a self-definition and when is it imposed by others?"

Several participants insisted that Judaism transcends racial boundaries and that race itself is an arbitrary categorization.

"To me, Judaism isn't about race," said Arthur Ash, a computer programmer and klezmer musician. "It's about what you believe, theologically and philosophically."

Eldal added "White is just a name — Europeans often have skin that's brown, not white," Later, he asked, "What's black? It's Vitamin D in the skin, nothing else."

But Khazzoom feels there are racial tensions among the three major cultural divisions of world Jewry. She herself is Mizrahi, defined as a Jew with family roots in the Middle East or North Africa. She suggests that Mizrahim and Sephardim (who, unlike Mizrahim, were expelled from Spain) were disconnected from the Ashkenazim who dominate the European and North American Jewish communities.

"There's a history of Ashkenazi Jews trying to pass as white, for survival," she said. "So what happens when Ashkenazim are reunited with Mizrahim and Sephardim who look like they've just stepped out of the Bible?" With an exaggerated look of horror, she answered her own question by exclaiming, "Arghhhhh!"

"I feel that this fear drives the racism that exists between Jews," she said.

Geduldig admitted that while growing up, he'd experienced such tensions. "I went to a religious school, where all the songs were taught in the Ashkenazic style," he said. "Then, I would go to my aunt's house, where they sang in Arabic, and I was embarrassed."

Blushing, he admitted, "It sounded to me like a bunch of Arabs yelling and screaming."

David Zebker, a CPA and massage practitioner, said such differences among Jews should make them more sensitive to other groups.

"We have a responsibility to do more [inter]cultural work than we've been doing," he said. "I think we've really forgotten our historical role."

Khazzoom agreed. She ended the workshop by stressing the benefits of including Sephardim and Mizrahim in public forums — especially those in which Jews are interacting with members of other ethnic groups.

"I've been to so many panels where all the Jews are Ashkenazic and all the Arabs are Muslim," she said. "But if a black Jew is sitting on a panel, you can't impose stereotypes onto them.

"That's got to help heal race relations."