Teens toss M&Ms, cross-cultural views at Club 18

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When it was his turn to face the music on a stage framed by neon tag lines, spray-painted images of Orthodox rabbis and bean-bag chairs, Johnathan Solomon was calm and collected. Even as the clowning reached a fever pitch, Solomon kept his cool.

"Where are you from?" a voice in the crowd at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center's Club 18 asked.

"I live in America," said the 17-year-old, who is a member of the nearby Booker T. Washington Community Center.

The crowd responded with a mixture of laughter and hisses. It wasn't the answer they were looking for.

It was too easy. Whoever caught the bag of peanut M&M's was on the hot seat, and had to answer questions posed by the other teens. Whoever held the bag had to keep it real.

"Where else are you from?" someone asked.

Solomon gave his pants a slight tug and adjusted his baseball cap. "I'm Filipino-American," he said. And then he paused, nodded his head and looked around the room. He might have been scanning the audience in search of the person he would toss the M&M's to — the next person to face the audience. Or he might have been mulling his next move.

"I'm Filipino, American and Jewish," Solomon said. He flung the bag of M&M's into the crowd and settled back into his seat .

It was like that Thursday of last week at Club 18. About 25 teens of varying backgrounds came to discuss roots, race and religion, and they arrived at some profound conclusions. They discovered their differences weren't all that daunting and they thought the hummus tasted kind of funny.

The event, called "Culture Chat," brought together kids from Booker T. Washington, Club 18 and Israel. The event was co-sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, which sponsored the visit of Ethiopian teens from Israel as part of the "Children of the Dream" program.

Eric Ludwig, the director of Club 18, said the event was an ice-breaker, designed to give kids from varying backgrounds a chance to heighten their awareness of their own identities, as well as get "a new perspective on the kids they go to school with, ride the bus with and share San Francisco as a community with."

After Ludwig had requested the teens' attention for the third time, after the last ball had been sunk on the pool table and the sounds of hip-hop had receded into the background, the assistant director of Club 18, Marisa Handler, engaged the kids in a bit of psychology.

"Look at the person opposite you," Handler said. "Look them deep in the eyes, and tell them what your favorite flavor of ice cream is." That question was followed by something of a more serious nature. The teens were asked to tell each other who their biggest influences were and why.

Alan Perotti, 18, of Booker T. Washington, told Ilya Letuchiy, 15, of Club 18 that his brother was the biggest influence in his life. "My brother knows all about hardships," Perotti said. "And he doesn't want me to go down the same road. He wants to keep me on the straight path."

Letuchiy responded that his father was the biggest influence on his life and that he would be happy if he "even came close to achieving what his father had."

For the next game, teens wrote down questions on pieces of paper, which were distributed randomly through the crowd. The bag of M&M's was then launched into the air.

When Dina Mentesnot, 17, an Ethiopian Jew who has lived in Israel for 16 years, grabbed the M&M's, several hands sprang up. "Go ahead," she said to Neisha Maxim, a 16-year-old from Booker T. Washington.

"In Israel, do you find real African people?" Maxim asked .

"I am African," Mentesnt responded . "I'm Ethiopian."

"Yeah, but I mean black people like us," Maxim pressed. When Mentesnot asked if the question was referring to non-Jewish Africans, Maxim slowly nodded her head.

"Not too many," said Mentesnot. Still clutching the by-now tattered bag of M&M's, Mentesnot was asked what languages she spoke and if she encountered racism in Israel.

"I speak Hebrew, English and Amharic," she responded. "And when I first moved to Israel 16 years ago, there was a lot more racism, but it's gotten better since then."

Mentesnot was ready to relinquish the candy when Maxim shot her hand up again, with a great deal of urgency.

"Um, I have another question," Maxim said quietly. "How long does it take you to braid you hair?"

Mentesnot gave a broad grin and flipped her hair back. "About four hours on a good day," she said.

Jessica Ravitz, the associate director of the ADL for the Central Pacific region, said the evening drove home the guiding principles behind the state of Israel. "Israel is a country that opens its arms to all Jews — no matter where they come from. That's something Jews all over the world can take pride in."

Booker T. Washington's Tiarra Greenwood, 17, said she enjoyed the event. But she wished there had been more mingling. "It's hard just to jump up and be all open. For people to be cool with each other takes awhile."