Tova Ricardo
Tova Ricardo

East Bay native ‘Tova the Poet’ provides Jewish affirmation on Instagram and TikTok

Like most 23-year-olds, Tova Ricardo has an Instagram account. Yet she never posts pictures of herself partying, drinking or lounging on the beach. Instead, she posts poetic declarations of pride in her Judaism.

It doesn’t stop there. Ricardo is Black, Jewish, religiously observant, an in-your-face Zionist and a nationally recognized youth poet. The East Bay native, who was a summer intern in J.’s newsroom in 2019, exalts all of these intersecting identities on Instagram and TikTok.

“I’m a very nuanced and layered person,” says Ricardo, whose online handle is @tovathepoet. “I’m trying to communicate my experiences as a Black, American Jewish woman, and a lot of folks don’t know that people with those identities exist.”

More and more are finding out. After eight months on Instagram, she has amassed nearly 10,000 followers.

Her typical posts have an epigrammatic quality, offering affirmation in a short piece of text that packs a punch. One recent entry: “I’m Black, Louisiana Creole & Jewish. From the bayous of the American South to the Land of Israel, I love all my cultures.”

And: “Listen to Jews the first time we call out antisemitism. We shouldn’t have to beg to be heard.” And: “You don’t need to be Black to stand up for Black lives. You don’t need to be Jewish to stand up for Jewish lives.”

Ricardo has been preparing for this role since her teens. In 2015, at age 16, she was named Oakland’s Youth Poet Laureate, and in 2017, she wrote a personal essay published in J. that discussed her heritage — her “kippa, Yiddish tongue and Black Panther hoodie” — as an inspiration to “battle against injustice … and end the warfare on marginalized people.” The piece ended up winning a Rockower Award from the American Jewish Press Association.

And in 2019, while at Columbia University, she was part of a team that won the silver medal in a prestigious poetry slam tournament for college students. (Two years later, she graduated from Columbia, an education she partially paid for with a scholarship grant she was awarded by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.)

After graduation, she was recruited by the Tel Aviv Institute (TVI), a nonprofit that draws on the power of social media to combat antisemitism and to promote Jewish and Zionist perspectives.

Sometimes her posts take on a cheerleading tone (“You have an opportunity to love the life your ancestors could only dream of. Keep going”). Other times, she’s more defiant (“I will not undermine my Jewish heritage, customs & covenant with Hashem to be accepted by the non-Jewish world”).

“I simply can’t fit everything about myself into one post,” she says. “There are times when I will speak about being a Black Jewish person. Or on exclusively Black topics. I want people to see that I have many different layers, and a lot of different opinions and perspectives. I have a lot of opinions about the importance of Torah in your life, Israel in your life … and how African Americans have been treated in our history.”

Ricardo says her most popular or liked posts assert a refusal to forget or sideline her Jewish heritage, and ones that speak boldly rather than being tempered by a fear of antisemitic pushback.

“Posts that speak to that sentiment have been doing the best,” she says. “For a lot of Jews in America and the West, we are constantly trying to reconcile our Jewish identities and our [Western] identities. We’re trying to find where our Judaism can be safe, and how we can continue our heritage.”

TVI was founded in 2019 by Israeli writer, speaker and activist Hen Mazzig and UC Berkeley professor Ron Katz, who serves as the organization’s president. Through various bloggers and social media users with big followings — Mazzig, for example, has more than 146,000 combined followers on Twitter and Instagram  — TVI claims on its website to reach more than 7 million people per month.

Through Ricardo’s friendship with Mazzig, she was invited to participate in an 2021 TVI conference called “Jews Talk Justice.”

“She had such a strong voice,” said Ari Solomon, TVI director of communications and projects. “We often look for people who are Jewish and can build inroads to other communities. We invited her to our first ‘Jews Talk Justice’ lab, and then asked her to join us as a digital producer.”

Solomon aided Ricardo in designing the look and feel of the Instagram page, and helped her refine the messaging. Last November, Ricardo uploaded her first post, in which she said, “Stop telling Jews to shut down their Judaism to make non-Jews comfortable.” In her second post, she introduced herself: “I am an observant Jew, a college graduate, and a proud Black Jewish woman… I am always learning to be more unapologetic every day because who I am and my peoples are worth fighting for.”

In some way, large or small, many of Ricardo’s sentiments date back to a Birthright trip to Israel in 2020 that galvanized her dedication to her Jewish heritage.

“My mother always told me I would love Israel,” she says. “It was such a beautiful experience. I felt so connected to the land. It truly solidified for me why I have to continue to speak up as a Zionist. There are so many Jews in the world being made to feel we can’t be proud of our identity and homeland. I’m not going to do that.”

Since launching her Instagram account, Ricardo has enjoyed seeing her audience grow. Solomon of TVI says that such visibility can alter the conversation about Jews, antisemitism and Zionism.

“Tova has made the decision to stand up for what she believes in,” Solomon says. “She’s very results driven, but always leads with her values. I’ve been in Israel and have had people tell me, ‘Oh, you guys work with Tova,’ and that makes me feel so good.”

TVI does not pay Ricardo or any of its influencers, and Ricardo, who is still active as a poet and writer, does not see this as her sole career. But for now, she’s happy to be taking strong, public stands on Jewish and African American issues.

“I want to push people out of their comfort zone,” she says, “but I also want [my account] to be a safe space. We’re all learning how to be better versions of ourselves every day, whether that’s deepening Jewish practice or understanding the history of American society, racism or antisemitism. I hope my page will continue to be a place where people can say I learned a lot or I finally felt validated.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.