September 24, 2018

Tales of Jewish Diversity

At “United Colors of Jews — A Storytelling Event,” members of the community got an opportunity to share stories of their diverse backgrounds and to meet their “multicultural mishpacha” at The Braid in Santa Monica.

The Jan. 31 event was organized by Next @ The Braid (the Jewish Women’s Theatre’s group for young performers) and Jews of Color and supported by The Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles Cutting Edge grant. It was co-hosted by IKAR, the egalitarian spiritual community.

“Jewish people come from everywhere and many are descendants of parents of mixed-heritage families,” said Abbe Meryl Feder, producer of Next @ The Braid. “Current events have brought diversity to the forefront, and many people from diverse backgrounds want to share their histories.”

According to GlobalJews.org, 20 percent of the U.S. Jewish population consists of persons of Africa American, Asian, Latin, Sephardic, Mizrachi and mixed-race descent.

The event’s charismatic emcee, Joshua Silverstein, a Jewish and Black performer who refers to himself as a “He-Bro,” was the first of the evening’s eight storytellers, each of whom stood before a photo of their family and presented intimate, moving, humorous and inspiring tales from their past and their current life. Silverstein shared his own sad story of his dysfunctional relationship with his father who, ever since Silverstein adopted his Jewish wife’s two children, has never wished his son a happy Father’s Day and still hasn’t met the kids, who are now 5 and 10 years old, respectively.

“More than half of the slaves stolen from Africa came from ancient Jewish tribes, so 50% of today’s blacks are their descendants.” — Benny Lumpkins

Marissa Tiamfook Gee, the product of a Jewish mother and a half-Black/half-Chinese father from the Caribbean, told how, after her mother died when she was 10, her father encouraged her Judaism. “It turned out my mom married a nice Jewish boy after all,” said Gee, who introduced her Ghana-born husband in the audience. (She noted that, for Hannukah, he had given her a handmade tallit made from his grandmother’s African tribal cloth.)

Another speaker, Benny Lumpkins, a black Jew, stated, “More than half of the slaves stolen from Africa came from ancient Jewish tribes, so 50 percent of today’s blacks are their descendants.” He spoke regretfully of leaving his synagogue after having been made to feel “that I was a unicorn.” He affirmed to the audience, “You are my family; I am a member of your tribe.”

Negin Yamini’s story, read by Eric Green, dealt with her Iranian Jewish parents’ bitter divorce, 16 years of no contact with her father, and then re-establishing a relationship with him after her mother’s death. As it turned out, her father’s very close best friend, a fellow security guard, was a Palestinian. “Some paradoxes cannot be explained; they can only be lived,” Yamini wrote.

Meridythe Amichai spoke about how she adored her grandmother and her grandmother’s lifestyle: “By 8 [years old], I knew that I loved the life of a senior citizen.” After her grandma’s death, Meridythe felt the woman returned in the form of a dove trapped in her home’s atrium.

Courtenay Edelhart told the audience she identifies as a Black Jewish liberal feminist single mother. She spoke with gratitude of one memorable Hanukkah in Bakersfield when an unusually generous stranger provided unexpected holiday gifts for her and her children that Courtenay would otherwise not have been able to afford.

Emily Bowen Cohen’s family story was about having a Jewish mother and an Native American father. After falling in love with an Orthodox Jew and throwing herself into that life, Cohen said she began feeling physical pain for not acknowledging her Native American heritage. So, she  searched out members of her father’s side of the family and made amends. “I stopped trying to be acceptable for other people’s comfort,” Cohen said.

Ingrid Gumpert — a psychologist who is Black, Jewish, Mexican and Indian — had a unique way of describing her diverse heritage. “I’m not fragmented; I contain multitudes,” she said. She noted that diversity has always been part of her life. At the rehearsal dinner for her wedding to her Jewish husband, a mariachi band played; and at their wedding they played Louis Armstrong’s version of “Sunrise, Sunset.”

“My superpower,” Gumpert said, “is seeing the divine nugget of potential in people.”


Mark Miller is a humorist, journalist and author of the humor essay collection “500 Dates: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Online Dating Wars.”