May 25, 2019

Jews of Color Share Stories in ‘True Colors’

According to a 2015 Brandeis University study, an estimated 11.2% of the 7.16 million Jews in the United States are not Caucasian. The issues facing Jews of color can test — or reinforce — faith and identities or make them stronger. These issues play out in the true stories told in Jewish Women’s Theatre’s latest production, “True Colors.”

“I felt that this was a Jewish story that hasn’t had a voice on stage,” JWT artistic director Ronda Spinak said at a rehearsal. “This next generation is [increasingly] of mixed race and growing up Jewish: Being bar and bat mitzvahed, going on Birthright tours, joining Hillel in college and feeling not being accepted by other Jews. This is about sharing their stories so that we can understand the differences and the similarities.”

With the help of consultant and co-producer Eric Greene, a Jewish civil rights activist of African-American, Native American and European descent, Spinak assembled a diverse array of stories about Jewish identity. One such story was from Korean-born Angela Buchdahl, the first Asian-American rabbi.

Kimberly Green plays the role of Buchdahl and others in the show. Green was born Korean-Puerto Rican, but a Caucasian man adopted and raised her. She is engaged to a South African Jew and is in the process of converting to Judaism. Green told the Journal she relates to several roles she portrays. “Some things in the stories have actually happened to me,” she said, including being called the “N” word while attending school in a “very white town” in Indiana. 

Now halfway through conversion classes and choosing a synagogue, Green said she hopes the show “turns [perceptions] of people of color around and opens eyes. I know Jews who [are] not observant. I think living in a Jewish way is more important. You don’t have to be born and raised Jewish to appreciate the beautiful ceremonies and the reason why you have Shabbat.”

Actor, performance artist, beatboxer and sketch comedian Joshua Silverstein performs three pieces in the show, including one he wrote based on his experiences growing up the son of a black Christian mother and Ashkenazic Jewish father. “There was always pushback,” Silverstein said. “ ‘You’re not a real Jew because your mother’s not Jewish.’ ‘Your people killed Jesus.’ Some white teachers treated me differently because of the color of my skin. I definitely saw [prejudice] but I didn’t let it poison me.” He added, “We live in a very ignorant world. We’re still very limited in our thinking, and shows like this force people to broaden their horizons.”

Raised in Los Angeles in a liberal, progressive, Democratic, Reform Jewish home, Silverstein has followed in his parents’ and paternal grandparents’ activist footsteps. He has joined social-justice organizations and toured with Norman Lear’s voter-registration campaign. “My grandparents’ activism was rooted in Judaism and it’s part of my heritage,” Silverstein said.

“We live in a very ignorant world.  We’re still very limited in our thinking, and shows like this force people to broaden their horizons.” — Joshua Silverstein

Silverstein is married to a Latina who was born Catholic but converted to Judaism before they met. “She loved the culture and related to the idea of always asking questions,” he said. She’s now pregnant with their third child, who will be named Shel, after author Shel Silverstein. “We already have all the books,” he said.

Spinak hopes that “by understanding the pain and struggles and obstacles and the triumphs of Jews of color, those of us who are not part of that group will have greater understanding and can act with greater kindness in the future. I think there will be a lot of talk about race and what it means to be a diverse Jew. I think you’ll have a greater understanding when you meet a Jew of color after you see the show.” 

“True Colors” runs May 4-16 at The Braid and at other locations. jewishwomenstheatre.org