July 18, 2019

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.”

What Roy Choi can teach the Jews

I was sitting in Commissary, Roy Choi’s new restaurant on the pool deck of the Line Hotel in Koreatown, thinking about the secret of Choi’s success. 

It was my fourth time in the restaurant in the hotel Choi helped resurrect out of the dry bones of an abandoned Radisson.   

Choi transformed the place. He plopped down a giant fantasy of a greenhouse, filled it with rustic chic decor, and fashioned a menu that incorporates his beloved Korean ingredients with California, Mediterranean and Mexican flavors. The food is delicious; the place is always packed. These days, people even swim in the pool.

Choi revels in the hybridness, the mixed-ness of Los Angeles. Born in Seoul, he came of age in an L.A. that offered the tastes and sounds and colors of some 200 cultures, the most diverse city on the planet.

One fateful day, Choi combined the flavors of Korean barbecue with salsa roja on a soft tortilla, and the Kogi taco was born — and, along with it, the food truck craze that revolutionized American street food.

“There it was, Los Angeles on a plate,” he writes of that first Kogi taco in his new autobiography, “L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food.”  

“Maybe it wasn’t everyone’s L.A., but it was mine. It was Koreatown to Melrose to Alvarado to Venice to Crenshaw crumpled into one flavor and bundled up like a gift.”

How did he do it? Not just by blending but by standing out. And I’m not talking, of course, just about tacos.  

Last month, a new business and website launched, The Mash-Up Americans (mashupamericans.com), to celebrate the multiethnic, multicultural America and the fact that we’re not just meeting and mixing, we’re mating. Founded by Brooklynite Amy Choi (no relation) and Angeleno Rebecca Lehrer, the site reflects the reality that the fastest- growing category for race on the U.S. Census is “mixed.” The number of people who reported a mixed-race background grew by 32 percent — to 9 million — between 2000 and 2010. The single-race population increased by just 9.2 percent.

Amy Choi describes herself as a Korean-American married to a Colombian-Mexican-American, and as a mom to “a feisty Korombexican-American.” Lehrer is a self-described “Salvadoran-Jewish-American married to an American-American” — though her Salvadoran side is Jewish by way of Holocaust refugees. In any case, if their children don’t check the box marked “mixed,” the odds are their children’s children will.

“Increasingly,” Census official Nicholas Jones told Pew Research, “Americans are saying they cannot find themselves” on census forms.

Of course in the grand sweep of human evolution, mash-up makes the world go round. That’s why we Jews look more Belgian than Bedouin. Cossacks, Berbers, Templars and others splashed in our gene pool.  After all, is a Kogi taco all that different from a pastrami sandwich, which mashed together basturma, a dried meat that originated in Ottoman-era Turkey, with Eastern European rye?

None of this should surprise us, but it does pose a challenge. In an increasingly mashed-up world, how do we know what our roots are? How do we ground our children in an identity? How does “mashed” not become just “mush”?

Roy Choi has succeeded precisely because his work is founded in his Korean-ness. His embrace of his traditions, his flavors, is what made him unique — it’s what he brought to the party. 

Identity is, after all, not just a funny-sounding last name on a family tree. It is the things that name represents. Not just the foods people cooked, the stories they told, but most important, the values they lived by. What are the bedrock values that a strong Jewish identity brings to the mash-up? The ones that may get mixed but are too valuable to lose?  

This same week, I came across “Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas: A Brief Guide for Seekers,” by Rabbi Arthur Green. At just 100 pages, it speaks to members of the Mashed-Up Generation whose attention span has been calibrated by BuzzFeed.

But Green is a serious scholar, a kabbalist, and he doesn’t reduce, he distills. He manages to deliver what for me is the essence of Jewish teaching, the key values that shape a Jewish identity.

They are: 1) Joy. 2) The fact that we are all created in God’s image. 3) The idea of halacha — walking after a divine path. 4) Tikkun olam — the desire to heal the world. 5) Shabbat. 6) Teshuvah — our capacity for change; 7) Torah — the wrestling with text. 8) Love of education. 9) The embrace of life and death. And finally, 10) The idea of one God, the unity of all things. (I think he missed humor, but no one’s interested in a Top 11 list.)

Many of these values are not unique to Judaism. But taken together, they are what being Jewish stands for — our stories and rituals convey them, our holidays and traditions elevate them. And while we will inevitably blend and mix and mash in the free market of American love and ideas, we need to cherish this identity, nurture it, and offer it to our children and to others, bundled up, as Roy Choi would say, like a gift. 

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.