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“Just Say You’re Jewish” – Diversity and the Complexity of Jewish Identity

When I was in elementary school, I was assigned a project where I had to make a family tree going back several generations. I asked my father where our ancestors were from. Since he was a history professor, he was usually a good authority on anything related to the past, but this question gave him pause. He began to list places – Austria, Hungary, Russia, Poland, Germany. Finally, he sighed and said: “Just say you’re Jewish.”

At the time, this answer confused me. How could we be from all these places and yet identify as something entirely separate from them?

Now I understand that my father was trying to communicate to me something about the complexity of the nature of the Jewish diaspora – ideas that were perhaps too complex for me to understand at the age of 11. My ancestors did live in many places, often forced to migrate due to pogroms or exile or threats of extermination like the Holocaust. Ultimately, however, they were always identified as Jewish, a label that was used to refer to both an ethnicity and religious affiliation – but almost always designated them as “other.”

The idea of the existence of a Jewish ethnicity, or “race,” has often been one imposed on Jews, rather than one they created or claimed themselves.

[Jewish] identity is shaped by those exogenous forces--ostracism, exile, and other forms of persecution [like] extermination.

Jonathon Greenblatt, quoted in Green, "Are Jews White?"

In other words, Jews have most often been identified as a “race” or “ethnic group” by the people who have sought to exclude or destroy them.

How to reconcile this, then, with the fact that American Jews in particular are often portrayed as a monolithic community that is part of the ambiguously defined category known as “white”? Labeling Jews this way is a relatively recent development.

Jews in Eastern Europe neither identified as white nor were identified as white when they arrived at these shores in a wave of migration that began more than a century ago.

Appiah, "I’m Jewish and Don’t Identify as White. Why Must I Check That Box?"

In this context, whiteness is viewed as not a skin color, but "a category marking power." Because many Jews in America have become successful and now hold positions of power, they are sometimes seen as having achieved whiteness – even though this is not how they necessarily self-identify or how they would have been categorized in the past.

But this idea that the Jewish community is racially or ethnically homogenous is – to put it quite simply – false.

In the United States alone, for example, “nearly three-in-ten Jewish adults under 30 (28%) identify as Hispanic, Black, Asian, other race or multiracial; identify as Sephardic and/or Mizrahi; or are immigrants or children of immigrants to the U.S. from outside Canada, Europe or the former Soviet Union."

Pew Research Center, "Race, ethnicity, heritage and immigration among U.S. Jews"

There are vibrant and large international communities of Jews as well in Ethiopia and Uganda and a hugely diverse population of Jews in Israel – just to name a few examples.

How can we counter this portrait of the Jewish diaspora as monolithic? One way is through shifting this narrative by elevating and promoting stories that depict the true diversity of Jewish people, ensuring that it is not minimized or ignored.

As a child, I knew the story of Hanukkah well. According to the Talmud, the Syrian king Antiochus IV had outlawed Judaism and ordered soldiers to destroy the Temple in Jerusalem, sacrificing pigs within its sacred walls and building an altar to Zeus. This resulted in an insurrection led by the Macabbees, who fought the Syrians for nearly two years before driving them out of Jerusalem. When the Jews gathered to rebuild the Temple, they only had enough oil to light the menorah (a candelabrum symbolizing knowledge and creation meant to be kept burning every night) for one night. Miraculously, it kept burning for eight nights.

Tonight is the sixth night of the 8-night celebration commemorating the strength and fortitude of the Jewish people in the face of colonizers who sought to oppress and forcibly convert them. As a child, I always loved the story of Hanukkah – it was exciting (and kind of bloody!), but it also made me feel proud to be Jewish.

When I was a child, my parents searched high and low for children’s books with Jewish characters so I might feel more connected with that part of my heritage. Unfortunately, such books were few and far between. They would have greatly benefitted from a resource like the Diverse Bookfinder. In the DBF database, you can find a number of titles that include BIPOC characters who are either interacting with Jews (usually as part of cross-group friendships) or are BIPOC Jews themselves. Today, there are far more examples of picture books that showcase the diversity of the Jewish community than existed when I was younger – though such stories are still relatively rare.

This sample of books below showcases the diversity of the Jewish community – a diaspora that spans the globe and encompasses many types of people, cultures, backgrounds and stories. The stories depicted here, as well as many more that you can find in the DBF collection, show how communities of Jews all over the world have migrated, settled, adapted, grown and flourished, often while facing great adversity and prejudice. I hope the children who read them can feel the same way I did when learning about the resilience of Jews both of the past and present: proud, seen, and inspired.

A Sweet Meeting on Mimouna Night


by Allison Ofanansky and Rotem Teplow

"A story about a young girl celebrating the Moroccan Jewish holiday of Mimouna with a new Muslim friend. It’s Mimouna — the Moroccan Jewish holiday that marks the end of Passover, and when blessings are given for a year of prosperity and good luck. Miriam wants to help her mother make the sweet moufleta pancakes they always eat at their Mimouna party, but after not eating doughy treats for the week of Passover, they don’t have any flour in the house! So, Miriam’s mother takes her to visit their Muslim neighbors, who share their flour. The women drink tea together, and Miriam makes friends with a young girl named Jasmine. Miriam almost drops the bag of flour when she and Jasmine go to fetch it from the storeroom — but luckily Jasmine is there to catch it! Jasmine and her family then join Miriam’s family and friends to celebrate Mimouna. This sweet story of friendship and shared customs will introduce North American readers to the Mimouna holiday. The book concludes with an author’s note and a recipe for making moufleta, the sweet, paper-thin pancakes featured in the story, so that readers can enjoy, too." -- publisher

Beautiful Life Cross Group

Elan, son of two peoples


by Heidi Smith Hyde and Mikela Prevost

In 1898, just after his Bar Mitzvah, thirteen-year-old Elan and his family travel to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he meets his mother's family and participates in the Pueblo ceremony of becoming a man.

Beautiful Life

For a fun Hanukkah-related video, check out "Puppy for Hanukkah" by Daveed Diggs.

Sources & Further Reading

Many of the cover images on this site are from Google Books.
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