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Racial Inclusivity in the Jewish Community: The Long View, Part II

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In Part 2 of a two-part series, Jay Prosser concludes that loving strangers is the solution.

So, having identified the historical problem of racial exclusion within Jewish communities, what’s the solution? Can the past also offer us lessons here? 

While there were racial divisions in Bombay and Singapore, in both places, my family history presents a different story.  They leave me, I’ve come to realise, with a Jewish legacy of loving strangers. 

Much of this has to do with the family profession for generations, practised right down to my mother: the spice trade. This line of business required mobility across Asia, and across its various ethnicities and religions.  

The first family member to leave Baghdad for Bombay, even before the Sassoons, was Solomon Yacob, or Sliman ben Jacob Sliman. He was a spice dealer, a gem merchant, and a trader in Arabian horses. In short, everything you’d want an ancestor to be.

We get a picture of him from a British rabbi, David d’Beth Hillel, who published a critical account of his travels through Asia in the 1830s.  He wrote that Solomon had picked up some nasty habits from Arabs and ‘Hindoos.’ He mixed too much with strangers. He chastised Solomon by quoting a bit of Leviticus.

The story was similar in Singapore. When another British Jew, a Zionist emissary visited the synagogue where my family worshipped for generations, he was shocked that the hazzan (cantor) couldn’t speak English and that his Hebrew was not so good either.  His Arabic was great though, and he wore his ‘striped gabardine’ and fez and with pride.   

What the European visitor couldn’t quite see was that he was ‘Asiatic’, but he was nonetheless Jewish.

After his first wife died, my great-grandfather ended up taking a common-law Chinese wife. My grandfather followed him, though – after a lifetime’s battle and finally finding a sympathetic rabbi – he married his (converted) Chinese bride.   

My grandfather, who was born in Bombay, was so Indian-identified he was known by all as Jacob ‘Bumbai Wallah’: the Jacob from Bombay. His love of Indian food and music was as much a part of his Jewish identity as picking yas (myrtle) for my mother after a visit to the synagogue (a Baghdadi custom).

So, what we can learn, not only from the long view of racism and sectarianism within Jewish communities in Singapore and Bombay, but also from those who crossed the boundaries?   

At an online event earlier this month organised by the Board of Deputies and the Manchester Jewish Representative Council on the question of ‘How racially inclusive is Anglo-Jewry?’ Loretta Hodari, a Manchester-based Black Jew, spoke of the need to tackle systemic racism. 

She noted the numerous times she’d been asked within Jewish communities where she was from. She recounted how she was redirected to Methodist churches when she tried to visit unfamiliar synagogues.   

Asked what the one takeaway of the event should be, Hodari said it was without doubt education. We need to educate ourselves that there are Jews of all races and from all regions.  We need to learn about Jews in Yemen, in Ethiopia.

And so we need to learn the details about Jews in Bombay, Singapore and elsewhere, which might complicate our ideas of Jewish identity. 

I’d also urge that we need to disentangle Jewishness from preconceptions of whiteness.  As the journalist Hen Mazzig points out, Jews are by no means by definition white.   

The hashtag #JewishPrivilege trending on Twitter started off on a very wrong foot by presenting Jewishness as synonymous with whiteness.   

In India, there was another group of Jews, the Cochin of south India.   

The Cochins split themselves into two tribes. The meyuchasim, that is those who considered themselves to have ‘pure pedigree’, forced the others, whom they called ‘Black Jews’, to undergo ritual washing.    

When the Bene Israel arrived, they were the ones denoted ‘black’, now by the Baghdadis. They were the strangers.

These shifts in name-calling show us that race is not biological but to has do with perception and your own location. In these snapshots of Jewish history in Asia, exclusions and divisions arose because of a fear of ‘mixed blood,’ of the ‘half-caste’.

What’s behind this fear in turn, I suggest, are the spectres of intermarriage, or ‘marrying out’.  In every racial exclusion, whether in the Jewish community or in society at large, there is a distancing — and a construction — of the stranger from what we conceive of as our Jewish identity.

Yet, the stranger to Jewishness is never predetermined, already decided.  We exist only in relation to her; indeed, we create her. 

As the French thinker Julia Kristeva writes, ‘the stranger lives within us:  he is the hidden face of our identity’.   

We knew that – or should have known that – already.   

For the most repeated mitzvah in the Torah, as Kristeva also points out, is that we should love the stranger as ourselves. For we were too – and by remembering, again become one with – strangers in foreign lands.   

If only Rabbi d’Beth Hillel had read on a bit, he could himself perhaps have learned to value my ancestors’ love of strangers as precisely that which most unites us as Jewish.   

Cover Image: Jay Prosser’s grandfather, Jacob Elias, with his (converted) Chinese wife and their children

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Jay Prosser is working on a book about his Asian-Jewish family. He is reader in humanities at the University of Leeds.
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Kalyani Kurup
27 days ago

I had recently been to the Jew Town in Cochin, where the synagogue known as Paradesi Synagogue still stands. It is apparently the oldest active synagogue in the

Commonwealth of Nations. It was so exhilarating to breathe history while you also feel sad about the past that will never return.

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