A Love Letter to My Black Jewish Mom

My mom is a Jew by choice, and it is because of her that I grew up a strong, proud, Jewish woman of color.

I am confident and proud in my Judaism, and I owe some of it to my parents’ divorce. My father was raised in a Jewish household in Philadelphia. I don’t know much about his Jewish upbringing; all I know is that at some point after his bar mitzvah, he decided practicing the religion wasn’t for him. Had I lived with him after my parents divorced when I was 3, chances are I wouldn’t have gone to Jewish summer camp, attended Hebrew school, or even had a bat mitzvah. Needless to say, my Jewish identity would be completely different than what it is today.

My mother chose Judaism. She was drawn to it. She saw a place for herself in the community, and I thank God that she did. I thank God that she found a group of people who saw that in her soul she was a Jew. After learning more about the practice from one of her roommates in med school (yes, my mother is a Black, Jewish doctor and she’s amazing), my mom learned how to read Hebrew, lain Torah, learn about and engage with the different holidays, and how to study the texts.

It is because of my mom that I grew up going to Hebrew school twice a week and attending services every single Saturday for seven years straight. It is because of her that I was able to pick out my tallis from the Holy Land itself. And it is because of her that I grew up a strong, proud, Jewish woman of color. Through all of the confusion, low self-esteem, and bigotry that I have faced inside and outside of the Jewish community, my mother has been by my side, coaching me through the unique experience that is being both Black and Jewish.

One of the most valuable and difficult skills she has taught me is the ability to empathize. After my last article was published about what not to say to Jews of Color right now, a significant number of people tagged me in comments or DMed me to say how wrong I was and how my writing was “shameful.” While some of the comments were completely ignorant and missing the entire point of reading an article about how to conduct respectful conversation with Jews of Color, my mother helped me realize that others commented what they did out of terror and inherited trauma.

I can only write about my experiences as an American, able-bodied, Jewish, queer woman of color because I have never been anything else. My mom helped me look at these comments through different eyes and to broaden my understanding of the global Jewish experience, and with my articles, I hope to do the same.

I’m also grateful for my mother because she decided to raise me in a Jewish household without dictating to me what my Jewish practice should look like. She provided me with the blueprints of how to engage with the Jewish world, then let me construct my own version of Judaism for myself. Being raised on Jewish values taught me that activism is a tenet of Judaism, from marching on Martin Luther King Day with my mom to making protest signs with my Brandeis community. I do not feel safe taking to the streets and participating in protests during a pandemic, but throughout the past couple of months, I have found my voice as a writer, and I have chosen my computer over a megaphone for the time being. So, thank you, audience, for reading, and thank you, mamma, for teaching me that no matter how I express it, or who feels uncomfortable with it, I am a Jew.

Since publishing my last article, I have seen more discourse on Twitter and Instagram in which readers show their true colors and express their disbelief that converts are “real Jews.” Some argue that since converts have not known the historical trauma of the Jewish people, they will never truly be Jews. Others say that converts have no real claim to the land of Israel and are therefore not Jews. But it is my mother who chose to go through the arduous conversion process. It is my mother who has given me my Jewish identity and who has shown me the beauty and fulfillment Jewish life can bring. Perhaps these commenters have something to learn from someone who was so in love with this culture, she adopted it herself and passed it on to me.

I want to pass on this strength and confidence to the rest of the Jewish community. Matrilineal Jews, patrilineal Jews, BIPOC Jews, queer Jews, adopted Jews, Jews by choice, Jews raised by single parents, whoever you may be, you are valid and I stand with you.

My mother raised me to believe that gender, sexual identity, race, family dynamic, or level of practice does not invalidate one’s Judaism. Jews are Jews. Now, more than ever, it is vital that we stand united against anti-Semitism, against racism, against homophobia, against xenophobia, against all human rights issues, as all of them impact our community. Now is not the time to be directing hate inward; rather, we must band together to combat hate as a community. Will you stand with us?

This article is dedicated to my mom. Mom, if you’re reading this, even though you drive me up the wall sometimes, I love you a whole lot.

Header image design by Grace Yagel. Original illustration by EduardGurevich/Getty Images.

Aviva Davis

Aviva Davis (she/they) is a senior at Brandeis University, studying Psychology and Creativity, the Arts, and Social Transformation. She also works closely with Jewish nonprofit Be’Chol Lashon, contributing to the conversation about the history and experiences of Jewish communities of color around the world.

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