As news of Black-Jewish comedian Tiffany Haddish’s bat mitzvah hit the internet this week, so did photos of the ceremony, including images of her carrying and reading from the Torah while wearing a Star of David necklace, beautiful Eritrean dress, and a colorful tallit.
While at the surface level, this type of imagery is pretty par for the course as far as bat mitzvah photos go, it was hard not to get emotional seeing pictures of a Black woman who embraces both her Jewish and African heritage widely circulated, like it was the most natural thing in the world.
For many Black Jews, including myself, the past year has been rough to say the least. 2019 started with massive demonstrations of Ethiopian Israelis, who shut down major cities like Tel Aviv and Haifa in protest of the police killings of Yehuda Biadga and Solomon Tekah. In the U.S., Jewish publications were rife with content pitting Black and Jewish communities against each other when it came to issues like the Women’s March, with some even openly questioning the Jewishness of Black Jews and other Jews of Color who write about contentious issues like intra-Jewish racism and Palestinian rights.
But Tiffany Haddish’s joyful bat mitzvah pictures are a reminder that life as a Black Jew isn’t just suffering and discrimination — it’s also pride, laugher, and a sense of community. Seeing Tiffany Haddish reading from the Torah at her bat mitzvah means seeing my own love for Jewish learning reflected back at me. Hearing her address being Black and Jewish in her new Netflix special Black Mitzvah means I get to laugh along with someone talking about my experience, rather than it being the butt of an outsider’s joke. There is something liberating in the normalcy of it all, and the way that her Jewishness is given public respect where many Black Jews have had ours questioned.
What’s even more significant is that the image of Judaism that Haddish represents also happens to be one of the most maligned in our communities at this moment. She’s a Black patrilineal Jew, the product of a working class interfaith family who came into her identity as an adult after meeting her father and visiting his home country of Eritrea. While patrilineal Judaism is embraced by both the U.S. Reform movement and Beta Israel (Ethiopian and Eritrean Jewry), Black Jews often find that our Jewish credentials are rarely enough for our white coreligionists, especially with a contentious factor like coming from an interfaith family is at play.
Prejudice against Black Jews isn’t just an individual experience of discomfort; systematic discrimination against Ethiopian Jews persists in Israel, and in the U.S. our safety can also be at risk just living a Jewish life. In 2018, an African American bar mitzvah tutor was cornered by an Orthodox Jewish mob for carrying a Torah while Black in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. And the uptick in armed police at synagogues following recent white supremacist shootings means that someone questioning your Jewishness isn’t just a matter of not respecting Jewish diversity, but potentially exposing you to state violence.
So for me, even more meaningful than seeing Haddish’s bat mitzvah photos was the way that she took on the assumption that Black people don’t belong in Jewish spaces through her comedy. In Black Mitzvah, she describes her past experiences working as a bar mitzvah entertainer, saying, “I’ve been to like over 500 bar mitzvahs and I’m getting tired of people telling me to go to the kitchen. No, muthafucka, I’m supposed to be here.”
In so declaring, she is claiming a contested space that many Black Jews fight to be in every day of our lives: our own Jewish communities. For me, this brave taking up of Jewish space is one of the most significant aspects of how Haddish has conducted her “coming out” as a Black Jewish woman. Because as warm as they make me feel, bat mitzvah pictures alone are not going to force wider acceptance of Black Jewry. Representation is important for feelings of belonging, but it can’t solve racism; if it did, anti-Black prejudice in American Jewish communities would have ended with Sammy Davis Jr.
In truth, we need something much bolder to create change, and it starts with something as simple as saying “Yes, muthafucka, I’m supposed to be here.”
All images via Emma McIntyre / Staff / Getty Images.