What It’s Like to Be a Black Jewish Writer

A roundtable discussion with five Black Jewish writers, moderated by author Natasha Díaz.

My debut novel, Color Me In, came out last year. It is, as far as I know, the first traditionally published YA book by and about a Black Jewish young woman.

I wrote Color Me In because, as a young person, I never saw myself reflected in a book. I never saw my family — multiracial, multiethnic, and interfaith — reflected in a book. I never read a character who was grappling with where to fit, how to own her whole self, and also how to take accountability for white presenting privilege, in a book. Yes, it’s a lot, but it’s my life, and while I was so incredibly proud to learn my book was “a first,” I couldn’t help but also feel infinitely sad that my Black Jewish experience, which is so impacted by my proximity to whiteness, is the only one to travel through the traditional publishing channels and represent young Black Jews in children’s literature.

Twenty years ago I desperately needed this book, and now I get emails from people of all ages who have found it, but there are so many Black Jewish writers who have a unique perspective to offer stories of all genres. There are so many Black Jewish writers whose story will be one that offers a reader the mirror they need to know they are not alone.

Below is a roundtable discussion between five other Black Jewish writers at various stages of their careers. The participants are:

Zach Stern (@ZacharyStern25) is from Toronto, Canada but has lived in Los Angeles his entire life. He earned a division 1 football scholarship after attending community college and was an undocumented immigrant for 14 years. Since graduating college three years ago, he’s worked up and down the lower ranks of production with the goal of finding the right avenue to write and show run.

Aviva Davis (@viva_lasdavis) is a rising senior at Brandeis University studying Psychology and Creativity, the Arts, and Social Transformation. She 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. She’s also an Alma contributor.

Natasha Tripplett (@writerofwhimsy) was adopted as a baby into a Dutch, protestant family. After visiting Israel at 19 to learn more about where she came from, she connected with both of her biological parents and learned that not only is her mother Jewish, but her paternal Jamaican grandfather was also Jewish.

Rachel Harrison-Gordon (@RachelRHG) is an MFA/MBA candidate at NYU Tisch/Stern and a Sundance 2020 Blackhouse fellow. She graduated from the University of Pennsyvania School of Engineering, and her interest in storytelling evolved through pursuits of perspectives in journalism and government. Prior to NYU, she served as a Presidential Innovation Fellow for the Obama administration, and has worked as a data analyst at the New York Times before discovering that film was the best way to use her voice and amplify the voices of others. Broken Bird is her first film.

Marra Gad (@MarraBGad) is a 50-year-old Black/white biracial Jewish woman living in LA. She produces film and TV and is the author of the award-winning memoir The Color of Love: A Story of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl.

Roundtable

When was the first time you saw yourself in a book or movie or play, if ever?

Zach: The most I can hope for is a Key and Peele movie, but that’s few and far between. I’m a huge sci-fi fan and I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone that looked like me. I’ve seen two Black and Jewish male characters in fictional shows, Conway Stern from Archer (if only I could be a spy) and Travis from the show Disjointed. I felt like Travis was something 12 white people came up with in a room together — a room where they all laugh at each other’s jokes and get no real or objective perspective from someone like me. I thought Travis sucked, and I wish I had a chance to help with the character when the show was made. I ironically ended up working for the same production company responsible for the show earlier this year before the pandemic. To my surprise It was one of the first times I wasn’t the only Black person working in production.

There are a few people that I feel like I’ve been able to look up to although we don’t share the same exact goals. My mother will be the first to tell you that Drake is a Black biracial Jew from Toronto and if I’m being honest, I think it’s pretty cool to see someone with my background attain such success. Eric Andre is pretty great as well.

Aviva: When I was a kid, my mom would make up stories about young Jewish girls of color. She wrote a book for me using printer paper and staples, with phrases like, “Look at the book. Aviva looks at the book.” So I literally saw myself in these stories. However, it wasn’t until late high school I actually started seeing diverse Jews in the public media.

Natasha: The first time I saw my experience reflected in a book was in Rebecca Walker’s Black, White and Jewish. I resonated so closely with her search for self in a world who wanted to define her in a neat categorized box. So much of my life revolved around answering the question, “Who am I going to be today?” Knowing that this struggle touched another Black Jewish woman helped me unapologetically come to terms with integrating all the pieces of my identity into who I am. These stories continue to be nourishment for my soul because they are so validating.

Rachel: I’ve never seen a film or TV show about a Black Jewish woman with divorced parents. The cheeriness and sitcom humor of Black-ish or Mixed-ish wasn’t similar to my lived experience. Films depicting Jewish life were always male-centric, including one of my favorites, A Serious Man. Growing up, I built a composite of my identity using disparate elements that resonated. The closest I saw was the “Black and Jewish” skit. I remember being excited at first for the representation, but disappointed by the “easy” stereotype-based jokes about nose and butt size, nothing that I related to. At first seeing my friends laugh was validating –– “they see me” or “others like me must exist.” But I soon, once again, felt like the punchline of a joke, or a novelty.

Growing up with a white mom in a predominantly white neighborhood, I found myself disconnected from my Blackness, and was called “mixed” versus “Black.” I had a difficult time seeing myself in the frequently-tokenized Black characters on TV. When I saw Beasts of the Southern Wild, I was inspired by the strength and power a young Black woman could have. I was intrigued by the father-daughter relationship, and how that relationship was under attack by people who had “standards” of what “good” parenting looked like. It wasn’t until film school, and watching the work of my peers of color, that I finally felt at home with myself.

Marra: I have NEVER seen myself reflected in a book, movie, or play. I long for that day, and am starting to create content rooted in my own stories… so perhaps I’ll – literally – see a version of myself very soon!

Roundtable

What drew you to the arts?

Marra: I think that I came into the world drawn to the arts. First, it was through musical theater. Then through producing. Now through writing. I have always held a deep understanding that the arts are a perfect storytelling vehicle.

 Zach: When I was younger I used to express myself creatively by folding a paper hot dog-style and drawing pictures on each side as if they were the panels of a comic book. I look back at it now as a form of storyboarding. My mother was a costume designer, my zaide was a director, and my uncle was a writer and director; I’m thankful enough to say I got to enjoy watching movies with all of these people and their love for cinema and television translated eventually. I’ve always been drawn to being creative, although at times I looked at it as a form of mental peace rather than a means of global entertainment, but I’ve learned to aim high.

Natasha: I love the arts because they reflect the beauty of life. Even the depictions of sadness and horror reveal the beauty of the human experience. I have always been a detail-oriented observer. Nature is art. Words are art. Colors are art. Sounds are art. Confidence is art. I believe art is the heartbeat of life. It keeps us going. The arts are a tangible way to express the intangible qualities of life.

Aviva: I was born into the arts. When my mom was pregnant with me, she would take me to Yoshi’s jazz club in Oakland. I grew up listening to a variety of artists like Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Avishai Cohen, Regina Carter, and the Chicks. My mother and grandmother would always sing together, and once I developed the ability to speak, I would join in. I started violin lessons in 2nd grade and I joined my first choir in 4th grade. It was expected by my family to pursue some kind of instrument, but singing has always brought me real, unadulterated joy. I can leave everything at the door and just lean into the music.

Rachel: Art is the best way to educate and to create empathy, to place someone in another’s experience and have them along for the ride. Many of the problems in my life occurred from the expectation that elements of life — race, religion, gender, etc. — are binary, black or white. Art enables us to show the true spectrum of humanity and the variety of complex experiences that make us who we are.

Roundtable

How do you feel about the #OwnVoices movement, which prioritizes marginalized stories being told by people of the same marginalized community as opposed to people from outside the community?

Aviva: Finally! This is exactly what my minor, Creativity, the Arts, and Social Transformation (CAST), has been teaching me; the artist or researcher can assist in the publication or production of the story, but ultimately it must be told by the community from which it originates. Once an outsider attempts to tell someone else’s story, it is stained by bias.

Rachel: I think the movement is critical to centering the lived experiences of marginalized communities and breaking down the social constructs that create stereotyped storytelling. I’m excited at the potential to one day live in a world where I don’t feel “othered,” where my children and people who look like me don’t feel like outsiders. I’ve been in debates defending this stance, that certain stories should be told by people who lived them. I think filmmakers are anthropologists and enjoy learning about people different like them, but we all have blindspots and biases. I’d question the motives of someone who wants to showcase a community to which they don’t belong. The result of those films is often a white, colonialist attempt to spread awareness. I’d rather hear directly from impacted people.

Marra: As a producer, I am often involved in lifting up the voices and stories of people from other communities. So, while I wholeheartedly believe that, if one wants to, it is always a wonderful thing to tell your own story, I also know that it often takes all of us working together to make sure that all of our stories are told. 

Zach: I love the idea of allowing those that have traditionally not had a voice of their own with the characters that represent them having the opportunity to define that voice the right way. The one thing I hope people understand is that there is no one right way; a plethora of opportunities for more people will raise the creative bar for all. There’s not even just one type of Black and Jewish experience and there should be a time and place for those stories to be heard if they want to be heard.

Natasha: I support the #OwnVoices movement 100%. It is imperative to hear authentic stories from the people who live them. I do not agree that it should pigeonhole marginalized creators into ONLY telling marginalized stories. Some themes are universal and can be authentically told from multiple perspectives.

Roundtable

Have you felt welcomed to share your experience as a Black Jewish creative or pushback?

Aviva: Both, really. Most of my work has been met with overwhelming love and support. I love to create within my community and to include the people I love in what I create. However, there are definitely a handful of people who have no intention of listening to what I have to say, and would rather take out their anger on me. One woman actually claimed that with one of my articles, I had robbed her entire Jewish community of being able to heal from trauma their government inflicted upon them. It’s people like that who cause me to doubt whether I deserve the space I am taking up, but I’m a grown woman, and I always find my way back on track.

Zach: I try not to think that the reasoning behind my rejections or lack of opportunity at a higher echelon has to do with me being Black and Jewish [but] more to do with my lack of experience. More and more I’ve seen my ideas written on paper find themselves on the silver screen and although many may find that discouraging because of a missed opportunity, I find excitement at the idea that my thoughts on fictional concepts are just around the corner from being greenlit if I keep working to make something great.

Marra: I have felt both warmly welcomed and utterly vilified for telling my story. I often say that having my memoir out in the world is both beautiful and terrible… and that remains true. There are real, painful truths that come along with being biracial and Jewish. And I speak those truths. That said, I know that sharing the truth of my story is the right thing for me. God did not make me to be small and silent and I am not put off by those who wish me to be.

Natasha: My journey of navigating my adoption experiences has limited my access to exploring my Black Jewish identity and the outlets that promote it. There are so many aspects of this intersectionality that I am still discovering. As I continue to engage with more people and soak up more stories, I learn more about the rich cultures that make up who we are collectively. Up until recently, it never crossed my mind that there was even a space that would embrace this part of my story. As a Black writer, I have felt pushback from the publishing industry. I have attributed that to the industry’s general lack of focus in promoting marginalized voices.

Rachel: I hope to create films, commercials, and music videos that highlight the different ways people come of age, challenging expectations of race, family, and addiction. In my academic setting, these stories weren’t always seen as valid to place on screen. People often seek “drama” – explosive moments of violence, or sensationalized conflicts – but I’m more into authenticity. Professors and gatekeepers have found those stories to be boring, but I think it is important to show that the daily struggle for survival and resilience can save lives, and can help young people value their own life.

There’s pushback when gatekeepers determine that “we’ve already seen something like this,” as if the existence of Moonlight prohibits other films about gay Black characters from being told, for example. They made me doubt that my lived experience was worth sharing. I’m glad that I did, because of the young people across the world who told me that they found Broken Bird to be relatable and inspiring, even if the dimensions of race and religion didn’t totally match their own experience. I learned that the more specific you make a story, the more relatable it can be. Sadly, those supportive voices sometimes seem quieter than the haters, but that support is something that keeps me going. 

Roundtable

What do you wish more people knew about the intersection of being Black and Jewish?

Rachel: The same thing I wish people generally knew about people different from them: have empathy, ask questions, educate yourself. Stop being surprised and treating people like they’re “different.” These people are unique and valid members of society.

Natasha: Being Black and Jewish is not a cookie-cutter identity. Every person on this planet has their own story and our community is no different. My hope is that we spend our time getting to know each other, uplifting each other, and really listening. There are enough gatekeepers in life, setting parameters around who qualifies to claim what identity. We need to embrace each other and celebrate the unique tapestry that weaves us all together.

Marra: While the world often tries to tell me that I exist in parts — “part” Black and “part” Jewish — I rest in the beautiful wholeness in my identity… and in being Black and white and Jewish. In that wholeness, I am but one expression of the diversity that exists in both the Black and Jewish communities.

 Zach: As I’m sure many other people who share intersections of the marginalized can understand, prejudice comes from all sides. I’ve befriended a lot of Jewish people who have grown comfortable enough to share their prejudice towards people of color and especially Black people. I’ve frequently heard the same form of prejudice expressed outright against Jewish people from Black people early in our acquaintance because I “don’t look Jewish to them.” The confrontations I choose to engage in, whether they be physical or verbal, have caused a lot of stress as I’ve grown up. I’ve lost friends because of these dialogues but some people learn and our friendships become stronger.

A lot of people ask me why I care and I truly don’t understand how they can’t, but as I’ve grown older I’ve realized more and more that empathy is not inherent across kinships. A general understanding of plight is not easy to come by, it takes shared experiences that are real to change the bias of others and it takes a long time. It takes a lot of love and patience to defeat that bias that shapes people’s prejudice. You need more than a post on Facebook to change hearts and minds. It takes a lasting effort that cannot be taken for granted by any measure. You also have to find a way to laugh somehow.

Aviva: I wish people knew about the intersection of being Black and Jewish, period. In the past few weeks, since writing my pieces for Alma and since DeSean Jackson and Nick Cannon’s despicable commentaries, it has become alarmingly apparent that a lot of communities, Jews included, don’t actually know Jews of color exist and are oppressed within the Jewish community. One man was so obtuse, when a woman of color told him that a man outside of her synagogue called her the n-word, he asked, “So his being outside of the synagogue makes him Jewish?” This same man had commented equally ignorant remarks on my publications. It’s these kinds of people that you can’t even have a productive, educational conversation with because they are not entering the conversation willing to hear other opinions. Despite these kinds of people, however, I will continue to amplify my voice for the people that will listen.

Roundtable

What have you been working on recently, and is there anything coming up that we can look forward to!?

Rachel: I shot a hair commercial and hope to re-edit it so it’s more focused on general Black empowerment. I’m also excited to be moving into the development phase of the Broken Bird feature, and look forward to seeing the rest of that story come to life. I’m eager for collaborators, so let’s work together!

Aviva: I dance and choreograph for a show called Liquid Latex, a series of themed dances in which we dance in latex paint costumes. I will always be proud of myself for the dances I have choreographed since arriving at Brandeis. Unfortunately, only one made the stage, as our show this spring was cancelled due to coronavirus. Regarding future projects, I will continue writing until I have nothing left to contribute, and I will continue singing until my voice goes hoarse. I derive my greatest joy from sharing my art with people, so this virus is really taking a toll. I am hoping to still be able to put on a solo performance as my final project for the CAST minor, and I hope that at some point before I graduate I will be allowed to perform with my friends again.

Natasha: I am currently querying a few different picture book manuscripts that focus on Jamaican culture. I am also writing an inspirational manuscript that links adoption themes to an authentic relationship with God. When I am not writing, driving my four children around, or doing laundry, I spend my time volunteering with SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). I am one of the co-founders and co-coordinators of Tapestry of Voices, a diversity initiative for creators of children’s literature in the San Francisco North and East Bay Region.

Zach: I truly hope to bring people beautiful pieces of art that implement what I write and shoot very soon. As of right now, all I can provide is what I’ve created for my YouTube page, Sharmhill Beta Productions, which is a mix of short films and videos that are comically improvisational or musical in origin. You’ll also see a few ads for the still developing physical therapy application HealthyTouch. Right now I have two different music videos in the works that should be available in mid- to late August. If I can build the appropriate budget, I plan to shoot a documentary about Jewish identity from various Jewish groups with differing cultural and political perspectives.

Marra: As I’m a bit superstitious about talking about what is coming up, I’ll simply ask everyone to watch this space. There are thrilling things on the horizon!

Header image by Grace Yagel.

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