“You mean Romanian?”
“Oh, so like a g*psy.”
“You don’t look like a g*psy.”
“So your family converted?”
I have heard these four things over and over again, so many times that they’ve ceased to become words; now, they’re just… irritation.
Hi. I’m a Romani Jew. No, I’m not Romanian. Romanian people actually enslaved my people for centuries, until Rroma, empowered by news of the liberation of slaves in the U.S., fought back. The word g*psy is loaded with so many negative stereotypes, and if I never hear another white girl call herself one again, it’ll be too soon. I don’t steal. I’m educated. Yes, I’m poor. (But again, I don’t steal.) And my family has been Jewish for as long as we can trace it — so yes, we are Jews, thank you very much. But if we were converts, you would still warrant a dirty look for saying it like that.
I see a lot of ignorance in the world about who Roma are, and in America, it’s common: We’re an invisible minority here, for the most part, which is something we cherish after centuries of horrifying treatment in Europe and the Middle East. The saddest thing, though, is how excluded I feel in the Jewish community. At best, I’m an exotic novelty. At worst, I’m “not a real Jew” because my liturgy and cuisine doesn’t align with Shlomo Carlebach and gefilte fish.
The funny thing about being a Romani Jew is that there isn’t one way to do it. If you think Jews have opinions, just wait till you meet a Romani one. Our customs vary wildly, thanks to centuries in diaspora on top of another diaspora. Every holiday, no matter how small, is prepared for with a cleaning frenzy, and followed with a feast and plentiful music and dancing. Even typically somber holidays are experienced with song and dance and bright-colored clothes. Modesty of dress for women is still suggested to an embarrassing extent; wearing shorts is still practically criminal. Our languages, a mixed breed of the different dialects we’ve collected, are a kind of Tower of Babel under which we sit. Our food is a journey paralleling our own, with my family devouring saffron-infused challah, spicy goulash rather than cholent, and ginger-blasted chai as our Jewish penicillin. But our dancing, our music, and our desire to keep our homes obscenely clean unite us.
And that’s another thing: Keeping kosher got nothin’ on our mothers, who practice removing anything mahrime, or “unclean,” in the broadest sense. For all that we’ve been called “dirty g*psies,” we’re likely the cleanest people you’ll ever meet.
I can’t tell you when Romani Jews became Jews. The idea is that, because we’re originally from Northwest India, we must have converted somewhere along the way. I’m not so sure, because it’s not like India is that far from Israel — certainly closer than Germany. So why Jews aggressively litigate the genetic legitimacy of Romani Jews is beyond me.
Yes, I’ve taken a DNA ancestry test, and no, they don’t test for Romani heritage. My DNA is almost entirely Indian and Nepalese, with a smattering of Siberian and various countries in the Middle East. Some Romani are the same. Some have different results. Likely because we are a diasporic people. Just as other Jews range from delicate, wispy blonde hair to thick 3C curls, Roma are not one singular look or genetic pattern. In short: People sleep around. So when you say someone “doesn’t look Romani,” it’s like looking up and saying, “that doesn’t look like the sky.” Tragically, we do not all look like Rita Hayworth. Oh yeah, she was Romani, too.
I’m answering these questions in part to vent, but mostly because they’re the questions Jews always — usually earnestly — ask when I tell them what I am. My hope is that once you can understand who we are, you can start focusing on actual allyship within the Jewish community, like acknowledging that however horrific things are right now for Jews in Europe, I can assure you they’re worse for Romani. (See here, or here, or here.) For Romani Jews, it’s a two-for-one special: anti-Semitism and anti-Romanyism for one low price! We struggle in both Europe and America with housing loss, a lack of employment, denial of access to healthcare, and public education. And, of course, white nationalists (they’re everywhere).
Unlike many Jews in America, I don’t carry any mark of financial privilege whatsoever. I have never in my life lived in a house that was owned and not rented. I’ve been homeless three times. I commute three hours a day to work because I can’t afford to live any closer. For all the romanticism of our supposed lifestyle, Roma mostly just want what most people want: stability.
Stability should start at home and, once outside the door? With our fellow Jews.
Header image and art by Sarah Elizabeth Hartman.