It’s February once again, and you know what that means…waiting until February 15 to buy all of the discount Valentine’s Day candy to eat in the bath until you’re sick!
Okay… while that is technically true, it is also Black History Month: a time to honor the amazing Black leaders we have witnessed on this planet, many who lost their lives combatting the racist systems upon which our nation is founded, as well as our Black peers and family, who shoulder the burden of the consequences of these racist systems.
The Jewish community is beginning to understand how white and white-passing Jews have and continue to play a role in perpetuating racism in the Jewish community, and are working towards not only not being racist, but being actively anti-racist. As a Black Jew, I am grateful that these conversations are happening. It is important to remember, as our community continues to combat racism and antisemitism, that the two struggles have always intersected, especially for Jews of Color.
This month, a lot of people are going to say “Black History Month should be every month” or “11 months out of the year is white history month.” I hate to break it to you, but that means absolutely nothing unless you actually do something to spread knowledge about Black History every other month of the year.
This Black History Month, and every day, I am choosing to remember my Black Jewish ancestors and allies who have inspired me to proudly embrace my Black and Jewish identities. Remember these names and share their stories.
Sollomon (Birth and death unknown)
Sollomon was the first Jew ever recorded living in New England in 1668, according to W.E.B. Du Bois’ A Chronicle of Race Relations. Yes, you’re reading that correctly: The first Jew in New England was Black! He was brought before a court in New England, as he had just so happened to arrive in Boston on a Sunday, and in the 17th century, a man could spend a month in jail for missing church on Sunday (which begs the greater question, who else wasn’t in church on Sunday to catch a person not in church on Sunday? But I digress).
Though the result of the case in unknown, it was noted that in the case files, he was described as a “Malata Jue.” Du Bois conjectures that Sollomon’s parents were an enslaved woman and a white Jewish man who gave him his freedom. We don’t know much else about Sollomon, but to read about him in a text by a legendary author and scholar was a pleasant surprise.
Adah Isaacs Menken (1835-1868)
Adah Isaacs Menken was a poet, writer, speaker, and actress born near New Orleans in 1835. She is believed to be of African American, white, and Creole heritage, converting to Judaism when she married businessman Alexander Isaac Menken.
By the time she married Menken, she had already begun her career as a published poet and actress, but her acting career became more lucrative in the mid 1850s. Though she was known to be quite a scandalous woman due to her rebellious nature and numerous romantic affairs, she performed and was published widely. Her book of self-aware poetry, Infelicia, which celebrates Judaism and women and condemns male domination (!) was published posthumously in 1868 after Menken died of tuberculosis.
Jackie Wilson (1934-1984)
If you know the song “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” then you’ve danced and sang to the swinging tune of R&B legend and Black Jew Jackie Wilson. Wilson produced R&B and soul hits from the mid 1950s through the early ‘70s, and was praised by stars such as Elvis Presley and Berry Gordy Jr., with whom he wrote his first big R&B hit, “Reet Petite,” and several other songs throughout the late ‘50s. His music set the stage for ‘60s soul and Gordy’s success in Motown as a producer, record executive, and songwriter.
Sammy Davis Jr. (1925-1990)
Sammy Davis Jr. was a singer, dancer, actor, and one of the greatest entertainers of the mid to late 20th century. He began his vaudeville career at just 3 years old with his father Sammy Davis Sr. and the Will Mastin Trio, and entered the world of film at the age of 8. He graced the Broadway stage, starring in Mr. Wonderful in 1956, and was nominated for a Tony for his performance in a musical adaptation of Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy in 1964. He also played with the Rat Pack and in 1966 had his own variety show, The Sammy Davis Jr. Show. He notably performed with legends such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Liza Minelli throughout the course of his career.
In 1954, Davis lost his eye in a car accident, and several years later, he converted to Judaism, often making jokes about his identities as a Black Jewish man with one eye. He received a significant amount of criticism from both the Black and white communities as a Black man who supported President Nixon and who married a white Swedish woman during a period when interracial marriage was legal, but still frowned upon. However, he was still publicly proud of his identity as a Black Jew and famously wore a mezuzah necklace around his neck throughout his adult life.
Nell Carter (1948-2003)
Famously known for her role as Nell Harper on the show Gimme a Break!, Nell Carter was a singer and actress, and also a Black Jew! Not only did she win two Emmys and two Golden Globes for Gimme a Break!, she also won a Tony for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical for her performance in Ain’t Misbehavin’ on Broadway in 1978.
While Carter was beloved by Americans, she still faced her share of racism in show business. During her appearance on Broadway as Miss Hannigan in Annie in the ‘90s, the commercials promoting the show, which were made during an earlier production, featured a white actress, Marcia Lewis. The producers claimed new advertisements featuring Carter would be too expensive, but racism definitely played a part in the decision. In an interview with the New York Post, Carter said, “Maybe they don’t want audiences to know Nell Carter is Black…It hurts a lot. I’ve asked them nicely to stop it—it’s insulting to me as a Black woman.” Nell Carter was a legend and a household name, but fame cannot protect a person from the systemic racism that permeates American society to this day.
Rabbi Gershom Sizomu (1972-present)
Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, rabbi of the Abayudaya Jewish community in Uganda, is the first native-born Black rabbi in Sub-Saharan Africa and the first chief rabbi of Uganda. Sizomu was raised during the Idi Amin regime, when it was illegal to openly practice Judaism in Uganda. His own father was arrested for building a sukkah. In 1979, freedom of religion was restored in Uganda after the Amin government was overthrown. However, the Abayudaya community were still not recognized by the Israeli government as being Jewish because they had not formally converted.
In 2003, Sizomu invited four U.S. rabbis to conduct a conversion ceremony for 300 Abayudaya Jews. In 2008, he conducted a conversion ceremony in the village of Nabogoya for 250 Jews from places such as Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa. Not only is Rabbi Sizomu a spiritual leader, but a political one. In 2016, he was elected to represent Uganda’s Bungokho North District in Parliament, making him the first Jewish parliamentarian of Uganda. It is important that we remember that Jews have lived around the world for centuries, from a variety of backgrounds and traditions. It is leaders like Rabbi Sizomu who remind us to honor our Jewish family across the globe.
So, there you have it, a short list of Black Jewish icons throughout history everyone should know. Of course, this is not an exhaustive list. There are so many more amazing Black Jews to learn about and honor. For those of you looking to learn more, I highly suggest following Tony Westbrook (@frumjewishblackboy) and Rabbi Sandra Lawson (@rabbisandra) on TikTok. Tony has been posting every day about Black Jews everyone should know, and Rabbi Sandra is a powerhouse of knowledge and a fantastic rabbi.