Tag Archives: Judaism

Tikkun Olam: Young Chasidic Jews in Brooklyn, Repairing the World

Laurie and Debbie say:

If you were reading the news in 1991, you may remember the vicious clash between the ultra-orthodox Chasidic Jewish community and the Black and Brown community of Crown Heights in Brooklyn. This four-day riot began when two African immigrant children were accidentally hit by the motorcade of the rabbi who led the Crown Heights orthodox community at the time.  The callousness of the Chasidic leaders following the death of one of the children enraged their neighbors of color. Violence ensued, several people were injured, and one young Jewish man died.

Although efforts were made to heal the breach, tensions have remained high between the Chasidic Jews and the people of color, especially in that neighborhood, but also wherever the two groups live side by side.

In the uprising following the murder of George Floyd, neither of us would have predicted that the younger orthodox Jews of Crown Heights would host a large, loud, and supportive Black Lives Matter protest (!).


On a recent Sunday, about 200 young Hasidic women in long skirts and wigs and men with wide-brimmed black hats and free-flowing beards parked their baby strollers along the tree-lined boulevards of Crown Heights in Brooklyn.

They picked up their bullhorns and raised their homemade posters, some in Hebrew and Yiddish.

“The opposite of love is not hate. It’s indifference,” one sign read, quoting Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace laureate Elie ­Wiesel. The young families chanted “Black lives matter!” and “Jews for justice!” as they marched through the diverse neighborhood …

The protest was both more widely based than is immediately obvious, and more controversial than the organizers hoped:

As they organized the demonstration, they welcomed openly gay former members who had been shunned by the community, and asked rabbis to speak about how standing up to injustice and racism is at the heart of Hasidic Jewish values. But their plans proved divisive, unleashing tense and emotional discussions within the community…

Some of the religious leaders said the event was too political. Others feared that the Black Lives Matter movement was anti-Semitic and argued that “Jewish lives matter” should be a slogan, too, given the recent spate of attacks on synagogues and Jewish people in New York City.

We know, of course, that the anti-Semitic attacks come from the white supremacists, not from people of color, and certainly not from Black Lives Matter.  And the message of the Jewish protesters got through:

Geoffrey Davis, a black community activist and founder of an anti-violence group that launched after the riots, joined in the protesters’ chants for black lives as they marched past his house last week. He called the demonstration “bold.” “This was a message to young African Americans, who had never seen this sort of thing before, that some Hasidic Jews do care about their lives,” he said. “Now, that’s powerful.”

Tikkun Olam is the Hebrew phrase for “heal the world,” which Jews are required to work on as part of the religion. For the two of us, mostly-secular Jews and vehement believers in the fight for Black lives, seeing our ultra-religious distant cousins taking such a public stand is extremely moving.


Slavery, Geneaology, and Southern Food: Michael Twitty Comes to San Francisco


Debbie says:

Apparently, I have been living under a rock (where the food isn’t as good as it should be), because I had never heard of Michael Twitty before a few weeks ago, when a friend suggested we go hear him when he spoke at Omnivore Books in San Francisco.

He sounded interesting, so I said “Sure.” When another friend (both white women) was excited that he was coming to town, I realized I’d been missing something. But I had no idea how much.

Michael Twitty is: black, Jewish, gay, and very fat. Also beautiful and compelling. He blogs at Afroculinaria: Exploring Culinary Traditions of Africa, African America and the African Diaspora. His new (first) book is The Cooking Gene, which contains some recipes, but is basically autobiographical, and focuses on his long and arduous journey to learn about his African ancestors. As he said, this has given him the pleasure of learning he’s related to Samuel L. Jackson, somewhat balanced by the disturbing knowledge that he’s related to Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney.

Much more important, he has found his actual African ancestors. When he finished the book, he had not been able to finance a trip to West Africa, but when he talks about being there, and meeting his clan, and having access to a name not forced upon his forebears by slavers, the awe in his voice is palpable.

Twitty is an irresistibly friendly and inclusive speaker. The bookstore is tiny and was jammed, and he somehow made every one of us feel like he was personally chatting with us; it just happened that he was doing the talking, but your turn was coming and he wanted to hear what you had to say. He talked about geneaology, and about visiting plantations for the book (and how hard that was). He told us about cooking in Colonial Williamsburg, and doing a little bit to desanitize that particular (very) overly whitewashed experience.

He also talked about being Jewish (“by genetics and conversion”), and told a few stories of Southern Jews, especially a pair of Polish sisters who were World War II refugees and (unlike many American Southern Jews) always felt that the civil rights movement was a struggle they had to be in.

He read some bits from the book, most memorably one about his father making him eat dirt, not as punishment, but for the experience of tasting good Virgina dirt (!).

He says his next two books will be about Judaism and food, and then about being gay and food (and that third one will deal with body image issues).

He closed by pleading with everyone African-American, African, or Afro-Caribbean to get their genetic history tested. He spoke passionately about how little information there is, and how much more each individual adds to the mix. If you’re reading this and you fit the description, I’m passing his plea on to you.

The Cooking Gene looks awesome. Afroculinaria is a great discovery for me. And I would pre-order the next two books now if I could, but they aren’t much more than twinkles in his eyes at this point.

Check out Michael Twitty. You won’t regret it.