Mama Won’t Allow Me To Be Jewish

Racism from within the community pushes Jews of color out

by Veronica Brown-Comegys 

This article was originally published on Fédération Internationale des Juifs Noirs.


On the Thursday before Mother’s Day, my deceased, Catholic, African-American mother told me that she did not want me to remain Jewish. It seemed as if she snatched me out of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in East Lansing, Michigan.

I was anticipating the class, “Learning Hebrew through Music.” However, my mother put the kibosh on that plan. As an only child, I was always on a short leash. Consequently, even now, I expect Mama Ann to express her opinion.


I had been a disgruntled Catholic who ended up at a synagogue by chance. I happened to be visiting Saint Stephen’s, an African-American Protestant Church in Lansing, on the day the pastor announced the future interdenominational service. On that evening, I arrived at the synagogue early and was the only African-American present. I approached the rabbi and said, “I’m very early.” He grinned and said, “Not at all. The rest are very late.”


Of America’s 6 million Jews, 10 percent identify as black, Latino, Asian, or mixed, according to a 2005 research project conducted by late Jewish demographer Gary Tobin. However, when it comes to African-American Jews, Ilana Kaufman said, “Shuls (synagogues) and day schools do not tell the truth about who is in the Jewish community. The vast majority of Jewish institutions offer no reflection of us. Racism from within the community pushes Jews of color out.”


Furthermore, one African-American Jew in New England said that at several services his rabbi made racist remarks about the police killing of unarmed Mike Brown last year in Ferguson, Missouri. Eliyahu K. planned to interrupt the next time and berate the rabbi. However, others urged him to speak privately with the rabbi or find another synagogue. Bat-Ami M., an African-American female Jewish New Yorker, told me, “You would know a lot more, if you were not with the Ashkenazi (Europeans).” On the other hand, Amram B., a Jamaican Jew, who had been a Seventh Day Adventist Elder said, “I have been lucky in my choice of a shul. The people have shown me so much love. The first time I went there, I was in a body cast. They treated me with much kindness. Now, I love them.” However, he added, “There are some subjects that you do not bring up in a white shul.”


On my first visit, the Hebrew songs grabbed me, and I was overwhelmed by a peaceful feeling. Furthermore, each time I returned the welcoming atmosphere was amazing. It was unlike Catholic churches where nobody made eye contact, or shook my hand when the priest announced “the kiss of peace.” Early on Thelma Saper, a ninety-year-old white Jewish woman, befriended me. Thereafter, at the Friday evening service, I sat with her posse. I easily became accustomed to hearing, “Shabbat Shalom,” “You must be new,” “Good to see you,” “Good to see you again.”


For some reason, I recalled a racist experience at the rosary in a Lansing Catholic church. An elderly white man had glared at me and shouted, “She has no right to be here.” The other whites objected to his remarks. Nevertheless, I brooded. Ultimately, I decided it was time to investigate other churches and even other religions. The final time I attended mass I departed laughing. On the pew I discovered a pamphlet entitled, “Reaching Out to African-Americans.” I thought, “You cannot even keep the blacks you educated from kindergarten.” Recently, an African-American childhood friend abandoned Catholicism. After moving down South, Abrilla Robinson discovered, “I can clear out a pew.” In a CJVoices.org article, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Selma, said, “Racism is man’s greatest threat to man — the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.” Furthermore, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “One of the most segregated times in America is the hour of worship.”


Americans change faith early and often, according to the Pew Research Center. The center reports, “Half of all adults have changed faith at least once. My mother changed faith about fifteen years before my birth. Mom was attending a black Baptist service when the pastor said from the pulpit, “Ignorant southern girls do not have enough sense to do more than wash white people’s floors for a living.” My mother was a Camden, Al. sharecropper’s daughter. At that time, she was a domestic. Ultimately, she earned a beautician’s license and degrees in education and library science. Furthermore, by the time I was a sophomore at Michigan State University, she had received training in management and supervision and was employed at the Governor’s Residence. Mom deserted that black church, and while walking, she came upon another place of worship. It was Catholic.


Studies show that African-Americans are “the most religious group in America,” according to a recent article on www.Rewindingblack.com. Only 13 percent of African-Americans said they are non-religious, compared to 34 percent of white Americans. The researchers could have been referring to my mother’s family. My Uncle Moses Brown built a church for his pastor-son-in-law more than 50 years ago. Moses Temple was on Puritan Avenue in Detroit. In addition, if my family had a religious guiding rule it would be, “We practice diversity.” My cousin, W.P. Curry, 70, of Montgomery, Alabama, said, “When I was growing up, on Sundays my father went to the Baptist Church ; my mother went to the Presbyterian Church ; and I went to the Catholic Church. It was just workable.”


For some relatives religion triggered outlandish behavior. When they were teens, Mama Ann and her sister Maggie once attended a church where powerful gospel music caused people near the altar to jump up and down. However, Maggie jumped backward and when she reached the front door, she escaped. In addition, one afternoon my Pensacola cousin telephoned from a western state. She and her adult daughter believed that God gave them the same message in a dream/vision. He said, “Move to ______.” I wished her “good luck.” However, I researched the city. Afterward I muttered, “All that crime there; God must really hate their guts.”


I was still struggling to overcome my contempt for “sanctified” churches. The aversion stemmed from my grandmother’s beatings in a bathroom stall of a Detroit “sanctified” church, when I was three years old. My offense had been requesting a trip to the bathroom during the service. Until I was about 10 years old, I would flashback to that scene. I reacted by pounding on tables as I imagined that I heard the choir shrieking about salvation. Unsurprisingly, I was unable to appreciate black gospel music until I was 30.


Nonetheless, I eagerly studied Judaism. However, one day, I saw the Hebrew alphabet and thought, “Veronica, this is not your language.” However, I “womanfully” tackled Hebrew. Unsurprisingly, there were times during the service when someone would whisper, “Turn the page.” I selected Rut (Ruth) as my Hebrew name. Soon, I traveled to a suburban Detroit synagogue for the Mikveh. The immersion actualizes the transition between the convert’s old identity and his or her new one as a Jew. Soon the rabbi left Michigan. Now there are all women at the top. They are Rabbi Amy Bigman, Cantor Pamela Schiffer, and Executive Patty Warshaw, who loaned me Jewish cookbooks.
“Everything is so right,” I thought. After all, in “My Sister, the Jew,” the African-American Jewish author, Ahuvah Gray presents the following exchange with a friend, “Who better than Jews understand African-Americans and what we went through as a people ? Your Exodus story is also our Exodus story.” The friend, Ruth Broyde-Sharon replied, “Who better than African-Americans understand Jews and our history of persecution ?” In spite of that, I was not prepared for anti-semitism. It happened last winter in an Ethiopian Christian Church in north Lansing. I was there for a presentation. An Ethiopian acquaintance ushered me to the women’s section. We chatted until she asked about my religion. When I said, “I’m Jewish,” she turned her face away from me and stared at the wall for several moments. When she faced me, she wore a sad smile.


Finally, as Mother’s Day neared, Mama Ann stepped in. As usual, I was writing my opus about life with my white host family, and racial, gender and religious issues in Brazil. One box of expanding files sat near my computer. The other container lay a little farther away. I needed a document, and I was certain that it was inside the closer box. However, I did not locate it. As I approached the other box, I glimpsed a tiny scrap of a page, which was protruding from a file. I was startled. Without moving, I knew that the sheet did not belong in either of the boxes. Besides, I had scrupulously examined everything before insertion in the files. Therefore, the contents should have been 100 percent Brazilian. Yet, there was an interloper, and it held my mother’s distinctive handwriting. Only one word was visible. It was Christ. Customarily, my mother wrote prayers on a sheet and kept it in her pocket. She prayed during breaks from errands. Nonetheless, the page’s appearance in that file was a mystery. I eyed the sheet.


The petition’s unexpected appearance made me wonder. “Is Mama Ann telling me something ?” I had been agonizing over “unsolvable problems.” I spent long moments in gloomy ruminations. In the end, I decided that the sheet’s appearance must be confirmation of an earlier conclusion. The document revealed that during my “dark nights of the soul,” Judaism had not passed the Litmus Test. Instead of seeing that faith as a source of comfort and direction, I was focusing on my deceased role models, my mom and late godmother, Vernell Smith, of Detroit. I longed for the connection to my roots.


Mama Ann always said, “Veronica, do not complain about every little thing ;” “You have to keep trying things in order to see how circumstances work out ;” and most importantly, “Pray and go on.” On the other hand, my godmother remained cheerful, strong and encouraging although due to multiple sclerosis she spent the last several years of her life bedridden and only able to move her head. She said, “I cannot help Sarah (her sister) take care of me. All I can do is be pleasant.”


So, I headed to the black church. I joined two ; each for four weeks. Now I am convinced that the grass is not always greener on the other side. The first church was a “scam operation.” The female pastor was a “prophet.” The day I joined, the blond-wigged, grey-eyed, white-skinned African-American woman told me she would call me over the holiday weekend, to “tell me some things.” She did not telephone. Church members said, “I’ll talk to her in a week;” “I’ll remind her in a week;” “Wait a week.” The final time I went there, the prophet was marching down the aisle bellowing, “I see things; y’all know I see things.”


black-church-womenAt the second church, I incurred the dislike of the first lady. I believe the trouble began on the day I joined. Her mega-handsome pastor husband asked me and the other new member to come forward and sing a phrase. The young man sang and received polite applause. However, I received an ovation. Apparently, I sounded and/or looked too good. Within a day, the first lady telephoned to welcome me. In addition, she asked, “Are you from Maryland ?” I was amazed. My father’s family originated in Maryland. Consequently, I was eager to hear the first lady’s story. She said, “A couple of years ago, we had a member who was from Maryland. Like you, her last name was Comegys. After graduation from MSU she returned to Maryland.” I told the first lady of my search for family. She said, “Maybe you two are related. I’ll call her.”


Ultimately, I left the first lady several messages. Finally, she called me. However, when I reminded her of our previous chat, in a cold voice, she said, “That conversation never took place. I don’t know anyone named Connor, Cummmings, Conrad.” I was astounded. Next, I became furious because I realized how she knew to ask me about Maryland. If you google the name Comegys you find Cornelius Comegys, of the Netherlands, who settled in Kent County, Maryland. I should not have been surprised.


It seems that every time I become involved with a black church there is “some mess going on.” Therefore, I conclude that I erred by thinking I belong in a black church only due to race. Earlier I had erred by forcing myself to attend a Catholic Church because of my education and upbringing. So, the joke’s on me. Nevertheless, I will find a place. I believe the selection is/will be obvious if I follow my heart, study and remain patient.


I ERRED BY THINKING I BELONG IN A BLACK CHURCH ONLY DUE TO RACE.


Accordingly, I remain involved with Judaism. I found the book Black Jews of Africa. Perhaps I will find the “root connection” I seek. Furthermore, I still enjoy the annual Israeli Film Festival at MSU. Moreover, Guershon Nduwa, an African Jew who lives in Paris, introduced me to the Black Jews Federation. Guershon said, “You are part of our people. We have to be proud of our Jewish identity as converted, or born black Jew.”

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VeronicaVeronica Maria Brown-Comegys is a former freelance writer for United Press International in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Ms. Brown-Comegys earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism, and for five years enrolled in anthropology graduate study. Currently, Ms. Brown-Comegys is updating a manuscript about Brazil. Twitter: @Brown9501Brown

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