By Adrainne Gray
This young, unmarried Orthodox Jewish woman curiously stopped us on the streets during Yom Kippur when the streets are closed off to traffic and Jews go between home and synagogue praying all day for repentance of sins.
The reason she stopped was obvious later. We thought she stopped to say hello because Everett and Sylvia were laying in the middle of a street that is normally packed with cars, trams and taxis.
Her English is good, but perhaps a second language learned in school and practiced with tourists.
Our Orthodox interrogator begins with,
“Where are you from?” We chime in “The United States and our state is Georgia.”
She happily makes a mental connection, “Atlanta?!”
“Yes!” we excitedly answer.
She has never been, she is from Jerusalem.
She asks us questions to establish our faith, “Do you have food and drink in your house?” When we say yes, this reveals that we are not observant Jews because we are not fasting.
She ask, what kind of Christians we are, “Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant?”
We choose, “Protestant!”
She continues unloading questions quickly as if we may tire of her and say we have to move on.
How long we will visit? Where do we work? Do we like Jerusalem? This was sort of fun, our new friend trying to fit us into the boxes she has available for us.
We don’t tire, as a matter of fact we sit down on the street curb, well, because there are no cars on the streets for Yom Kippur.
She finally asks the question that I am now convinced many others want to ask, me.
She turns her back to Ben and the kids, and looks me directly in the eye, “Where are you from?”
I say the United States, again. “That is my husband and those are my children, we are from the U.S.”
She says, “NO! Where is your father’s, father’s, father’s grandfather from?”
In a place that is established on heritage and family lineage, (remember all those “so and so begot so and so” in the Old Testament?) I get it. For most cultures here, Israeli and Palestinian, deep family roots matter, but I don’t have the answer she is looking for.
I said, “I don’t know.”
She says, “Africa?”
I answer, “Well of course, but I can’t tell you exactly where my people are from or who they were before the 19th century.”
Then, as if she has been living without CNN, she ask,
“Are black people equal in the U.S?”
I hesitate, as images of Obama in the Oval Office, of my black neighborhood in Atlanta where families struggle with systemic poverty, images of the tensions between police and the black community, images of my educated and talented circle of black friends, images of positive fruits of the civil rights movement, images of push back against the #blacklivesmatter movement, prevent me from giving her a quick, one-answer-fits-all response.
How do we honestly explain our condition in the U.S.? I contemplate.
As these diverse visions of prosperity and collective oppression pass through my mind, she fires off another question as if asking for all the Jews in Jerusalem, “I mean, you are able to marry – white and black – things are equal, right?”
Her voice breaks my inner commentary, “Ummm, yes, but it was just 1967 that the last state in the Union made interracial marriage legal.”
She is shocked. As a young woman, within the landscape of an ancient city such as Jerusalem, 1967 is not that long ago. It really isn’t, I was born in 1969.
She is still waiting for me to speak, to tell the truth, or tell her what she wants to hear. Which is it?
And trying to find the vocabulary that illustrates the condition of the black person in the U.S that doesn’t loose its meaning in translation, I begin:
“Well, Israel reminds me a lot of the U.S. before the Civil Rights Movement.”
She is lost, not quite understanding “civil rights” she responds, “The Civil War?”
“No, let’s start again.” “After about 1970, laws that prevent me from obtaining jobs, buying a house where I want, drinking from any water fountain I want, were changed, but people don’t change as quickly as laws.”
She is fixed on my mouth as particles of words dribble out.
“So, well, umm, prejudice is different than it was 40 years ago. For instance, I can get a job where I want, live where I want, I can move freely where I want, entertain where I want, marry who I want because there are few laws that restrict those things, but individual people and systems still have prejudices against black people.”
“Some still think we are criminals, are not as smart, not God’s children, and inferior, so they will not want to be near us or want to keep us from enjoying things they enjoy.”
She seems to understand. And I wonder why. So I ask, is there prejudice like that in Israel?
She insists that I pick a people group to start. She says “Blacks, North Africans, Christians, or Palestinians?”
She seems to think that there is no problem among the first three groups other than Christians trying to convert them… this she says is a real problem. She says more people are starting to marry black and white within Judaism, but it is not too popular.
As for Palestinians, she says, “Because of terrorism, we Jews are afraid of them.”
How would you explain the condition of black folks in less than 30 minutes to this curious young woman?