When I was growing up, my synagogue’s rabbi would sometimes challenge the metaphor of America as a melting pot, likening it instead to “a nice salad”: the different ethnicities and cultures existing happily in the same space, yet retaining distinct and separate identities.
It was an analogy to which I could relate — but it could be a challenging construct for Jewish children of mixed racial backgrounds struggling to find acceptance and a sense of belonging when their identities are not as clear cut.
In Marra B. Gad’s memoir “The Color of Love: A Story of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl” (Agate Bolden, Nov. 2019), she shares the challenges she faced from her dual communities, and even her own family members, as the biological child of a Jewish mother and a black father being raised by two white Jewish adoptive parents.
In black spaces Gad was not considered ‘“black enough,” she said, or she was told that while Christianity and Islam were acceptable religions for black people, Judaism was not.
And in Jewish spaces? She was assumed to be “the help”, she said. She wasn’t even free from prejudice within her own family-by-choice: For much of Gad’s life, her great-aunt Nette expressed her disapproval of Gad’s mixed-race heritage.
The JT spoke with Gad about her book, her personal connection to the Baltimore Jewish community, and her thoughts on today’s discussion among American Jews about prejudice and inclusion.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.
What is your personal connection to Baltimore?
I was a student at the Jewish Communal Service program [today the Baltimore Hebrew Institute at Towson University] in 1995, so I lived in Baltimore for two years, from 1995 to 1997. It was a graduate level program, and I received an MA in Modern Jewish History, and then I transferred to the University of Illinois for my public policy work.
What was your experience of the Baltimore Jewish community like?
I had a pretty involved life. I taught religious school at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. As a part of my internship program I was the advisor at Hillel at Goucher [College].
For me, my entire Jewish experience has been a combination of being deeply involved and always a bit on the outside, and that was no different in Baltimore than anywhere else.
What do you think about the current discussion regarding acceptance and inclusion of minorities within the Jewish community?
As someone who is nearly 50 years old, I’m grateful we are finally having it. For me, it is still in its infancy. People need to tell their stories. I think we have begun something that is critically important, and I hope we can have an ongoing transformative discussion that is honest, non-combative, and filled with love.
Your book discusses your great-aunt Nette’s struggle with Alzheimer’s and how it led to a change in your relationship with her. What lesson does that offer?
When someone has Alzheimer’s and dementia, it strips away their conscious decision making capacity. And so Nette, who was deeply racist, lost her ability to choose racism, and became loving and sweet.
I believe we are born loving beings. And over time, that changes for people. I believe Alzheimer’s brought her back to her natural state, which is to be loving.
Your book explores the concept of yerusha [inheritance or legacy]. What did you discover about yerusha in writing it?
What we inherit from our families can come in many forms. It can come as jewelry, stories, family recipes. And I’ve always been obsessed with l’dor v’dor, what we pass on.
What I inherited from Nette is very different from what I inherited from anyone else in my family. From my experiences with Nette, I inherited my sense of self, and who I am, under extraordinarily challenging circumstances. That has been a real gift.
I made loving choices when it came to Nette, in spite of the fact that she had not behaved in a loving way toward me. We all have the ability to choose love, to choose to be loving, under any circumstances.
What advice would you give Jewish families raising adopted children of a different racial background than their own?
What every child needs, no matter how the family is built or the racial background, is to be loved. They need safe spaces. They need to be raised with love, with a sense of self, and for their families to be safe spaces when they need it.
My parents raised me to have a tremendous sense of self. My mother still raises me to have a tremendous sense of self, even though I’m turning 50 in April.