Six Things Baltimore Black Jews Wish You Knew

innovatedcaptures / iStock / Getty Images Plus
Photo by innovatedcaptures / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Imagine facing both anti-Semitism and racism. For the people in Baltimore commonly referred to as “Jews of Color,” there are a few things you can be aware of to make their day a little less uncomfortable.

The JT spoke to three people about what they don’t like to hear when it comes to race, and what they would like to hear instead.

Don’t ask “What are you?”

“That’s always a good one,” Baltimore biracial Jewish activist Rain Pryor laughed. “I’ve gotten that so many times, and I know people don’t mean it in a mean way.”

Pryor said people should refrain from asking someone to verify their identity, recite ancestry, explain their origins, or prove their heritage.

Baltimore Black-Jewish activist Rain Pryor, courtesy photo
Baltimore Black-Jewish activist Rain Pryor, courtesy photo

“I always answer that I’m human. Then you laugh because you don’t want it to be too heavy.” Pyror said she herself gets excited when she sees someone she knows could be multiracial, “because I feel not alone. I want to know your background. So I think many times it’s inquisitive.” However, it becomes problematic when it is interrogation. Sometimes by someone’s tone she can tell they want to gatekeep, “to see if I really belong there. So the way to answer that is I’m human, and by the way my mom’s white and my dad’s black and I still bleed red.”

“It’s more important to focus on why the person is asking the question, instead of coming with a blank slate and asking a question that makes a prior assumption and asks validation. It doesn’t have to be about conversion. Another question is ‘What makes you Jewish” because I know from that person’s mind all Jews must be white,” said Rabbi Gerry Gilstrop, a former longtime congregant of B’nai Israel. “Or something like, ‘you’re going to have a hard time dating in the Jewish community’ and that goes on a lot. I’m not trying to be politically correct. But, if we just met I wouldn’t ask you about your dysfunctional childhood or your divorce based on what you’re wearing. It kind of makes you want to recoil.”

Don’t label people

When Chabad Rabbi David Davis first moved to Baltimore, he did hear some slurs, and kids questioned whether they should really call him a rabbi. However, things have changed over the past 40 years.

“When I first came here, there was a lot of hoopla but now everyone knows me,” he laughed, “There are no [offensive] questions people ask me, because everyone knows me. People like me in this town. No one is afraid of me. People in Baltimore grew up with me. So, I don’t think I’m treated any different. Even at this stage people would stand up for me even I wasn’t there, if someone said something derogatory.”

Davis, who refers to himself as brown, brushes off labels and doesn’t like the term “Jews of Color.” “I don’t know what it means,” he said. “In my neighborhood, I have three Asian Jews, one from India. I know half a dozen Yemenites — they’re brown. Then, of course, you have the Persians. So what color are we talking about?”

“We tend not to group people like that,” he continued. “What is more important, is to where they’re holding? That’s more important than their color. Those are the things that will stand.”

Gilstrop shared a similar sentiment about the term “Jews of Color.”

“This is my opinion only, but I have a problem with the term ‘Jews of Color,’ because while it is well intended, it can infer [that] you’re ‘other.’ No one says Black Catholics or Catholics of Color, or Muslims of Color,” he said.

Don’t say “Black Lives Matter” if you don’t mean it

Pryor grew up the daughter of activists, and would see crosses burning on her own lawn. Having seen this before, she worries that people may now show solidarity for a couple weeks, then forget it.

“Now, all of a sudden, for me and especially my neighborhood, there is the urgency to all of a sudden say ‘Black lives matter.’ It’s almost insulting, because where were you before Freddie Grey, before this, why now?” asked Pryor. “Was it important for you to set up a march in the community? Especially for myself as a mixed person of color, we feel very like, yes, we want people to stand up, but we want that all the time, not just now.”

She also is concerned if people use the statement to create more division.

Do inform yourself

“Everyone is asking what they should or can do,” said Pryor. “What I’m seeing is white people going to me with what to do. Well, learn the history. It’s not my responsibility to educate you. Then I become concerned because I don’t want to sound like a [jerk].”

Some specific texts about Baltimore’s racial history are “Baltimore ‘68: Riots and Rebirth in an American City” by Elizabeth Nix, or “Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City” by Antero Pietila. Gilstrop recommends people read the history of Henrietta Lacks, who was unknowingly used for science by Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Do ask, sincerely, “How are you?”

“When someone asks, ‘how are you feeling about all this,’ I want them to really want to listen to the answer, to digest it, and instead of the typical “how are you,” where we don’t really want to care, that they are truly waiting for the answer,” Pryor said.

So how is Pryor doing? “I feel honestly that the movement, in this time, the power of a movement like Black Lives Matter, has been convoluted. The voices that need to come forward to create change are feeling, to me, very oppressed. It’s being taken over. The charge is being led, but it’s totally convoluting why we needed the movement. … Now we’re blaming the police, and they are part of the system, but now we’re just pinpointing one entity, and I feel like, what did I fight for?”

Do be open to discussions on systemic racism.

Pryor said she believes people should talk more about systemic racism and about “the real historic truth around how thought processes created systemic racism in America, and how economics was a catalyst for the lack of racial equity.”

She thinks it’s a conversation that isn’t happening enough.

“We fail to bluntly talk about how class warfare created racism, and we still fall prey to this misleading idea that we can slap money on a problem and it will somehow disappear,” she said. “This is not the case. Creating tools and economic advancement is key to equity. That’s the conversation we should be having and we, to me, clearly are not.”

Gilstrop suggests people save these heavy conversations for when and where it’s appropriate and keep in mind that the other person may not be interested in having that conversation.

“It should be like any other conversation,” Gilstrop said. “You meet a new person and maybe share something about yourself before taking from others. It’s like going on a date, conversation should be delicate and aware of each other’s boundaries.”

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  1. Thank you. There is an event/march scheduled in August for Park Heights area for Black Jewish communities . Would be good to know the goals of this scheduled event. One of the organizers is Tikvah Womack of Ner Tamid ( Orthodox synagogue ). A researched article on this combined event would be a great . Much tganks


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