Here There Be Racist Dragons

I figured out what I most liked about the book Ariel Samson, Freelance Rabbi on its last page, in its very last line.

At the beginning, I had no idea that I was going to like the book at all. I have to admit, both times I read the book (and yes, I have read it twice) it was a bit of a slog for me getting through the beginning chapters.

In fact, the first time, the only reason I stuck with reading the book long enough to figure out how good it is, is that I’m one of those people who just has to finish any book I start, on principle.

Now, I’m so glad I did.

I really do like this book very much. I didn’t read it twice because I hated it. I read it twice because it has all the emotions: smart and funny, touching and sad. And because it has some amazing lines in it. The author has a way with words I totally envy!

Like this definition: “Jewnicorn: Perfectly black enough. Perfectly Jewish enough. A seamless blending of all the strengths and none of the weaknesses of two seemingly diametrically opposed cultures…

“The Jewnicorn is legendary. And by legendary, I mean mythical. And by mythical, I mean imaginary. The moral of the story, kids, is that there’s no such thing as a ‘normal’ black Jew. Then again, what about being black or being Jewish has ever been about being ‘normal’?”

So well said. So true. And something I completely agree with.

But, as much as I grew to identify with, and sympathize with, the lead character, and thus, by extension with the author (who says the book both is and is not fiction) their lives are so not my life.

Let’s talk a little about the author, Shais Rishon, pen name MaNistana. There’s a JTA article about him here.

I was fascinated by this pen name. It is from the Passover Haggadah: Mah nishtana halayla hazeh: What makes this night different from all other nights?

But what makes this book different from all other books? For me, the fact that the main character’s family had been Jewish for generations, on his father’s side anyway. So he grew up Black and Jewish.

While I… didn’t. One of the first things I had published was called “I’m Glad I Wasn’t Born a Jew”.

It isn’t that I have, or ever had, anything against Jews. It’s just that since I came to Judaism very late in my life I was able to bring to it all my prior experiences. And I consider that a good thing.

Not that I don’t sometimes envy the children running around the synagogue, to whom so many things are easy that are difficult for me. But at the same time, there are so many experiences they simply will never have. Experiences I wouldn’t give up. Things that I think add depth and dimension to my understanding and practice of Judaism.

What I hadn’t considered (because how would I know?) was the trauma of growing up both Black and Jewish. Not that growing up any kind of Black is easy, or normal as Ariel’s definition of Jewnicorn points out.

But looking back, while some of my childhood trauma was definitely religious, most of it was personal: passed down from mother to daughter, over and over… and over again. Although actually… once you think about it, that is, in a way, sort of Jewish.

But MaNistana’s book shines a light on a whole different world of traumas that can be passed down the generations mother to daughter and/or father to son, that, as I said, I had never even thought of.

It made me consider that I might have even more reasons to be glad I wasn’t born Jewish.

My personal traumas were focused on the fact that none of the women in my family knew how to express positive emotions: they didn’t know how to show their children they loved them. They couldn’t pass along what had never been shown to them.

And I was an extremely solitary child,  a latch-key kid before that concept had a name. I spent a lot of time alone reading books and watching afternoon TV.

My religious traumas centered on the three churches I can remember attending.

The first was the one where the teacher threw me out of Sunday School when I was six for asking a question she couldn’t answer.  (In case you’re wondering, it was: What do you do if you don’t have faith? Having faith being a big thing in Christian circles. And me, at the time, wanting to be a good Christian.)

The second was my cousin’s. He was not very good man, or a very good preacher I suspect, since I don’t remember any of his sermons. What I do remember is that he stole money from his own church. And he had “side women” – he cheated on his wife. Families talk.

The last church was the one where the minister put the moves on me when I was sixteen, though he stopped short of actual assault. But it led to me refusing to set foot in his church, or pretty much any church, ever again.

All that left me insecure, introverted and probably pretty weird.

It also left me on a lifelong search for a religious/philosophical path that would work for me.

None of that begins to compare with growing up Ariel Samson, Black and Jewish and possibly even more insecure, introverted and weird than me. And trust me, that’s saying a great deal.

His family members definitely had their own personal traumas, from the extremely serious — abusive relationships — to the less serious but still difficult — ongoing disagreements between his grandmothers about the naming of their grandchildren.

And his early education was very nearly, you should forgive me for saying so, hell. Children can be very cruel. His treatment in synagogues was even worse.

And that’s leaving aside that his life was in danger just living while being a Black man. Of a scary encounter with police:

“…the kippah he wore under his fleece beanie didn’t make him bulletproof, and his rabbinical ordination didn’t matter…”

As I got further and further into ArieI’s book and life, I began to wonder how much the male/female thing, growing up in New York City (him) versus growing up in Los Angeles (me), and him being a strictly Orthodox Jew, contributed to the differences in our lives and our religious experiences?

For example, I hate NYC. Way too many people in way too small a space. Of course, I hate LA for the same too many people thing. But being able to spread them out over a much larger area helps some. That accounts for some of the difference.

On the other hand, I’ve never been, or wanted to be, a man. So I have no personal experience to use to decide about the male/female thing.

But Ariel says of his twin sister, Aviva, that when she was done with Judaism “she set her faith on fire, pushed it out to sea, and waved goodbye as the tide pulled it further and further out into oblivion,” while he obviously never gave up.

I’m not sure Ariel’s experiences in school and in synagogue and just walking around being Jewish while Black, were worse than his sister’s, but her reaction to her experiences certainly reminds me of me and the Christian faith I tossed on a fiery barge and pushed out to sea when I knew I was done with it.

Had I had their experiences, I’m pretty sure I would have been way more likely to respond the way Aviva did than the way Ariel did. So me being a woman and Aviva being one, I think it’s likely that the differences between men and women might be one of the things that contributed to Ariel’s experiences being different than mine.

Last, there’s the “strictly Orthodox” versus “not” thing.

I converted as a Conservative Jew. I believed it was the middle ground between Reform and Orthodox. It seemed to me that Reform Judaism had cut out too much and Orthodox Judaism was unreasonably restrictive. So I thought this middle ground was the way to go.

Looking back on it, I wish someone had said to me (like Ygritte said to Jon Snow on Game of Thrones) “You know nothing.” I really didn’t. But, driven by the same need that has driven me since I was six, to find my own true path to G-d, I continued looking and learning and eventually made my way into a more Orthodox environment.

My Conservative community was very accepting and since my current Orthodox community is kiruv oriented, I’m pretty sure I can’t compare my experience in synagogues in general, or in Orthodoxy in particular, with Ariel’s.

I’ve never minded people asking me if I’m a convert, because well… I am a convert, and darned happy to be one. So that question doesn’t bother me the way it likely would if, like him and his sister, I’d been born Jewish.

I’ve only once, in a dozen years, had someone in a synagogue say something overtly racist in front of me, though not directly to me. (And it is only fair to say that, after it happened, the Rabbi, the President of the congregation, and the synagogue’s Administrator, immediately tore this guy a new one. They apologized, and they made sure he did too. Although, I have no doubt, their apologies were sincere. His… not so much. But at least he was careful to keep his thoughts to himself while he was in the synagogue after that.)

It may well be that I’ve just been extremely blessed in the communities I’ve been part of.

And in having few problems while walking around being me. I suppose that the fact that I don’t usually wear any visible sign of being Jewish in public may have something to do with that. It leaves me, most of the time, with only one set of prejudices to deal with.

Because Ariel, always wearing the signs of his Judaism, his kippah and tzizit, publicly, continually has some amazingly, horridly *uncomfortable* experiences with both kinds of prejudice. And uncomfortable is putting it mildly.

Rabbi Ariel delivers this almost unbelievable description of an exchange in a bar between him and a random young Jewish woman he just met, who considers a Holocaust number tramp stamp tattoo respectful because it’s in the small of her back:

“When Jews who ‘looked Jewish’ but didn’t know the difference between a shofar and a chauffeur, felt like they could question whether or not he was doing Jewish ‘right.’ As if the difference between his skin and their skin gave them some automatic badge of Jew Authority without needing to have the most rudimentary knowledge of, well, ‘anything.’ And when fourteen months of study and a couple of decades of lived in experience can be contested by fourteen seconds of racial profiling and a couple of watered down drinks, it can make someone wonder why they became a rabbi at all. Not Ariel, mind you. But someone.”

Also, I have to admit that, while I love this line about a Shabbat dinner, at the home of some of his longtime friends:

“If Shabbat tables were clearly marked “Here There Be Racist Dragons,” he’d never have had a terrible experience in his life.”

The description, that comes before that line, of what happened at that Shabbat table made my heart hurt for him.

After all of that, the book goes on: “Ariel was proud of his Judaism. He just wasn’t sure how proud he was to be a Jew.”

And, at later point, he says this to another Black man about to convert: “…you gotta remember that Judaism comes with three rules … Don’t let Jews ruin Judaism for you… Don’t judge Judaism by its Jews… [And] Remember that they can be a great people. They wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. So sometimes your job is to be that light.”

And the best part of those last couple of lines? They don’t come from Psalms or Proverbs. Ariel tells the lady who asks that they are from “Superman 47:18”. That still makes me smile.

I guess, maybe, that is why I eventually came to like the book so much. It made me feel that Ariel was a real, fleshed-out person, even though that person had different experiences than I’ve had, and reacted to them in different ways than I think I might have. He came right out of the page. He was three dimensional.

I believed that in spite of anything, and everything, that happened to him, he still had a sense of humor.  I believed that he was proud and committed to being a Rabbi. I believed the character was a real human being.

You can’t ask much more from a book than that.

And the lines, and specifically, the line that I like so much from the end of the book?

“To those of us who feel discouraged and battered. Tired and weary of suffering the slings and arrows of life, just to say that we are here and that we exist and that we matter. I say don’t lose hope. And you are not alone.

“Today you are all still standing.

Today we are all still standing.

Anyone who can write, and live, a life like that of Ariel Samson and his creator MaNistana, and continue to be proud of his Judaism and, more than that, still have hope, has my respect and my admiration.

And my recommendation to read his smart and funny, touching and sad book.

[<i>Disclosure: The author did provide me with a free pdf of his book.</i>]