This year, the Mall of America announced their first black Santa. Most people are okay with this – quite pleased, actually! – but there is a very vocal minority that has a problem with this. And yes, it’s racially-based. “Santa is white!” they scream. Some of them insist they’re not racist, they just want to keep things authentic. A quick reality check: Santa Claus is a fictional character. If Nick Fury can be black in the Avengers movies and Jimmy Olsen can be black on the Supergirl TV show, then Santa Claus can be black in the Mall of America. (See also: Kingpin, Perry White, Frank N. Furter, the Human Torch, Annie, Ralph Kramden, Felix Unger and Oscar Madison – all traditionally white characters played by black actors at one point or another without the world ending.)
Getting upset over black Santa probably seems silly to most Jews. However, since we don’t have a dog in that particular fight, it’s hard to guess how we would feel if the shoe was on our foot. Or is it?
I would like to think that the Jewish community is immune to this kind or reaction but, sadly, experience has shown me otherwise. I have been friends with a number of Jews of color over the years and I have been disheartened by what they have told me and what I have observed.
For example, one girl, who was born Jewish to a Jewish family that goes back generations, was frustrated that people were forever assuming that she or her parents must be converts. (She was also frustrated that wherever she went, people only wanted to talk to her about her experiences as a black Jew. There’s more to Jews of color than their skin tone.)
The most appalling experience I observed in this area occurred in an elevator at work with a visiting guest – a black, Jewish woman wearing a sheitel – and a colleague – an older, very learned and very pious rabbi without a hateful bone in his body. The woman observed that I had lost a significant amount of weight and asked me how much. I told her and she replied, “Yasher koach!” (That’s a Hebrew expression roughly equivalent to “Good on you!”) My rabbinic colleague, hearing this phrase flawlessly executed, told my guest, “That was very good!” There was no racist intent whatsoever but we both knew that he would not have replied this way had my visitor been white. This is just the reality with which she lives.
The reality is that even Jews who are not racist carry baggage. Part of that baggage is that most of us have always belonged to communities that are all-white. Therefore, when we see a Jew of color, we make assumptions, such as they must be a convert or they probably can’t speak Hebrew. It’s not malicious but it’s certainly a defect in our characters, and one we should work on overcoming. Assumptions are usually incorrect.
Got a problem with black Santa? No? Then how do you feel about black Moses? Because, you know, he probably was.
There’s some debate as to the racial identity of the ancient Egyptians but one prominent theory is that they were black. This is also the position of Rashi (Genesis 12:11). Now see Exodus 2:19. There, Jethro’s daughters say, “An Egyptian man rescued us from the hand of the shepherds; he also drew water for us and watered the flocks.” If the Jews were white and the Egyptians were black, Jethro’s daughters would not have mistaken Moses for an Egyptian. Clearly, they were racially interchangeable.
Now, if the Egyptians – and the Jews – were black, it probably wasn’t the same racially as people from Africa. It was some kind of Middle Eastern, but it certainly wasn’t white. The mishna in Negaim (2:1) tells us that the Jews are neither white like the Germans nor black like the Ethiopians. Rather, they are in-between, the color of boxwood. So if black Jews (and Asian Jews, Latino Jews, etc.) are a fairly recent innovation, guess what? So are white Jews. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were Middle Eastern and probably swarthy. They may not have looked like my guest in the elevator but they didn’t look like my colleague and me, either.
So, does people getting upset over black Santa seem silly to you? Do you think that they’re probably a little racist even if they say they’re just trying to remain “authentic?” If so, let’s turn that spotlight on our own community.
Santa can be black. Jimmy Olsen, Annie and Ralph Kramden can be black. Moses was probably black. And the guy next to you in shul can be black. If he is, that’s no more worthy of comment or assumption than when the guy next to you is a redhead, a chasid or Sefardi. Human beings come in all different types and Jews are not monolithic.
Besides, if you’re a white Jew of Eastern European descent (as the majority of readers of this article are likely to be) and you sat in shul between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva – the authorities cited in Negaim 2:1 – you wouldn’t want them to make assumptions about you!