I often relate to my peer group that both my maternal and paternal ancestors were slaves: As Hebrews in the desert hills of Egypt, and as Africans on the southern plantations of Alabama.
“And he (Moses) called his (son’s) name Gershom, because he was a stranger in a strange land.” (Exodus 2:22)
I grew up in the Orthodox Jewish community of Monsey, N.Y. With my peyot until I was 10 years old and my father’s unwavering affiliation with the Chabad Lubavitch movement, I think it would be safe to say I was raised in what one would call the Haredi community. But our Thanksgiving family reunions revealed a whole other aspect of my family tree, and from a young age I was forced to consider what my own identity would be and what I would make my legacy.
Once Tanya Maria Robertson, my mother split her own sea and converted to Judaism as an adult, becoming Shulamit Geulah Rothstein. As when her mother, who is of German, Scotch, and Dutch ancestry, married her father, who is black, two worlds came together, creating another dimension of civil rights and Jewish unity: the Rothstein family. But with such realities came great complexity.
With a mother who converted to Judaism after being raised Methodist and a Chabad father living in Monsey, I had a lot to think about while growing up.
When my parents joined their histories together, it rendered a chasm in creation, and redeemed a fragment of an erased story. This same chasm whispers to me and you alike, “While the world has tried to erase your heritages for thousands of years, I’ll let your glory shine through.” Together, as Jews of Color, we shall create a masterpiece that will survive and thrive, that will sing and laugh, that will cry and yearn; that will stand for Jewish values, Judaism, and justice for all.
I have come to know that people who are color-blind deny that there is a difference in how a person of color is treated. There is a difference, but there shouldn’t be. I have also learned that my family has been given an opportunity to paint a grand canvas and rectify many chapters of our American and Jewish history.
Color erases and color paints. But when colors mix together they can repaint the grayness with a blue sky.
Color erases. Color erases because just four generations ago, Charles and Rachel Mcgruder, my grandfather’s grandparents, were born enslaved in Alabama.
Color erases, because my cousin, Carole Robertson, was murdered along with three other girls in the Birmingham Church bombing of 1963.
Color erases because I have a history that can never be told. Not because it was lost, but because, like so many, it was erased by corrupt spirits.
Color erases because no matter the laws that are passed, or the marches that are held, racism still exists. And the heart of our people’s humanity still breaks.
But indeed, color also paints. Color paints privilege—when it is the right color, that is. Color paints the meadows of West Virginia, a horse for each child, and a sense of security that can build the voice within.
Color paints the Methodist minister, my great-grandfather, who preached God’s word to hundreds, uniting communities with tradition.
Color paints British royalty who conquered the Americas with power and were later fought for independence—as my mother and grandmother are Daughters of the American Revolution.
Color paints because my grandmother can sing her grandchildren lullabies that have been sung by her family for centuries, and we know them all.
Both sides of my family have been victimized because of the color of their skin and what they believe in, and so, both sides have made it their life’s purpose to stand for the other, and to advocate for civil liberties and justice for all. Beyond the threading of colors and convergence of different faiths, both sides of my family know all too well that there is still a Pharaoh lurking in unfriendly places with every evil intention to harm, cast away, and degrade others based on their color or religion (Exodus 5:4). Indeed, you only know racism exists if you experience it.
As an advocate for cultural competence and acceptance in the Jewish community, as a rabbi and social worker, my story has led me toward the hope that we can unite to defend that divine command to protect the stranger, not only because we were once strangers in a foreign place, but because by doing so, we elevate our generation along with our ancestors.
“Mankind must be scattered, must distribute itself among all the different regions of earth in order that the most divergent and contrary faculties of the human mind may find in nature the needed opportunities of development, in order that experience become full and complete…”
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Nineteen Letters.”
Though my family story is a unique one, its message of overcoming adversity to develop identity and moral conviction is really a story for the masses—now more than ever.
Isaiah Rothstein is a JOC raised in a Lubavitch family in Monsey, N.Y. He is expecting to finish his rabbinical studies at Yeshiva University in the coming school year and works full-time as the Madrich Ruchani (Spiritual and Experiential Educator) at Carmel Academy of Greenwich in Greenwich, CT.