‘Being a black Jew means ordered spontaneity’
Rebecca Walker, a leading feminist, tells Alex Kasriel how writing a book helped her heal her ‘fragmented’ identity as black-Jewish. Overleaf, another woman explains her own solution
The last time author Rebecca Walker met up with her friend Lenny Kravitz, the rock star, he jokingly suggested co-authoring a book entitled Barbecues and Barmitzvahs.
These normally unconnected events are related for the small tribe of America’s black Jews to which both Walker and Kravitz belong.
Other famous types who straddle the worlds of kneidlach and fried chicken, klezmer and hip hop, basketball and er, kalooki, include Saturday Night Live comedienne Maya Rudolph (daughter of singer Minnie Riperton and producer Richard Rudolph), the late Sammy Davis Jr, and novelist Walter Mosley. Meanwhile in the UK, celebrated black Jews include actress Sophie Okonedo, politician Oona King and singer Craig David.
It cannot be easy identifying as Jewish when to many co-religionists you look anything but. Yet without full black parentage, you might feel an imposter in the Afro-Caribbean/African American communities.
Yet Rebecca Walker, daughter of Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Colour Purple, feels that there are advantages to inhabiting this bi-racial world. “It’s a combination of dynamism, spontaneity, improvisation and adaptability of the black culture with the intellectual, ordered, intensity of the Jewish culture,” she says. “I definitely feel the benefit of that. What comes out of that struggle is very interesting. You get ordered spontaneity.”
On the whole, however, the 38-year-old, who is considered one of the leading lights of “Third Wave” feminism, admits having a troubled relationship with her mixed status, something she blames on her parents. This uncomfortable truth came out in her 2000 book Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of Shifting Self, in which the privileged, middle-class Walker documents the anger she felt after the marriage between her mother and her Jewish father, civil-rights lawyer Mel Leventhal, disintegrated, leaving her confused as to where she belonged.
“A lot of it is about being a child of divorce. I think if my parents stayed together, I would have felt differently,” Walker complains. “My parents, who were involved in the civil-rights movement, had me as the embodiment of what they thought the movement should represent. When the civil-rights movement fell apart, so did their marriage, and they moved to different parts of the country. Mum joined the Afro-American community in San Francisco. Dad married his Jewish girlfriend. They both went back to their worlds, and I was the memory of a different time and a different set of beliefs. I felt attached to all of them and none of them at the same time. I could never bring the worlds together. I was the only one who could go back and forth, so that made me feel that I had to compartmentalise a lot, and it made me feel very fragmented. Writing that first book helped me to heal a lot of that.”
This therapy-style lit may have helped Walker deal with these issues, but it resulted in her becoming estranged from her mother.
“Both of my parents hated that book,” Walker admits, adding that she believes that one day they will come round to it. “They felt very exposed. They really didn’t understand that I was going through so much as a mixed-race person. Once they started to hear about the hundreds of people like me, I think they came round to it. My mother not so much, but my father got a dozen copies in his office. I think ultimately it will help one way or another because it’s very honest.
“I couldn’t really say those things and get a response from my mother, so in some ways, writing about it is the only way to have any kind of communication with her. That was part of our estrangement. It’s a high price to pay for writing a book. When you live your life in public in a certain way, you do start communicating with each other publicly. I think it has allowed the potential for more intimacy because I have been allowed to speak.”
Walker, who once had a relationship with a female African singer, and had an abortion aged 14, adds that having a family has helped her “heal”. She is referring to her partner Glen and son Tenzin, with whom she lives in Hawaii. Tenzin, now three, is the subject of her latest book, Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood after a Lifetime of Ambivalence. The book details Walker’s uncertainty about having children as a feminist writer who does not want to get caught in the trappings of motherhood at the expense of her creativity.
Tenzin, named after the 13th Dalai Lama, is being brought up Buddhist. “I’m not going to put him in Hebrew school or Jewish school,” Walker insists. “My partner’s Buddhist — it just wasn’t on the cards. Seder, Yom Kippur... my partner’s not so into that stuff. I’m kind of mixed on that. Growing up as a half-black person was not always comfortable, and I don’t want my son to feel those things. We want him not to have to struggle to fit in.”
Walker, who changed her name from Leventhal while at high school in order to connect herself to her mother and associate with blackness, says she no longer has “an affinity with whiteness, with what Jewishness has become”. She refers to American Jewish assimilation “with those in power” and their support of Israel’s occupation of disputed territories.
But she does admit to having a cultural connection with Judaism, despite being black and living in Hawaii with her Buddhist partner and son. “I was raised with no real established religion. My father has raised his kids with his new wife as Jewish. They went to Hebrew school and did the formal Jewish training. But I was raised more culturally Jewish. In this country at least, a lot of what we consider being Jewish is really shaped by being Eastern European, and I am culturally linked to the ‘old country’.
“I feel very close to my Jewish family culturally. It’s a strange feeling to do with the way we talk or the way we look at things or that we’re constantly analysing things. I definitely have a lot of that in me — like my OCD side! Being a civil-rights attorney, my father has really been influenced by the idea of the law that comes from the Old Testament. So I think he feels more open to my work because he feels like it’s the just thing to do as a parent. He’s very judicial in his approach to things. My mother is more of a Pagan. She has a different approach to morality and family. She comes from a more emotional non-structured place, which means she has to be kind of free in her thinking. That place is a burden on her children.”
Baby Love is published by Souvenir Press