dating · jews of color · Jews/Jewish/Judaism/Orthodox Judaism · marriage

A touchy subject: Race and Dating Jewish

Hi Aliza,

I have an etiquette for you. I know this is a touchy subject.

I have a good friend who’s very aggressively JDate-ing. She met a guy on whose name is very Jewish (last name Katz) and who went to a Jewish day school in Los Angeles. He looks black. She asked me when it’s appropriate to ask if he’s black. Let’s leave aside for a minute that it seems like a redundant question.

What she wants to ask about his background. She’s interested in him, but doesn’t want to date someone who isn’t halakhically Jewish, and she’s concerned there may be a non-Orthodox conversion in his past.

My instinct here is that it’s really rude and inappropriate to ask questions about his background up front. I feel like she’s assuming that he’s a less legitimate Jew because he’s black. Her response is basically that she doesn’t want to waste his time if he’s not up to her standards of halakhic Jewishness.

Is there an appropriate context or situation to ask about his background? Or is it off limits and possibly racist to bring it up? Any other thoughts?

I hope you’re doing well. I’m already missing your blog posts.


Concerned Pal

Dear Concerned Pal,
Whoa, heavy. Touchy, indeed. Okay, a little babble and a couple of deep thoughts.

Well, have you heard the joke now from Hillel rabbis: if the person has a Jewish last name, they’re less likely to be Jewish than a person with “non-Jewish” last name. The whole “half Jewish on the wrong side” thing. Yeah, it’s an awful joke.

A Jew of color can barely get through 2 minutes at any Jewish event without a background check. “Are you Jewish? Are you a convert?” People often don’t even say “Hello.” Obviously, there are plenty of black Jews who were born Jewish. But nobody believes this…apparently even black Jews. A black Jew asked me at a Shabbos table if I was born Jewish and then if I was “born in America.”

But if you read my blogs, you know the drill. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have asked me for advice. I think if you’re sensing your friend is asking because he’s black, then you’re probably right on. And as a friend, you should tell her your concerns. It’s going to be a lot easier coming from you than having her play out her racial insensitivities on this poor boy. I’m sure he’s heard it all before but it gets tiresome. Give her my blog or MaNishtana’s to chew over. Maybe it will raise her sensitivity or maybe she’ll realize interracial dating is not for her. I dated one too many guys who thought my race and my hair height were a “disability.” Waste-of-time!

So…how can she ask without totally ruining things about his background? Very, very carefully.
Don’t assume he’s not Jewish or that he must have converted just because he’s black. Yeah, people often do that because of skin color usually or a “funny” last name but unless he actually announces, “Oh, my non-Jewish mother said….” or “I’m not Jewish but I love dating Jewish girls on JDate,” don’t assume. A teacher once told me, “Assumptions make an ass out of you and me.”
But she CAN ask if his parents, grandparents, great-grandparents were Orthodox or very observant. But usually, if you want information, you have to vouch information first. She’ll need to open up about her family background and observance level. Then wait. If he’s comfortable sharing, then he’ll share. Basically, ask about his observance level, his family’s observance level, not his “Jewish status”…just like you would any other Jew you’re dating. When she does pony up by saying, “Hey, I’m shomer Shabbos (Sabbath observant) and shomer this and shomer that and I’m looking for this and that” and if he says, “Oh, I’m not,” well, as Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon said on “30 Rock” this season, “it’s a deal breaker.”
That said, the only situation when you really start checking a person’s yichus (lineage) is dating and marriage. I think I’ve said that a billion times about Ivanka Trump’s conversion in 15 different posts. Miss Trump’s conversion is between her, her rebbe and her husband.

Of course, there is this thing called tact. But it’s interesting that I know so many white Jews who get into…”situations” because they never ask about their boyfriend about his yichus or observance level up front. Basically, if the guy’s white and has a Jewish-sounding last name, people assume he’s Jewish so why ask? And then it comes out that someone had a conversion that wasn’t “kosher” enough for someone else, somewhere down the line in his family.

Okay, also notable…if she were a guy, particularly a Kohen, she would probably have to on date #1 and go through the “Kohen speech” just to make sure the other person is aware that he can’t marry a person who is X, Y, Z. Before I even introduced myself as a convert (thank G-d, people were really tactful and sensitive with me plus I couldn’t go more than 5 minutes without telling people I was), many Kohens I met would say “Hi, my name is X” and pretty quickly, “I’m a Kohen.” I’ve seen the fallout of what happens when Kohens aren’t so upfront with girls.

I also heard a horror story where a Kohen dissed a (born) Jew of color by implying she wasn’t “kosher” enough for him, the implication being that she’s either been more naughty than nice or that she was a convert. Honestly, in the case of a non-halakhic conversion somewhere down the line, if the person is invested, they’re usually willing to sit tight while the paperwork and mikvay appointments get sorted out by their local something-or-other rabbi.

It sounds like she’s already made her mind up and if she is, she’s wasting his time. But I should be sensitive to the fact that if she’s been doing JDate and “aggressively dating” as you’ve said, she feels like her time’s been wasted long enough. It’s hard. But the only way you get returns is if you invest even when investing can get you hurt. I know. Been stomped off enough to know. Just not on JDate.

Hope this helps.

Aliza Hausman

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