‘Beingablack­Jewmeans or­dered­spon­tane­ity’

Re­bec­ca­Walker, a lead­ing fem­i­nist, tells Alex Kas­riel howwritinga­bookhelped her heal her ‘frag­mented’ iden­tity as black-Jewish. Overleaf, an­other wo­man ex­plains her own so­lu­tion

The Jewish Chronicle - - FEATURES -

TThese 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 AfroAmer­i­can 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. HE 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.

“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 half­black 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.”

Re­becca Walker: “My par­ents re­ally didn’t un­der­stand that I was go­ing through so much as a mixed-race per­son”

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