On Shabbat I overheard a children’s conversation that I wished I had not. I passed by a Hasidic synagogue, whose name I won’t mention to avoid embarrassing it, when I overheard an honest conversation between two boys. They sat on the steps at the entrance to the building when the younger one, a cute boy with curly sidelocks and an innocent expression, turned to the older boy and asked him a question that threw me off balance: “Tell me, what are Yemenites?” The second boy, without thinking for even a second, answered: “Yemenites are worse than Sephardim, because they are browner”. This conversation transported me back 18 years – a scared girl in the famous Hassidic Beit Yaakov school. I was the only “suntanned” girl in grade 3b, and I was a leper.
I remember hiding in the classroom during recess so that the sun won't darken my skin. My only “outcast” friend was Tzipi. She was born with the “right genes” and did not have “mixed blood” like me, yet even Poles can sometimes be born with dark skin. Her beautiful green eyes and flowing hair did not help her pass the strict acceptance test put forth by the china dolls, our class mates. A girl who in secular society would have been placed on a highway billboard sat hunched next to me, apologizing for her existence- yes, the only two “brown” girls in the class.
Besides the feeling that we would never be as beautiful as the pure white skinned girls who populated our school, we were also considered dumb, because stupidity and darkness go hand in hand, in a distorted logic that I never understood.
Outcast statusEven when I transferred from my private school to a “general” Beit Yaakov school, where the range of colors changed considerably- the concept of prejudice did not disappear. To my good fortune, my “mixed” ethnicity and Ashkenazi last name saved me from being classified in the wrong category, but in my heart I was there, absorbing my outcast status with disgust.
This feeling of “you will not succeed” that is deeply ingrained in dark skinned children in the strictly-Orthodox sector would not leave me, and were it not for an excellent teacher in high school who made me believe in myself, I do not know if I would have received my matriculation certificate, and certainly not an academic degree.
I am painfully aware that this horrifying outlook is not the exclusive domain of evil eight-year-old girls. In the strictly-Orthodox world there are mature, educated people, rabbis and community leaders that think exactly this way.
The strictly-Orthodox who posses this racist outlook find many ways to disguise their extreme opinions with a wide variety of excuses. “It is a question of a couple’s compatibility in food and customs”, one person justified it to me. The fact that his Hungarian grandmother curses the sweet, Polish gefilte fish that his wife makes is not a good enough explanation for him. Even though Jewish law “in its ultimate audacity” solves this “crisis” and sets forth clear rules on marriages between ethnicities, they choose to leave this irrelevant topic inside the Code of Jewish Law in the hopes that this matter will never actualize, at least not in their family.
Theories of better racesToday when I hear about a talented rabbinical judge who took a long time to become part of the system because “unfortunately” he was born to a Sephardi mother and Ashkenazi father- I go back in time. When a wicked woman, sorry but I have no other definition for her, who is not aware of my “brown” genes tells me about her new neighbors, and how relieved she is that “despite their ethnicity” they are neat and well-kept, I politely smile on the outside and want to throw up on the inside.
So tell me how long can this go on? Sixty years ago they burned us because we were an “inferior race” of Jews, and now six million are no longer with us. Why today when there are only 12 million of us left in the world, are theories of better or worse races still come out of our mouths and seep into our hearts?
When will a marriage between a Yemenite and a Pole be as legitimate in our society as that of a Hungarian and a German Jew? When will we once again become one nation and the gene pool will once again be united? Only this will allow for the disappearance of this horrible phenomenon and we will no longer have to hear people who think “is he Iraqi or Austrian?” is a legitimate question in arranging marriages, jobs or political fortunes.