We are in the period of counting of the Omer, the period of seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot. Although I never manage to count each day, I find it inspiring and calming to meditate on the attributes associated with each week and day of the Omer. I am writing this column during Week 3, which is associated with the attribute of tiferet (beauty, compassion, and harmony). And I am wondering, today, what makes tiferet distinct from the quality of chesed (loving kindness and benevolence), the attribute associated with Week 1 of the Omer.
During the week associated with gevurah (strength, discipline, judgment, justice, awe), I had the honour of performing my one-woman play, “Monstrous,” as part of a theatre festival hosted by the Toronto company B Current.
B Current was founded to support and produce work from the African diaspora, and it has now opened its mandate to be a home for stories and artists of colour from all different cultural backgrounds, including indigenous artists and mixed-race artists.
I was invited to perform and I was excited to have my Toronto debut as a playwright and performer. But I was also very worried that I would be perceived as “not of colour enough” for the festival and its audience. Ironically, that is what “Monstrous” is about: not feeling black enough to legitimately connect with my Afro-Caribbean roots; not being always white enough in our white society; not feeling quite Jewish enough in our typically Ashkenazi-centric communities, “never quite enough.”
A similar feeling of un-belonging is shared by many Jews of colour. In previous columns, I have written about the need to expand our definition of who “counts” as Jewish. Our communities have never been only white and only European because Jews come in “all hues” with all measure of past experiences, families of origin, and geographic and spiritual journeys – and, yet, many people feel they are on the outside.
My Toronto performance coincided with the inaugural Jews of Color National Convening, which took place May 1-3 at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York. The Forward’s opinion editor, Sigal Samuel, wrote that “this desire to own all aspects of a hyphenated identity at once was probably the most pronounced unifying theme for the conference participants, who spanned the gamut of skin tones and religious observance levels. We shared the experience of feeling like outsiders, and many shared an overlapping constellation of marginalized identities like non-whiteness, queerness and far-left politics.” http://tinyurl.com/h7278ga
A unique and empowering experience not without its emotionally charged challenges, the Convening was presented by the Jewish Multiracial Network and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. Despite trenchant discords about certain issues, including about the State of Israel, the participants shared the experience of feeling like they were “not enough” for the mainstream Jewish community. Yavilah McCoy opened the Convening with these words: “Everyone here needs to hear this: You are beautiful. You are gorgeous. Anyone who told you otherwise was lying in the name of white supremacy.” As Samuel wrote her article, much crying followed McCoy’s statement.
If chesed is loving kindness, and tiferet is compassion, perhaps each attribute has to be considered in a complementary way in conjunction and in accumulation with the previous quality. Between chesed and tiferet is gevurah. Maybe in order to embody and understand tiferet we must also develop the strength to offer compassion to ourselves, to have the discipline to know the difference between struggle and challenge, to believe in the awe that is possible when we open ourselves up and permit ourselves to be vulnerable – when we can show compassion to ourselves as well as to others.
I am inspired by the Jews of Color National Convening and the increasing trend in North American Jewish communities to practice “radical” or “audacious” hospitality within as well as beyond their communities. There is so much work still to be done until we all feel fully at home in our Jewish circles, fully at home in ourselves, and until our Jewish circles fully open up to others still on the outside. But I am hopeful. This kind of work is truly the work of the heart, truly the work of tikkun olam. We have all the resources and skills to do it. It just takes a little loving kindness, strength, and compassion – for others as well as for ourselves.