Blackface on Purim: Is Anybody Listening?

Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind's choice of Purim costume represented a basic inability to listen to the experiences of the African-American community, whose history, like that of the Jews, is plagued with persecution.

When I was a head counselor at a Jewish summer camp years ago, I was tasked with judging a set of theatrical versions of contemporary TV shows, complete with costumes, props, backdrops, and an all-Hebrew script. As part of the costuming for the counselors' chosen sitcom, Will Smith’s "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air", the counselors planned to coat the campers’ faces with brown paint. When I got wind of the intention, my protest was swift and vocal.

Despite growing up with The Jazz Singer (both versions) as among my favorite childhood films, blackface at a Jewish summer camp on the Canadian prairies did not pass the smell test for me. At all.

That was in 1993, when I was 21.

Two decades later, and Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, - himself two decades my senior, and an elected official in a city packed with ethnic communities of every stripe, somehow didn’t get the memo. It seemed that Hikind thought he was innocently selecting a Purim costume, like anyone else, when he dressed up as a black basketball player, replete with brown makeup covering his face, for a party to mark the Jewish holiday of Purim over the weekend.

The media pounced. And the black, Latino, and Asian Caucus of the New York City Council issued a harshly-worded statement:  “It is ... well-known that blackface is a polarizing symbol of the minstrel shows of the past that manipulated, perpetuated and highlighted stereotypes of black Americans for callus entertainment. It was offensive back then, and it is offensive now.”

Hikind appeared defensive and incredulous that anyone would take offense, offering a half-hearted apology at best. The following day, he was more contrite.

Almost half a decade after Abraham Joshua Heschel marched from Selma to Alabama, almost thirty years after Jesse Jackson’s “Hymietown” slur, and over two decades after the Crown Heights riots, the Jewish and African-American communities seem to be lost in translation to one another more than ever before.

A few days after the incident, I spoke to Rabbi Michael Lerner, founder and head of Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives. Along with Cornel West, Lerner has brought the issue of contemporary black-Jewish relations to the forefront in their 1996 book, "Jews and Blacks: A Dialogue on Race, Religion, and Culture in America".

“There’s a huge cultural divide and a huge insensitivity in both communities about who the other really is,” Lerner told me.

“The foundation of the connection was our shared history of oppression,” but “those historical roots have been severely challenged in part by the rift between these two communities around Israel. But a much larger part is the growing assimilation of American capitalist values ... into the Jewish world in the past thirty years, as Jews identify with their own economic status and well-being more than [they] identify with the traditional values that are inscribed in Torah.”

Those values, as Lerner summarizes them, center on “loving the stranger.” But somehow that has been forgotten, he asserts.

Still, Lerner points out, the holiday of Purim represents a particular context that shouldn’t be glossed over.

“Purim is Purim. It’s 'ad she'lo yada' (imbibing until one doesn’t know the difference between Haman and Mordechai). You’re supposed to get drunk and break the distinctions between good and evil on that one day. If there wasn’t this division between African-Americans and ... Jews, it would be easier to explain to them this holiday.”

Jon Stewart tried as much this week on The Daily Show, in a hilarious Purim sketch that began with a harsh comedic skewering of Hikind’s poor taste.

But the question remains: If Dov Hikind applied dark makeup for the purpose of a sports-themed Purim costume, completely oblivious to the humiliating and racist minstrel legacy of blackface, where in the bigger picture does the problem lie?

It simply might lie in what may be his personal ignorance of one New York State elected official. But it might also lie in the unfortunate inability of the African-American community to communicate their history and identity as loudly and clearly as they could; it might lie in the kind of cultural bubble we inevitably enter when we celebrate our own heritage and holidays; or it might lie in a basic inability to listen to each other as we shout out our collective experiences across the divide.

Assemblyman Hikind may have partied "ad she'loh yadah" - until he didn’t know the difference between evil Haman and good Mordechai, as the Purim tradition suggests. But the deeper, more troubling, and more pervasive problem is whether all of us should know better before the stupefying wine of cultural insularity passes our lips as we gather among ourselves, keeping the other at bay.

Follow Mira Sucharov on Twitter @sucharov