Lacey Schwartz began to ask herself questions about her identity only at age 18. How did it happen that her American-Jewish, white parents gave birth to a dark-skinned girl? She discovered that the father who had raised her since birth was not her biological father; her biological father had been her mother's lover and a family friend.
That was only the beginning of her journey of self-discovery. When she applied to college and had to answer questions on forms about her ethnicity, she simply attached a photograph. That is how Schwartz' documentary, "Outside the Box," began. She hopes to finish the film within a year. It examines the identity of black Jews and the fact that not all Jews are white.
The fact that millions of people have no clear racial identity is a very American dilemma. Census figures reveal that the fastest-growing ethnic group in America are those defining themselves as multiracial, and they a prominent representative, the Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama who, like Schwartz, is the offspring of a black father and a white mother.
There are many types of black Jews. Some were born of a mixed-race couple, others are immigrants from Ethiopia or black converts to Judaism, plus their children and grandchildren. There are also groups of blacks like the Hebrew Israelite community of Dimona, who see themselves as the descendents of the tribes of Israel.
Schwartz' film tries to show what it means to be both Jewish and something else so people like her can understand themselves and also defeat stereotypes and be accepted.
Schwartz says that Obama's success is a great inspiration. Just as he has told stories about his white grandmother and things she said, Schwartz sees parallels in her own life and her grandparents who weren't racist, she says, but sometimes said things based on prejudice.
The trailer Schwartz has produced states there are nearly 400,000 black Jews. In fact, there is no reliable estimate. Based on various studies, Professor Chaim Waxman, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, says they probably number 100,000 to 250,000. Schwartz concedes she took the highest number she found to be provocative and to draw attention to the issue."
Waxman says "usually these are people with a Jewish mother and a black, non-Jewish father, but there are also those whose parents are both Jewish; there have been black Jews for 100 years; even synagogues with mostly black members. There is so much mixed marriage in America, it's natural that it would be this way with Jews as well. Little by little the black Jews are gaining recognition; those who have undergone Orthodox conversion or were born to those who are Jewish according to halakha [Jewish law], are more accepted in the Orthodox community.
The Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken Hebrew Congregation in Chicago is such a community. Led by Rabbi Capers Funnye, a Christian who converted to Judaism, the congregation prays according to Orthodox practice but in Gospel style.
Schwartz will be in Israel next week for a conference of 120 young Jews sponsored by the Vancouver-based Center for Leadership Initiatives, which is funded by the Schusterman Family Foundation. The goal, says executive director Rabbi Yonatan Gordis, is to encourage young people not to clone existing systems, but to do their own things. We help them by supporting their projects. According to Gordis, Schwartz "represents something special to her generation, the dilemma of being both inside and outside the Jewish world. It is her challenge to the Jewish community to decide who it includes in it."