BLACK & JEWISH with Nylah Burton
Updated: Feb 1, 2020
Happy Jewish American Heritage Month!
If you didn’t know that May is Jewish American Heritage Month (JAHM), that’s okay because I didn’t either until I stumbled upon Wikipedia’s list of month-long observances. May is, more notably, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and Mental Health Awareness Month (less notably, it is International Masturbation Month -- you’re welcome!).
In my fall down the Wikipedia rabbit hole, I reflected on what I knew of Jewishness. I’ve had a few Jewish co-workers and attended a Passover Seder once in college but my knowledge of the issues plaguing the Jewish community were limited to a 6th grade book report on The Diary of Anne Frank and bits of information I’ve gleaned from overheard conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had by my more enlightened friends. As for Black Jewishness, I knew of Drake and Rashida Jones. I hadn’t previously deeply contemplated Black Jewish people’s presence in the world until a simple “Black Jewish identity” Google search lead me to the writing of Nylah Burton.
Nylah is a Black Jewish freelance writer and sexual assault survivor advocate based in Denver, CO. She graduated from Howard University in 2017 and has since shared her candid perspective as a Black Jewish woman in wider Jewish culture with the likes of Essence, New York Magazine, Hey Alma, The Nation, Bustle, Vulture, and The Forward. She sat down with me to answer questions I had about life as a Black Jewish woman.
ON EMBRACING HER IDENTITY
Amanda Bonam: In my pre-interview stalking, I tracked down as much of your work as I could and legitimately enjoyed all of the pieces I read but your piece on how Judaism helped you to to heal from sexual assault really struck me. In it, you talked about connecting with your Jewish faith through your grandmother. I know that I’m opening with a question that has been the source of a lot of frustration and pain within non-POC Jewish spaces (as was discussed in this Hey Alma roundtable with Jews of Color) so this is quite probably a major no-no...but what was the process of “becoming” Jewish?
Nylah Burton: I have gotten a lot of harassment about this so I had stopped giving interviews about it but while I was at Howard I had a class with a Jewish professor and I remember being able to answer a question [related to Judaism] that she posed to the class. When I answered correctly, she asked if I was Jewish. I said “no”. She questioned me further and I was like “well technically sort of kind of...”. In talking with her at office hours, she validated my Judaism in a way that I didn’t believe was possible because I always thought I was Jewish by a fluke.
From my dad’s family, I had always internalized the message that Blackness and Jewishness were mutually exclusive. You couldn’t be Black and Jewish. So, this professor, she just was really amazing -- I would go to her office hours and she would teach me things and we would talk and I’d write. I started taking classes about Judaism on other campuses through Howard’s consortium program. I started going to Hillel. So it just became something that was very much supported by Howard because of all of the support that I got from professors and the resources that I had where I could go to George Washington University’s Hillel (just to let you know Hillel is a Jewish student group for college kids). Howard obviously doesn’t have one so I was able to go to GW’s but the support that Howard gave me was just really amazing (and I of course have to thank GW also!).
AB: Thank you so much for sharing that with me because I know that this question about the validity of your identity is an incredibly sensitive topic and I know that there are a lot of assholes (I don’t think there’s a better way to say it) out there...
NB: Yeah, a lot of racist assholes
AB: You talked about feeling valid within Jewishness and I know that working with a professor at Howard and Hillel were a big part of feeling validated. Was there anything else that factored into the development of this requisite armor of feeling valid as a Black Jewish woman?
NB: Yeah, just Black Jewish people in the community because they are the reason why I even continue to write. I became sort of well-known in Jewish online spaces because I published an article about the misappropriation of the term white-passing. That sparked so much harassment. They posted the deed to my family’s house online. One of my best friends’ mom got a death threat somehow. It was really insane and it was super dangerous. This was a side of Jewish life that I had never seen before. I was not aware that it could get that bad so it was really terrifying and I remember wanting to quit writing. I actually got all of this support from Jews of color, especially Black Jews, who were like “we love what you’re doing and we want you to keep doing it and we’ll support you and stand by you and we’ll help you in any way that we can”. I’ve been through a lot but the support that I get from Black Jews has really never changed. It's just been really steady and it's been something that’s been the most important thing for me. I know that not everyone agrees with me but the level of support that I get from Black Jewish people is really awesome and is what keeps me going and has been such a source of strength and valid-ness for me.
FINDING A VOICE AS A MINORITY WITHIN A MINORITY
AB: Where did you find the Black Jewish community?
NB: That’s the tricky part. Like 92 percent of American Jews identify as white, so that leaves 8 percent who identify as some kind of Jew of color. Then, within that, there’s an even smaller percentage of Black Jews. Long story short, Black Jews are really scattered all over the country when you talk about American Black Jews. One of the main ways we get support from one another is through online spaces. That’s not to say that support is confined to online spaces because it’s not. But we’ll use it to meet up with each other in person, to support each other in person. It’s a good way that a lot of Black Jews get connected. Prior to me being in online Jewish spaces, I knew maybe one or two Black Jews who were my friends… actually just one [laughter]. Being in online spaces, I got to meet a lot of people and began to form those bonds and those bonds got strengthened when I’d go to visit people or talk on the phone or call them for advice on an article. Some of the deepest relationships that I have were made through that vehicle.
AB: The internet is awesome that way, in helping a lot of people to find identity. It's cool to hear how you’ve used it to find a community and to grow within it. Has the way you self-identify and view yourself within your Jewishness changed since you first came to embrace Judaism?
NB: This was a process that began when I was a little girl. It began with just kind of the awareness that my family was different. I remember the first time that something anti-semitic happened to me was that I was on the school bus when my family and I were living in Washington state and the kids were arguing about what ethnicity my dad was because my dad is white-passing. I was ignoring them but a boy started shouting out “Nylah’s dad is a Jew! He has a Jew car and a Jew nose…” and that whole year, kids would tease me and say I had a Jew nose. I remember feeling bad but not knowing why it felt bad. I wasn’t raised Jewish and I wasn’t taught these things. Like “Why does this feel so shitty?”. That’s what got me asking my dad questions and my uncle sent me some books. Jewishness was something that I had been very much moving towards my whole life but living as Jewish didn’t feel like an option when I was a kid. When I realized that actually living as Jewish was an option, it didn’t feel like I was doing something different. It kind of felt like this is just a formal acknowledgement of what I’ve always felt. I just didn’t really have the space from my mother to be able to identify as Jewish.
"I noticed that when I was critiquing Black people or people of color that I was really welcomed and my Jewishness was assumed to be valid."
When I started writing, I wrote a piece about Farrakhan and it was a piece that denounced him and I remember the feedback I got was people praising my writing. I noticed that when I was critiquing Black people or people of color that I was really welcomed and my Jewishness was assumed to be valid. As I read and got a little smarter, I started noticing some things...like that this community has a really big racism problem which is not something I noticed as much before because I was in a very insulated space. I went to a Black college and then I went to a Hillel that happened to have really great people and I was also in the middle of a really diverse city. I started noticing some problematic stuff and thought “I’m also gonna write about that”. That was when I started to get really harassed. I remember this rumor started that I was a South Asian woman with a curly perm who was pretending to be Jewish so that I could take down the state of Israel. At this point, I wasn’t even talking about Israel so this is just wild! People were like “well she hasn’t had her formal conversion” which wasn’t really an issue for anyone before but when I started writing about racism then it became an accusations of “you’re just faking Jewish identity so that you can destroy our community!”. So, I think that it went from being something that gave me joy to something that became more of a burden, honestly.
The more that I wrote, the more encouragement I felt from Black Jewish people saying what my work means to them but on the other hand, people are posting the deed to my grandmother’s home and pulling up divorce records of my family and doing all these crazy things and writing awful articles about me in The Times of Israel. So, I think that it became more about a fight than about who I was inside and who I was meant to be. I think that that did a lot of damage to who I am as a person and to my relationship with Judaism. Now, I am starting to take a lot of steps back from writing in the Jewish community because it is so exhausting for me. For me, I don’t want to associate Judaism with constant fighting. I wanna go back to some of those parts about it that were amazing to me, that I loved when I was learning as a kid in college. I think this is a move that I need to make for me to get back to a place where Judaism is a source of joy, meaning, and purpose not a source of drama.
AB: I skimmed through The Times of Israel piece that featured, among other problematic and bizarre rhetoric, a harsh attack on your identity and an accusation that you are “wearing Jewface”. I am sorry that you were subjected to that.
NB: It also wasn’t just me. It happens to so many Black Jews who speak out about racism. Obviously, it happens to me a lot because my story is pretty complicated. But it happens to so many people. It’s such a community problem. That’s why I’m taking a step back.
ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN (INTERNAL) CONFLICT
AB: I am glad to hear that you are taking what sounds to be a much-need step back from writing exclusively about Jewish issues because you’ve been through a lot and self-care is important and necessary but I saw your recent tweet about throwing your support behind the Boycotts, Disinvestments, and Sanctions movement (BDS) and I know that was potentially something that could spark people to bring up more anti-semitic hateful rhetoric towards you. Can you tell me more about that?
NB: It's actually been something that I’ve been thinking about for a very, very, very long time. It wasn’t instigated by what happened in Gaza and on the border of Israel at all. It was not spurred on by solely that is what I’m saying. After the white-passing article, I really saw how deep the problem of racism was in the Jewish community (obviously not exclusively in the Jewish community--it’s everywhere). I started to notice how it weighed on Black Jews especially. So, I started thinking more critically about these issues. If you’re thinking about race issues within Judaism, you’re going to at some point get to Israel-Palestine, which has been a topic that ironically, for most of my alert, thinking, reading, argument-forming life, I have really stayed away from.
"Then, the more reading that I did, the more that I talked, I just started to see things differently because I was being presented with facts and it was a very jarring experience that caused me physical pain honestly because I saw it as one more way that I’m going to be othered in this community, as one more way that I’m going to be separated from this community."
A part of me had internalized a lot of the rhetoric about it being a two-sided issue in which two groups of people had equal responsibility. Believing that it was just an ethnic conflict and that made it easier to pack it away. Even when I become more active in the Jewish community, I was still like “hey look, you grew up Jewish and I didn’t -- I’m gonna defer to you all about some of these issues because you probably know more than me” and so I was silent for a long time. Then, the more reading that I did, the more that I talked, I just started to see things differently because I was being presented with facts and it was a very jarring experience that caused me physical pain honestly because I saw it as one more way that I’m going to be othered in this community, as one more way that I’m going to be separated from this community. It was really difficult and I was silent on it as I was thinking through things.
"I think you’re allowed to evolve on issues but I don’t think you’re allowed to be presented with the information and then stay problematic."
Getting to know Linda Sarsour was a pretty big moment in this evolution for me because she had been demonized among my circle. But meeting with her, talking with her, interviewing her, becoming friends with her was something that showed me that (this sounds crazy) but showed me that she’s not a demon -- she’s very far from it. Listening to her talk about what her family’s gone through in Palestine, its heartbreaking. My partner has some friends, Black activists, who were deeply involved in solidarity with Palestinians and had even gone to Palestine and protested and been tear gassed and beaten by the Israeli police. I remember talking with them about how the situation in Israel and Palestine reminded them of the Jim Crow South. Then I think also again, just reading voraciously about how this conflict has been going on for almost a hundred years made my perspective shift.
It basically got to the point where it felt cruel and irresponsible and not true to who I was as a person to not give full support to Palestinians. I think you’re allowed to evolve on issues but I don’t think you’re allowed to be presented with the information and then stay problematic. So, I had been presented with the information and I had to make a change about what I was going to say and what I was going to speak up against, and what I was going to support. I moved towards making that change. Another big thing that I did was go on Twitter and notice that I had no Palestinian people on my timeline and so I started following all these Palestinian people and realized there was a completely different perspective that I had just never seen for my entire life and that was jarring. So, you have to seek out the information, you have to seek out the people and make relationships with them and not see them as some sort of shadowy, foreign, racist figures or as fitting into some racist tropes about what Arabs and Palestinians but as like your friends who will talk to you and send you recipes and memes.
Everyone’s activism is going to look different but I think that you have to do something because the only way that change is made. It's how change was made in South Africa and here in the United States, that’s how change was made in India. When you think about these places where non-violent protest (which is what I believe in) was used, it’s been effective. I think that the more people, especially in America where we contribute a lot to the suffering of Palestinians, that speak out and the more people who say that this is wrong and don’t remain silent, the more we can be effective allies to Palestinians to make sure that both Palestinians and Israelis stay safe. When you have this situation where there are oppressed people it gets dangerous. It is dangerous. So while many more people die on the Palestinian side, Israelis also die. So, if you care about either group as a people, you do have to see that the only way forward is a free Palestine.
AB: For an uninformed Catholic American Black girl who watched a quick Vox video on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before sitting down with you so I didn’t sound like a complete dunce (I’m talking about myself here), where’s a good place to start with becoming more immersed in knowledge of the conflict? Of what’s going on in Palestine? What are your recommendations?
NB: I’m actually reading this book right now which is amazing. It's called Justice for Some: Law and the Question of Palestine by Noura Erakat. This is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s amazing...it's really good! In terms of just getting a basic overview of the conflict, I read a book which was really like a college text called Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer. That gave a good introduction to looking at what the problems are and how we can begin to solve them. It presents the facts without much bias. I would also recommend going on Twitter and following Palestinians, looking for those key voices on Twitter. Also, there are some amazing Jewish activists who speak about this as well so looking for them on Twitter also. There are also Black activists. Between the three of them, I think you’ll get a really rich picture of what the issue is and how you as an American can be involved.
AB: Thank you so much for talking with me!