This is a guest column by Jeffrey Richman, Cultural Arts Director at the St. Paul JCC:
The Twin Cities Jewish Book Fair began in 1981 and has grown into a gem of the Minnesota literary scene. This year Ernest H. Adams, author of From Ghetto to Ghetto: An African American Journey to Judaism, opens the festival as part of a gala evening, Saturday, November, 7th at 7 pm at the St. Paul Jewish Community Center.*
With an original voice and a fresh perspective, Ernest H. Adams’ memoir offers a unique insight into our country’s African American, white and Jewish communities. With the keen insight of a trained psychologist, Adams brings to light the strengths, vigor and confines of those communities. The book is a hard-hitting, no holds barred story of determination, brotherhood and America’s struggle with race.
Adams lyrically delves into his childhood growing up in a basement apartment in Harlem, spending summers on his grandfather’s North Carolina farm during the Jim Crow era and his coming of age as a student at New York University during the Black Power era. A law school classmate, Meyer Goldstein, the son of Rabbi Baruch Goldstein, invites Adams to attend his father’s synagogue. He is moved by the universality and beauty of the sermon. The book follows a fascinating journey where Adams unlearns and decouples his own anti-white and anti-Semitic biases and eventually converts to Judaism. In our multi-racial society led by the first African-American president, From Ghetto to Ghetto adds an original and inspirational outlook to the current dialogue about race and religion.
We caught up with Ernest Adams at his Manhattan office and posed these questions:
Q: What was the main reason for writing your book?
A: I believed that I had a narrative to tell that was not common, and if written properly, could shed some light on the African American experience and on the reality of how welcoming Jews and Judaism are to minorities; and to build bridges between the Jewish and black communities.
Q: Tell us when you first got interested in Judaism?
A: I don’t think I can accurately say. My association and closeness with the Goldstein family was so extraordinarily intimate, it is not possible to distinguish with specificity. However, I do recall when I decided to explore Judaism—which is different from the first time I became interested.
One day a friend came into my office and told me his wife gave birth prematurely, and it was uncertain if his daughter Alexandra would live. I was a stone-cold atheist and I said, from a place that I thought no longer existed, “I will pray for your daughter, I will pray for Alexandra.” I finished my work day and did not think about what I said. I went to sleep and was detonated out of my sleep at 3 AM. My heart was galloping and I did not know why. Once I was fully awake, I said, “I must explore Judaism.”
Q: What was your perception of Jews when you were growing up in Harlem?
A: Jews were united as one people with no disagreements among themselves. That Jews were clannish, good with money, and stingy.
Q: How do you respond when you encounter racism in the Jewish community and anti-Semitism in the African American community?
A: Racism is a loaded term. Acts of racism are defined as intentional behaviors, by individuals or institutions to deprive me of a goal, relationship or destination I desire because I am Black. I have not experienced racism as defined. However, there are instances when race as an intervening variable engender behavior because I am Black. Sometimes I challenge the person, sometimes I let it go. It is difficult for me to have such conversations due to the intense feelings that are aroused.
Acts of Anti-Semitism are defined as intentional behaviors, by individuals or institutions to deprive me of a goal, relationship or destination I desire because I am a Jew. When I informed a friend I was converting, he said, “So, you are going to become a dirty Jew.” I challenged him immediately and he apologized.
Q: Tell us about your current Jewish practices. Have you become more observant over time?
A: My Jewish practices are complicated because I have a mixed marriage: I am Orthodox and my wife is a Reconstructionist! And yes, I have become more observant over time.
Q: What advice would you give to a white Jewish parent raising children of color in the Jewish community?
A: Love your children. Teach them and immerse them in the Jewish Tradition. Discuss the differences they experience, and emphasize the commonalities. Teach them to be proud of their biological heritage and their Jewish heritage. Support them unconditionally if they experience treatment that is hurtful.
Q: What have been your experiences when you’ve traveled to Israel?
A: When I first traveled to Israel I was questioned vigorously by security. It angered me the way I was interrogated. As a black man traveling alone, I was perceived as a potential threat. I attracted intense scrutiny going to, entering into, and leaving Israel. However, once inside Israel, I have always been made to feel welcome in Israel, by the Israeli people. When I travel to Israel with my wife, I am not interrogated so vigorously.
Q: Do you feel different among Jews in Israel than among Jews in America?
A: No. I feel like a Jew among both.
Q: What are some common misunderstandings people have about you as an African American Jew?
A: Among Jews, some have asked: Are you Jewish? Among non Jews: they do not understand why I became a Jew.
Q: Do you have a favorite Biblical character and if so, why?
A: God: Attempting to understand the complexity of God by reading and re-reading the Torah every year is stimulating, challenging, intriguing, intellectual, and pleasing to my soul.
Q: Is there anything else you would like your readers to know?
A: I look forward to meeting and greeting them in the Twin Cities!
*Tickets to the reception and talk with Ernest Adams at the Saint Paul JCC on November 7th are $10 for JCC members, and $15 for the general public. Call the St. Paul JCC at 651-698-0751 for more information.