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Appreciating the Beauty of the Jewish Mosaic

Y-LoveFilmed at Limmud Conference 2012

The Jewish Nation has been diverse since time immemorial. From earliest ancient Scripture to today, a myriad of faces, cultures and backgrounds have comprised the group of people who call themselves "Jews". There is no such thing as 'looking Jewish' - each of us is a stone in this mosaic, a mosaic which should be celebrated.

Y-Love (Yitz Jordan) is one of the decade’s most dynamic artists – the first African-American Orthodox hiphop artist and first rapper to come out as gay before an album release.  He has travelled the road from chassid to hip hop artist, activist and political pundit all in seven short years.

Eggnog, Christmas trees, Valentine’s day cards none of this is as goyish as racism. Erm, so, this idea, the phrase “you don’t look Jewish” said in the wrong context with the wrong tone of voice can be a demoralizing, dehumanizing phrase to hear a disarming phrase to hear, a phrase that can cause a person to question their whole Jewish identity said at wrong place, at wrong time. So, obviously I have gotten this a few times over the course of my life. Regardless of the fact that oh that 20% of the Jewish population of American is ethnically or racially diverse, forgetting the fact that 2.2% of Jews in America in 1990 identified themselves as African American, I still happen to always be the first Black Jew that so many people meet. So, I have heard various incarnations of ‘you don’t look Jewish’ said to me in various types of ways and it made me start to wonder where did this idea come from? Where did this lie come from that there is this group of faces that these are Jewish but other faces aren’t? So, historically how could you identify a Jew? Going back to most classical texts in the Gamara in the Talmud, the three qualities that are given that all Jews if you see these three qualities you know that this is a child of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, “people who aren’t grazen, who are merciful and who do acts of kindness”, that’s a way that you should identify a Jew. In the Book of Ruth, right after Ruth converts she tells Naomi that she had just been working for Boaz and he gave me his young men and young women to work with she says, and the commentary says that this was, she didn’t know to mention the women before mentioning the men and it sounded like she was rolling with a whole bunch of dudes on the low and it sounded kinda bad so, in Moab they didn’t have the idea of linguistic appropriateness so when she converted she had to change the way she spoke. But, what were they looking at? Speech patterns, actions, how do you identify a Jew by the way they interact with the world? Are they merciful? Do they do acts of kindness? Do they try to clean up their language? Do they try to look towards G-d and look towards humanity and look towards the world? These are the types of things, the types of qualities, classically which would identify a Jew. Now going on further in time to the time of the early Middle Ages, to the times of the commentaries, when a person is described in scripture as being, “yaffe toah”, a beautiful form or “yifat mar’eh” a beautiful countenance, a beautiful face, historically in the times of Talmud saying someone has good hands was a way of saying they do kindness with others, saying that someone had a good eye was a way of saying they saw the good and not the bad in others. In scripture in Genesis, Joseph is described as being so beautiful, a beautiful form and beautiful countenance. In the classical commentators in 12th century Rashi, the Ibn Ezra 1200s/1300s,the times of the Ramban 1300s 1400s we find when people are described like this the commentaries then refer to their actions and the wonderful things that they did and their wonderful way of interacting with God and humanity. At some point during the later Middle Ages the verse says that when a person in scripture was beautiful to look at some point later in the Middle Ages the commentators start describing themselves to the point that the Malbim who was living in Germany in the 1800s, in the Book of Daniel when it says that Daniel was the best looking of all of the youth that had been brought to work for king in Babylon, the Malbim says on the verse that he’s beautiful, “oh! that he wasn’t too red and he wasn’t too white, he was perfect” he was “lavan adom”, “he was perfectly pink”. Erm. This is what a good looking Jew looks like now? In the 1800s. What happened to all these spiritual concepts, lofty concepts of how you identify a Jew, by their actions, by their speech, by their thought process, their spiritual outlook and now all of a sudden we are looking for pink people? So this idea of there being a “Jewish look” somehow must have come around this time. So, this is all an observation, fast forwarding to modern times now we see in Israel you know Ashkenazi versus Sefardi discrimination, we see in America Jews of colour scrambling trying to get recognised everywhere. Would we have these problems if we were all perfectly pink people? Possibly not. But somehow the idea, the racism of elevating one ethnic group of elevating a group of people who stem from one part of the world as being of an intrinsically higher class, an intrinsically higher status than a group of people who have descended from a group of people who came from another part of the world that was never a Jewish concept. And we see from the times of Exodus the mixed multitude who came out of Egypt there have always been people from various cultures, from various parts of world who have attached themselves to the Jewish people, they would become converts, they would become non-Jewish spouses but there would always be a group of people who look diverse, who come from various parts of the world, who may speak different languages natively, who may have completely different outlooks on the world based on their upbringing but they all came together to the nation that is not grazen that does merciful actions and that does kindness with others. This is what looks Jewish. What is a Jewish look? There is not such a thing as a Jews look Jewish based on their physical appearance, a Jew looks Jewish based on how they act. Based on what they do. Based on what they think and if that comes down to if you’re Orthodox they’ll they say that it’s mitzvah observance and if you’re down for tikkun olam you’re gonna say that it’s how much you help the world, but whatever it is, like whatever the cornerstone of the Judaism is, expressing that is what makes a Jew not where someone comes from, not which part of the world they happen to look like the inhabitants of. In my video “This is Unity”, we decided to put together as much of a diverse Jewish group as we could. So we got people from all types of different backgrounds, we tried to get no two people from the same ethnic group on camera at the same time to show that the only continent in the world that doesn’t have a Jewish community is Antarctica. Jews are everywhere, have been everywhere and will continue to be everywhere. It’s my dream and my vision that we’ll stop eventually looking at externalities altogether and be able to see that what makes us Jewish is not the way someone looks, what makes the greatness of a Jew is not the fact that they can’t pull a comb all the way through their hair. What makes the greatness of Jew is the way of interacting, like what we said before, the Jewish self, the way of interacting with God and humanity, the way of interacting with the world, that’s what makes a Jew and that’s what we have to look for. Of seeing that and seeing that that beautiful spark of Jewishness, however you want to define it, can come in any number of shapes and sizes can come in any encasement that’s when we will appreciate the true beauty of the Jewish Mosaic. We are a diverse nation, we all come together as one, peace I’m Y –love, Y is the question, Love is always the answer.
Music video.

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