What does it mean to be a Baal Teshuva? Baal Teshuva (BT) is the term commonly used to refer to a Jew that grew up in a non observant home and at some point became observant. (Often referred to as becoming Frum or religious.) How or why that happens is beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say that there are probably as many reasons as there are Baalei Teshuva.
I have always admired the BT. Unlike me, they became observant by seeking Emes. I was raised Frum and never had to think about it. In this very important respect, they are head and shoulders above me in their Avodas HaShem – service to God.
In many cases their motivation and sincerity surpasses those of us that are ‘Frum from birth’ (FFB). Many of us observe the Mitzvos out of habit - as much we do out of devotion to God. Not so the Baal Teshuva. They left a life free of any obligation to embrace a life filled with restrictions. This is not an easy task for someone raised in a society that promotes the idea of individual freedom.
But what if an individual becomes a BT is of a different race? Ben Faulding is one such individual. Ben is a black man who was born a Jew and became a Baal Teshuva. What he discovered was prejudice on both sides of the racial divide. Which he described in a post he wrote back in 2014 - covered at the time by the OU (posted recently on Orthodox Jews Against Discrimination and Racism).
“There is racism in every community and the Jewish community is no different,” said Faulding. “I hate to say that the Jewish community is racist but it is something that happens.” He gets comments from the black community, too, he added. “Strangers yell at me.”
I can’t speak to the black prejudice on this issue. But I can, unfortunately, speak to the Jewish prejudice. Or better put - the ‘white’ Jewish prejudice. It is clearly there against black people in far too many of us. A prejudice that is not sourced in Judaism - yet in many of its people. Even among those of us that think we live our ideals. Which - because of this prejudice - is only partially true at best.
I have little doubt about this. I hear it all the time from some of my coreligionists in private conversation. They will refer to a black person using the word ‘Shvartze’. That word is a pejorative – no matter how many people deny it. It is never used in a complementary way.
I know the routine response. Whenever I mention this ‘plain as day’ fact, there will always be those who claim that the word ‘Shvartz’ is simply Yiddish for the word ‘black’; the word ‘Shvartze’ means a black person; and there is no inherent prejudice in using that word to refer to a black person. (Right!...and I have a bridge to sell you.)
When that word is used it is usually used in a derisive tone. One that indicates the belief that a black person is somehow an inferior human being. To those who keep insisting that this is not so, you are either lying to the world or to yourselves. Unless you are a native Yiddish speaker, why use that word when the English word ‘black’ can be used – which does not have any negative connotation?
What does a black man hear when the term Shvartze is used? Here is what Ben Faulding hears:
Shvartze isn’t Yiddish for Black. Shvartze is Yiddish for Nigger
Now it’s true that the word Shvartz technically means black. But word meanings evolve and sometimes take on a prejudicial tone depending on how society uses them. That is how the word Shvartze has evolved and is now used. The best example of that is the word ‘gay’. When someone was described as gay it meant they were happy or joyous. Now when someone is described as gay it means they are homosexual.
Those of who continue to deny that the word Shvartze is in any way meant as a pejorative, read what Ben Foundling has to say about it. And then stop using that word! Because the fact is that it is hurtful to a black person. Imagine if a black Jew decided to write the word Shvartze on his forehead. How would you react to it? This is what Ben did:
I was sitting with photographer Steve Rosenfield, creator of the What I be Project. Steve offers people the opportunity to express their insecurities, by writing them on their faces. After a discussion about myself, Steve and I decided we would write Shvartze.
It saddens me that a member of the Jewish community that I look up to for finding the truth of Judaism on his own rather than being raised that way – has to be treated with that kind of prejudice from the very community he embraces.
I don’t know whether that experience from about 4 years ago has made things any better for him. But it ought to make things better for us if we learn a lesson from it. What better time to learn that lesson than right now during this time of repentance.