Black and Jewish: language and multiple strategies for self-presentation.

Author:Benor, Sarah Bunin

In January 2014, hip-hop star Drake hosted "Saturday Night Live" (SNL), opening with a skit about his black Jewish identity. (2) In this skit, which takes place at his bar mitzvah reception, language is central to the comedy: Drake's white Jewish mother has an exaggerated New York-sounding accent, and she uses Hebrew and Yiddish words--"tuchuses," "oy vey" "goy," and "mazel tov." His black dad uses features of African-American English, like /th/ sometimes pronounced as /d/, and he jokingly highlights his lack of knowledge of Drake's mom's Jewish language: "Torah, aliyah--man, I know dose girls, I met them on da road." When Drake enters, he greets his relatives with words associated with each group: "To my mom's side of the family I say, 'Shabbat shalom,' and to my dad's side, I say 'Wasssupppp.'" Drake proceeds to sing and rap about being black and Jewish, incorporating strains of "Hava Nagila" and hip hop, and highlighting stereotypical characteristics and linguistic features of both groups: "I play ball like LeBron [James], and I know what a W-2 is. Chillin' in Boca Raton with my mensch Lenny Kravitz [another black Jew], the only purple drink we sip is purple Manischewitz. At my show you won't simply put your hands in the air; we can also raise a chair or recite a Jewish prayer ... I eat ... knishes with my bitches ... I celebrate Hanukkah, date a Rianika ... You're Jewish and black and you're--challah!"

The juxtaposition of stereotypical linguistic, culinary, and celebratory practices associated with African Americans and Jews is funny to the audience because of the incongruence: The audience is not used to observing these practices in the same room, let alone the same individual. In addition, the presentation is intelligible as indexing black Jewishness because people outside the black and Jewish communities associate these practices with black people and Jewish people, respectively. Even if Drake does not use cultural combinations like these in his everyday life, he (along with the SNL production team) considers them appropriate for a parodic performance of his black Jewish identity.

Drake's performance represents a growing phenomenon: individuals presenting themselves to the public as black Jews through comedy, performance art, interviews, and memoirs. In all of these "performances" (the term used broadly to refer to any speech act intended for consumption by a large audience), language plays an important role in how speakers align themselves with African Americans, with Jews, or with both. In this paper, I analyze nine such performances, focusing on the nine individuals' use of linguistic features associated with Jews and with African Americans. This analysis points to the importance of language in self-presentation, as well as to the diversity of black Jews.

Black Jews

First, a bit of background on black Jews and on language associated with both groups. A common origin of black Jews is the union of a white Jew and a black non-Jew (sometimes involving the conversion of one spouse). This is the case for Drake and five of the nine individuals featured in the analysis below. The biracial children of these unions are sometimes raised with Judaism as their religion, sometimes with a Jewish cultural identity, and sometimes with no Jewish identity or practice. Another common origin occurs when white Jewish parents adopt children from Africa or from African-American birth parents and raise them as Jews, sometimes officially converting them. In addition to these individuals who grow up black and Jewish, many black people adopt Judaism later in life. Some of these converts are attracted to Judaism for spiritual or theological reasons, and others for social, cultural, or communal reasons, such as having Jewish friends or partners. Smaller numbers of black Jews immigrated to the United States from Jewish communities in Ethiopia, Uganda, Nigeria, and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. (3) Finally, some black Jews are descendants of black people who converted to Judaism or who had children with white Jews several generations ago. In some families, Judaism goes back to the days of slavery, when black slaves sometimes adopted the religion of their white owners, a very small percentage of whom were Jewish. (4)

Some discussions of black Jews also include people who adhere to Messianic Judaism (a movement in which adherents identify as Jews and accept Jesus as the Messiah), as well as communities known as Hebrew Israelites (African Americans who believe they are descendants of the ancient Israelites), which adopted Jewish religious beliefs and practices over the last several decades. (5) Although these groups are beyond the scope of this paper, their language deserves in-depth analysis, as it incorporates distinctive black and Jewish features, including Hebrew words with pronunciation distinct from that of other Hebrew users in America.

How many people in the United States identify as both black and Jewish? My analysis of data from a recent nationwide study of Jews conducted by the Pew Research Center yields a rough estimate of 90,000 adults. In addition, an estimated 270,000 adults who identify as black say that they were raised Jewish or had a Jewish parent but that they do not consider themselves Jewish now or that they have a religion other than Judaism. (6) However, because the Pew study was not designed to count black Jews, and because there are multiple ways of determining who is a Jew and who is black, other estimates could differ by tens of thousands. Even so, it is clear that black Jews represent a growing percentage of the American-Jewish population.

In the past few decades, black Jews have become more visible in the public sphere, partly because of press coverage of prominent individuals --especially Drake and actress Rashida Jones, both of whom have black, non-Jewish fathers and white Jewish mothers, and rapper Shyne, who converted to Judaism. Beyond these and other celebrities, the Jewish press and the general press have published a number of articles about black Jews, including discussions of the increasing connections between mainstream Jews and Hebrew Israelites. (7) The Internet has also facilitated connection among black Jews, as we see in a number of blogs and forums (e.g.,,,, and there are several new organizations geared toward Jews of color, including Be'chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), the Jewish Multiracial Network, Jews in ALL Hues, and Jews of Color United. The Jewish Channel has contributed to this growing infrastructure by producing a video forum on "Jews of Color," which is available on YouTube. (8)

Several black Jewish writers have published memoirs, including Julius Lester (9) (a black man who grew up Christian and converted to Judaism), Rebecca Walker (10) (the daughter of black non-Jewish writer Alice Walker and white Jewish lawyer Mel Leventhal), and MaNishtana (11) (the pseudonym of Shais Rison, who grew up as a black Orthodox Jew with two black Jewish parents). There have also been a few academic studies of black Jews, some as part of broader discussions of Jews of color. (12)

A common theme in all of these studies, memoirs, and forums is the reactions black Jews have endured from black non-Jews and white Jews, ranging from confused stares and curious questioning to insensitive comments and racist and antisemitic actions. Identity also features prominently in these works. Individuals talk about presenting themselves differently in different situations or in different stages of life, sometimes highlighting their blackness, sometimes highlighting their Jewishness, and sometimes highlighting the intersection between the two. As the analysis below indicates, language can play an important role in their self-presentation.

African-American English and Jewish English

Which varieties of English might black Jews potentially use in their self-presentations? Linguists have offered descriptions of the distinctive features of African-American (13) English (AAE) (14) and Jewish English (JE). (15) AAE includes multiple distinctive features at all levels of language, including the following, presented with a few examples:

* pronunciation

** /r/ deletion after a vowel ("sister" becomes "sista")

** reduction of diphthongs ("my" becomes "mah")

* word conjugations

** absence of the plural "s" ("fifty cents" becomes "fifty cent")

** absence of "s" in third-person, present-tense verbs ("he walk home")

* grammar

** stressed BIN ("she BIN married," meaning she has been married for many years and still is)

** absence of "to be" ("We goin' to the store")

* falsetto and other distinctive intonation

* discourse

** the repetition in black preacher style

** ritual insults.

JE involves fewer distinctive features, most of which are not stigmatized like those of AAE. The most salient feature of JE is the use of hundreds of loanwords (words from one language used within another language) borrowed from three sources: Yiddish (through ancestral connections to this immigrant language from Eastern Europe), Israeli

Hebrew (through Hebrew education and current connections between American Jews and Israel), and textual Hebrew and Aramaic (through prayer recitation and study of the Bible and rabbinic literature). In addition, many Orthodox Jews use distinctive features in other areas of language, including the following:

* pronunciations

** the vowel in "man" sounds like the vowel in "mad"

** "going" is pronounced as "goingk"

** /t/ is hyperarticulated: "not" sounds like "not-h" or "notsss"

* grammatical influences from Yiddish

** "I'm staying at their house" becomes "I'm staying by them"

** "I've been here for six years" becomes "I'm here already six years"

* fast speech rate

* rising and falling intonation.

Although we can list distinctive features of AAE and JE, it is often impossible to determine whether an individual is...

To continue reading