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A Black Jew’s Advice on Combating Racism

June 4, 2020 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

Growing up as a black Orthodox Jew in Chicago, Lev Perlow witnessed racism first-hand.

Lev Baruch Perlow is a 1st Sergeant in the Israeli army and with his slightly Ethiopian-tinged Hebrew and English, he might seem like a “typical” Ethiopian-Israeli working to defend the Jewish state. Yet Lev’s background – and his Ashkenazi sounding name – indicate that his background is anything but ordinary.

He was adopted at the age of ten in 2005 into an American Jewish family and spent much of his childhood in an affluent suburb of Chicago, attending a mix of public schools and Jewish schools, immersed in his family’s tight-knit Orthodox Jewish community. Lev, as well as his siblings who were also adopted from Ethiopia, had Orthodox conversions to Judaism. In a recent exclusive interview, Lev discussed growing up in a largely white American area, the racism he experienced, and what he wants people to know right now about racism and how to combat it.

“I remember pretty well living in an orphanage in Ethiopia as a young child," he recalls. He’d watched movies about New York and thought of America as a magical place. When it was time to actually leave Ethiopia and move to the United States to join a new family, he was apprehensive.

“Everybody saw me as another person – not something to stare at.”

"When I got to America I was speechless,” Lev says. “It was a dream come true.” Back in Ethiopia “my house was the size of a room.” Suddenly, he had a beautiful house and every comfort he could imagine. More importantly, he now had two loving parents and a warm Jewish environment to welcome him. His second Shabbat in America, Lev went to synagogue with his parents. “From the very moment I got to shul, the second week after I got adopted, I felt very welcome.” The fact that he was from Ethiopia didn’t elicit negative stares or remarks. “Everybody saw me as another person – not something to stare at.”

That warmth and acceptance gave Lev a strong feeling of security and a sense of being home, but he soon realized that in many ways to have black skin in America is to face a constant drumbeat of racism, prejudice and hostility, invisible to many people who are not Black.

The first time Lev felt slighted because of his skin color was in a shopping mall where he’d arranged to meet a friend. Lev arrived early and waited. He was dressed well, Lev remembers, like most of the other shoppers in the mall. That didn’t seem to matter to a woman who walked towards him. “She looked at me and stopped,” he recalls. Somehow a young boy in a bustling public space, simply because he was black, seemed like a threat. She took her purse off her shoulder and switched it to the other side so that it wouldn’t be close to Lev as she walked past him.

It wasn't the last time he’d be negatively judged because of the color of his skin. But Lev stresses that his experience has been very different from most African Americans. "African Americans have a whole history in America – in Ethiopia, there’s no similar history of slavery or racism. You don’t really feel it until you come to America.” Yet once he was in America, Lev was struck at how many people seemed hung up on the color of his skin.

One of his first months in American school, a social worker entered his class. Lev was the only black child in the class – one of only a small handful in the school – and she asked him to come out of the room with her to talk. Black History Month was coming up, she explained, and she wanted to know Lev’s thoughts about it. “I kind of felt offended,” he remembers thinking. “Why do you have to specifically make a month to represent Blacks? What about the other eleven months of the year?” And why was she taking him, a ten-year-old, out of class and asking him and only him to think about it?

Just think of black people as normal. We’re not more special than another person – we’re the same as you.

“The moment we start putting all these precautions around Black people,” trying to tiptoe around in order not to hurt their feelings, Lev cautions, we risk creating a gulf between people, and emphasizing differences in color instead of bringing people together. Asked what white people can do to overcome racism, Lev is emphatic: “Think of them as normal.” This is something he’s noticed many well-meaning whites fail at, as they try to bend over backwards to be extra nice or to show how unprejudiced they are. “At the end of the day we’re people. We’re not more special than another person – we’re the same as you. We have the same rights, the same everything – just a different skin color.”

Instead, he’s noticed that some people’s determination not to offend can make them even more likely to emphasize differences and to be inadvertently racist.

He remembers one time in class his teacher was reading excerpts from a book about slavery. “It was from a white point of view,” Lev recalls. “The teacher was reading the book and said the N word. I see her saying the word from the book and looking at me.” The teacher paused, possibly embarrassed, and in that moment the entire classroom of children all turned their heads too and stared at Lev. Suddenly, the racism in the book seemed horribly present in the classroom. “The moment that you put these side looks and pauses after saying the N word, you give it power… Little by little, you separate people from each other." What started off as Lev's teacher's embarrassment over saying the N word in his presence grew to feel like an acknowledgement that this vile slur somehow applied to him.

The N word continued to bedevil Lev as he got older. Some children seemed to be determined to make racist remarks about Lev. The liberal use of the N word in some rap songs gave them the perfect cover to say this odious insult with seeming impunity, under cover of merely singing some popular songs.

As a teenager, kids – including some in his Jewish school – would sing rap songs containing that offensive slur around him. Each time they’d come to the N word in the lyrics, they’d pause and look at Lev. Sometimes they would yell out the N word louder than the other words. Lev would pretend not to hear, but the pain was horrible. He wanted to fight his tormentors but his parents worked with him, convincing him not to. They advised him to be patient and to talk with people who slighted him. “They taught me patience; patience is what helped me get through it."

“The use of the N word really ticks me off,” he says. There’s such a horrible history associated with it; once Lev learned more about it he was even more pained by its use. Even now that he lives in Israel, he hears the N word in rap music, and tries to educate people not to repeat it. “Israelis used to say it around me until I explained the history – I said this is a word that’s not used as a good thing.”

Many of the people currently posting on social media in the United States, saying that they want to help eliminate racism might do well to heed this warning: the N word, even if it’s ostensibly used in an “artistic” way, is a hateful word that should never be used.

At other times, kids made jokes about Lev’s skin color and Ethiopian origins. Even when they felt they were simply being funny, their insensitive remarks often made Lev feel out of place. This type of racism was particularly pervasive in the Jewish community, Lev observed. “In school I was one of the fastest kids, one of the strongest kids, so they would use that to joke around,” Lev recalls. “‘Oh, he can run fast because he's Black or African’ – those jokes.” Another common stereotype Lev disliked was that he liked rap music – “they want that stereotype (of rappers) to be every Black person,” he observes. Making these broad assumptions strips away Black people’s individualities, implying that all Black people are somehow alike simply because of the color of their skin.

At times, the humor was more obviously barbed. There was a time in high school when Lev came to school wearing a black shirt. “Hey Lev, put on a shirt!” several students teased him. The teacher didn’t say anything.

After high school, Lev immigrated to Israel. His mother is Israeli, and he’d grown up loving Israel as the Jewish homeland. “I made aliyah because of the Jewish people and because of my parents” he explains. “My parents gave me everything I could have wanted and dreamed of in America and more. Moving to Israel is a thank you.” He also wanted to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces to defend his country.

Tragically Lev has encountered racism in Israel as well. He’s noticed that Israeli Jews from Ethiopian families sometimes embrace African American culture, recognizing a community similarly beset by racism. He advises his Ethiopian friends in Israel to embrace their own rich Jewish culture instead. “You have a different culture, you’re raised differently,” he explains – still, the common sympathy can be strong as Ethiopian Jews watch the American Black experience from afar and recognize much of the own racism and police brutality that Ethiopian Jews face in Israel too.

In both the United States and in Israel, Lev has found racism to be pervasive.

In both the United States and in Israel, Lev has found racism to be pervasive. “It’s every day, it’s every second – this type of light racism (of jokes and minor slights). It floats in the air. People try to wave it away, but as long as you have it racism will stay.” Lev has started speaking up, pointing out small instances of racism and racist assumptions when he sees them – he’s found that he has to say something every day.

Lev’s parents and siblings still live in suburban Chicago and he’s been following the news avidly, reading about protests against the murder of George Floyd and the riots and looting that have spread across the country. He understands the frustration of Black Americans who’ve been subject to violence and racism and oppression that many white people simply can’t conceive of. He mourns the violence, which he doesn’t support, and feels he understands the peaceful protests as many thousands of African Americans have stood up and said enough.

When he watched the video footage of George Floyd’s arrest and murder, Lev says it reminded him of his military training – and seemed to be a classic case of what not to do when apprehending someone.

Floyd’s death came just a few months after the February 23 shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old man who was murdered while out jogging in Brunswick, Georgia. That murder reminded Lev of terror attacks he’d witnessed against Israeli soldiers years earlier. Still living at home in Chicago, Lev remembers seeing footage on the news of an Arab terrorist ramming his car into a crowd of Israeli soldiers. After watching that horrific attack Lev told his mother that he was going to move to Israel and enlist to help protect the Jewish state.

“That kind of hatred behind the murder of Arbery is disgusting and horrific. I had the same feeling that I had when I saw a car hit Israeli soldiers: another person killing someone because of the color of their skin.”

Today, with so many Americans and others around the world asking what they can do to help stamp out racism, Lev has some advice we all need to hear. Be kind. Be sensitive. Don’t joke about other people’s differences or try to taunt them. Look at others as fully realized people, not simply as walking embodiments of the color of their skin. “It's pretty simple: treat a black person like you treat yourself, like you treat any other person.”

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