African-American, Christian, Witch, Jew
In the shadows of slavery, one girl’s persistent questioning leads her on a relentless search for truth.
I was born just 81 years after the ratification of the amendment to the US Constitution that abolished the slavery of Africans. I was given a good Southern name – Billye Joyce – although it was a harsh time to be African-American in the United States, especially in the South. We were still called colored or Negroes, and oftentimes the other n-word was used. I was born in Big Momma's (my grandmother's) house because colored doctors were not allowed to use the hospitals in Texas.
I was eight when the Supreme Court decided to end segregation in schools. It wasn't easy and it wasn't quick and it is a battle that is still going on today in some places. My mother did me a great favor by moving us to Southern California when I was three years old so that I would be able to attend better schools.
Slavery wasn't something we talked about in my family. There was too much shame.
Slavery wasn't something we talked about in my family when I was young. My great-grandmother may not have been born in slavery, but her mother most likely was. The reason I don't know for certain is because, although our ancestors were victims, we, the children of the victims, were ashamed, as if it was their fault they were slaves... as if it was our fault. I was taught, in those good schools I went to, that American slaves meekly accepted their situation, that they never fought back or rebelled. I didn’t learn that was untrue until I was in college. Perhaps if my family and I had known those things we might have been less ashamed.
Don't Ask Questions
People often ask me what my religion was before I went to the mikvah. No one displays much interest in the fact that I grew up as a “plain vanilla” Protestant Christian. But their interest perks up when I say I was once Wiccan.
With hindsight, I realize that my journey to Judaism began when I was thrown out of Christian Sunday School when I was six years old for asking a question the teacher couldn’t answer. That question was: “What do you do if you don’t have faith?” What she was really trying to teach me was not to ask questions. (By the way, she failed.)
I was a confused little girl, wondering why I was walking home early for asking a sincere question. And I continued to be confused, with my mind filling up with more and more questions.
But six year olds (at least in my family) couldn't stop going to church, even six year olds with a whole host of unanswered questions. But sixteen year olds can. And ten years later, my last straw was a particularly unpleasant encounter with a minister who was counseling me. I’ll skip the details. My mother was not the sort of woman that one disobeyed, but even she was unable to get me to set foot in a church after that. In fairness, I have to say that what happened really was the very last thing. My sixteen-year-old self had done a lot more thinking and come up with a lot more apparently unanswerable questions. That's what really caused me to stop being Christian. The encounter with the minister was just the thing that pushed me out the door.
When I went to college I ran into all the philosophical “stuff” that one runs into as a freshman. I spent many nights with my friends discussing, with great seriousness, the nature and existence of God, with the confidence that we were going to figure out religious and philosophical issues to which the greatest thinkers in history hadn’t found definitive answers. We didn't, of course, but I did come up with a life philosophy that worked for me for quite a while, based on my certainty that there was a Divine power in the Universe, the gentle meditation of the eternal dance of the ocean waves off the California coast, and the idea that if you did the most good and the least harm you could manage, it would probably lead to a pretty decent, reasonably moral life.
Meeting a Coven of Witches
After college, I moved to Denver, Colorado, where I chanced upon an interesting group of people who practiced Wicca. Although Wiccans (both male and female) call themselves witches, they are not Satanists. They do not worship the Christian devil or any form of evil being. And groups who call themselves Wiccan have many different variations of beliefs and practices.
The folks in my coven were extremely intelligent, studious and their beliefs intersected with many of mine.
The one I was a part of believed in God (though differently named), and in putting positive energy into the world around them in all their thoughts and actions. They were very concerned about the environment. After all, Mother Earth is our home. It is important to respect and care for her. As a group, the folks in my coven were extremely intelligent, studious and their beliefs intersected with many of mine.
My step-father, baby sister, mother and me
As I've learned more about Judaism, I realize how much of what I was attracted to in Wicca came from Jewish sources. Ultimately, Wicca was not my path and when I left Denver I never looked for another coven to join.
Stumbling Upon Judaism
During the years when I wasn’t a part of any organized group, I was still very much aware of God wherever I might be living or traveling. I read a lot of books about religion and philosophy. I more or less continually thought about, fiddled with, poked at what I thought of as “my philosophy about life, death, and everything.” I celebrated God.
My mother had told me, rather sternly, when I stopped going to church: “When you’re old, you’ll come back.” It turned out she was right – sort of. Eventually I began to miss ritual and a community to share it with. Now the only question was, what religion was I going to join to find these things?
I knew absolutely nothing about Judaism and had never met a Jew.
It turns out I know a little about Buddhism, Hinduism, Wicca, various streams of Christianity, random mystics and assorted philosophers. So I’m not quite sure how I managed to know absolutely nothing about Judaism. I never read about it, had never been in a synagogue or met any Jews.
But for some reason I didn’t understand, I did have a little spark of interest. So I bought some books and had an immediately positive response. Judaism said that religion is how you live every day, not just what you profess to believe on the Sabbath. It is a religion that believes that every human being can be moral and attain a place in the Next World, Jews and non-Jews alike. And best of all, Judaism encouraged questions and discussion, and valued logic and reason. I immediately decided I had to find out more about this.
Feeling God's Presence
I’ve felt the presence of the Divine in a lot of places. Dancing with the ocean on the beach in California. Walking through Stonehenge in the UK. Sitting in a small church filled with corn fetishes in some random little town in the Midwest. Watching the Rocky Mountains when they looked like they were illustrated by Pixar Studios. Driving alone through the desert. Even, from time to time, in a church service, or a Wiccan circle.
And I realized very quickly that even though I was very excited about Judaism intellectually, if I couldn’t feel God in a synagogue, then this wasn’t going to be the right religious path for me.
Imagine my fear walking into an Orthodox shul for my first experience of Shabbat services.
I have always been introverted and uncomfortable in crowds or with strangers. So imagine my fear walking into an Orthodox shul for my first experience of Shabbat services. Added to the fear I came in with, I didn’t understand anything that was going on around me. I knew no Hebrew and I was scared stiff that I would do something to offend someone. But it turned out that despite the surface terrors, I did feel God's presence there. On the drive home I was smiling. I hadn’t realized until that moment how afraid I had been that I wouldn’t.
Eventually I found several Rabbis to learn with, read a lot more books, and after several years of asking questions and soul searching, that curious little girl, now a much older woman, got a Hebrew name of her very own. When I emerged from the mikvah as a Jew named Tziporah Miriam bat Sarah, I burst into tears of joy.
But as happy as I was, the part of me that was still a curious little girl couldn’t seem to be satisfied. I learned as much as I could. But the more I read and studied, the more it became obvious to me, how high, wide and deep was what I didn’t know.
Part of the Jewish community today
I believe in Divine coincidence, that perfect “little thing” that lets you stumble into something that is exactly what you need. Like the seemingly random series of events that led me to Aish HaTorah in Rockville, Maryland.
At first a friend asked me to go to a class with her there. I continued taking classes, and I was more and more drawn to the depth of the learning that I experienced. It was much later that I came to realize how much I was learning simply by interacting with the community and watching so many individuals live their Judaism with commitment and joy. This inspired me to work on increasing my own level of observance. I have a long way to go, but it is a path I am glad to be on, surrounded and supported by this community.
As an African-American, a daughter of American slavery, and as a Jew, a daughter of the Exodus, I am deeply troubled by slavery today. And I feel I must take this opportunity to share some facts about this continuing evil.
“Today?” you may say. But isn’t slavery something that happened in another time, another place, another culture?
There are as many as 27 million modern day slaves worldwide.
Not according to the U.S. State Department. In fact, there are as many as 27 million modern day slaves worldwide. In addition, the WARChild International Network reports that 250,000 children are actively deployed each year, fighting in almost 75% of armed conflicts worldwide.
27 million slaves worldwide. 250,000 child soldiers each year.
These numbers stun me. Really? In this time, in this modern culture, in this civilized place?
I wish I knew what to do to make slavery something that only happened a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far way. But it isn't. It just isn't.
God may have infinite patience. But I don't. We need to work together to abolish slavery and rid the world of this vile activity.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, formerly Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, said: “The God of history, who taught us to study history, had faith that eventually we would learn the lesson of history: that freedom is indivisible. We must grant freedom to others if we truly seek it for ourselves... Jews [are] the people commanded never to forget the bitter taste of slavery, so that [we] never take freedom for granted.”
Or as the song by the great blues singer Solomon Burke puts it: “None of us are free, as long as one of us is chained, no one of us is free.”
This is on us. Slavery still exists. And we are the people charged to remember it, and learn from it, and hopefully, end it... soon, in our own time.
Over the past few years, the number of countries, which includes the US, that have taken steps to implement the UN Protocol against Trafficking in Persons has doubled. This is a good thing at that level. But what can we, as individuals, do?
We can educate ourselves about what is going on. An internet search using the words “human trafficking” or “child soldiers” will bring up page after page of unbelievable statistics as well as information about the red flags that may indicate human trafficking, and things we can do to help stop it. As a first step, go to CNN’s The Freedom Project. Then… do… something. Your choice of the action, but do it now.
Anne Frank said: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
Let's not wait a single moment longer to begin working to truly abolish slavery.