Not All Jews Are White
Many believe that all Jews are "white," but that is not true. Studies conducted by Be'chol Lashon (a Jewish organization that started advocating for Jews of Color in 1988 and onward) revealed a Jewish population that was 20% racially and ethnically diverse.
That diversity identified African American, African, Latino (Hispanic), Asian, Native American, Sephardic, Mizrahi, and mixed-race Jews by heritage, adoption, and marriage.
History records that the Israelites (comprising Jews) began mixed. "An ethnically diverse crowd also went up with them..." (Exodus 12:38 The Holman Christian Standard Bible, HCSB). In time, many races combined their Jewish religion and customs with their unique heritage.
Jews of Color and Hanukkah
The 19th century witnessed the immigration of Ashkenazi Jews to the United States. Ashkenazi Jews (the Jews of France, Germany, Eastern Europe and their descendants) brought traditions such as Hanukkah to America. Many Jews of color had strong ties to Ashkenazi Judaism.
In the 1970s, at least 200,000 black American Jews in the United States began traditional family celebrations of the Jewish Festival of Lights called Hanukkah. By the 21st century, Jews of color and non-Ashkenazi Jews brought attention to new Hanukkah traditions that celebrated the diversity of Judaism in the United States.
Is Hanukkah the Same as Kwanzaa?
In the 1970s, many blacks in North America began celebrating Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. It was not unusual to see many joint Hanukkah and Kwanzaa celebrations.
The Menorah and the Kinara
Like the Hanukkah menorah, Kwanzaa has a candelabra called the Kinara (Kee-Nah-rah). The Kinara symbolizes the ancestral roots of the African continent. The candle colors of the Kinara are one black, three red, and three green.
Each of the Kinara's seven candles (Mishumaa Saba) represents one of Kwanzaa's Seven Principles (Niguzo Saba). Like the shamash ("attendant") is used to light the other eight candles in Hanukkah, the black candle ignites the other six candles of the Kinara.
What Famous Blacks Have Kept Hanukkah?
The United States has many Black Jewish luminaries who have celebrated Hanukkah.
Samuel George Davis Jr., better known as "Sammy Davis, Jr." (December 8, 1925–May 16, 1990), was an African American singer, dancer, actor, vaudevillian, and comedian. He lost his left eye in a 1954 car accident. Mr. Davis converted to Judaism many years after his accident.
Singer/actress Nell Carter (September 13, 1948–January 23, 2003) converted to Judaism in 1982 after marrying mathematician and lumber executive George Krynicki.
Black Actors With Jewish Ties
The list of Jewish African American entertainers with ties to Jewish traditions is long and includes the following:
- Boris Kodjoe (Model and TV actor)
- Jussie Smollett (actor and musician)
- Khleo Thomas (film actor)
- Kidada Jones (film actress and model, daughter of record executive Quincy Jones and actress/model Peggy Lipton)
- Rashida Jones (film actress and model, daughter of record executive Quincy Jones and actress/model Peggy Lipton)
- Lauren London (model and actress)
- Lisa Bonet (TV and movie star)
- Maya Rudolph (comic actress, musician, and daughter of singer Minnie Riperton)
- Tiffany Haddish (actress, writer, and producer)
- Tracee Ellis Ross (actress/model, daughter of singer Diana Ross)
- Yaphet Kotto (actor and writer)
Black Jewish Musicians and Hanukkah
The list of Jewish African American musicians with ties to Hanukkah is extensive and includes the following:
- Andre Williams (rock and roll singer)
- Aubrey "Drake" Graham" (Canadian and United States citizen, rapper, and actor)
- Ben Harper (Grammy-winning rock, folk, and blues artist)
- Nissim Black "D. Black" (rapper)
- "Goapele" Mohlabane (singer and songwriter)
- Jack Leroy Wilson Jr., better known as "Jackie Wilson" (June 9, 1934–January 21, 1984, pioneering hit songwriter and soul singer)
- Joshua Redman (jazz saxophonist)
- Justin Warfield (singer and songwriter)
- Lenny Kravitz (grammy-winning rock star)
- Saul Hudson "Slash" (guitarist for the rock band Guns N' Roses, British-American)
- William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholf Smith, aka Willie "The Lion" Smith (November 23, 1893–April 18, 1973, legendary American jazz and stride pianist)
- Yitz Jordan "Y-Love" (rapper and hip-hop artist)
Hanukkah and Kwanzaa for All
Jews in North America and elsewhere embraced Hanukkah. The holiday was more relaxed than other Israelite festivals and often fell around the same time as Christmas.
In the 1970s, many countries started public menorah lighting. In 1979, The National Menorah was lit on the White House grounds. Jimmy Carter, the 39th U.S. president, attended that first ceremony. Ronald Reagan, the 40th U.S. president, designated it the National Menorah.
Like Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa grew to become a time of peace, love, and celebration for all.
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Robert Odell Jr