One City, Many Voices: Stories of Jews Living In Detroit
Jews Of Different Hues
People have forgotten that there was a lot of mixing of blood in our American history. I can’t explain how my great-grandparents first met in 1908, but my great-grandmother, Rossi Diamond, the first child from her Russian Jewish family born in the United States, married my great-grandfather Bennie Pullen, of African descent. The children from that union were both mulatto and of dark complexion, and during the time of their marriage my great- grandmother may have said she was a person of color to avoid problems.
My mother, the granddaughter of Rossi Diamond, was raised as a Catholic. Yet it was her mother who first informed me of my Jewish roots. Every year, she would send me a birthday card with the word “Shalom” written inside. It took me until I was an adult to grasp what my grandmother had been suggesting to me throughout my childhood.
Being a Jew of color, it is often difficult for people to understand my identity.
Most people these days think of Jews as lighter-skinned. They forget that Jews have mixed with other cultures and races, and they forget that not all Jews are of Eastern European descent.
When a light-skinned person identifies as a Jew, they are assumed to belong, while my skin color becomes the point of focus when I enter a synagogue or other Jewish space. Congregants often stand back and avoid approaching me, mostly because of their fear of not knowing how to ask all the questions running through their minds. History, however, gently reminds us that Jews come in many different shades.
My desire to connect to my Jewish heritage began when I was in my early 20s. I had long felt uncomfortable in church settings and had searched many religions looking for something without knowing what that something was. I couldn’t understand why I didn’t fit into my environment.
Eventually, I moved to California where my son, Michael, and I began to read the Old Testament. It was reading the Old Testament that opened my eyes. Michael and I began to pray to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
In 2009, my son, my grandchildren and I returned to Detroit for the summer. I searched high and low for a place to worship and was ultimately connected to Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills through a rabbi I’d met on the West Coast. One Saturday morning, my grandchildren and I caught two buses and walked one mile to attend Adat Shalom’s Shabbat service, only to get there as the service was ending. I was soon approached by Jerry Cook, who welcomed me to Adat Shalom and asked where I was coming from. I told him about our morning journey, and he was moved by our determination to get to services. He offered us a ride back to Detroit and included a tour of the city’s old synagogues. He also informed me that there was a synagogue Downtown, much closer to my home, but reminded me that I was also more than welcome at Adat Shalom.
As luck would have it, though I still felt pulled back to Adat Shalom, my family overslept the next Saturday and we decided to attend services at the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue (IADS). There were only a few people there, not even enough to make a minyan. As I was leaving the synagogue, I informed the vice- president, DaVid Powell, that we would be going back to Adat Shalom. His reply, with a knowing smile, was, “Sure, but here we have the best Kiddush lunch.”
Needless to say, in spite of my efforts, the Downtown Synagogue won my heart and the hearts of my children in the end. Though I still wanted to attend Adat Shalom for my children to learn Hebrew, they whined about wanting to return to IADS. They loved the warmth of the community and the delicious Kiddush. I ultimately met Rabbi Dorit Edut, who was offering Jewish classes out of the synagogue, and she eagerly agreed to instruct my children in Hebrew and help me finish my conversion.
Never before had I felt grounded in a communal identity. Coming to Judaism, I have felt like I am finally home; I have a sense of who I am and of my ability to help other people, a strength I did not have before. I look at my neighborhood and want to help move it toward my vision of tikkun olam (repair the world). I want to bring the Jewish and African American communities together, and I want to share my experience of finding my Jewish self with others.
Most of all, I want people to know, feel and believe that it is OK to be different — that marching to the beat of your own drum is a very beautiful thing.
By Karen Knox, Special to the Jewish News
Karen Knox was raised in Detroit but spent a great deal of time in Royal Oak. She has a bachelor’s degree in performing arts from Marygrove College and lived in L.A. in pursuit of her acting career for 12 years until illness brought her back to Detroit. She started a neighborhood block club in 2009 and is deeply committed to tikkun olam.