One of my favorite Soviet jokes goes like this: An old Jew is taking a walk in a Moscow park when he sees a young black guy sitting on a bench reading a Yiddish newspaper. “What, it is not enough for you that you are black?” asks the Jew, sighing.
In the land of the free, however, multiple minority identities are celebrated, if not always understood, as today’s Christian Science Monitor article on African-Americans’ embrace of Judaism points out:
Numbers are hard to pin down. Besides well-known conversions such as that of the late entertainer Sammy Davis Jr., black Jews remain an unfamiliar part of the American religious landscape. Yet Lewis Gordon, director of the Center for Afro-Jewish Studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, estimates there are as many as 1 million blacks with Jewish blood in the US.
Another recent study by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco estimates that there are as many as 150,000 practicing black Jews in the US today, with synagogues across the country reporting increasing numbers of blacks either exploring or converting to Judaism…
The reasons are complex, experts say. Americans in general are looking outside their own denominations for answers, with 40 percent of Americans switching from the faith of their upbringing, according to a recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life…
“It’s about liberation from slavery,” says University of Maine political scientist Amy Fried. “During Passover seders, you’re asked to think of it as if you, yourself, were being liberated.”
The article’s subhead-“Conversions to Judaism among African-Americans are growing in a way that could affect the presidential election”- is a bit misleading. As the body of the article makes clear, the impact is unknown. Senator Barack Obama’s efforts to emphasize the civil rights era alliance between blacks and Jews as well as his battle to make those Muslim rumors go away are cited. (Side note: Click here to hear Jon Stewart give the best analysis of the hoopla over the now infamous New Yorker cover). It is hard to imagine the African-American conversion rates to Judaism reaching such heights as to make a dent in whatever electoral damage these rumors are contributing to.
Of course, as every election year of late, there is talk of Republicans making great inroads with Jewish voters who traditionally (and overwhelmingly) vote Democrat. And every year, the wildly optimistic numbers put forth by Republican strategists turn out to be, well, wildly optimistic in spite of a highly devoted courtship of Jewish voters by the GOP. In 2004, for example, George W. Bush won 24 percent of the Jewish vote-a five percent increase over the previous election-but hardly a repeat of Ronald Reagan’s 39 percent showing in 1980.
Some Jews, like some white (and other) people in this country as a whole, won’t vote for Senator Obama in part or in whole because he is black. An estimate of that number is very difficult to gauge since people habitually lie when it comes talking about their racial attitudes. Whether there will be enough Jewish Democrat voters who stay home on Election Day and/or vote for Senator John McCain to swing the vote in a deciding state like Florida is the question.