I want to write Schvartze on your face and then take a picture.
I was stunned and not stunned. This is what I was here for. It had to come down to this. I was sitting with photographer Steve Rosenfield, creator of the What I be Project. Steve offers people the opportunity to express their insecurities, by writing them on their faces. After a discussion about myself, Steve and I decided we would write Shvartze (yiddish/german for black) on my face.
Shvartze isn’t Yiddish for Black. Shvartze is Yiddish for Nigger
Being a Jew with a black father, living in Crown Heights is a strange experience. There is always a strong undercurrent of racism. Jews and Blacks (the shvartzes to use the unfortunate local parlance) have always had tension between them.
Since moving to Crown Heights, I’ve heard the word flow like blessings. It drips out of the mouths of young and old alike. It can be stunning sometimes. You’ll be moving along just fine and then the “S-bomb” will come along and just ruin your day, or at the very least your hour and minute. It’s never nice when it’s said. No one ever says “I had a man do my taxes. He’s shvartze.” Nor do they say “my son is playing with the boys next door, they’re shvartze.” It’s always “a shvartze stole my bike;” or “if the shvartzes welfare why shouldn’t we.” So, this common excuse that shvartze merely means black doesn’t play well with me.
It’s hard to feel like as strong person when it seems like one word can bring your whole world crashing around you. The hardest part is I’ve lost the ability to feel anger about it. The prejudice is so systemic that I can’t fault anybody. It’s a part of who they are. And at the end of the day, I can only feel anger at myself. It’s a hell of an Achilles heel, this simple two-syllable word.
And I would be lying if I said the prejudice only came from the Jewish side. As a matter of fact, I’ve experienced public anti-Semitism from total strangers like I never even thought existed anymore. Just as I was working up the nerve to write this post, I went to the store. There was a middle-aged man there complaining about the price of a bottle of whatever. As he left the store, he looked back and said to the clerk (who was Asian) “we aren’t ALL Jewish.”
There have been a few more incidents like this over my tenure in Brooklyn, but I won’t bore you with them. I have no interest in being an ambassador or a bridge between the two peoples. I am not my race. I am who I want to be. I am a chossid. I ride my bike. I take pictures. I am also black and Jewish; and I’m proud of both of those things, but I am not defined by these external qualities.
So, when Steve Rosenfield asked me to do this. It took a few minutes for me to reconcile myself with it, but I did it and now you know why.