I was standing on the street in the on an unseasonably warm, Saturday night. My nerves had taken over and I had a small case of the shakes. Before I had even walked in the door somebody recognized me. “Hey, I know you.” She then pointed at an 8×10 color photo of my face, sans-spectacles with the word “schvartze” written on my forhead, hanging in the room behind her.
Over the previous month, I’d grown accustomed to the glint of recognition in the eyes of strangers. On street corners and in friends’ homes, my face had become known. It was the type of brief, superficial fame that Andy Warhol spoke about. The kind of fame you may dream of as a child, but in reality is strange and uncomfortable. The same picture, hanging in a modified store-front studio on Rogers avenue in Crown Heights, has made its way across the Jewish Blogosphere. I’ve seen my own brown eyes staring back at me through my computer screen. With so many stories written, so many assumptions made. But finally, we were at the main event. The premier of the “What I Be” project; and after a month of being the most high-profile participant, I was eager to meet and read about the eighty-eight other brave souls who shared insecurites far greater than mine. What I found was a broad pallette of personalities with depth, imperfection and character. I felt humbled and flattered at the same time, finally getting a chance to share time with the people whose faces have been displayed alongside mine for so long now.
Many of us have been in the white-hot spotlight for far longer than expected, been subject to praise and criticism from friends and strangers alike. The irony being that these profiles of insecurities have put us all front and center. In hindsight, it’s obvious how this would end. We are now unofficial spokespersons for our race, sexual orientation, disability, or whatever shackles of doubt and limitation we wished to cast off and separate from the identities we want to have.
Jews of color, to be more specific Jews of African-American decent are a small fraternity. I never wanted to be the black jew. That wasn’t me. I’m a photographer, writer, cyclist, direct-care worker, pizza-and-beer enthusiast, runner, joker, but never just the black jewish guy. I’ve always been asked if my father was Ethiopian. He wasn’t; don’t be stupid. Did he convert? No he didn’t; why does it matter?
I don’t remember when the breaking point was, but I grew tired of being expected to represent the an entire race every time some asshole wanted to go on a rant about Trayvon Martin, Al Sharpton or Richard Sherman. I cringed at every misconception, flawed argument and outright lie; and would silently rage every time a young black male made his way into the news for all the wrong reasons and became a referendum on an entire race; and inevitably all eyes would turn towards me to have to either explain or answer for his actions. I was the nigger liason.
In truth, I cannot speak for the rest of the subjects, but I can speak for myself. I just wanted to be free of expectation. I wanted to say, “this is not who I am. It’s a part of who I am, but not all.”
When I first participated, I was afraid that I would be come separate from everybody else, but then something strange happened. If anything, I was even more connected to everything and everybody. Well, almost.
One of the faults of the greater Jewish community is that it has this habit of creating this facade of the ideal ‘normal,’ which has no relation to the realities that many or even most of us live with everyday.
Any variation on that, can feel wrong rather than exotic, leaving a lot of us out in the cold or wondering where we went wrong. The project changed that. It dispelled the facade; broke it in half.
One of the more bizarre critiques of the project claimed that this was a leftist attempt to take down the frum community. It couldn’t be further from the truth. While I have my critiques of the frum world, I still want to be a part of it, but on my own terms. I see no reason that I can demand that I be treated and spoken to the way that I want to. So should everybody else.
Thank you for reading.