New York, New York!

Hey gang, I’m MaNishtana. Time to kick this whole “2013” deal off with a bang!

So dunno if anyone missed it, but yours truly, and a few others were featured in a New York Magazine piece entitled “The Black Orthodox”. Pretty sweet, huh?

Well, yes and no.

Personally, I felt a little underwhelmed by the article. The pictures, yes, were amazing and carried a certain gravitas. However, the text? Not so much. After all, this was a piece which was originally meant to be a photoessay, with the text supplementing the pictures. The final result ended up feeling like a half-finished, one-dimensional article, with quotes cobbled together from different sentences in some instances.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I do know that my and my wife’s interviews took place over the course of three days. You can see for yourself how much was actually used. And then slightly misquoted at that. (For the record, my actual sentence was “For some Jews, there’s this sense that ‘We’re the chosen people, so we think we’re better than you.’ But when those kinds of people are faced with someone they assume is of a lower social rung because they’re Black or Asian or something, and then they realize that person is also Jewish, which means that they’re ALSO chosen, and therefore an EQUAL, it ends up being really unsettling for them and they can’t deal with it.”)

Also, my wife made of point of saying that while, yes, we are an Orthodox COUPLE, and our home is an Orthodox HOME, she personally identifies as just “observant” or “shomer mitzvot”, a fact which got whittled down to a quick mention in the opening paragraphs in a manner not directly connected to her.

Now, all that having been said, I think that the article, while a missed opportunity, was a great one nonetheless. Unless someone can point out that other article which featured Orthodox Black Jews in a mainstream publication. And especially after Oprah’s show on Orthodox Jews, which featured Black Hasidic Jews who presented what many of us felt was a whitewashed version of the experience of being a Black Orthodox Jew, it was good to get a different picture out there, regardless of the fact that, New York Magazine being New York Magazine, they depicted the most salacious excerpts of the interviews they could find.

Despite the very real negatives, there were also some very real positives as expressed in the feedback that I and others involved in the project received from non-Jew, Black Orthodox Jew, Black non-Orthodox Jew, and non-Black Jew alike. To be fair, many also criticized the article of seeming incomplete at best and vapid at worst, but these were not particularly “negative” criticisms, just honest ones.

Ironically enough, the most vitriolic responses and accusations of coonery buffoonery, hypocrisy, opportunism and profit-seeking seemed to come from some fellow Black Orthodox Jews. Regardless the obvious lack of truth behind these charges, I’d merely like to clear the air and explain some of the evolution behind the articles origin.

After Oprah’s disappointing take on Orthodox Black Jews, I tweeted a picture at Oprah of myself and several other Orthodox Black Jews with the caption “THESE are the people you should’ve interviewed.” The tweet was seen by Wayne Lawrence, an in-house photographer at New York Magazine. He approached me with his concept of a photoessay presenting and depicting Black Orthodox Judaism. I signed up and reached out to others to partake in the opportunity as well.As for the rest, I’ll let the man speak for himself:

“Greetings everyone. I’d like to add my two cents without being too long-winded. First off, for anyone to imply that this essay was done with any sort of malicious intent in just plain wrong. I thought of doing this piece last Spring after moving to Crown Heights and started having conversations with a few Jewish men of African ancestry who I met in the community. I approached them as human beings, not because I saw them as any kind of novelty, but simply because I wanted to learn. It wasn’t until I started doing some basic research online that I realized how complex a story this would be and started searching for voices active within the community to help me tell it. I have to admit that I had no idea that African American Orthodox Jewish families spanning multiple generations existed.

I never expected to be able to tell the whole story in a matter of months but was thinking long-term to portray authentic individuals in the hopes that such an engagement would at the very least spark a dialogue. I have a working relationship with New York Magazine and approached them to see if they’d be willing to publish the story and they said yes. The first person that I contacted was MaNishtana because his blog was the first real resource that I found online. We met and after I acknowledged his concerns and assured him that I would try my best to make sure that this story would be done right, he agreed to introduce me to other folk…As far as the Oprah interview, I wasn’t even aware that she did a story on “The only Black Orthodox family in Brooklyn” until I started searching online. Seeing snippets of her interview made me even more determined to “get it right”.

Shortly after that I was asked to submit the work that I had already done to the magazine and I discussed with the editors the importance of getting the story right and we agreed that context was everything. I was very clear about my intentions and everyone seemed to be on the same page. They decided to do some additional reporting but felt that I had enough portraits for publication. I understand why many of you would be dissatisfied as the essay could have been much better. Please know that I wanted this to be something that the whole community would be proud.”

So there you have it. Not an AMAZING article, but not the end of the world either, but definitely not the vision that either myself or Wayne had in mind when embarking on this adventure. Hopefully, despite the prickly reception it’s received from some, this will continue to be an ongoing project for Wayne and that it will grow into the majestic vision he sees for it and I share.

I know I’LL keep showing up. 😉


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