Where Are The Jews of Wakanda?


This article originally appeared in Tablet Magazine.

Since the Hollywood premiere of Marvel Studio’s latest superhero flick, Black Panther, the interwebs have been all atwitter with buzz and anticipation for its opening this Friday.

Of course, over in the African-American community we’ve been electrified since the first trailer dropped back in October. And why not? Debuting in Fantastic Four #52 (July 1966), T’Challa—otherwise known as the Black Panther—was the first superhero of African descent in mainstream American comics, hailing from the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda. An isolationist country, Wakanda was the most technologically advanced nation on the planet, and home to vibranium, a rare, naturally occurring meteoric ore with energy-manipulating qualities, which not only made Wakanda one of the most economically stable nations on the planet, but was also responsible for the creation of Captain America’s famously unyielding shield.

With a resume like that, it’s no wonder why the past few months have been filled with thinkpieces full of hope surrounding a restructuring of the cinematic and social perception of Africa and its descended peoples, joy around the watershed moment of the arrival of African sci-fi and fantasy, known as “Afro-futurism,” into the mainstream, and just the general ecstasy of #blackpeoplemagic. (Also, damn, Angela Basset. Can you age maybe just one day? That’s it. Just one. Kthx.)

As a fanboy myself, from the days before being a “blerd” was cool, I’m just as ecstatic as everyone else is to finally see Wakanda in all its onscreen glory. Yet, simultaneously, I find myself feeling conversely to how I often do in American Jewish spaces. In this African-American cultural moment, where am I? Where’s the rest of me? What space do Jews have in Afro-futurism? Or, more specifically: Where are Wakanda’s Jews?

Bear with me, it’s not as far-fetched as it seems.

Wakanda, after all, has never been enslaved or colonized, so it makes sense why the standard fare of Christianity and Islam don’t exist there, since both their presences in Africa are largely by-products of conquest. But where are my Jews at?

Wakanda is apocryphally located somewhere in Northeastern Africa, so it’s already close to a well-known population of Jews, the Ethiopian Beta Israel. In the same general area are the Yibir in Somalia, who have a tradition of being Jews before they were converted to Islam. To west there were the Jews of the Bilad al-Sudan—with records attesting to their presence in the Ghana, Mali, and Songhai empires—and the community of Zuwa Alyaman of Koukiya by the Niger River—according to local legend, Zuwa was a member of one of the Jewish communities transported from Yemen by Abyssinians into northeast Africa. Finally, to the south lies Zimbabwe, home to the Lemba of Cohen Model Haplogroup fame.

So, theoretically bounded by Jews on all sides, nobody managed to pass through or stop in Wakanda? The villainous Klaw family made it to Wakanda three times over the course of two generations. And they were actively hostile. A group of nomadic people with weird food preferences couldn’t have wandered in under the radar unnoticed and just hung out? Hell, Flavius Scollo, a soldier for Emperor Caligula, built the Black Tower of M’Kumbe as an outpost and just hung out there for nearly two thousand years until Black Panther and the Fantastic Four discovered him in the then modern-day of 1982 (Fantastic Four #241, April 1982). And he’d been spending all those centuries capturing Wakandans from the surrounding area to be his subjects.

Two thousand year-old Roman legionnaires encased head-to-toe in golden armor from an alien ship that imbues them with longevity and telekinetic manipulation of their surroundings? Sounds legit.

African Jews in an African kingdom? Whoa, there buddy.

(Although, it should be tangentially noted that Kevin “Kaspar” Cole, temporary bearer of the Black Panther moniker in New York, and current White Tiger—despite Marvel’s strong Jewish representation from the secular Marc Spector (Moon Knight) to the possibly Reform Ben Grimm (The Thing) to Orthodox yeshiva student Naftali, friend of Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel)—is the sole mainstream comicbook character who is a Jew of Color. Cole’s mother is white and Jewish, and his father is an African-American Christian. We still haven’t moved past the cliché of Jews of Color necessarily being products of intermarriage, adoption, or conversion, but hey, it’s a start.)

However, in all seriousness, just as much as it’s important for Jews of Color to have a voice at the American Jewish table, it’s equally as crucial that we are present and counted in the fictional future of “blackness,” even if it’s just a comic book story about Jews in some secret kingdom hidden away from sight with superior magic and technology, virtually inaccessible to the rest of civilization.

Wait…Jews. Hidden kingdom. Superior magic and technology. Inaccessible to civilization…sounds like…Sambatyon?

Holy crap, guys, what if the Wakandans are the Jews of Wakanda?

What Side Should Jewish-Americans Take On Ferguson?

All throughout the Gaza conflict, there were headlines of a certain kind that bothered me in a certain way.

“Israel or Palestine? Do Black People Have A Stake In The Conflict?”
“Why The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Should Matter To Black People”
“What Side Should Black Americans Take On Israel?”
“Why African-Americans Should Support The State of Israel”

It seemed that not five minutes of the continuing conflict would pass by without yet another appeal for the support, input, or opinion of African-Americans on the situation in the Middle East. The rationale of course being parallels drawn between the plight of the Palestinian people and the African American Civil Rights movement (because remember that time African-Americans had missiles to launch at the Klan?) and a convenient case of apparent amnesia regarding the waves of anti-Black anti-immigrant pogroms which had recently swept through Israel. 

Everywhere I saw heated debates across Black-audience blogs going back and forth about the history of the region, its tensions, expressing empathizing with not wanting people shooting rockets at you every day, commiserating with having people show up and start taking your land and relegating you to third-world status in your own country.

The conflict even gave birth to the embodiment of the pro-Israel African-American voice in the form of Chloe Valdary, catapulting her pro-Zionist efforts into the limelight of the public eye.

This did not happen for Blacks and Ferguson, a few scant weeks later. Nor was Ferguson a blip on the Jewish news cycle after the verdict last night, nor in its aftermath today. There are no debates on Tablet Magazine or Jewish Daily Forward or Jewish Week or CoLLive about what the Jewish response should be or to what extent Jews should be involved in the protests. (Yes, peaceful protests are also happening. Not just the riots you seem to be fixated on).

Yet the most cursory glance across a Facebook newsfeed or Twitterfeed reveals many Jews–unfortunately the most vociferous among them being my Orthodox co-denominationalists–have many troubling opinions in support of the mishandling of justice that occurred in last night’s verdict, with many believing in some disingenuous equalizing force of governmental law, as if the Inquisition were not by royal mandate and as if all of Hitler’s machinations weren’t legal.

Jews got a Chloe Valdary out of Gaza. Blacks didn’t get a Chana Valdarowitz out of Ferguson.

So what should Jewish-Americans think about Ferguson? Many things. Here are three:

1-Jewish-Americans don’t mean White people.

Think about that. When you’re thinking it’s perfectly okay to racially profile because “those people” do “those kinds of things”, when you’re rallying behind stop-and-frisk because “if you’re innocent you should have nothing to hide”, when you are busy rabidly advocating policies and legislation which largely do not affect you, and in your mind, don’t affect Jews at all because you imagine all Jews look like you, then you are the reason that Jews–kippah wearing Jews celebrating Purim–get accused of conspiring to commit an act of terrorism and get surrounded by 10 uniformed officers with guns drawn. Because they’re wearing the same skin color as “those people” who you are convinced are the root of society’s problem. And who, more importantly, obviously can’t ever be Jewish.

You think Trayvon Martins can’t be Jewish. You think Michael Browns can’t be Jewish. They can. If not for the grace of G-d, we would’ve had one in 2008.

2-The Holocaust experience and its aftermath is in no way equal to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade experience and its aftermath.

This isn’t Oppression Olympics. It is fact.

Too often I hear from Jewish voices and in Jewish spaces “Why are Blacks still complaining about slavery? We got over the Holocaust. Why can’t Blacks get themselves together? Jews did after Holocaust. Why do Black blame everything on slavery? Why can’t they just take accountability? If more Blacks abided by the law they’d have less problems.”

Firstly, reject that whole “law-abiding” rhetoric. And when someone Black who you deem to be an upwardly mobile, productive member of society is unjustly gunned down by police, do not contribute to the “he was a good kid” narrative. Because it doesn’t matter and because you should know better.

Did being one of the “good Jews” help during the Crusades? The Inquisition? Kristallnacht? Being one of the “good ones” has no bearing on whether your life is decided to have value or not. You know this.

You remember that don’t you? The feeling of living in a country where your life is constantly devalued? In particular by the institutions that are supposed to protect all equally? What it’s like to be approached by the police always as a suspect, never as a citizen?

That is called “America” for Black people. You left Germany and Poland and Russia and Ukraine. So please remove terms like “normal people” and “normal interactions with police” and victim blaming from your dialogue as if there even is such a thing once a class of people have been deemed by the powers-that-be to be subhuman.

It was Jamal’s fault in Texas because he was wearing a hoodie? Then I guess it was Shmuely’s fault in France because he was wearing a yarmulke.

Secondly, why can’t Black people get it together after slavery?
Black Wall Street.

Why can’t Black people get it together after slavery?

Why can’t Black people get it together after slavery?
Prison industrial complex and justice systems complicit with it.

Why can’t Black people get it together after slavery?

Let’s ask a blogger colleague of mine, Son of Baldwin:
“Who gets to be a victim in American society is HIGHLY political. In a big-picture, collective sense, America allows White-looking Jewish people to be victims and permits them the space to remember. African American people, however, are chastised for complaints about oppression (even by other Black people) and are asked to pretend American history didn’t happen, or rather, that it happened like Texas and Arizona says it did.

We hear, very often, ‘Why can’t African Americans get their shit together like Jewish people did?’ Well, if the whole world banded together, with force and military might, to get America to stop its oppression and murder of African Americans via slavery, Jim Crow, the criminal justice system, and the prison industrial complex; prosecuted, imprisoned, or executed every racist or conspirator it could find; ensured that African Americans received all economic compensation from implicated American corporations and industries; cleared a designated area of land so that African Americans could set up their own, UN-backed, financially supported, and world-defended nation, then perhaps African Americans would ‘get their shit together’ like Jewish people did.”

And if all that fell on deaf ears, then think about this:

#BlackLivesMatter is a hashtag here in America. #JewishLivesMatter isn’t.

3-Jews should think about Ferguson, period.

Ferguson is a Jewish problem. It is a Jewish problem regardless of whether or not there are any Jews involved as victim or aggressor.

We are supposed to be a “light unto the nations”, right? Isn’t that the slogan on our business cards? That and engaging in the work of “repairing the world”? Aren’t those our missions?

And if this can happen in a world that we live in, if this is a verdict that can be construed in any way shape or form as “just”, if the shooting of an unarmed teenager with his hands in the air over 140 feet away can be absolved in good conscience, then we, my Jews, have failed.

That is what Jews should think about Ferguson.

Mah Nishtanah Ha-MaNishtana Ha-Zeh?

Hi, I’m MaNishtana, and it’s time for something new. Again.

Yesterday saw the unveiling of Jewnited Nations Magazine, a project I’ve been working on for a little while and so far has gotten a pretty good reception. And today I’m closing the doors on MaNishtana’s Musings, making way for my brand spanking new old site, MaNishtana.net. Again.

Yep, it’s a little bit of a flashback to 2010, and there’s a reason for that.

I started my blog in 2009 to put my voice out there. And in putting my voice out there, in certain ways I became the de facto voice for everyone experiencing the highs and lows of JOC-life. For a little while, that was great.

When I moved from my WordPress to MaNishtana.net and made it a niche social network, there was now a space for people, in the groups and in the forums, to create their own conversations, a concept that was carried on into the later MaNishtana’s Musings.

But it was always the “MaNishtana” name slapped on the front. My voice was THE voice, it dominated everything, and everyone else was sort of just my backup choir. And that’s nearly as backwards as not having a voice at all. Because for all my well-meaning, I’m not the mouthpiece of every JOC in the world, nor does my experience mirror every JOC experience in the world. It was time for the voices of other JOCs to be…the voices for other JOCs.

And so JN Magazine was born.

Will I still be blogging? Yes. Right here. On my personal blog. Because, despite their resonance across the greater JOC continuum, they are my personal thoughts given my personal experience, not the end-all and be-all of all JOCThought everywhere.

But even moreso than that, JN Magazine, and the articles that I contribute to it, is about non-reactionary thoughts.

JOCs do need visibility, but “visibility” doesn’t always necessarily jive with “reactionary”. That’s just negative space that never defines what the space is. And I think it’s high time we defined what the JOC space is.

What we think. Not what we want other people not to think.

Because, crazily enough, we actually do have thoughts, opinions, philosophies, and ideologies that exist outside the context of “Hey, JOCs are this month’s flavor, so what do you think about THIS?” or “Hey, this White Jewish person said/did THIS stupid thing, so what do you think about it?”.

Our ability to feel some type of way doesn’t disappear when you’re not asking us anything, nor does our ability to write eloquently not exist whenever we’re not showing up in a “mainstream” Jewish mag to win them points on diversifying their color palette.

We don’t disappear just because you’re not looking at us.

But don’t be surprised when we’re looking at you. And don’t be surprised when we’re not.

And before I sign off I’d just like to give credit where credit is due, to the godfather of online magazines for and by JOCS, Kehila Magazine by Tali Adina. She blazed the trail already, I’m just walking through what she already cleared away. Check out an interview with her here.

Just, y’know, ignore the photo attached to that article. It’s a Hebrew Israelite congregation (of course unrelated to the actual content of the actual Black Jew being interviewed). So, yeah, we all know how I feel about those.

Anyway, check out JN Magazine. Feel free to write for it, even.

And come back here whenever you want a good ol’ two-fisted reactionary bitchfest. You know I’m good for it. 😀

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After Nearly A Century, American Judaism STILL Can’t Be Bothered With The Difference

Hi, I’m MaNishtana, and right now I am seriously, seriously, seriously annoyed.

Yet again, in an amazing show of irresponsible journalism and a masterful tapestry interweaving falsehoods, half-truths, emotional pandering, and guilt-baiting, the latest article from Tablet Magazine reads “Black Jewish Congregations Get Their Own Prayer Book, After Nearly a Century”, with a heartstring-tugging subtitle of “Mainstream Judaism doesn’t recognize their temples or their rabbis. In a new siddur, Black Jews tell their community’s story.”

Look, I don’t know how, many, times I have to tell you, but this IS NOT BLACK JUDAISM. IT IS NOT BLACK JEWRY. IT IS NOT THE BLACK JEWISH COMMUNITY.

“West African Jewish” liturgy and traditions? Really? Do the Igbo know about this? The Sefwi? Because I’m willing to bet they’d be hella surprised that apparently there’s some Jewish tradition that apparently they should be following, since, y’know, THEY’RE ACTUALLY WEST AFRICAN JEWS.

I’m really not understanding why I have to keep reiterating this point. ESPECIALLY since you’ve already demonstrated that you understand the concept.

What am I talking about?

Well this article right here from–shockingly enough–Tablet Magazine.

In it, it describes a group of Christians–White Christians–who have taken on Jewish practices. Orthodox practices even, such as getting circumcised, laying tefillin, keeping kosher, keeping Shabbat and holidays, and growing peyot.

However, does Tablet say these folk are “Jews who mainstream Judaism doesn’t recognize”? That they are part of “American Jewry”?


In fact, how does Tablet describe this group? Well, let’s see:

“Many of the thousand-plus people who attended Revive 2013, a religious conference held at the Dallas Sheraton last June, wear tzitzit. Many keep kosher and observe the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. Some of the men have beards and peyos. Some have even undergone adult circumcision and/or have circumcised their children. They learn Hebrew, Chumash, even Talmud, and travel whenever they can to Israel. All of them truly, deeply love Hashem.

Yet I’m fairly certain I was the only Jewish person there.”

“a movement of—for lack of a better term—Torah-observant gentiles. These are non-Jews who have no intention of converting to Judaism yet follow laws, customs, beliefs, and practices commonly associated with Judaism.

“Between classes I visited a small conference room on the second floor that acted as a makeshift day care. Most of the 20 or so children were wearing tzitzit, and some had yarmulkes—which are a rabbinic, not a biblical, precept. They listened as the counselors spoke about Hashem, forefathers, prayers, and Israel. When the children would get a little rowdy, the counselor would say a Hebrew prayer call-and-response: “Barchu es Ad-nai hamevorach!” And the kids would shout back, “Baruch Ad-nai hamevorach l’olam va’ed!”

“And many are fulfilling mitzvot that aren’t explicitly stated or detailed in the Torah, such as praying the rabbinic liturgy and observing Hanukkah. Some put on kosher tefillin every morning, and I met a number of Hebrew Roots followers who do not touch money on the Sabbath—which many of them call “Shabbos,” in the style of contemporary ultra-Orthodox Jews.
The unprecedented accessibility of Orthodox texts and ideas online has helped facilitate this appropriation.

“I asked Camero, as I asked everyone else I met, why he doesn’t simply convert to Judaism.

So…wait, you do get it Tablet and everyone else? You do get that just because a group of non-Jews has taken on Jewish and even Orthodox practices doesn’t mean that they are Jews?

For all those in the “Well I consider [these “Black Jews”] to be Jews” camp, do you also consider this group to be Jews, too?

So why is it when the group in question is Black, all of a sudden the group is a put-upon oppressed segment of Jews who aren’t being recognized by Big Judaism?

The discrepancy must only mean that, for all your enlightened, socially justified, forward-thinking, let’s-heal-the-world liberalism…you just don’t care.

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