Caught Between Two Worlds

blackwhitejewish

I thought I’d get a sneak peek into celebrity. Instead I found someone else forced to navigate different world.
By Ruth Andrew Ellenson

Book Selection: Black, White & Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self by Rebecca Walker (Riverhead Hardcover, 2000)

When my father got me a copy of Rebecca Walker’s memoir Black, White & Jewish for Hanukkah while I was in college, my first reaction was less than enthusiastic. I thought: Oh great, here’s the ultimate guide to political correctness.

After a few months of letting it linger at my bedside ignored and undeserving, I cracked open the spine and found myself immediately intrigued, but for a less than high-minded purpose. I discovered that Rebecca Walker was the daughter of Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple and other feminist writings I’d devoured as a teenager. When Alice Walker would write about her only daughter I always felt a tinge of envy. What would it be like to have a literary genius for a mother? Was it a life of endless, fascinating dinner guests and poetry readings? The type of home that nurtured every artistic stirring and celebrated the creative impulse above all else, and, you know, let you smoke pot with your parents and their hipster friends in the living room while they discussed the meaning of life? I began to fantasize that Rebecca’s book would be the literary equivalent of a National Enquirer exposé.

As I dove in, it became immediately clear that my fantasy was wrong. What I found in Rebecca Walker’s story was a tale of divorce and conflict over divided identities that eerily reminded me of my own, despite my very different background. Rebecca was a child of the civil rights movement born to a Jewish civil rights attorney, Mel Leventhal, and a mother who was, in 1969, more of an activist than a writer. She was born in a moment of hope, a time where belief in the disintegration of racial barriers still seemed possible.

Optimism turns ugly

As the 1970s progressed, Rebecca’s parents divorced and her very existence, which had seemed to be an act of optimism, turned into a big sticky mess. As her parents went off into wildly divergent lives—Mel became an attorney in Westchester, while Alice moved to San Francisco to pursue her career as writer Rebecca ricocheted between the two worlds and never fully belonged to either. She went from being the only black girl at Jewish summer camp on the East Coast to not being black enough among the tough, hip kids she hung out with in San Francisco. Rebecca was part of both worlds, but belonged to neither.

It was a sentiment I had always felt as a Jew. As the daughter of both a rabbi and a convert to Judaism who had divorced, I grew up in a world of rich Jewish intellectual privilege on the Upper West Side of Manhattan contrasted with holidays spent among cousins in Virginia where I got the lone gift wrapped in Hanukkah paper. I was part of a very exclusive group of rabbis’ children who were also part of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and I never knew which part of me won out I still don’t.

In Black, White & Jewish, Rebecca accurately describes her pain without sentimentality or self-indulgence. I succeeded in finding a fellow guide to the perplexed. What happens when the world of your childhood is ripped apart by divorce and then remains asunder? What happens when your Judaism is not the attribute that defines you most, but is an essential, undeniable part of yourself?

I was surprised to find how much I related to Rebecca’s sense of straddling two worlds. This is, of course, true for so many U.S. citizens who define themselves equally as Americans and also as members of their original ethnicity. Rather than feeling like I have to fit in on two different sides now, I know that my true self—like Rebecca’s—resides somewhere in the territory (sometimes the emotional battlefield) right between them.

About the Author

author_ruthRuth Andrew Ellenson
Ruth Andrew Ellenson received the National Jewish Book Award for her anthology, The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt. She is a journalist who writes for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and other publications.

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