Raven Schwam-Curtis danced along to music pumping from the speakers at a shuk one night along with about 40 other Jews also on their birthright trip to Israel. Raven, who uses they/them pronouns, said that they were feeling good about their recent decision to learn more about their Jewish heritage by going on the trip. Schwam-Curtis, who was 21 at the time, was the only Black person in their group—their mother is Black, their father Ashkenazi—and just one of two people of color; everybody else on the trip, they said, was considered white.
At one point, the song changed to the unedited version of “Gold Digger” by Kanye West, a detail Schwam-Curtis noted with profound irony, given the rap mogul’s relentless antisemitic tirades over the past several months. When a young woman next to them used the n-word while singing along to the song, they were so taken aback that they figured they must have misheard. But then the woman said it again.
Schwam-Curtis told the woman that she couldn’t use that word. They remember the woman shrugging them off with a half-hearted “my bad” and she continued as though nothing had happened. Schwam-Curtis left in tears.
“It shattered a glass ceiling for me,” they said of the incident. They wondered whether they would always have to combat anti-Blackness among Jews who benefitted from white privilege. “And that’s very painful when these are people you’re supposed to be in community with,” they added.
Three years later, Schwam-Curtis shares the spectrum of their experiences as a Black Jewish person with their 97,000 social media followers across Instagram and TikTok with the handle @ravenreveals, in addition to pursuing a graduate degree in African American Studies at Northwestern University. They are one of several Black Jewish creators asserting their identities and centering their stories with pride, calling their audiences in to relate and learn in the process.
Black Jews are situated at the nexus of two communities that have suffered the generational trauma of state-sanctioned violence and discrimination. That systemic oppression can make it difficult for individuals from each of those groups (Jews who are not Black, and Black folks who are not Jewish) to understand how the issues they face are interconnected, a concept known as intersectionality.
Black feminist scholar and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality in 1989 in part to push back against the erasure of people who face multiple forms of oppression simultaneously that, taken together, form an entirely new set of obstacles.
“If you start unraveling the thread ball of hate, you might have these disparate threads of antisemitism, transphobia, homophobia, anti-Black racism, anti-indigenous racism, Islamophobia—choose your ‘ism’ or phobia, but at the end you’re going to end up with one unifying idea that brings it all together,” said Smith, who is also Black and Jewish. “I think both of those meanings are still very accurate to [describe] how experiences of hate and oppression occur.”
That intersectionality also introduces an exhausting dichotomy many Black Jews have to contend with. The antisemitic rhetoric propagated by Kyrie Irving, Kanye West and Dave Chappelle has at once rendered Black Jews invisible and hypervisible. Their existence challenges those ahistorical and misguided arguments, but whenever those moments arise, they are thrust into the spotlight, asked to speak on behalf of both communities they belong to and sort out their complexities in real time.
The pendulous nature of their visibility can obscure the nuances of Black Jewish identity, but Schwam-Curtis, director and animation producer Ezra Edmond, and documentarian and comedy writer Rebecca Pierce are using their platforms to bring depth to urgent conversations around anti-Blackness and antisemitism that volatile news cycles often flatten.
As a Black and Jewish filmmaker, Edmond’s eye is naturally attuned to artistic representation. The 33-year-old native of San Fernando Valley in Southern California is a longtime fan of the TV show “Black-ish,” but a bittersweet reality hit him when he learned that the actors Tracee Ellis Ross (who plays Rainbow Johnson), Daveed Diggs (Johan Johnson) and Rashida Jones (Santamonica Johnson)—who play siblings on the show—are all Jewish in real life.
“‘Black-ish’ is a blended Black family show. Tracee’s character’s family is a mixed family, and Anthony Anderson’s [character Dru Johnson] is not. His is from a generational household, and hers is from a commune,” Edmond said. “But she could have just played a Black Jewish character, and her siblings could have, too.”
Edmond still loves the show, but he knew that in order to see the kind of story he could relate to on screen, he would have to create it himself. On the cusp of the pandemic in 2020, he made a short animated film titled “Blewish.” At just under four minutes, the story follows a young Black boy learning what it means to embrace his Blackness and Jewishness against the backdrop of different environments—his classroom, a family friend’s house, the public library—that call upon different groups of people to learn how to accept him, too.
Once he finished making the short film, he was nervous about how it would be received, and whether his family would watch it and express concern that he had always harbored the feelings expressed by the main character. But he was determined to tell his story, so much so that he didn’t hesitate to fund the project himself—a decision that probably wouldn’t have needed to happen had he released the film after the summer of 2020, he quipped.
“Blewish” has played in various film festivals, schools and synagogues around the country, and while Edmond knows Black non-Jewish people have enjoyed it, he said it has yet to be accepted into a Black film festival.
But the short film also granted Edmond something he had never before experienced outside of his immediate family: The opportunity to meet and build community with other Black Jewish people who watched the film.
“I want people to get more comfortable sharing those details about themselves instead of sitting in silence and assuming sameness,” he said.
Rebecca Pierce recognizes how fortunate she was to have been encouraged at a young age by her parents to speak up about issues that affected her as a young Black Jewish girl growing up in Palo Alto, Calif. Her mother, who is Black, and her father, who is white and Jewish, are both attorneys, and exposed Pierce to both the Christian church and the synagogue. “Race, politics and religion were always discussed,” said Pierce, now 32.
When she was 9 years old, she shared at a Freedom Seder (a tradition that began during the first Passover after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968) that she had been called a racial slur at school. Although her relationship to her Jewish identity was primarily cultural at the time, Pierce said the comfort she felt in talking about her experience as a Black girl drew her even closer to Judaism.
When she started college at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Pierce began to notice how eager her fellow classmates were to place her into neat categories based on who she was and what she believed. She became involved in Israeli-Palestinian politics on campus, and said that once it became known among her Jewish community that she expressed solidarity with Palestinians—Operation Cast Lead took place during her freshman year—her entire identity came under scrutiny.
“I approach solidarity with Palestinians from both a Jewish and a Black experience and a Black lens, and that’s very different from other Jewish students who are white,” Pierce said. “If you have experience with racial discrimination and you see it happen to someone else, you’re not going to pretend that’s not what you see.”
Even after graduating, Pierce continued meeting with college students engaged in Israeli and Palestinian discourse, which eventually led to producing documentaries about issues affecting Black people, Jews and other marginalized groups. In addition to creating short films about Ethiopian Jewish activists protesting in Israel and police brutality in San Francisco, where she currently lives, Pierce is wrapping up a feature-length documentary about African asylum seekers in Israel.
But Pierce directs her gift for storytelling toward other genres, too. She’s also a comedy writer, and views humor as a bridge between the two cultures she belongs to.
“A lot of relief comes in comedy,” she said. “I think it comes from both [groups] having these very deep experiences of oppression and trauma.” Pierce added that Black people have historically steered popular culture, and referenced collaborations between Black and Jewish artists during the vaudeville era in the U.S. as evidence of the two communities working well together creatively.
“There’s a big joy in this comedy work of getting to bring my Black and Jewish perspectives to the room and deal with the discomfort of being ‘other,’” she said.
Schwam-Curtis worried that they didn’t know enough about Judaism but would be perceived as claiming authority on it by becoming a content creator. But over time, Schwam-Curtis realized that their transparency encouraged others to learn, too.
“There’s a lot of stuff that I don’t know, there’s a lot of stuff that I might get wrong, but I think that’s okay,” they said. “It’s okay for me to be in the process of learning, in the process of becoming, and letting me show you what that looks like.”
Tema Smith of the Anti-Defamation League believes these voices are critical to helping people understand that there are layers to the discrimination and violence threatening them and their communities—and embrace the multiple fronts on which the battle for justice can be fought.
“At this moment in time, the threats that face us all in this country are too large to say, ‘Well you need to fix your house before we can come together,’” she said. “We need to be in coalition and conversation and build trust. Relatedly, we also need to listen to the people who span communities, who can talk about issues of their own on both sides and issues that unite our communities right now.”
This article was made possible by a grant from Shine A Light, a national initiative dedicated to raising awareness of modern-day antisemitism and encouraging societal change through a shared sense of communal allyship.