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Black, Gay and Jewish: An East Coast Jew in the Pacific Northwest

An amazing thing happened a few days ago.

I was enjoying my lunch in the break room of the retail store I help to manage when one of my colleagues came rushing into the room.

“Erika!” he exclaimed, “Come here! Now!”

I was annoyed because I was on my break and protested the entire way to the sales floor.

“Look,” he said gesturing toward a corner of the floor.

I looked and saw an admittedly cute blonde French bulldog, but only responded, “Cute dog.”

“No,” he persisted. “Look.” He cocked his head sharply and again looked toward the corner.

I looked and saw a boy in a kippah, his tzitzit hanging at his waist and immediately felt so excited I literally jumped into the air. It was the first time since leaving New York City that I’d seen someone who was outwardly Jewish. When my excitement subsided enough to speak, I approached the woman accompanying the boy to ask them about the Jewish community in Seattle, my new hometown.

As awesome as this encounter was, it didn’t stop then. What followed was that, for probably the first time in recent memory, I told a Jewish person that I was Jewish and without blinking, without asking how, without pausing, they did not question my Jewish identity. What’s more, this woman was an Orthodox woman. She invited me to her shul, and gave me the information for a rebbetzin that hosts a “wonderful learning session on Shabbes.”

Surprisingly, or perhaps not, a few days later at the house blessing of a new, queer Jewish friend, when discussing Judaism, a complete stranger asked me if I converted.

To say that my transition into Jewish life in Seattle has been challenging would be unfair. As much as I’ve wanted to explore the Jewish community and visit synagogues, the transition into a new city and laying down a foundation for our life in Seattle has taken precedent. Though, when I lamented the lack of visible Jewish community in the Pacific Northwest, I was reminded that when you’re a Jew who lives in New York you are not only “lucky” to have a large variety of Jewish options, you kind of become complacent and dare I say lazy? Everything is easy; you have a wide variety of synagogues to choose from. If you don’t like the cantor at Synagogue A, go to Synagogue B. Music Director leaves Synagogue B, try out an indie minyan. Indie minyan only meets monthly, drop into another. And if you chose to not “do” Jewish you still live in a city where you will be guaranteed to see at least men in kippot, women wearing tichels or sheitls and perhaps pass three kosher delis all on a walk home through an eruv you might not even know was there.

I’ve admittedly been a lazy Jew. I haven’t regularly attended shul, I don’t light Shabbes candles regularly, and I actually skipped High Holiday services this year. Extenuating circumstances aside, if I’m honest with myself I didn’t have to work hard to be a Jew in New York. So when my observance waned, I didn’t feel like a “bad” Jew. My friends were Jewish, I went to Shabbat meals and holiday meals, I talked about Jewish things, mezuzot hung on all of the doors of my apartment, I speak a smattering of East Coast Yiddish, I’m on the board of a Jewish organization. The person who told me it was easy to be an East Coast Jew was right; I could be a Jew and not really try.

Because of the variety and sheer vastness of the New York Jewish community, I was able to convert at a Reform synagogue, daven in a Conservative synagogue, visit a variety of Modern Orthodox synagogues, and end up in an all-Hebrew, lay-lead egalitarian minyan. But with the only synagogue in my neighborhood and other synagogues across bodies of water, I’m realizing that to be Jewish in Seattle won’t simply be lighting Shabbat candles with my partner on a Friday night; it’s going to take much more effort. I can’t pick and choose communities on a whim; being Jewish will take some work. On one hand, I’m excited to re-examine my Jewishness in a city with a smaller Jewish community, and on the other I’m scared out of my mind.

I don’t quite like being the new girl in shul, and shul shopping can be exhausting, but it’s what I have to do to find my niche here. I’m excited to take Ritualwell readers on my adventure, and I’m excited to carve out a space in Seattle as a black, gay Jewish woman.

Erika writes about the intersections of race, racism, religion and sexual orientation on her blog, Black, Gay and Jewish. She has written for The Sisterhood site of the Jewish Daily Forward, Jewniverse and Kveller among others. Erika is an active member and volunteer for The Jewish Multiracial Network and is currently working with JMN writing a Diversity Handbook and presenting the issue of inclusion for multiracial Jews and Jews of Color to synagogue communities and JCC’s.

When not talking or writing about Jewish diversity, Erika can be found in area hospitals working as a labor doula. She lives in Seattle with her partner and their cats.

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