February 25, 2021
Journalist Soraya Nadia McDonald is the Culture Critic for The Undefeated, ESPN’s platform for exploring the intersection of sports, race, and culture. She is a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her essays on theater and film, including The Unbearable Whiteness of Oklahoma. Last year, when her fellow Howard University alumnus Nick Cannon made antisemitic remarks, Soraya wrote a more personal essay about being Black and Jewish. Soraya sat down with us for a conversation about confronting antisemitism as a Black Jewish woman.
Then AJC Chief Advocacy Officer Dan Elbaum reflects on his 11 years at AJC, Manya Brachear Pashman discusses Michael Che’s antisemitic joke on Saturday Night Live, and Seffi Kogen on criticism of a Jewish storyline on the NBC show “Nurses”.
- (00:40) Soraya Nadia McDonald
- (19:14) Dan Elbaum
- (22:28) Manya Brachear Pashman
- (25:40) Seffi Kogen
Manya Brachear Pashman (0:40)
Journalist Soraya Nadia McDonald is the Culture Critic for The Undefeated, ESPN's platform for exploring the intersections of race, sports, and culture. She has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for her essays on theatre and film, including The Unbearable Whiteness of Oklahoma and an essay about the first black woman to play the damsel in distress in King Kong on Broadway. Last year when her fellow Howard alum, entertainer Nick Cannon, made antisemitic remarks on his podcast, and another Howard University alum Sean P. Diddy Combs defended him. Soraya wrote a more personal essay about being Black and Jewish, the daughter of a woman who grew up in post war Amsterdam, where no one forgot what the Nazis had done. Next month, Soraya will be part of the first broadcast network newsmagazine that aims to put black life in America front and center. "Soul of a Nation" will premiere on ABC in March. Soraya sat down with us for a conversation about confronting antisemitism as a Black Jewish woman. Soraya, it is an honor and a privilege.
Soraya Nadia McDonald (1:40)
Oh, thank you so much for having me.
Manya Brachear Pashman (1:43)
You talk about growing up in North Carolina and not advertising you were Jewish, when you heard antisemitic remarks. I can relate to that reticence having grown up part of the time in North Carolina as well. But I'm white. So my experience was still very different. What was it about the Nick Cannon controversy that prompted you to write this very personal piece?
Soraya Nadia McDonald (2:03)
It actually started earlier than that. The Tree of Life synagogue shooting just really shook me. The shooting happened, I just, you know, I kind of collapsed. I remember, I think it was the weekend that that happened. I was going to a show in the city. I live in Brooklyn, home to Biggie and Notorious RBG. But yeah, I had gone to a play. And I was coming back home and I'd taken a car. And we were cutting through Hasidic Williamsburg. And I had been just sort of, like, stunned and numb up until that point, and then just seeing people walking around, like there's no sort of like hiding your identity, right? Like, it's, obvious. And that was what, you know, I started, I just broke down, I started crying in my Uber. Which I'm sure like, the driver was just like, okay. I'm just, I'm just processing.
That was when I think the sort of threat and the possibilities of what can happen when antisemitism goes unchallenged, are really foregrounded for me. And so then by the time that you have these comments from Nick Cannon, I really felt like I had to say something, particularly because, you know, because we attended the same school. And because there has been sort of this long standing relationship between Jewish people and Black people, when it comes to the civil rights movement. A lot of the white folks who were going down to Selma and participating in Freedom Summer, you know the lawyer who basically represented the lovings and the Supreme Court case that brought down miscegenation laws in the United States, were Jews. And so for me, there's always been this special relationship for me between these two communities, one that exists like my very personhood.
Manya Brachear Pashman (4:14)
So talk a little bit about that antisemitism that you encountered from your journalism professor at Howard.
Soraya Nadia McDonald (4:20)
Yeah, this was, you know, I think a very specific instance, where the professor that I was talking about, had sort of started his lecture to you know, this is a classroom full of black journalism students. And at the time and still now, for that matter, journalism is an overwhelmingly white industry, particularly when you start looking at the upper ranks of newsrooms, editors, assistant managing editors, and managing editors. So he was trying to make a larger point about being protective of our work in terms of having it challenged by white editors, or having its racial politics challenged by white editors. But coming from a place perhaps of some ignorance, you know, and basically sort of alerting us to like, if something goes wrong, that the responsibility or the blame will fall back on you, because it's your byline, which is very true.
Manya Brachear Pashman (5:21)
Yes, it is.
Soraya Nadia McDonald (5:23)
But the example that he used was that he had written a profile of Louis Farrakhan. And he was sort of vehemently objecting to Farrakhan being characterized as antisemitic. Which, you know, as long as I've been raised, that's how I thought of him. That's how my mother thought of him. You know, it certainly I think colored our views of the Million Man March, you know, I remember getting up and watching it on TV, when it took place. But at the same time, you know, having my mother's sort of like running commentary on Farrakhan's ideas, not only about Jews, frankly, but also about women.
And so, you know, this professor, it starts out, as, you know, his sort of objection to Farrakhan being characterized as antisemitic, and then sort of falls down this sort of larger rabbit hole of resentment, not just towards white people, but Jewish people in particular, you know, sort of exerting this power over what he could or could not say, in the newspaper. And then I started to get uncomfortable. Then I'm like, Oh, this is uncomfortable. And I'm like, Is it just me, and you know, and so I look over at a close friend of mine, who is in the same class, and she's also grimacing, and so we're just kind of sitting there grimacing together, because nobody else was really saying anything, or really having the same reaction we were.
Part of that stems from the fact that Farrakhan seems to occupy this sort of unique position for a lot of Black folks, because he does advocate for civil rights. At the same time, you know, he's espousing a lot of really harmful ideas. And, you know, I think some folks and I have to, you know, I can't speak for everyone, but at least my observations were, you know, okay, we can kind of like take that and just sort of compartmentalize that and not really listen to it, and maybe just sort of bring up the levels, on the civil rights points that he's making, that we find worthy. But this just seemed just a bridge too far.
Manya Brachear Pashman (7:44)
What has been the reaction to Nick Cannon's apology and engagement with the Jewish community regarding his remarks?
Soraya Nadia McDonald (7:50)
You know, I think he was getting some pushback for apologizing in the first place, which I found ridiculous. The other thing is that like, it's difficult to sort of gauge, is this just a very vocal minority, which I think it actually is. Like, I don't think the majority of black people are really all that antisemitic. At least not the ones I know.
Manya Brachear Pashman (8:13)
Soraya Nadia McDonald (8:14)
Yeah, it feels like you have sort of a contingent of, you know, a very small contingent that is very, very loud. That's sort of digging in their heels when it comes to Louis Farrakhan and Nick Cannon. Just judging anecdotally, from the reception I got for the personal essay that I wrote, it was overwhelmingly positive. People found me on every possible medium, they sent me emails, they sent me tweets, they DM'd me on Instagram, they sent me Facebook Messenger notices that I don't even . . . I maybe got like one or two out of that like, somewhere between 50 and 75 notes that I got. From, you know, one person who is basically like, well, you're not Jewish, because of your mother, you're Jewish because of your father, because I don't know. Like some sort of . . . something about Africa and Black people being the original Jews. And I was just like, okay . . .
Manya Brachear Pashman (9:17)
That trope has picked up steam and the past year. It was also espoused by Farrakhan and Black Hebrew Israelites that Black people are the true chosen people of God, white people are not the real Jews.
Soraya Nadia McDonald (9:30)
But overwhelmingly across race and ethnicity, it was a really, like, just beautiful response that actually kind of even gave me a little more faith in humanity, frankly.
Manya Brachear Pashman (9:42)
How did it help you to write this column? Was that a kind of catharsis of sorts?
Soraya Nadia McDonald (9:47)
Oh, absolutely. You know like thing I think that I have always wrestled with in my career as a journalist, has been the fact that you know, from the time that I was growing growing up as a kid in North Carolina, I just could not keep my mouth shut if I saw something wrong happening. It just sits on my conscience. And I, you know, I have to say something. And when I was in college, and you know, sort of during the beginning of my journalism career, like usually that feeling of conflict would bubble up with matters that had to do with gender, and gender equality. I've told a story before about basically, you know, the last two years I was in college, I worked nights on the sports desk of The Washington Post. And because we had so internalized this gospel of being, you know, as much of a public blank slate as you could possibly be, right, and not betraying, you know, that you had any sort of bias or feelings about anything. I kept bumping up against these characteristics that were sort of intrinsic to me, you know, being a woman, being Black, being Jewish, that I felt like I was supposed to sublimate in order to be a good journalist.
Manya Brachear Pashman (11:17)
So you talked about the sense of solidarity, even within yourself between the Black and Jewish communities. There's been a long history of working together, but there's also a long history of prejudice within each of our communities. Nick, to his credit, has engaged in a very constructive dialogue with AJC and has vowed to educate his own community too, but it works both ways. Jewish communities have work to do too.
Soraya Nadia McDonald (11:39)
Manya Brachear Pashman (11:40)
But I'm just curious, from your perspective, how do you believe organized Jewish communities can engage in social justice movements like the Black Lives Matter movement? And how can Jewish spaces be more genuinely inclusive?
Soraya Nadia McDonald (11:53)
I'm going to start with the last part of that question first, about Jewish spaces. I think one thing that we have to acknowledge, especially as our world becomes, you know, more closely tied to each other, hopefully, you know, where, you know, I'm gonna use this as an example. Let's say, you know, you had all of these biracial children that sort of resulted from interracial relationships, that, you know, in the 70s, right, that was a big thing. You know, the same is true to a certain extent, from multiracial Jewish people, there are certainly a lot more of us, I think, that there were even say, 30 or 40 years ago. It's pretty normal now, for there to be, you know, light skinned curly hair, black kids running around attending shul. At the very minimum, like, can we just acknowledge that that's normal? As opposed to the feedback I got so often, when I did say something, was, "Oh, when did you convert"? Or, you know, there's always an assumption that I was like, an outsider in some way. And sometimes that was overt. And sometimes it was just, you know, I'd walk into a synagogue, and people just sort of turn around and, just kind of, you know, you can see that look, where they're just sort of processing. What are you doing here? And, frankly, it's a little exhausting to sort of always have to reassert your right to be in a space. You know, to the point that you know, that will drive you away a little bit.
There is this embrace of diversity at Howard, that's really special, because you have students from all over the African diaspora. And so it's not just African American students, you have West Indian students, right. You have students from all over Africa, from Nigeria, from Ghana, from Senegal, who all have very different cultures after a while, you know, if you spend enough time on Howard's campus, you will learn to discern the difference between a Beijing accent and a Jamaican accent and a Trinidadian accent. So, you know, like, my being Jewish was, well, okay, but she's just like, she's just another flavor of black person. For the most part.
Manya Brachear Pashman (14:12)
You know, Soraya, you're a theater critic, is there a piece of art or performance out there that authentically portrays the relationship between the Black and Jewish communities?
Soraya Nadia McDonald (14:23)
One of the shows that I saw this past season as a critic that I was just really blown away by is Fires in the Mirror. Which is Anna Deavere Smith's documentary play, where she basically goes through . . . you know, at the heart of it is this conflict that occurs between, you know, Black people and Jewish people in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, after the death of a child. And Anna, to her credit, you know, I think is actually, she does like some really great journalistic work when it comes to interviewing people and getting them to really -- one you can tell from the testimonials, that she includes that she's a fantastic listener. She creates a space where it is possible for everyone, you know, no matter their race or ethnicity, to feel like they can be honest with her. And what results is, you know, you have this one person who basically is embodying a bunch of different people, right, and their voices and their effects. And it's such a work of radical empathy.
And when I saw it at The Signature Theater, I went with a friend of mine, who's also, you know, basically just sort of a lapsed Jew. And he's white, and we walked out of there, you know, you're just like, wow. It really is, I think, astonishing work. And you know, an example of what can be accomplished, when people can kind of bring down their guards and really listen to each other.
Manya Brachear Pashman (16:02)
So in other words, radical empathy. You're talking about the power of radical empathy, and perhaps it would serve a purpose in Jewish spaces as well. And African American spaces, how about all spaces? bBt to the question of how Jewish spaces can be more welcoming, radical empathy.
Soraya Nadia McDonald (16:20)
Yeah, I think, you know, one of my favorite people on the internet, and actually just in the world is Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. And she started this thread on Twitter a while ago, and it's basically just like, it feels like there's a stop in every country and she's like, these people are Jews. There's like Chinese Jews and Ethiopian Jews and like, you know, Portuguese, just every flavor of you know, Sephardic Ashkenazi Mizrachi like, all Jews, you know. And basically sort of pointing out like that there is this sort of beautiful, broad diaspora of Judaism, that very often isn't reflected sort of in the media that we see. Because Ashkenazi Judaism is centered, so much, and sort of like, not even just the default flavor of Judaism, but like, the only flavor, right.
You know, I wrote about this in my essay, where I found myself just sort of, like, confused about my own Jewish identity, because like, I've never seen a picture of another Sephardic person who I wasn't related to, until, you know, like I was in my 20s. The Post did this beautiful package for Passover, that was just focused on Sephardic cooking. And I remember, you know, I saw the front of the Food section, and there's this woman who looks like she could be related to my mother, or my aunt. And I was like, oh, my God. It was just it was a revelation. So, you know, I think incorporating into services, into ways that we, you know, observe our religion, more than just . . . if we make it more than just sort of centered around Ashkenazi heritage, I think would actually go a really long way.
Manya Brachear Pashman (18:12)
Soraya, thank you so much. This has been an illuminating conversation.
Soraya Nadia McDonald (18:17)
Oh, thank you.
Seffi Kogen (18:25)
Now it's time for our closing segment, Shabbat Table Talk. And joining us at our Shabbat table this week is a very special guest, AJC's Chief Advocacy Officer Dan Elbaum. For more than a decade, Dan has been a staple of AJC leadership, always ready with sage wisdom, fun facts, a sidesplitting joke, a rollicking story, or exactly the right advice to whatever problem you may have been facing. He has also been a silent guiding hand behind this podcast for the past couple of years. While, I for one cannot imagine AJC without Dan, the Jewish people as a whole are lucky that he will be taking the reins of the Jewish Agency for Israel in North America. To mark his last week at AJC, Manya and I wanted to have Dan at our Shabbat table one last time. So Dan, when you're talking with your family at your Shabbat table this weekend, what are you going to be talking about?
Dan Elbaum (19:14)
Thanks, Seffi, as you said this Shabbat will be my last as an AJC employee. After 11 wonderful years, I will be leaving to become Head of North America for the Jewish Agency for Israel and President and CEO of the Jewish Agency International Development. So I would imagine that it is highly likely that my family will hear me reflect on my time with the American Jewish Committee. It has been an amazing run. I was privileged to meet with foreign leaders to advocate on behalf of their country's Jews. I crouched in a Hezbollah tunnel with diplomats in northern Israel and showed them the real risks faced by the Jewish state. And I prayed with the Jewish community of Thessaloniki, Greece, which once numbered nearly half the city's population and is now in less than 1,000 people, many of them Holocaust survivors. Most of them did not speak English. And I did not speak a word of Greek, but Adon Olam was the same tune that is used in my very own synagogue.
Yet I will probably not talk about any of those memories, wonderful as they are. If I'm being honest, I will probably talk about the people who are AJC. I will talk about David Harris, AJC's CEO, a man who in the words of Kipling has walked with kings but never lost the common touch. I will talk about my late counterparts, AJC Chicago presidents and co-chairs with whom I've served, Larry Edelman of blessed memory, Jack Levin, Alan Melamed, Michael Tichnor, and Kim Pimley, who took the time from their extensive professional, personal and philanthropic commitments to devote themselves to the Jewish people. I will talk about colleagues who have humbled me with their brilliance like Jason Isaacson, Steve Bayme, Dina Siegel Vann, Avital Leibovich, Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, David Rosen and Noam Marans. I will talk about the mentors I've had like Vicki Schoenfeld, of blessed memory. Janet Becker, Rick Hyne, Mark Stern, Rick Hirschhaut, Emily Soloff, Jon Levine, and Myrna Frankel, who saw something in me over the years, and gave me their counsel and unconditional support. I will talk about the friends with whom I've been in the trenches, like Julie Schair, Melanie Pell, Nadine Greenfield-Binstock, John Thomason, Stephanie Guiloff, Amanda Mishler, Kim Kamen, CucHuong Do, Jessica Eliav, and Ellisa Sagor, whose names don't always appear in AJC press releases, but do the actual work that makes a place like AJC function.
I will talk about rising stars like you, Seffi and Manya. Also, Jon Schweitzer, Belle Yoeli, Jillian Laskowitz, Holly Huffnagle, Julie Lenarz, Avi Mayer, Julie Rayman, Dana Steiner, Joanna Lieberman, Maggie Fredman, Daniel Silver, and Ari Gordon, who have flattered me over the years by seeking my counsel, whose names you'll be hearing a lot about for many years to come. And I will talk about my colleagues who made me laugh like Dov Wilker, Brian Lipton, Daniel Schwammenthal, Allie Lipner, Lee C. Shapiro, and Nancy Lisker, who always reminded me that while our work is serious, we should never take ourselves too seriously. And finally, if I'm really being honest, one thing that I am absolutely sure I will talk about is the colleagues that I should have mentioned just now. If any of you are listening, I'm really sorry. For over 114 years, the proud men and women of AJC have fought antisemitism and sought to make the world a better place for Jews, wherever they are. This Shabbat, I will give thanks to the Almighty for giving me the privilege to have called those men and women my colleagues and friends.
Manya Brachear Pashman (22:27)
Thank you for those shout outs, Dan, and thank you for giving me this opportunity at AJC. I look forward to seeing your next chapter unfold. At our Shabbat table we will be talking about when it's okay to laugh and when we need to stop laughing, and listen. My children love Saturday Night Live. Don't worry, I only let them watch select clips. More precisely, they love Kate McKinnon and her portrayal of Doctor Wenowdis, an occasional guest on Weekend Update. They are fascinated that this woman can transform into an old, gray, grizzly male doctor. They giggle uncontrollably when she whips out her oversized syringe. It's goofy. It's childish. They love it.
What I love comes at the end when she breaks character and admits that she, Kate, is going a little stir crazy in this pandemic. Aren't we all? The most recent Weekend Update did not feature Dr. Wenowdis. The part that got more of our attention was the gag co-anchor Michael Che delivered, which I did not show my kids. It was short, just one quip. But it set off all kinds of alarm bells. Tens of thousands, in fact, according to the petition AJC launched the next day. I personally hope that petition leads to some constructive conversations. The one liner was pegged to a report that Israel has already vaccinated half of its citizens, a pretty remarkable feat compared to America's response. But then Che adds, "I'm guessing it was the Jewish half". Now, I heard this as just plain ignorance of the fact that 20% of the Israeli population is Arab Israeli, not Jewish. But ignorance isn't an excuse when you're flirting with antisemitism. You say, implying or accusing Jews of only taking care of their own has a long history, way back to the Middle Ages. In fact, it worked well for the Nazis too, and that's the pain the joke triggered for so many.
When I was living in Chicago, I took improv lessons at the legendary Second City. And in one of my first classes, I learned that certain topics are off limits, right, for example, not funny, triggering for many antisemitism never really came up 10 years ago. Why bring it up when it wasn't really an issue. But here's the thing, antisemitism is a shapeshifter. It morphs and expands every time we think we've nipped it in the bud, finding new ways to convince people that Jews fit a stereotype. If not the Jew next door, then perhaps the Jewish nation. Now, some have argued that Che's joke was legit. Legit political commentary about the way Israel treats the Palestinians. Whom he never mentioned, by the way. In Che's defense, some reputable journalists have not accurately reported the Palestinian's position on accepting vaccines. AJC has pointed that out too, but SNL reaches millions. And while we can't expect comedians to do their own original reporting, we can expect them to listen when their punch lines trigger a large scale, painful response. Israel has given at least one dose of the vaccine to more than half of its citizens. About a third have been fully vaccinated, regardless of religion. We know this. Antisemitism is no joke. We know this too. And that's what we'll be talking about at our Shabbat table. Seffi, what's on your TV these days?
Seffi Kogen (25:40)
Well, Manya, I'm also thinking about comedy and television. You know, my family calls me a television snob, and they are right, frankly. W I'm an avid consumer of great TV, both dramas and comedies from the US, Europe and Israel, I basically don't have any interest in shows on network television. But this week, one of them grabbed my attention. With TV production slowed to a crawl because of the pandemic, it seems that networks have been acquiring the rights to some foreign shows, and airing them to fill the gaps in their programming schedule. That's how the Canadian show Nurses came to NBC. Nurses is a pretty typical hospital drama of the ER or Grey's Anatomy genre, except with lower production values and worse acting because it's not a product of Hollywood. A clip from episode eight of this show made its way to Twitter last night. In the clip, a young man is in a hospital bed, crudely made up to look as though he were a Hasidic Jew. His nurses explained to him that he will need a bone graft, which the nurse explains comes from a deceased donor. Upon hearing this news, the man and his father dressed in an even shoddier approximation of Hasidic garb, exchange meaningful looks and voice their fear that the bone, or what the father calls a dead goyim leg could come from a woman or an Arab. Another nurse chimes in helpfully to add that, worst case scenario, an Arab woman. The first nurse tries to reason with the patient telling him that he will never play basketball again without this procedure. The patient, resolving himself to his fate, says that that must be God's will. End scene.
I didn't watch the rest of the episode because I have some self respect, and had no desire to subject myself to this kind of painful inanity. But I read a plot summary and it turns out that this episode is really about that second nurse, a woman who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home. The show uses these unenlightened Jews as foils to help her realize the error of her ways. It's hard to count all of the ways in which this clip is stupid, wrong or offensive, but I'll try to do it. Beginning with the most piddling: the boy calls his father Abba, the Hebrew word for father whereas a Hasidic person in America would almost certainly use the Yiddish, Tatty, instead. Charedim are generally not Zionist, so a Charedi Jew in America would have no reason to harbor any particular antipathy toward Arabs. The actors are made up in some of the fakest looking Charedi garb I have ever seen, as though the makeup artist had barely the faintest idea of what payis, the curled side locks Charedi men grow are supposed to look like. I tend to be pretty liberal on how I feel about actors playing roles that are different from their own lived experience. So I don't think there's anything inherently bigoted about non religious people playing Charedi Jews. Just look, for example, at the textured, sensitive performances put on by the cast of the hit Israeli show Shtisel. But to get it so wrong, while getting it so wrong, adds a visual insult to the writing's injury.
Finally, and most importantly, there's the actual substance of the scene. Jewish law prizes healing and saving lives above almost everything. The law is extremely clear that if the young man needed a transplant or a graph to recover, then he should get that procedure. Further, if the father and son were troubled, they would consult their rabbi, not the Christian nurse. The writers made up this extremism out of thin air, dressed up some actors in Jew face, and put this stupidity in their mouths to be seen and taken as gospel by viewers of the show. It's antisemitism, plain and simple. The whole thing is so bad that it might be funny if it weren't so bigoted. So I hope that by this weekend, I'll be able to laugh about this at my Shabbat table, now that I've gotten this rant out. Shabbat shalom.
Manya Brachear Pashman (29:39)
Dan Elbaum (29:40)