Yavilah McCoy, an African-American Jew, is a teacher, writer, editor, and diversity consultant. She has taught Judaic studies, Hebrew, and English literature in elementary and secondary schools. She was the founder of Ayecha, a nonprofit organization providing educational resources for Jewish Diversity and advocacy for Jews of Color in the United States. Yavilah orginally wrote this for her students in response to the question, “How does faith and social justice intersect for you as an African-American Jew?” We are grateful to her for sharing it with us and allowing us to republish it here.
As an African-American Jewish woman, I review the Purim story and am immediately drawn to the actions of Esther, an innocent victim turned heroine, and her ability to utilize the privilege and position of power granted to her to save the Jewish people from annihilation. From the perspective of my African-American-Jewish history, there are many lessons and similarities. As I read the megillah (purim scroll), I recall 1853 and celebrate the actions of Sojourner Truth who spoke out against an unwilling White male congress and compared them to King Achashverosh and herself to Esther, a Jewish woman passing for a gentile, who was able to not only out herself as a Jew, but also summon up the courage to stand before the king as a messenger of truth and a representative of an oppressed people. As I read the megillah, I think of our majority White, Male and Republican Congress, in 2015, and wonder who Sojourner Truth would name as the King Achashverosh and Queen Esther’s of our time.
As a Black Jewish woman, I am reminded of the words of Mordechai to Esther at the hour of despair, “Ki Im Hacharesh, Tacharishi… Umi Yodeah Im Laet Hazot Higaat Lamalchut?” “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise from another place and you and your house will perish, and who knows but that you have come to your position for such a time as this?” When I hear these words I think of the killing of unarmed Black Men, and the national work to make “Black Lives Matter” and the many Jewish voices that are still silent at this hour. I think of the struggle in Black communities to endure poverty, gain employment, secure fair wages, resist prison and avoid death on the street, and I consider my position as a black woman living in an affluent and predominantly Jewish white suburb, who has achieved gainful employment, but still worries about my White neighbors’ responses to my son and husband walking the streets of our neighborhood after dark. I think of the persistent racial inequities in education, voting rights, and immigration, and the need in each of these areas for champions who will answer the question posed by Mordechai to Esther and utilize what privilege, power, access and relationships we have to stand for the oppressed and compel our country toward change.
As an African-American Jewish woman, I endeavor to see the hand of God in all things. How else do I and my people, both of them, come to be standing here, still whole, after all that has been done to erase and diminish our existence on this earth? How else do I, a Black-Jewish woman who herself has been targeted and racially profiled by my local police, still pray to the God of Israel for a better day? The Purim story is descriptive of a time when we are told that the face of God was hidden. The Jewish-French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas believed that seeing the face of another was always a transformational experience, because once we’ve looked into the eyes of another, we tend to find ourselves ethically (and infinitely) obligated to them because the face, more than anything, conveys both the uniqueness and the universality of what it means to be human. As I consider the current state of unrest that our country is facing regarding the deaths of so many young black men at the hands of police and the continuing struggle for deep and abiding racial equity and justice, I look to the Purim concept of “Hester Panim,” the concealed face of God, for inspiration. The concept of hester panim, teaches me, like Levinas, to endeavor to see the “face” of all those that have been slain and remember them. It also reminds me that the Purim story is filled with actions that appear to be random, but none of them are coincidence. Each and every action, is eventually pivotal toward the eventual liberation of the Jewish people. As I consider the current BLM statistic that every 28 hours a black man, woman, or child is murdered by police or vigilante law enforcement, I have to believe that these deaths are not meant to be in vain and that through our continued protest and closer scrutiny of what has been and must be done, in each case, we will reach “v’nehefochu,” the ability to overturn a decree of death, for others. As we close our megillot this year, greet each other with joy, and say the phrase in unison “Layehudim Hayta Ora V’simcha,” “To the Jews there was light and celebration!” May this light and celebration be the result of our continued commitment and combined action with others to bring Black liberation, human liberation, and lasting equity and justice closer to a reality for all of us.