‘Jews presented in technicolour’

MaNishtana is speaking at Limmud Oz this weekend.

“100% Black. 100% Jewish. 0% Safe.” reads the slogan on MaNishtana’s website.

In his various roles as an anti-racism activist, rabbi, writer and speaker, MaNishtana explores the intersection of racial and religious identity, and seeks to tackle prejudices about Orthodox Judaism, American Jewish racial identity and African-American religious identity.

Speaking at Limmud Oz across four sessions this weekend, MaNishtana, who grew up in an African American Chabad family, intends to share with his audiences “the learning and growth that can happen when we bring (some of) the rest of Judaism to the Jewish conversation”. 

In his first talk on Sunday, entitled “Jews, now presented in technicolour”, MaNishtana will address the topic of ‘whiteness’ in Judaism, and how textual tradition explores Jews and race.

One of the biggest challenges faced by African-American Jews, he explained, is racism within the Jewish community. 

“Some have doubled down on ignoring our voices, or are wildly blind of their privilege with pithy sentiments like, ‘at least we have Israel’,” he said.

In “What makes this Jew different from all other Jews? Race, difference and safety in Jewish spaces”, MaNishtana will reflect on the joys and challenges of being an African-American Jew.

Named Shais Rishon at birth, the rabbi adopted the pseudonym MaNishtana when he started blogging about race and Judaism in 2009.

“It was to protect family and friends from being targeted by any backlash of me unapologetically discussing the experiences and problems of race in Judaism,” he explained.

“Secondly, riffing off of ‘ma nishtana halayla hazeh/what makes this night so different from all other nights’, my work explores the question, ‘What makes this Jew so different from any other Jew?'”

On Sunday afternoon, MaNishtana will turn to some superheroes for inspiration in “Truth, Justice, and the American (Oy) Vey: the significance of the Jewish influence on comic book superheroes”.

“These are figures that inspire people to do good and stand up for what’s right,” he said. “And they were largely created by Jews, who – however intentionally or not, or affiliated or not – still manifested that Jewish mission to influence the world.”

Finishing with a panel discussion on Monday afternoon called “Jewish texts we love to hate”, MaNishtana will address complex questions around how we should deal with morally questionable Jewish texts.

Other panellists include director of programs at Shalom and rabbi of Or Chadash Alon Meltzer, Talmud scholar and teacher at the Jewish Theological Seminary Rachel Rosenthal, and Bible scholar at the University of Sydney, Gili Kugler.

For the full Limmud Oz program and tickets, go to www.shalom.edu.au.

SOPHIE DEUTSCH