Wholly Jewish: Bryant: From Tennessee to Iraq and Back

What do we all have in common? We all live - and balance - complex and nuanced identities, that, when braided together, make us wholly ourselves - and “Wholly Jewish.” Join April Baskin, the Union for Reform Judaism’s former vice president for Audacious Hospitality, as she speaks with Jews of Color who share their experiences, insights, and how their identities enrich and create a more vibrant Jewish community.

In this episode:  We meet veteran Bryant Heinzelman, who shares powerful and impactful moments of his journey as a Jewish man as he travels the world, and how every step along the way has shaped and strengthened his identity.

Three ways to listen:


[Quote:] So the question I never want to hear again is "Are you really Jewish?" And what does "really" even mean when someone is asking you that?

[URJ Intro:] Welcome to "Wholly Jewish," a podcast from ReformJudaism.org. Everybody knows that there isn't just one way to be Jewish, and there isn't just one kind of Jew. And in this podcast, we talk to people about their different identities, and how those identities intersect with their Judaism. Or, in other words, what makes them Jewish-and-and.

And-- what makes them wholly Jewish. This season, the Union for Reform Judaism's immediate past-Vice-President of Audacious Hospitality, April Baskin, interviewed members of the Jews of Color Cohort of the Jew'v'Nation Fellowship. Today she's talking to Bryant Heinzelman.

[April:] What's your Jewish and-and identity? So, the context for this is that often it's a big deal when someone has a hyphenated identity or a multi-dimensional identity, that that still is something that is viewed as uncommon even if it's not, even if it's a long part of our Jewish diasporic experience. And so in our literature around the Re-Jew-venation Fellowship, we talked about Jewish [and] quote-unquote "Jewish-and" identities. But what we've found is, particularly with this cohort, that it's often at least Jewish-and-and. If this person is Jewish and they're Korean and they're an educator, they are Jewish and black and lesbian and an immigrant. So what's your Jewish and-and?

[Bryant:] Oh, well what first comes to mind is... So I'm Jewish, and I'm a Black man, and I'm a Southern man from the -- I guess it was born in Tennessee, but I hail from Alabama, and all things southern. I'm also a veteran. I'm a son. I'm a mentor. I'm a youth engagement director. I'm a teacher. There's so many. I've learned that I can't separate my Jewishness from any of my other identities, because my Jewishness is part and parcel though how -- it's how I walk through the world, it informs everything I am and everything I put myself into. So when someone asked me my and-and, that's such a good question. But I'm Jewish and everything else that I am, it's just it's all braided into one for me.

[April:] And has that something... is that something that has evolved for you over time, or is that something that's been similar across your life's journey?

[Bryant:] No, so that hasn't been always true for me. I've lived -- so my parents were both in the military, and because of that I've lived in all kinds of different places. One of my other "ands" is I'm also multiracial-ethnic, my father is German-Polish, and so there is just, there are so many identities that make up who I am. And for a long time growing up I tried to choose and kind of edit myself into what I thought would be best presentable or easiest to present to the world around me. And so for a long time, there were so many identities I just failed to embrace, but it really wasn't until I reached adulthood and embraced Jewishness, and so many things about me that are so important to me, and how I walk through the world --that it wasn't until I embraced all of those things that I'd run from that I begin to understand all those ands, all those that dot-dots and colons and commas, those are the things that make me powerful in the world. And when I embraced that honesty, I think my voice and my message can be amplified.

[April:] That's powerful. And have you found that to be true in your lived experience? How has this shift with you internally -- and both internally, how you perceive yourself, and how you present yourself in the world as you've had more time to grow and weave in these different aspects of your identity? How has that affected the external world around you in relationship to you and your identity?

[Bryant:] Sure. Well I guess first... So I grew up in this amazing Christian family. God was ever present. His praises were sang, and it was a very real, real presence around my family, and how my family from Birmingham, Alabama in particular interacted with the world. And although I could always feel God, and feel His presence, its presence, the presence of God around me, it always just kind of felt like the translation -- almost as if a different language was being spoken. [A language] that those around me could easily understand and speak back, but I could maybe get the gist, because I had been around Him for so long. So I always felt that my journey through the world, something was different than those that were immediately around me, and it was going to take bravery and losing some friends and maybe upsetting some family members too to explore that. And I knew this from a young age and I dabbled in so many things trying to find what this translation of God that I could feel and see, but just couldn't quite understand. I was trying to find my language of interacting, and it wasn't until I started to, I think we moved to, we might have been in Maryland.

And I had a friend in kindergarten, a little Jewish boy. And something about him and his family and the things he talked about then doing, it just made sense. It was like a quiet bell was ringing somewhere in the back of my mind. And as I got older, and through interaction with the Christian church, and my own friends, and moving so often -- I attended I think almost 13 schools through my family moving so often because of the military. There was something about the Jewish community, however broadly or however small the sliver that I was exposed to, whenever I was exposed to [it], something just made sense. And I was [in] high school when I realized that there was this thing that was happening in the Jewish community, Jewish interaction with God, Hebrew prayer, it just made sense to me. But I just knew that that wasn't something that I could really delve into in my own home. And so for a long time, I felt stunted spiritually. That makes sense -- I was growing as a young man into a teenager, and then into adulthood. I wasn't really stretching my heart or my spirit. And so I wasn't really interacting with the Divine on a on a regular basis at all because what I knew of the Divine, I knew wasn't for me. So it wasn't until I embraced my Jewish identity that I was able to.

And that took years -- and I'm jumping ahead a little bit, but through conversion and studying on my own, and it was about seven years study of my own before I even approached rabbi for conversion classes. But, it wasn't until I even in private, in my own spiritual closet in my home, or in my little living room in the barracks in England, when I was translating and -- not translating, interacting with God in a very open, stripped-down fashion, and studying Judaism -- it wasn't till then, it wasn't until that moment, that I began to see what I could be in the world. And it wasn't really until then, when I embraced everything and who I was, that people I think really began to respond to me in a way that I thought was genuine -- because no one can... you don't really know someone if they're not being honest with you. And it wasn't really until I embraced my spiritual identity honesty that, honestly, I began to really walk through the world with a little bit of pride and an understanding, I guess.

[April:] Right. That sounds like such a powerful journey. And the next question I have for you: it may be this experience that you just mentioned having in the barracks, of connecting deeply and intimately with the Divine through a Jewish lens -- or it might be something else. My question for you is, was there a pivotal moment, or what was a pivotal moment that deeply affected your Jewish identity? That when you look back, it was either a light bulb, or something shifted within you that changed you, moving forward?

[Bryant:] Absolutely. That's a great question, April. The moment for me when everything shifted for me, kind of, into focus, and my Jewish identity became the driving force in my life would have been during my deployment to Iraq. So I was -- Camp Taji was the actual base that I was stationed at, but I was sent to a remote location along with the MICell -- the military intelligence company that I was attached to. This was ... 2010 I want to say it was, but I was just on this convoy -- and convoy is how they transport soldiers from one place to another. And I was just thinking about all the places I've been in my life, and how here I was in Iraq, or overseas, fighting for my country, and I was very proud to come from a military family. But I knew that something was missing in me. I knew that I wasn't really performing in the world the way that I could. So I made a promise to myself on this convoy ride from my, from the large base that I was at, going to this really tiny little, really tiny little camp. And I said to myself "If I make it home alive --" not that I was exactly afraid of death, it wasn't that there was death all around me in that moment, but it was just the possibility of it had never been more real for me. Being in Iraq during the war situation, and leaving the safety of a large location, traveling through the unknown, I could see the Tigris River and I could -- I was in this place where things I'd heard and mentioned in the Bible -- I could see. I felt like I could smell what those in the Bible could smell. I could feel the same heat, and something about it just -- it wasn't home, and it still is not home for me. But there was something that was almost familiar. And I think it was because I had grown up so soaked in spiritual matters and in Christianity at one point, [and] then Judaism. But the Bible had always been the cornerstone of who we were as a people, and now the Torah. So I promised myself if I made it back alive, I would pursue a few things. I would get serious about music. I would get serious about Judaism. And I would try to repair some of the brokenness that I'd caused in my own life.

And I made it back alive and I fulfilled that promise to myself. And what's interesting is I heard later on, it wasn't until two months later, but I heard later on that the convoy that was transporting me back home that dropped me off on their way back home, an IED had actually hit one of the vehicles. And I could speculate all day about the ifs and the maybes and how this happened, but once again, when danger and death and things like IEDs are a reality, it was almost as if it was like an echo Growing up I was taught that when God says something, you get confirmation later on. And it was almost like ... No one was hurt, from my understanding, no one was hurt from that IED. But for me it was almost like that quiet bell I mentioned earlier? It was almost like that was like the resounding boom to let me know, "Yeah we heard you, and this is the echo." And so it was, I knew that when I got back from Iraq, there were going to be a bunch of things that needed to change in my life. And it took a very long time. It wasn't an immediate process, but it was, when I looked back on my Jewish journey, like that moment of that promise I made to myself and God? That. That moment still rings very true.

[April:] Thank you so much for sharing that. It touches me very deeply. I think as you may know, I come from a military family, and I have a family member who was hit by an IED, who has a permanent disability, in Afghanistan. So when you say that, I viscerally, I feel -- that feels very real to me.

[Bryant:] Sure. Thank you. Thank you for sharing that.

[April:] You're so welcome. So, Bryant, as a person who is Jewish, and a Black man, and Southern, and a veteran, and a son, and a mentor, and a teacher -- what's something from your life experience that you never want said to you ever again?

[Bryant:] The first thing that comes to mind, and we're speaking about Jewish matters, is having someone asked me "Are you really Jewish?" It's a moment that can come. I could have just sung beautifully a blessing, or I could have spoken from my heart about how this piece of Torah moved me, or I could have already mentioned that I'm that the Youth Engagement Director of this wonderful community in Boulder. And not that it happens in Boulder, but these things, this moment, I can feel it when it's coming, and it almost removes me from the situation. It kind of takes me, because when someone asks me that question, it's not always -- they're not always asking because they're curious to know if I'm Jewish -- because they know that I'm Jewish. It's almost as if they need me to confirm for them, because their disbelief won't let them believe the side of this black man who is a member of this community. So the question I never want to hear again is "Are you really Jewish?"

And what does "really" even mean when someone is asking you that? I'm Jewish. It's who I am. It informs every decision I make and it's braided into every tapestry of my being. So being asked "Are you Jewish?" in a Jewish space, by a Jewish person, who probably has never had to give their spiritual resume on the spot when someone still can't believe that you are a member of the community. I could do without that... I could do without that.

[April:] Right. That Makes a lot of sense. Conversely, what's something that you have been waiting to hear, that you would love to hear?

[Bryant:] That's a good question. I'm going to take a moment. Something I've been waiting to hear... What I'm waiting to hear, is one of my students coming to me and telling me about the amazing thing that they're doing in the community, or the way that they've just rocked the world, or the way that they've seen an injustice that they've been fighting for actually made right. I'm most excited when I taught, when I've been honest and when I've tried to show the world from a different angle to my students. And something about that clicks. And they come to me and they tell me that they've had some experience, or they've had a moment or they were able to stand up, or they but they were able to change something, maybe even in their own home. Nothing, nothing shakes me more than that. It just, it shakes me back awake, and kind of reinvigorates me, and makes me want to work harder to make more things like that happen and possible for my students, because they truly are the next generation. Like, people, when I would hear people say that when I was younger, about me being the next generation, it just does not make sense, because when you're young, you're going to live forever. And every year seems to pass. Every year that passes seems to last forever. But as the years start to add on, you understand that there are cycles to life and cycles to movements, and the voices that were told to be quiet yesterday, they're the ones that are going to be speaking the loudest tomorrow. The ones that we didn't want to hear from, they're going to grow up and they're going to have ideas of their own. And whether or not we had the opportunity to impact their life, or guide them and the choices they make in the future -- that's on us. But I'm lucky enough that I get to do that, I get to work with NFTY every single day. And I see the things that are happening. So I'm waiting to hear about one of my students coming and, just, the world is going to change. Like after they've done this thing, or they've made-given- this speech, or they've taken this job at this particular organization. Yeah, I just can't wait!

[April:] Wow, what an inspiring response to the question. Thank you so much. And for those who don't know, NFTY is the North American Federation for Temple Youth. It's the youth arm of the Reform movement. So, I just, I just love that in your "what you're waiting to hear," it involves so many people in the broader world, I think it speaks a lot to your value system. It's very inspiring.

Who, or what, inspires you to be a "better Jew," quote-unquote? And it's up to you what "better" means in this question.

[Bryant:] Oh wow. Wow ok.

I have... I have two answers. OK, so first answer ...OK. So, as I've worked in the Jewish community, through my conversion, and I've started to move throughout the world. And when I say the world, I mean the Jewish world, and kind of carve out a place for myself and decide what my next steps are. More than once, I've heard very well-meaning people say something to the effect of, it's so wonderful that I was able to do what I'm doing, despite being raised by a Christian family. And I know where the sentiment comes from. They're trying to say it's wonderful that even though I wasn't raised in the Jewish environment, that I've been able to connect so deeply and do the work that I do. But I always, I -- not always, but as I've gotten a little older and more mature, I correct people whenever I can. And I always say that it's not despite my Christian family, or possibly having hidden Jewish roots. It's not in spite of that that I became the Jew I am. It's because of that amazing Christian family that I am the Jew that I am today. If I had not seen God move so clearly, and so wonderfully, and so miraculously in my family's life -- my mother's family is from Birmingham, Alabama. My mother grew up in the 60s. Birmingham in the 60s is no joke, and I don't need to go into what was happening back there. But it was their faith in God, and God holding their community up that even allowed me to be alive today. The move that those folks made, my mother and her brothers and sisters through their faith in God. It instills -- when you come from a family like that, when you come from a family that has survived the worst of the worst, when you know that success and victory is coded into your DNA, when you know that, and you know that that is a gift from God? Whatever your translation of that God is, you still understand that God is God. So I walked away from my family when I hit 18 knowing that God was real, and that is because of that family. Just because I didn't read the same word or speak the same language that they that they choose or chose to speak when they were talking to God, doesn't mean that it wasn't their instruction and their love and their gentle guidance that got me to where I am today.

So, every day, like my biggest inspiration, is my family and my family is headed by Gloria Denise Heinzelman and Daniel Heinzelman. And right now, our matriarch has died. Dorothy Inman Johnson, she is the second eldest daughter of my great-grandmother Helen Lee, and my great-grandmother had 14 children. And all those children, grandchildren, great-great-great-great-great-grand at this point. We're changing the world, and it's because of the strength and the faith that strong Christian woman. So those are the folks that are the biggest inspiration for me daily.

And then, the other answer to that question is my students. They are amazing, and they have so many insights, and so many things to say, and so many things they want to do. They're not moved by race or religion or sexual orientation. They're moved by what's right. They are moved by tikkun olam and gimilut chassadim. They are changing the world, and they don't -- Yes, I'm sorry, I'm throwing out these terms. "Repairing the world" and "acts of loving kindness." Exactly right. So they're here for what's right, and they're not moved by any of the naysayers or anyone saying they're too young. And, I just, I sometimes tremble when I think of who I could have been in the world had I had that type of confidence. [Could I have had] this confidence that my students have at this age if I hadn't been wrapped up in all the things I was wrapped up in, and trying to tiptoe my way through a scary world? I just wonder who I could have been. So I'm inspired every day by these young Jews that just know that what they're capable of. And, I'm just, I'm so grateful that I get to be a part of that process.

[April:] Well those are the four plus questions that we had for you today! I was deeply moved. I'm in host mode so I didn't cry, but I was deeply moved by your narrative and your journey and your love of where you come from, and how you carry that with you. So thank you so very much, Bryant.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for listening, and we hope you tune in again for our next episode. We would love for you to rate and review us on iTunes, and you can always visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. Wholly Jewish is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. And until next week -- l'hitraot!