Wholly Jewish: Chris: The Blessing of Telling My Stories

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: You may know him as that talented author from ReformJudaism.org, but Chaim Ezra, or Chris Harrison in his byline, is also a bottomless well of Jewish knowledge and wonderful insights as a Jew by Choice, a networker extraordinaire and lover of all things Marvel and marvelous.

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[Pullquote:] I'm Chris. I'm black. I'm Jewish. I'm a writer. Nice to meet you. The hummus is over there. Help yourself.

[URJ Intro:] Welcome to Wholly Jewish, a podcast from reformjudaism.org. Everybody knows there isn't just one way to be Jewish, and there isn't just one kind of Jew. 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 JewV'Nation Fellowship. Today she's talking to Chris Harrison.

[April:] Chris Harrison, what is your Jewish And And identity?

[Chris:] I am Jewish, and I am black, and I am a writer.

[April:] Fantastic. And how do these identities interact with one another?

[Chris:] When I converted to Judaism, I chose two Jewish names, a first name and a middle name, Chaim Ezra. Those are my two Jewish names. And I chose Ezra, in part, because it sounds a little bit like my father's name, Estel, which is also my middle name, coincidentally.

[Chris:] And I also chose it because Ezra was a scribe, and I myself am a writer, so I already have that connection to it. And Ezra was also the one who reintroduced the Torah in Jerusalem. And that resonates with me because, as someone who has chosen Judaism, I want to live my life in a way that introduces Torah, or truth or love, into everyday society in as many ways as I can to make the world a better place.

[Chris:] Also, I feel like, as a person of color who is a writer, I feel that I have perspectives and vantage points that others may not when it comes to societal issues, when it comes to how I'm treated by others. And I feel like, despite all that I've been through, I still have an opportunity to get my message across in a way that can actually improve the world around me and make it better for those who are also going through their own things.

[April:] And Chaim-- you described some of the meaning behind Ezra, but you chose Chaim as your first name. Do you want to explain a little bit of what brought you to choose that as your first Hebrew name?

[Chris:] In part because, at least the way I spell Chaim, it starts with a CH, and Chris starts with a CH. So phonetically, there's a little bit of a similarity there. But also, I chose Chaim because I want to live my life as authentically as possible, and Chaim means life. And it's a gift, and I don't want to squander it. I want to live it on my own terms and as authentically as possible.

[April:] Mhm. And when you say that, that prompts for me a question around why you want to live your life authentically, as though, to me, it says there's almost an alternative or something that you've moved away from in order to pursue an authentic life, like it seems like there's some subtext. I'm curious about what that means for you and what prompted that desire within you.

[Chris:] Well, even before I converted to Judaism, I always knew that I had a calling to communicate and to write and to just be my own authentic self. It just took me a while to realize that Jewish conversion was the way to fully realize that for myself. So I think there's always been something within me that has reminded me to just live life on my own terms no matter what others might think. They're not me. They don't have my experiences. They don't have my desires. Only I can determine that.

[April:] Was there anything that indicated to you, for any reason, that you could not live authentically, that you could not be your whole self, that would cause that desire to rise from within you?

[Chris:] I think, in part, it's because, for as long as I can remember, I've had to deal with insecurities and self-doubt and anxiety and thoughts that I'm not good enough or worthy enough or that I need to constantly be doing better, not in the sense that we can all do better, but in the sense that I'm not good enough as I am. And those have just been nagging thoughts that I've had to deal with.

And part of what appealed to me so greatly about Judaism is the fact that we as humans are enough. We're not wretched. We're not awful. There's no bridge between us and God that we need to go to these incredible lengths to traverse. And we are made [NON-ENGLISH] in God's image. There's always room for improvement in everything that we do, but at the end of the day, we're enough.

[April:] I hear that. Thank you. Thank you for further explaining that. And have you ever felt as though you need to adjust your Ands depending upon the scenario that you're in? Under certain circumstances, how do your Ands of being Jewish and black and a writer-- what is the interplay between those experiences?

[Chris:] As a writer, I feel that, when writing about my black experience and my Jewish experience, although at times there can be overlap, because those are two parts of my identity that are very different and because of the fact that I, in a sense, chose Judaism-- I didn't choose to be black-- so I have this pre-existing knowledge, this lived experience of blackness, both the good and the bad that has come with it, whereas with Judaism, although I always feel that I have been Jewish, although I feel that I have always had a Jewish soul--

[April:] Absolutely.

[Chris:] --this is something that I have very much had to learn. I'm still on a very, very sharp learning curve right now, and I'm loving every minute of it. But I still am learning something new about Jewish religion and culture and history every single day. And so when I write about being Jewish, living a Jewish life, it's from the perspective of a student, whereas when I write about being black, it's from someone who has already lived it and is still very much living it, but it's something that I was born into.

[April:] Very interesting. So it'll be interesting to see and be in conversation with you over time as you live into your Judaism more over the coming years and to see how, for you, that interplay or unison or separation plays out for you in your own life. So moving on to the next question, was there a pivotal moment that affected your Jewish identity and your life in general?

[Chris:] One moment that stands out in particular for me is the day I converted, the day that I finalized my Jewish conversion, when I had my beit din, and I immersed myself into the mikvah. And it stands out, well, for an obvious reason, because that's the day I actually became Jewish, but also because it was just a very validating moment for me. I was sitting around people who I had known through various different means in different ways, but they still were close to me and had my best interest in mind and genuinely were there for me, so I didn't feel pressured or grilled.

Even though the rabbis were asking me these very introspective, probing questions, I felt confident to answer them because there was no doubt in my mind that this was the path for me. This is the path I had been on all along, even before I even knew it. And once they finished their questions, I went into the mikvah. I got into the mayyim hayyim, the living waters, which were warm and effervescent and inviting.

And I looked at the tile wall in the mikvah, and the blessings were inscribed on it, the blessing for the immersion into the mikvah, the shehecheyanu, and the [NON-ENGLISH], which you recite to complete the conversion. And I went under, I said the blessings, and I said them with kavanah, with intent.

And it was so fulfilling, and it was so validating. And all the work that I put into get here, all the studying, all the soul searching, all the personal sacrifices that I've had to make, everything that led up to this moment was worth it. And it felt like, OK, I'm here. I'm in it now. Let's do it.

[April:] That's really beautiful. And what, for you, shifted from that point? I mean, you'd been on this journey for so long, for a number of years. And as you've said, your soul has always been Jewish. So what about that sacred experience shifted your life going forward? Was it more of just how you perceived yourself? Did things in your world change around you? What shifted, if anything?

[Chris:] I feel like, because I could actually call myself a Jew, that shifted. Since I started the conversion process, I've had to explain to people, I'm becoming Jewish, or I'm in the process of conversion, which is so long winded. And it's true, and it's authentic and beautiful because I'm on this path. But the fact that I actually could now call myself a Jew and not a Jew in training-- it was validating. It was like, this is my title now. This is one of my many titles. This is my title, and I get to live it without any sort of explanation, without feeling like I am still in training to do something.

[April:] You'd arrived.

[Chris:] Yes, it's officially who I am now. Yeah.

[April:] Yeah, it is. So as a person who is Jewish and black and a writer, what's something that you never want said to you ever again?

[Chris:] I never want to be told that my identity doesn't matter, that my collective identity doesn't matter, that my individual identities don't matter, that I'm not Jewish enough because I didn't convert a certain way, or I don't live a certain way that others might consider to be authentically Jewish, or that I'm not black enough because I-- yeah, I'm black, but I haven't lived this experience, or what have you. So how can you, as a writer, claim to know or speak for these people when blah, blah, blah? And at the end of the day, it's like, no, I'm black, and I'm Jewish, and I'm a writer. That's who I am. Get over it.

[April:] Enough said. And the second half of this question is, what's something that you have been waiting to hear that you would love to hear?

[Chris:] I don't know if I am ready to hear a-- I don't know if I know of a specific phrase that I want to hear, but I do know what I want to feel from other people. And that's genuine acceptance for who I am without having to explain myself, that I can introduce myself and all of my identities can be there at the forefront, and nobody is going to feel the need to ask me invasive questions right off the bat or make assumptions about my life or judge me or anything like that, that I can just say, I'm Chris. I'm black. I'm Jewish. I'm a writer. And they can say--

[April:] I'm an overall hotshot. You're welcome.

[Chris:] Right, exactly.

[April:] And they can say?

[Chris:] Nice to meet you. The hummus is over there. Help yourself. I don't know what else they would add to that, but that's an example.

[April:] And finally-- and feel free to answer this question as stoically or as effervescently or in a silly ways as you would like-- who or what inspires you to be a better Jew? And it's up to you what "better" means in this context.

[Chris:] One of my favorite verses from the Tanakh, which is the Hebrew Bible, is Micah 6:8, which says what is required of you. Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your god. And even before I converted to Judaism, even before I knew I wanted to pursue this specific religious path, that verse has always had personal meaning to me, because that's always how I wanted to live my life. And I always thought the best people lived their lives in that way, who embody those values.

And when I see people, whether they're Jewish or not, whether they're observant or not, whether they believe in God or not, no matter what their path is, if they embrace humility and justice and mercy in the things that they do, that inspires me. It makes me want to do those things more. It makes me want to make sure that I'm on that same path and doing everything I can to live out those values and not just say that I think it's a cool verse. It's something that is part of who I am.

[April:] Wonderful. That's really beautiful. Thank you for sharing that. Is there anything else that inspires you to be a better Jew?

[Chris:] One of the people that has helped me in my process of not just becoming a better Jew but becoming a Jew in general was Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt, who was one of the instructors during my Introduction to Judaism course when I was still living in Chicago.

And even though I knew that Judaism was the path that I was destined to follow, I still had a lot of hangups about the nature of God and the universe, and right and wrong and suffering, and why good people had to suffer and questions like that. And I brought this up with him. For some reason-- I can't explain it-- I just felt comfortable meeting with him and airing that part of myself out like that without fear of judgment or being told that, well, you just have to pray on it, or that God works in mysterious ways and all of that--

[April:] Which doesn't seem to resonate with you.

[Chris:] It's never resonated with me, even the times when I was a kid and a teenager and I tried to convince myself that. It never fully resonated with me. But he introduced me to this way of thinking called process theology, which, in part, believes that we as humans are partners with God in the process of creation, of advancing the world around us and making the world a better place. And as we learn, and as we grow, God in turn learns and grows through them as well.

And that gave me this connection to the Divine that I hadn't experienced before, really. I still have questions, and I still grapple with a lot of things, which I'm supposed to do as a Jew, but that gave me a toolkit necessary to be better prepared for it. So because he's so immersed into that ideology, because he knows so much and is such a genuine, good, loving person who has helped me become, again, not just a better Jew but a Jew, period, I count him as a really special person in my life.

[April:] Chris, thank you so much for being on the show with us today. And this heritage, these identities are yours to fully claim and to share with the world. And we all benefit from that. So thank you so much.

[Chris:] Thank you.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of Wholly Jewish. Tune in again for our next episode. And in the meantime, you can find daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, current events, and more at reformjudaism.org. Follow us on Facebook at facebook.com/ReformJudaism. And on Twitter, our handle is @ReformJudaism.

Hope you have a good week. L'hitraot!