Wholly Jewish: Destiny: Jews Like Us are Out Here

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: This dedicated teacher, scientist, multiracial and Jewish woman is proving that she can do just about anything. Meet Destiny Karash Givens.

Three ways to listen:


(Sound clip): Yeah, I'm Jewish, and he's like, wow. Your people have really been through it. You're going to be a strong woman when you get older.

[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 Destiny Karash Givens.

[April Baskin] Destiny, I'm so curious to hear, what's your Jewish and-and identity?

[Destiny Givens] My Jewish and-and identity would be Jewish and multiracial and teacher, and I kind of put teacher slash scientist, because I am extremely passionate

about science and equating that with teaching, and making it important to my students.

[April Baskin] Fantastic, fantastic. How do these identities interact with one another for you in your life?

[Destiny Givens] So I would say being Jewish is a part of just who I am in general. The multiracial part in my Judaism is something that comes from my mom, but something that was never really a part of me, and so they interact altogether. Because I feel like I'm a pretty much replication of my mom, but in a very different way.

Being multiracial, obviously, people are always like, oh, did you convert? Well, who in your family is white? They automatically have this assumption of the why, and recently-- when I was younger, I didn't feel like I had to explain. Or I felt like I had to explain when I was younger, but now that I've gotten older I'm kind of like, it doesn't really matter?

But I'm kind of just building upon that, my Jewish and multiracial and teacher. All of those come together, because those are the three parts of who I am. If you know me, you know those three things about me. Obviously you know I'm a teacher because I'm very passionate about it. You know that because you've seen my mom and my mom is a part of me, and then I make it a point to kind of tell people that I'm Jewish.

Because I like the visibility because I want people to know that there isn't just one set of Jewish people that you see, that you think of. There are Asian Jews, there are black Jews, there are Ethiopian Jews, there are Jews all around the world that we need to create that visibility, and people need to know that people like us are out there. Just like everyone else in the world, and we don't need to be hidden, I guess, is the word I'm looking for,

[April Baskin] Right, or invisible. Right, that makes a lot of sense. And do you mind sharing what is the composition of your multiracial identity?

[Destiny Givens] So my mom is white, and her roots are Polish and Russian, and my great-grandparents came from Poland right before World War II. They had an inkling that something was about to happen, so they left. And then my dad is black, and those roots are from Togo, which is a very small, small country in West Africa.

[April Baskin] Great, thank you. Thank you, and I think one final-- well, we'll see, depending upon what you say, follow up to this first question is, in your experience, especially given that we live in a society that isn't always very understanding of people with multi-dimensional identities, do you ever have to adjust your ands or how you embody them depending upon the scenario that you're in?

[Destiny Givens] Oh my goodness, yes. Just because, I feel like it's a little bit of code-switching, because I feel like every black person in America, whether we want to or not, has some code-switching to us. But I, in different situations you know to act differently, and it can be a professional thing where it could be good. But sometimes I catch myself doing it, I'm like, do I really need to be code-switching for these people right now?

So, in my classroom, I don't really see myself doing it. Because my classroom is kind of like my safe space, just because I am very close with my kids, and I love my kids, and they know that. But when I go to professional events or say, we go to a professional development, or I'm with other teachers somewhere, I feel I need to put a sort of face on. Just because I need to portray myself as different, and not what the quote-unquote "stereotype" is.

[April Baskin] Yeah. You're saying your behavior needs to contradict any stereotypes that they may have about you coming into the scenario.

[Destiny Givens] Exactly.

[April Baskin] Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So my second question for you is, was there a pivotal moment that affected your Jewish identity? And by that I mean, was there a certain moment in your life where something happened, either just within you or in the external world, that something either clicked or ignited or shifted, that changed either how you see the world or how you live your life today?

[Destiny Givens] Yes, absolutely. I was in middle school, and we were doing this activity in social studies and it was an all about me project, and a lot of people put on, I think, their religion, and they were putting things about the sports they played, and we had to make a crest. We made a crest but it was our own crest, and my crust had a softball and volleyball in there, and it had my name and it had my brothers, it had just other things that I could do. And then just real tiny in the corner, I didn't want anything to be too clashing on it, I just put a Star of David, and one of the kids came up to me, and was like why did you draw stars on yours? Like, do you just like space?

It was just a genuine question, and I was like, no, I actually am Jewish. And I was the first time I had kind of really said it like that, and he goes, "oh, OK." And then kind of walked away. And mostly you have all the same classes together with pretty much the same people. I just missed the other day. So the next day they sat behind me, and we're just kind of in class. There was a bell that was about to ring. He goes, "do you want to hear a joke?"

I was like, yeah, sure. And he said, what's the difference between you and a pizza? And I was like, what? I don't get it. He goes, well, I can prevent a pizza from burning in the oven, and I didn't really understand what he was going at. Until I asked my mom, and then my mom was like-- my mom worked at the school with me, or she worked at the school I went to. So I just kind of went up to her, because I didn't think it was funny, I was kind of hurt. But I didn't know why I was hurt, and I told her, and she, like a mom, lost her mind.

And she went and talked to my teacher, went and talked to the kid, and she kind of explained to me. I was in seventh grade, I knew but I didn't really know-know? Like, I was pretty mature in seventh grade, I just didn't really understand still.

[April Baskin] Right, and even, and I think for me, it wasn't until-- and I did religious school, but I don't think it was until eighth grade that they taught a Holocaust education extensively.

[Destiny Givens] Exactly.

[April Baskin] So.

[Destiny Givens] Yes, and that was us, too. We only got it for maybe about two weeks, and we had just either finished that unit or started it, and I had known a lot about it, because I was interested, it was my history. So I would do the research on my own. So I was able to answer a lot of the questions, I was participating a lot in class, and usually I was kind of quiet in history, because I did not like history at all when I was younger. But as I told her, she kind of explained to me like this is why he said that. He shouldn't have said that out of context.

And I just remember it not really making me upset? It kind of made me proud, and I don't know why it made me proud. But it kind of just took me back, like, my people can withstand all of this. I can handle somebody saying a joke, and then it happened again,

[April Baskin] Oh, that's a strong way of interpreting and navigating that.

[Destiny Givens] Yeah, and I don't know why.

[April Baskin] You're saying it happened again?

[Destiny Givens] Well, no, no, no. It happened again in a better light, though. It was another person. It was actually my lab partner in science, junior year, and we were talking about. It was like yeah. We got into a religion conversation. I was like, yeah, I'm Jewish. And he was like, wow, your people have really been through it. You're going to be a strong woman when you get older. And that just kind of made the whole thing come full circle. Because I remembered what was said in seventh grade. So, yeah, that was kind of my identification moment.

[April Baskin] And so, I mean, I have my takeaway from it, but I'd like to hear you say it in your own words. So how were these pivotal moments for you in terms of its impact on your Jewish identity, and you walking through the world as a Jewish multiracial woman, teacher, scientist?

[Destiny Givens] Yeah. It made me want to learn more, because it never was a factor growing up in my home. It still isn't. My mom is not really into religion at all. And I've said multiple times, I'm still on the journey of discovery, and still trying to find my home a symbol. Still trying to find out like, is this really for me, is it not? I don't know, but it has impacted me in wanting to learn so much more, and wanting to be more active in my Jewish community. Like, just the little things, like going to temple or showing up or there's little things that are in New Orleans that they do, like young Jewish people, and I actually went to one of this past week, and so just things like that.

It's little things that make me try and go forth and do it, and not necessarily being as active, but they made me realize that, yes, you are a person of color. Yes, you are a Jewish person of color. You don't need to be ashamed of that. You need to be proud of that because, it is who you are and it's not going to change.

[April Baskin] And so are you feeling more connected now, Destiny?

[Destiny Givens] Since those instances, yes. Way more connected. Do I need to be? Not need to be, that's a weird word to say. Do I want to be more connected? Yes. But I think that is just going to happen on my own terms.

[April Baskin] So as a person who is Jewish and multiracial and a teacher slash scientist, what's something that you never want said to you ever again?

[Destiny Givens] I don't want someone to tell me no when I know the answer could possibly be yes.

[April Baskin] That's a good one. Can you say a little bit more about that?

[Destiny Givens] Yeah. I just feel like, even with family and school and doing things, I've been told no a lot. I've also been told yes a lot, and a lot of things happen when you tell someone yes, even if in the back of your mind you don't believe that it's possible for them. But even if you tell someone yes, you feel the effort that they can put forth. It's just that once people started telling me yes, like, yes, you can do this, yes, I believe in you, I started seeing a lot more happiness and success in my life.

Like, meaning recently, I've been trying new things and doing new things and I've been a lot happier, and a lot more grounded in who I am and willing to go out there. Whereas in high school, it was, no, you can't do this. No, let's not do that. No, that's too dangerous. No, that's too hard. If I know something is doable or something is doable for someone else, there's no reason it can't be doable for me.

[April Baskin] What are the most significant examples that stand out to you? A yes versus a no moment in either direction that felt really significant to you?

[Destiny Givens] So when I went to college, I went to school in New Orleans, I still live in New Orleans, and I was the first person in my family to go to school out of state. Granted, the state is right next door, because I'm from Texas. But my mom was really the only one that was supportive of it, and I went with my gut and something about New Orleans to me, ever since I was 16, felt like home, and I knew I needed to make this my home.

And so I did it, and the only person that told me yes, like usual in the world, is my mom. And so I went with it, and I went with my gut, and now I live here on my own. I have a very good job. I have a good network.

[April Baskin] You're thriving.

[Destiny Givens] I have a good network. Yeah. I have a good network of professionals, like, I am-- not necessarily made a name, but I've made a statement for myself. And I feel like that was kind of just a slap in the face to everyone, for lack of a better phrase, who told me no, you can't do it. It's like, no this isn't a good idea.

[April Baskin] In your face!

[Destiny Givens] Yeah, exactly. People saying, not necessarily people who said no. But people who were just kind of downplay it. This isn't a good idea, why do you want to go so far away? I wanted to do what was best for me, and I am doing what's best for me, and it makes me feel really good.

[April Baskin] And what's so interesting to me, Destiny, is that from what I know about you and how well you're doing, I think I just, either I forgot and/or I just assumed that you were from New Orleans originally. Like, you just so embody the culture there. You're such a great case study for following your intuition and living it out. Because you're just so New Orleans in my mind.

[Destiny Givens] If you just say no, you never know!

[April Baskin] Yeah. Wow, that's great. Thank you, I'm so glad I thought to ask you for some examples. That's really compelling, and then the second half of this question is, What's something that you have been waiting to hear? As in, what's something that you would love to hear, Destiny?

[Destiny Givens] I feel like something. I would like to hear is you're doing it right, and whatever it is, is what I'm doing in life. Because I have heard it before, but it's just one of those things when you hear it, it just makes you feel like a brand new good feeling all over again.

[April Baskin] Yes.

[Destiny Givens] It's just, it's you know you're doing something right, and you know you're impacting someone, and you know that what you're doing and what you're passionate about is actually doing some good. Either in the world, or just for a single human being. It doesn't matter how many times you've heard it, if you just hear it that one other time, it's like you just heard it for the first time all over again.

[April Baskin] I love it. And for me, I want to say. I want to go out on a little bit of a limb and say I want to give you an unconditional lifelong, you're doing it right, Destiny!

[Destiny Givens] See? I'm set now, I'm set for life.

[April Baskin] So my final question for you can be answered with whimsy or with seriousness, it's your call. Maybe some combination of both. The question is who or what inspires you to be a better Jew?

[Destiny Givens] I would honestly say you. Because I have not had very-- good is not the right word, but concrete examples of how a Jewish woman lived out her Judaism. And I'm not saying that's a bad thing at all. Because I have strong Jewish women in my life. They just aren't active in their Judaism.

But doing this fellowship with you, and being a part of the cohort with all these other strong Jewish women is really something that has pushed me to want to learn to want to go out and be a better Jew. To go out and actually learn things and participate in my very, very, very small network of Jewish people in New Orleans. And it's just something that when I see how active you are and how confident you are being a black woman in the Jewish world. Like, it doesn't even bother you, it seems like it? And it used to bother me, being black and Jewish, and being around you now, it didn't really before, but now it really doesn't at all.

Because you identify yourself as a black Jewish woman, but I don't think of you as a black Jewish woman. You're a Jewish woman. You know how people know that April is a Jewish woman who is a Jewish activist. She is an activist for Jewish youth, an activist for people of color, she's an activists for women, she's an activist for this and this and this, and it just has inspired me to go out and learn more about my Judaism. Of course, it's still going at a slow pace, but I acted more in my Jewish community in six months than I have in the past 23 years.

[April Baskin] Wow.

[Destiny Givens] So, thank you.

[April Baskin] Wow, I'm crying. I'm really humbled. It's really nice of you to say. I'm not supposed to cry. It just doesn't make for a good interview. So just the right amount of crying here. So I'm really humbled and appreciative that you said that. It's a true honor. You know, I want to circle back to something you said, before I forget that, and affirm for you or reflect back what I'm seeing in your journey. Which is that your network is growing, because you continually keep saying yes and stepping out into new spaces, and living into a new understanding of yourself in real time.

[Destiny Givens] And I think you're a really phenomenal model for a lot of Jews all throughout America who were born Jewish, and for any number of reasons and for reasons we could really explain out quite logically, sociologically. Between anti-Semitism, between the trauma our people have been through, between society becoming less religious in general. And you've served as an inspiration for me, because it takes a lot of courage for someone who is--

[April Baskin] Oh, thank you.

[Destiny Givens] You're welcome. Who is as successful as you are to step into something that's new. When I think that's actually a really great model not only for unaffiliated Jews, but for affiliated Jews who need to take that same kind of vulnerability when it comes to diversity and difference, which for them is new territory, and to step into that.

[April Baskin] And I think you model taking courageous steps towards something that you know is the right thing to do and is in your service of your highest good, even if you don't yet know what the outcome is going to look like.

[Destiny Givens] Yes. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

[April Baskin] Yes. Exactly.

[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.