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: Teacher, Disney Alum, father, Black man, and husband are only some of the many identities belonging to our guest this week! Meet Robin, a gentleman, a scholar and a delight to all who know him.
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[Robin:] I never thought of you as black. I never thought of you as this, that, or whatever. And oftentimes I tend to like to think that you know you should stop right there with the phrase I never thought.
[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 Robin Harrison.
[April:] What is your Jewish and and identity?
[Robin:] Well that's a very multifaceted one right there because I think I've worn a lot of hats in my life, so I'm going to say that I am a Jewish, Black, man, who was also an educator, I am also a father and a husband. I am the son of my mom who is my best friend in the whole world. I am a proud Disney alumni. I am, gosh, I am a lifelong you know 80s aficionados. I am an artist who loves to draw and paint and only recently loves to sing.
[April:] Very nice.
[Robin:] And as my students have love love joking about lately, also I am, I am straight out of Compton.
[April:] That's right. Yes you are. I was hoping you would say that.
[Robin:] And I love it. How do these identities of a Jewish, black, man, educated, father, husband, son, Disney alum, 80s aficionado, artist, singer, straight out of Compto identities how do they interact with one another and your lived experience? How they interact with me I'll start off with the whole Compton aspect the whole Compton aspect of my identity is what made me stronger. I lived a life in which my mother struggled to you know give us the best life. We were, I would say, you know what would be considered poor at the time but my mother not only worked really hard to get us to where we are but she influenced us and both she and all of the events you know that involve Compton in many cases the culture, the violence, a lot of the other things they have kind of helped to almost make me the way that I am, and that's made me a lot stronger and also the fact that you know when when when people try to associate someone from Compton they have they have their own picture their own image of what someone's inside of Compton is and I am proud of the fact that I kind of give it a whole different perspective. It used to be something that I was picked on about a lot from the way I talk to the way I acted to the things that I liked. But now I look upon it as you know something that makes me proud. Being you know a Disney alum, a Disney alum has given me the opportunity to experience a lot of wonder in my life that I kind of missed out on as a child, but it also allowed me to understand that you know that the joy and the wonder that a child experiences is not exclusive only to children and so I try to live, my life becomes that sense of wonder at this particular stage of my life, and the fact that I am also the son of my mom was my best friend kind of speaks for itself. My my mother who tried raising seven of us by herself for so many years she was the person that that I could always talk to and it was very helpful especially during those years when I moved out and went to college. I still remember the days you know sitting up at one o'clock or two o'clock in the morning in the laundry room on a payphone, you know talking to mom and wanting to you know just get things off my chest and hearing her sing to me, she'll sing to me some gospel song or just something to relax me whenever I felt stressed so that gave a lot to me as well. Being a husband...
[April:] Robin, You're pulling at my heartstrings.
[Robin:] Aw. Thank you. Being a husband is something that has grounded me as much as anything else you know to be able to share your life with you know with a friend someone that you're always there to talk to. There's just so many dimensions of what you get from this relationship of marriage that just goes beyond being hanging around with someone that we've been doing this now for 29 years. You know it. It says a lot about you know her patience as much as anything else.
[April:] 29 years and two happy daughters later.
[Robin:] Absolutely. And those daughters those daughters give me life. They they give me life and they they remind me that no matter what happens you know I live on. I see so much of myself in them. At first I thought oh my gosh she's growing up to be like me but then I smile I say oh my gosh she's going to be like me. That means that a little bit of me is going to go on for years even after I'm gone and it's the it's the one of the most wonderful feelings in the world. And being a black a black man is has had its moment as being a mixed bag as well. You know there's all there's all the stereotypes that you heard of that are out there. And I've experienced some but at the same time again it gives you it gives you you know kind of a sense of pride to be able to break out of that. So those conventional molds of what people expect when a black man steps into a classroom as a teacher. It's kind of a new and different thing. And it paints a completely different dynamic for the classroom and it took me a few years to realize that. And it's and it's a great positive thing because I understand being this I'm now oftentimes for six hours a day, I'm a father to a lot of children who don't have that in their lives.
[Robin:] And it it's a wonderful wonderful feeling considering the fact that again you know even after school you know I may go home and decide to drive through a particular neighborhood. You know having to look out of the corner of my eye thinking you know that officer following me. Yet you still wake up the next day and you just keep going no matter what happens. And being a Jewish individual is quite possibly and I don't think I understate this probably one of the greatest things that happened in my life, I don't even want to say that it happened in my life. I feel like it's always been there yet at the same time, you know I had to take a journey, but it wasn't it wasn't the, it wasn't the arduous journey that I would have thought, or that in certain cases I may have heard. It was an incredible journey because the inner core of everything that involved becoming Jewish for the most part was already in me. And if it wasn't already in me there's at least three or four people I can point to including my mom who isn't Jewish. The number of teachers that I've encountered in college who you know who showed me what that was. And it basically just it enhanced everything about me as opposed to brought anything new inside of me because all of those ideas of being a great a steward of the world you know being nothing more than a really good person. And that being a good person leads to everything else as I'd like to tell my students on the first day of school that my number one expectation for them is that you be good people first, because if I know that you're a good person a good student is going to be there and everything else is going to fall into place and that's you know part of the core of my feeling. As far as you know being Jewish is that you know I can be the best person I can be and make a difference here in this particular life right now and make a difference wherever I am just as I told my students that when they get up every morning they have the ability to make a difference when they no matter what they do.
[April:] Right. And I was thinking about as you're talking about your daughters because I was thinking I think you've had you've certainly had a far broader impact than just your your daughter's reach so many people as an educator. Was there a pivotal moment that affected your Jewish identity?
[Robin:] I actually remember that early on after our first child, one of the one of the main goals I had as a father was to try to find a spiritual foundation for for my for my daughter and any future children that I might have. And that was that was that was it. That was very important to me because I just I knew that you know life in itself was not just all about me and my wife that there was so much more to that and I was raised Southern Baptist and it if I can be honest as I tell people the one thing about it was that it just it didn't grab me it didn't stick with me. But there were so many aspects of it that I just you know I just never was able to absorb. Yet I still was seeking something. And so after a while of trying different things and looking into different things and studying different things I can't just let myself go in saying that you know I'm just going to be the best person I could be. I'm gonna be someone who believes in god and teach my children that way and to behave and act accordingly. And somewhere along the way we encountered the sister of a college friend of ours who just out of the blue she had recommended her to me to videotape her daughter's bat mitzvah. So I was more than happy to do so. So I went in there was my first time setting foot into a synagogue. And so once I was there I found that the entire experience was quite you know quite fascinating and as it moved on I became glued to the experience as you into a couple of points where I lost you know step of where I was with the camera. And so I looked and I thought to myself this there's something about this. And so after the service I approached RABBI MYERS And I spoke with her and I asked her just simply you know is there a way I can meet with you and ask you some questions. We sat and met for a couple of times over a couple of weeks and for for some reason I got something in the mail. She invited our family to high holidays.
[Robin:] We attended. And from that moment on when I first sat in that service about halfway through for some reason, I don't know what it was, but I looked up at this gigantic stained glass window right up above the bima. And I just stared at it for, my wife tells me, for just minutes on end. And there was just something there. Both know the combination of both my and try to interpret what the images were in the in the window and something else I just can't put into words but from that point forward. Something said this is what I was looking for. And I think my wife tells me that she she'd never seen me so upbeat and bouncy when I was telling her how I felt after that service.
[April:] I have never heard anybody say anything remotely like that about a High Holiday service and I've heard people talk about meaningful High Holiday services. I've heard people talk about meaningful Devrai Torah, I have I don't know if I've ever heard of somebody bouncing out of a High Holiday service. That is very significant.
[Robin:] It's it's it's and it is fascinating because I'm you know I was I was so excited about it and I don't know what it was but it seemed to glom onto my under my youngest daughter Robin. So when I was I when I told her that I want to try to find out some information and a rabbi recommended some classes and so forth. I told my wife I said I want to try this, I want to look at the conversion classes. And my youngest daughter asked if she could if she could join me and literally said could she join me in this.
[Robin:] So for the next couple of years I'm going to conversion classes, she's taking Hebrew classes, we're doing all of these things together. And by the end of that period we completed our we can we both our training. She learned Hebrew and quite a number of bits of Jewish history to the point where we were both had our, what is it called, the bath. The mikveh.
April [00:14:51] The mikveh, yeah, conversion.
[Robin:] We both experienced the mikveh up by AJU on the same day. And it was just it was it was a such a life affirming experience too and especially to share that with my, with my daughter. It's just it's just an unbelievable experience.
[April:] That's remarkable. So, the next question I have for you has two parts. The first half is what's something that you never want to hear ever again?
[Robin:] I never was hear, to be quite frank, anything that has the word race involved. I have eschewed that word from my vocabulary so much because of the history behind it. I've known about the history behind it from the history classes that I took in elementary school that taught me all about you know the scientific breakdown of race. And over time I've just come to believe that it was nothing more than a device which was fused to both divide and to create an air of inferiority and some superiority in others. And a lot of it was even further galvanized through some of the learning taking place over the last couple of years as as a person of color including a number of moments in which I learned as a member of this cohort, which is just you know I'm as much as I am a lifelong learner. I'm always amazed that even at this particular stage I can learn things that really helped shape who I am and how I think at this stage. The only other things that I, I'd never really want to hear are phrases that start out with you know, I never saw you as or I never thought of you as. I thought about those a little bit earlier on today, you know peculiarly enough in that I have heard that that short phraseology so many times in so many situations in my life. In in growing up you know I I would hear things to the effect that you know I never would I never could see you as being black. I never thought of you as being black, not only would I hear that from people who were not people of color but even growing up in Compton being oftentimes the oddball in the neighborhood I would tend to hear that there. But I would also hear that phrasing I was the only black kid in my in my high school and I would tend to hear a lot of that the you know I never thought of you as black. I never thought of you as this that or whatever. And oftentimes I tend to like to think that you know you should stop right there with the phrase I never thought, because it. early on in my life I would they would say it. I could understand that their thinking was that it was considered a form of flattery. But in all honesty over time I came to the realization that it really wasn't. Very much like a lot of the situations that I see now as an adult that people who are so accustomed to what they see and what they hear that they've seen and heard for generations or what they're accustomed to. You go to a party oftentimes you feel more comfortable with the people that you're most familiar with and that's kind of the way I tend to see. Areas of discrimination and quite frankly hearing myself say some of the things that I experienced or heard was eye opening and that was another thing I learned growing up that sometimes just verbalizing it and getting it out it is a completely awakening experience as it was as well because it brought tears to my eyes when I would actually verbally state all the things that that I saw and I felt. So it happens then, it happens now. And so now it's something where I just always want to.
[April:] How does that happen now? And you don't have to be so specific but how are you saying it happens in other contexts you're in?
[Robin:] Well in referring to the idea of preconceived ideas of what peopl see or think when they see someone, I can think back to the many years in our community I can recall at least maybe an instance in which we had a member actually call her friend over to speak to my wife and I. And in a very loud voice which was heard by everyone, refer to my wife and I as the black friends and after to come over so she could meet her black friends and then just as loud would say you know these are the nicest black people I've ever met. It was quite it was it was quite uncomfortable for both of us. We both kind of looked at each other and we weren't quite sure whether it was a feeling of embarrassment for us or or more sort of a feeling of embarrassment for the temple member. And so then you know going forward you know we would have experiences again talking about bar and bat mitzvah receptions where sometimes we would be mistaken for the hired help or the cleanup help at those events, or if we go to outer events that involve you know other temples we would not be necessarily acknowledged as members as opposed to just you know someone who just came in right off the street.
[April:] The second half of this question is taking a different turn a little bit more of a positive one. What's something that you have been waiting to hear?
[Robin:] I would love to hear members of the Israeli government talk in glowing terms in full acknowledgment of not only Reform Jews, but Jews of practically every ethnicity. I would love to hear words from the Israeli parliament, from Jewish people who live in China, from Jewish people from not only Ethiopia but from places like Uganda and Nigeria. I would love to hear and I've seen congregations of Jews from Mexico and various other people. I would love to hear the accents, the various dialects of these differing people.
[April:] The full spectrum of the Jewish diaspora.
[Robin:] Absolutely. There is so much of a of again such a diversity when you hear the names of someone introduced to speak and you hear again, you know, an African name, you know an Asian name, even a native American, even one of a full poetic Native American name you know up there representing and it would be just the greatest feeling in the entire world to hear that.
[April:] That's really beautiful. Ken y'hi ratzon, may be God's will from your from your lips to God's metaphorical ears. So, lastly I have a final question for you. Who or what Robin inspires you to be a better Jew?
[Robin:] I'd like to say just as easily very easily say that almost anything that I hear from about as I hear attributed to Abraham Joshua Heschel in is that there's so many answers it could be it could be Hal my college professor from [indistinguishable] Hills who escaped Germany he and his family escaped Germany. German Jews came to the United States and he grew up and became such a wonderful person and influenced me to be great. Well I'm just there's so many things that I can say but the one thing I guess that sticks with me more than anything is it's one that our rabbi talks about consistently by theologians she refers to so many times Martin Buber who and I'm paraphrasing and I'm clearly paraphrasing where he makes a comment to the fact that everyone who is born is born for a reason. I don't necessarily want to be famous but I want to make a difference. I want to at least feel as if you know by the time that final year is etched on that stone that at least you know it can be said that I was here. And that maybe I did something good for something or for someone.
[April:] That's really beautiful. I think you've already achieved that and you're in the midst of further expanding on that. May this kavanah, this intention, you have that you're able to exponentially continue to fulfill this sense of purpose this deep sense of purpose you have. So, Thank you Robin.
[Robin:] 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!