Wholly Jewish: Yolanda: Forging Connections Through Conversations

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: What is Yolanda Savage Narva's story? Come listen and learn as she shares her tips with us for being kind but strong, patient but firm, and always fair, just, and humble.

Three ways to listen:


[Pullquote:] Because everyone, every single person walking this earth has a story. And it's going to be different from yours. And it's going to be different from mine.

[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 Yolanda Savage-Narva.

[April:] So the first question I have for you, Yolanda, is what's your Jewish and, and identity as you see and experience it?

[Yolanda:]  I think this is a powerful question and one that I think about often. And one of the things that I have began to understand is that Jewish identity for me is multifaceted. And I also have learned that it changes depending on kind of on where I am in my life.

But there are several parts of that identity that remain constant for me. One is the color my skin that really, in my mind, emphasizes who I am and is part of my Jewish identity. My gender, as a woman, it really definitely plays a role in my Jewish identity. And then my role as a mother.

So as a Jewish woman of color who is a mother, those things remain constant. And then I think about all of the intersections in my life that also help identify who I am and define me. And that's-- my identity as a lifelong learner. I'm really constantly trying to learn and understand the world around me and how I fit into that world.

My role as an activist. I'm constantly remembering that I'm here for a purpose. And I think a big part of that purpose is to be the voice of those who don't have a voice. And then as a mentor and educator.

[April:] Thank you that was so wonderful to hear. So my follow up question that's coming up for me is in a world that often asks us to fit into neat categories and often only one, what's the interplay of your different ands?

[Yolanda:] Yeah, it's a great question. Because I just described and, you know sometimes they truly embrace each other. And they work kind of seamlessly together. And sometimes they kind of bump heads and conflict. I embrace both. Because I think each one gives me an opportunity to learn and grow and you know figure out how I need to navigate the world using three of those identities or two of those identities.

And you know it's really interesting, this didn't just start at the beginning of my Jewish identity. It really started years ago when I was growing up. And I was actually never satisfied saying I am this. I would always describe myself in an intersectional way. I didn't have that terminology. I didn't know that that's what I was doing.

[April:] Right. But you had that knowing.

[Yolanda:] You know, yeah, that was very much a part of who I was. Who I am.

[April:] Do you remember how you used to describe that when you were younger as you were trying to navigate these different categories and you not fully feeling like that was resonant for you?

[Yolanda:] When I meet people today, I always talk about being where I was born. I was born in Chicago. And I grew up in Mississippi. And I kind of start with that story because I really felt that I took life lessons from both of those places, and they kind of informed who I am and how I look at the world.

I describe myself as a person who is a black woman, who was educated at a historical black college and university. I mean I just, I'm really cognizant of trying to not overplay it but let people know that I bring so many different experiences to who I am and to make sure that that they don't put me in a category based on a couple of things that they know about me.

[April:] It sounds like you bring a tremendous amount of intention to this and like it's been a continual dialogue for you since your early childhood.

[Yolanda:] Yeah. It has. I mean and sometimes that can be overwhelming. I think some people say I know who I am. And you know this is what I bring to the table. But for me when I describe being a lifelong learner, there are things that are introduced to me at different phases in my life that do kind of reshape or help me rethink or refocus the way I think about things or the way I approach things.

[April:] That's powerful. That's powerful. That's something that's been really important in my family as well, that I felt has made me different at times from others too. So what you're saying really resonates with me around this idea of being committed to continually evolving.

[Yolanda:] Yeah. Which is necessary and in a world that requires so much adaptive change.

[April:] I think so too. Yeah.

So I'm going to switch gears a little bit and ask you a second question. Which is was there a pivotal moment that affected your Jewish identity?

[Yolanda:] You know when I think about shaping-- what shaped my Jewish identity, I mean there are a few things that come to mind. I can't pinpoint one pivotal moment in my life but rather a series of events that have happened kind of, I think, on my life's journey that have led me here today. And one that happened many, many years ago as a kid. And that was really my parents, my dad, in particular, who was very adamant about making sure my brother and I charted our own course. That they were there, you know that they made sure we were the captains of our ship. And then they were there as parents to kind of give us those tools that we need. Like you know here's your anchor if you need to slow down and think about things a little bit. Here's your compass to kind of guide the way.

And so giving us kind of this kind of autonomy really allowed me to navigate my own spiritual journey in a way that my peers and others around me didn't have the luxury to do.

[April:] Can you share a time where you put that into practice as a young child?

[Yolanda:] Yeah, you know it's really interesting. Going back to growing up in the South, the South is very much a Christian rooted Baptist you know part of the country. And for a lot of my friends, it was very eye opening to them that we didn't belong to a church. And we didn't necessarily fit into I guess a specific religion category.

And we didn't necessarily fit into the way our environment kind of pushed us to think. And so I remember having many conversations with friends about religion and about where I stood with religion. And even then I wasn't sure that I would be where I am today. But I knew that my path was different. And I was experiencing kind of spirituality in a different way.

[April:] So my take away from this is that Yolanda Savage-Narva has been bucking trends for a long time.


[Yolanda:] Oh, goodness yes. I think sometimes it was frustrating to people. I guess I just hung in there, hung in with me and just said, well, let's see where this plays out. But I just I don't know. I have always just kind of you know took the road less traveled so to speak.

[April:] Yeah. Yeah, that's really, it's really evident.

[Yolanda:] Yeah. And I guess to add to that some other pivotal moments in my life is you know marrying a Jewish partner. And then you know when my son was born, I knew, at that point, that this child is going to be raised Jewish. And it was definitely part of my responsibility to be a part of that upbringing.

[April:] And it sounds like the birth of your son for you generated a shift in terms of thinking about how he needed to be raised. What seems to be potentially clear subtext is that that also then fundamentally shifted the things for you.

[Yolanda:] It did. And, April, you bring up an excellent point. Because you know up until that point, I was really thinking more, I don't know, more theoretically about things, or more abstract thinking. And then when my son was born, it was very clear to me that I needed to take that more abstract thinking and put it into practice.

And so that's when I really started you know focusing on learning more about Judaism and making sure I have a Jewish home and being very intentional about what that's going to look like for my son when he's old enough to go to you know a Shabbat service or a Tot Shabbat at our temple and actually have it as part of who he is.

[April:] That's really wonderful. So my next question for you is two parts. The first question is as a person who is a woman of color and Jewish and a mother and a lifelong learner and an activist and a mentor and educator, what's something that you never want said to you ever again?

[Yolanda:] I don't want to hear someone say that I can't, I won't. That's not part of the story for me. I'm not under any illusion that people don't have biases or prejudices and what have you. But what I don't want to hear is that I don't want to learn about that person. Or I have no interest in hearing about that person's journey. Because everyone, every single person walking this earth has a story.

And it's going to be different from yours. And it's going to be different from mine. And just you know taking that time to give a person a chance to share that story.

[April:] Do you come across that sentiment often when it comes to people meeting other people across lines of difference? Is that resistance to listening and experiencing someone's full humanity something that you have encountered often?

[Yolanda:] Yeah. It's a good question. And I, unfortunately, have to say I've encountered it much more than I care to share. And that always surprises me that people are not you know-- they talk about doing the work of getting past you know racism and discrimination and bigotry and anti-Semitism. And then they come to the table, and they already have all the answers. And they don't really take time to hear someone's story.

And I'm still surprised every time I see that. But I do continue to see that a lot. And I wish there was a way I could devote a lot of my time just bringing people to a place where they don't have to feel like they are afraid or fearful of just saying I don't know your story. Can I hear it? And connect with that humanity. I think is very-- to connect with that humanity would be very powerful.

[April:] Yeah, and so necessary. So needed. So you mentioned that there was a little bit of a list. So I'm curious are there other things that you never want said to you ever again?

[Yolanda:] I hear people say things about, oh, I met a Jew of color today. And that was interesting for me. Or I didn't know there were Jews of color. I've never met a Jew of color. Coming from people that you'd be surprised would say things like this.

[April:] And they say this to you?

[Yolanda:] Yes. Yes. Someone [INAUDIBLE].

[April:] So this equation is not adding up. Please continue I just--


[Yolanda:] Really. Someone about a year and a half ago pulled me to the side and said, I've been waiting for the opportunity to talk to you because I've never met a Jew of color. And I was really very taken aback at that. But I like that she was open enough to come over and talk to me about this. Because we had a quite an interesting conversation. And I'm still in touch with this person as a result of that.

And it opened the doors or the gates for some real interesting dialogue and conversation. But people have said that to me. And I want people to know that Jews come in all hues.

[April:] Yes, they do, sister.

[Yolanda:] And it's important-- [LAUGHS] they are in all hues. And it's the world. It's the world we live in. It's our reality. And, hopefully, people--

[April:] As long as we've been a diaspora, we've been diverse.

[Yolanda:] That's right. That's right.

[April:] Before you go to the possible third and fourth, even maybe, that I would want to point out too that's interesting to me about that dynamic is the word that comes up when you talk about that is token. Like it feels a little less like they're getting to know you, and like it's like a checkbox. You know or like a playing card as opposed to a real, transformative relationship in which one would never say something like that. Or would maybe be a little more cautious.

[Yolanda:] Right. Yeah, that's exactly right. It feels very token. It's almost like you're putting Jews of color in a little box and packaging them up. And it's like we're part of this community as well. We bring something a bit different to the community. We add a little flavor in many different ways.

[April:] Oh, yes we sure do.


[Yolanda:] But we are part of the community. And we're proud to be here.

[April:] The second half of the question is what's something that you have been waiting to hear? Or in other words, what's something you would love to hear?

[Yolanda:] What would I love to hear?

[April:] What would you love to hear, Yolanda?


[Yolanda:] You know I would love to hear someone say, can I ask you a question about? And really, truly feel comfortable, and throw their vulnerabilities to the side to be prepared to get the answer that they're really looking for. Because I am now, I think, at a point in my life when I'm asked this question that I want to give that person the full, honest truth the way I see it, and the way that I've experienced it. And give this person the opportunity to then not be afraid of the real answer not the kind of--

Sugar coated, careful.

Sugar coated. Yeah.

[April:] Right. Yeah. Like a truly authentic and honest exchange between two people.

[Yolanda:] Yes. And know that it's coming, from me, from a place of love and compassion. That it's not coming from a place of you know trying to shame someone or be hurtful. But it's really coming from a place that I think we have to get in order to have really true understanding about one another and respect.

[April:] And could we just for a moment breakdown this interaction a little bit? So what you would love to hear is someone come with a sincere and substantive question and for it to be clear to you that they could, as I heard you say it, that they were equipped and ready to hear the truth?

And I'm wondering if you could spell out a little bit what's the alternative to that that plays out in daily life? And what are some of the dynamics at play? Because it may be obvious to some and completely not obvious to others.

[Yolanda:] Yeah. You know I think often people think they are at a place where they want to learn about something. But we draw lines or boundaries when the answer to that question is not necessarily what we want to hear. I would love to get to a place where we are not really controlled by what we think the answer should be or what we want the answer to be. That we have come to a place in our lives where we've grown enough that the answer may be something totally different from what we expect it to be.

And then having the stamina and the stability emotionally to accept that and then understand how important that interaction is and how important it is in helping people become closer and people understand each other in a more real and in depth way.

[April:] And what's interesting to me is as you're explaining this further, Yolanda, what I'm envisioning is that if they have proverbial are in my mind in this scenario it's literal horse blinders on that what you're saying is that they be willing to hear an answer that is in the periphery of those horse blinders. And that you're looking for an exchange where those blinders can fall away. Or maybe not fall away, but that person can trust that there is a whole world and set of life experiences that exist far beyond the limitations that either their childhood, their neighborhood, their current life circumstances have enabled them to see to this point.

[Yolanda:] April, that was beautiful. That's exactly-- I started visualizing the horse with the blinders on and how you can just look straight ahead. And you can see, but you can't-- and you may think that that's all there is to see.

[April:] So I have a final question for you, Yolanda.

[Yolanda:] Oh, OK. OK.

[April:] So you can answer this as seriously as stoically or as whimsically as you would like.

[Yolanda:] OK.

[April:] And the question is who or what inspires you to be a better Jew? And it's up to you what better means in this context.

[Yolanda:] In order for me to be a better Jew, I've got to be a better person. And it requires me to kind of pull from the multitude of values that's required to be a better person. And, of course, I would say that my son requires me to be a better person and a better Jew. Because he is very, very connected to his intersectional identity.

And we'll challenge and ask questions. And he challenges me to really to step outside of my own little world and box and just be a better person. So there's that inspiration. You know I say this a lot, and people say, oh that's interesting. Who are you talking about when I say that calling on my ancestors really inspires me to be a better person.

Some of those ancestors that I think about, people who have paved the way and who inspire me. So I think that inspiration from ancestors constantly keeps me thinking about how I can change and evolve and grow and be a better person.

[April:] I love it.

[Yolanda:] Yeah. And so you know I'm just hoping that I can fulfill the purpose of my life. And you know I can live up to all of these intersectional identities that I have given myself, I guess, some of them.

[April:] You talked about that you have a multitude of values. I'm a little curious to hear you explain a little bit more about-- to say a little bit more about that concept.

[Yolanda:] One of the things that really drives me every day is that every human being on this earth deserves respect. And that drives me, and I don't care where a person is born or how they look or how much money is in their bank account. A person, a human being deserves respect. And so that is definitely how I live my life and how I navigate my world.

[Yolanda:] At the same time, I think that people who disrespect other people need to be called on that and need to understand and at least in my presence that I'm not going to stand for that and so that's-- I don't know. You know when I say a multitude of values, so you know on one hand, I'm going to make sure that I respect every person and understand everyone's humanity.

On the flip side of that, for those who don't, you know I think that there's a place and a time to call a person on that.

[April:] That makes a lot of sense. And it reminds me, I don't know if you've heard this before since I know you also work in this field, of a few years ago the social commentator, Jay Smooth, who often talks about racial justice, his metaphor for it was that it's like a kindness. Like if somebody had food in their teeth, you would tell them. And it can take a little bit of courage to respectfully call someone in and say, you know we have a little bit of a relationship, so I thought you know you might appreciate knowing that what was said was X. Rather than it being seen as an attack, but that it actually being seen as a favor. That's just like it's awkward to point out that someone has a piece of spinach on their left center tooth.

You know it's like a little awkward, but if you care about them, you don't want them going to all the rest of their meetings with something in their teeth. The act that you're referring to could be viewed as an awkward but courteous courtesy.

[April:] Well, Yolanda, I think our community and our broader DC community and society is so fortunate to have your leadership and expertise.

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!


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