A while ago, my mom and I got onto a bus, not giving the African-American driver a second look as we climbed up the steps and paid our fare. On the way out, the driver had to let someone in a wheelchair onto the bus and told me to exit via the back door. When I looked at him as he spoke to me, I noticed that above his cornrows, he was wearing a blue velvet yarmulke with silver Jewish stars around the edge.
I stood there staring at the yarmulke. He can’t be Jewish. He’s black. He probably saw the yarmulke at a flea market or something and bought it because he thought it looked cool. Yeah, like that older woman I saw a while ago wearing a yarmulke on the street. No, he can’t be Jewish. He’s a bus driver. And he’s black. But I guess there are Jewish black people out there, like that family in my elementary school, Ethiopian Jews and converts and people like that. But he’s a bus driver. He can’t be Jewish…can he?
When I got off the bus, I asked my mom if she noticed. “Of course,” she said. “I think it’s so nice that he wears a yarmulke to work.”
“At first I doubted that he was even Jewish,” I said, hoping that my mom would make me feel less stupid and racist by agreeing.
“Why wouldn’t he be Jewish? He was wearing a yarmulke,” my mom said, accomplishing the opposite of what I had hoped.
Honestly, I was kind of embarrassed at myself that I had immediately dismissed the idea of a black person being Jewish. There are a lot of Jews of color out there, in both the secular world (Lisa Bonet, Rashida Jones, Rebecca Walker, and more) and the religious world (Ahuvah Gray, Aliza Hausman, etc.). Why shouldn’t a black bus driver be Jewish?
I do think that it’s absolutely beautiful that this bus driver wears a yarmulke while working, though. It is an accepted practice, even among very religious people, not to wear a yarmulke to work, which makes it even nicer that this bus driver does. I always think it’s such a kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God) when I do see professionals with yarmulke. This bus driver, who no doubt sees thousands of people a day, shows everyone who comes onto his bus who he is: I am a Jew. I am an African-American. I can be both at the same time. And that’s pretty cool.
(I know I’m probably reading into this way more than it deserves, and this bus driver probably just wears a yarmulke for the sake of keeping his religion rather than for political reasons, but still.)
In April 2011, I heard Yavilah McCoy, creator of Ayecha, speak at the Women’s Liberation and Jewish IdentityConference. I think her words are an excellent way to end off: “If Judaism is a religion of justice and not just the shtetl, we have to make room for diversity. This is a multiracial community and we have to give voice to that.”