Not black or white

Not black or white

Family truths emerge in a film about race

Lacey Schwartz became bat mitzva at her nondenominational synagogue in Woodstock, NY.    
Lacey Schwartz became bat mitzva at her nondenominational synagogue in Woodstock, NY.    

Filmmaker Lacey Schwartz explains that she “comes from a long line of New York Jews.”

“I was raised in a nondenominational synagogue in Woodstock, NY. We went on the High Holy Days and I was bat mitzva’d. We weren’t Jewish religiously but we were certainly Jewishly engaged, and I still am.”

But despite having a much darker complexion than either of her parents, Robert and Peggy Schwartz, she told NJ Jewish News, “I actually grew up believing I was white.”

The family myth, she said, was that “I took after my great-grandfather, who was Sicilian, and I believed it. I believed I was white.”

But — as she recounts vividly and painfully in her documentary, Little White Lie — Schwartz did not learn until after she confronted her mother before her sophomore year at Georgetown University that an African-American man named Rodney Parker was her biological father.

The result is a film about family secrets, about Jewish and African-American identity, and about race in an increasingly diverse America.

Little White Lie will be shown on Sunday, Nov. 2, and Tuesday, Nov. 4, at 4:30 p.m. at the Rutgers Jewish Film Festival in North Brunswick.

In an Oct. 7 phone interview, Schwartz said her film depicts “a process of moving past things that are important to healing and living a healthy life. It is about family secrets and how powerful they can be and how they affect people. It is also about the power of denial and how people can create their own reality.”

Schwartz said she began to discover her own reality as a university student. On the Georgetown campus, for the first time in her life she became part of a black community. 

And yet, “I was still at a point the where I was really confused,” she said. “There were different ways in which I did not feel like I fit in. In the black community there was a lot of diversity, and that diversity was very embraced. In an institution of higher education, being Jewish was not a crazy concept to them. They were familiar with that.”

Even as she clung to her Jewish heritage, she tended to date African-American men.

Schwartz said that when she married her husband — who is black and whom she declined to name — “the wedding ceremony included Jewish rituals” such as stepping on a glass and hoisting the newlyweds on chairs during the celebration.

“But it was a nondenominational ceremony,” she explained. “Although my husband is not practicing any religion, the ceremony was performed by the Baptist minister he grew up with and is a close family friend. The ideal would have been to also have the rabbi I grew up with, but the rabbi would not co-officiate. He refused to do it.”

Little White Lie will have a theatrical release starting on Nov. 21 at the AMC Empire Theater in Manhattan’s Times Square.

Along with her work as a filmmaker, Schwartz is national outreach director and regional director in the New York area of Be’chol Lashon, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that promotes racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity in the Jewish community.

The couple is about to move to Montclair from their home in Brooklyn with their 13-month-old identical twin boys.

“We look at them as that they are Jewish and they will be raised knowing their Jewish background,” said Schwartz. “I also want them to be aware that although my husband is not religious like his parents are, they will grow up being aware of the totality of where they come from.”

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