Rabbi Enan Francis grew up in Co-op City in the Bronx, the son of a Lubavitcher rabbi and the product of a multiracial background that includes his mother’s Eastern European family and his father’s roots in Brazil and Venezuela and Holland. Part of his work on Jewish diversity has been to debunk the so-called “Hamitic myth,” the pseudo-scientific 19th-century theory that many blacks were “cursed” as descendants of the biblical Ham.
Francis is the principal of the Southern Connecticut Hebrew Academy in the town of Orange and said he is “eyeballs deep in research” as a doctoral student in the School of Education at Yeshiva University.
On Friday, Jan. 15, he will be the guest speaker after Shabbat dinner at the Lubavitch Center of Essex County in West Orange.
He spoke by telephone with NJ Jewish News on Dec. 28.
NJJN: Can you explain the topic of the talk you will give at the Lubavitch Center, “How Do Jews See Beyond Secular Biases in a Modern Integrated World?”
Francis: Essentially, we are Jewish and as Jews we are subject to the dictates of the Torah. The Torah does not differentiate between our races or colors; it essentially is color blind. However, from time to time we run into comments or quotes or questionable information from the Torah that needs to be explained or understood in the context of the Torah’s greater wider approach to humanity.
NJJN: What is the Hamitic myth?
Francis: One classic issue that occurs in rabbinical literature is the Hamitic myth, that Ham was cursed with blackness. The question is, how do Torah-minded people with a mandate to repair the world interact with this concept as Jews, considering there are Jews from all walks of life in all four corners of the world?
NJJN: Weren’t all the Jews in biblical days dark-skinned? Why would Ham have looked any different?
Francis: That is the $1 million question.
NJJN: How does the Hamitic myth connect with the topic of your talk?
Francis: It is about getting in touch with what rabbinic thinkers were thinking about race, and to reconcile that with the Torah’s understanding of klal Yisrael and the Jewish world. It is not geared for the discussion of how to interact with the race of goyim. It is meant to discuss race in the context of Judaism.
NJJN: Although you say your topic is not about Jewish interactions with non-Jews, what are your thoughts about that?
Francis: I think the Torah tells us exactly how we ought to interact with non-Jews. Our position is to be a light among the nations, but as we are doing outreach to the world, we must not forget to do inreach. Better faith through better inreach will have a more effective outreach.
NJJN: Do you see racism as a problem in the context of Judaism?
Francis: I don’t. People of color I have met who do have this added flavor to them often [react from] the American construct of blackness. Often it comes with the baggage of the American racial experience, so you have people who are now coming into the fold of Judaism who carry along many vestiges of blackness germane to the American experience, whereas others — like in my family — we don’t have that baggage because we were brought up in an environment of Judaism that was a raceless environment.
NJJN: What is your own background? Are you African-American?
Francis: That is what someone on the periphery might associate me with. I don’t have a problem with anyone who is African-American, and I have made peace with the reality of the boxes other people put me in. I would ask, “Don’t my parents have to have come from Africa or come to this country through slavery or were converts to Judaism for me to qualify as African-American?” I defy all those categories.
My mother’s family is Eastern European. My mother’s family, for argument’s sake, is Caucasian. They are Jewish. My father’s family came from Brazil and Venezuela; my [paternal] grandmother came from Holland. They are Jewish.
NJJN: Do you have any relationship to the black community outside the context of your Judaism?
Francis: I do not, and that was the reality of growing up in my family. We didn’t see or interact with people who espoused any hyphenated form of Judaism. If it is a hyphen, then it is not Judaism. Judaism is without hyphens. Often, people who say ‘I am a black Jew’ are identifying themselves as ‘I share in the experience for good or for worse and identify with black America, and my religion is to pray Jewish.” My family has always had a problem with that because that defines who we are inherently; and that is, we are Jews without a color designation. When I see my mother, I see love. When I see my father, I see my father — and love.