I must admit the title was intriguing: "Carolivia Herron Talks About: One Hundred Percent Both - Reflections of an African American Jewish Woman." The content of the author's often amusing presentation did not disappoint as she traced her journey to find a place for herself in a world that did not know how to accept a brilliant black woman. She added to the confusion by converting to Judaism in her 40s. "Like I needed more problems!" she said.
Herron began by thanking the Louisville Jewish community for opening their arms to her. Other communities, she confessed, have not been as hospitable. Although she had originally come to Louisville to speak to an African American women's group, she contacted local Jewish organizations to offer her services. While in town, she spoke at Congregation Adath Jeshurun and addressed a Hillel audience at the University of Louisville.
She briefly discussed her book, Nappy Hair, and the controversy it caused when a Brooklyn, New York schoolteacher brought the volume into her third-grade classroom to help students better understand black children. The teacher was ultimately fired, and then hired by another school system. When the first school apologized and invited her back, she refused to return.
During the evening, Herron provided anecdotes from her childhood and adolescence that led to her decision to convert. Born a Baptist in 1947 in highly segregated Washington, DC, the first white people she encountered were the ones who came to her school "and made everybody nervous."
A voracious reader who read and reread the Bible countless times, Herron was determined to meet a Jewish person after hearing her minister tell the story about Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments. When told that the corner grocer was a "Hebrew," she marched up and asked if he had come down from Sinai with Moses. Her interest in the Jewish faith stemmed from that experience, and by the time she was 20 years old, Herron considered herself "a secret Jew."
It was not until some 20 years later, when she was a professor at Mount Holyoke College, that she went to a congregational church and heard a man say his parents allowed him to choose whether he wanted to be raised as a Jew or a Christian. When he said he chose Christianity, she decided it was time for her to make a choice as well. Twice she approached a local rabbi and asked him to help her convert, and twice she was refused. The third time she returned - poised for battle - and he accepted her as a student, noting that the Talmud says you must ask three times to be sure of your decision.
She related a story her great grandmother told her about her own great grandmother being a Jewess. Her husband had been a pirate who kidnapped her and then jumped ship because he wanted to marry her. Herron traces her patriarchal line to that time, and believes her father's name, Oscar, might have been an altered form of the Marano name "Asher." When she lit Shabbat candles for the first time, her father says he remembers his grandmother lighting candles.
Herron, an assistant professor of English at California State University - Chico, is an author of children's and adult fiction, a developer of multimedia educational programs and a scholar in the field of classical epic and African-American Literature. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Pennsylvania, and has spent most of her professional career as a professor/visiting scholar at Harvard University, Mount Holyoke College, Brandeis, MIT and Hebrew College. She is completing a critical text, African American Epic Tradition for Stanford University Press and developing major electronic educational programs for children and adults.
The lighting of a single candle pierced the darkness of the suburban Maryland home, where 50 strangers bound by a common faith said goodbye to Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath.
The flickering light illuminated the faces of Jewish couples with biracial children, single parents who had adopted children of color and interracial families, all gathered for the service known as Havdalah.
"What you see in this room is just bringing together every definition of Jew or every definition of someone who is connected in some way to Judaism," said Linda C. Jum, a Chinese American and national organizer for the Jewish Multiracial Families Network...
During the gathering, Carolivia Herron, an African American author and educator from the District, read a passage from her book "Nappy Hair." Herron made many new friends during the gathering and said she is looking forward to future meetings.
"I get to be a surrogate mother to Jewish children, and I don't get to do that because all of the children in my life are Christians," said Herron, who has embraced Judaism. "We have been here all along, but the problems between Jews and blacks have sort of pulled us together, because we keep saying, hey, we don't have to be this divided."