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Marva Shalev Marom presents “A Skirt For The King’s Daughter: Ethiopian Israeli Girls Between Jewishness and Blackness”

Dec 20 2018

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Jewish Studies & Education PhD student, Marva Shalev Marom, presented a paper at the 2018 AAR annual conference in Denver, Colorado, which took place November 17-20, 2018.

Marva presented her paper, “A Skirt For The King’s Daughter: Ethiopian Israeli Girls Between Jewishness and Blackness” at the panel “All the Jews Are White, All the Blacks are Christian: An Afro-Jewish Studies Intervention” offered by the Study of Judaism Unit. The panel, presided by Eliot Ratzman, examined implicit notions of Jewish whiteness that underlie the discussion of Judaism and race within the field of Jewish Studies and African American studies. The panel opened with Walter Isaac’s critique (Lawrence University) of the exclusion of African American Judaism from discourses dominated by a normative view of Jewishness rooted in rabbinic oral traditions. Andre Kay’s exploration (Claflin University) of Afro-Jewish narratives in African American historiography problematized representations of Africana Jewish communities within the fields of African American and Black Religions studies, while Juan Floyd Thomas (Vanderbilt University) examination of New York City’s Ethiopian Hebrew congregations in the Harlem Renaissance brought forth the wide array of theological connections between Jewishness and Blackness for “The Black Jews of Harlem.”

Marva’s paper reflected on the meeting point between Jewishness and Blackness within the Israeli context, through the eyes of Beta Yisrael Jewish Ethiopian community, who learned in Israel that being Jewish means one or the other. This paper is the first part of Marva’s dissertation, a longitudinal, multi-sited ethnography based in Jaffa, Israel and Gondar, Ethiopia, which explores the dynamics between religion, race and nation building in the context of a Jewish sovereign state. Marva approached the dynamics between Black and Jew as competing schemata for the “domain” of Jewishness, captured in the practice of ztniut (modesty) and embodied in skirts, a key symbol religious, racial and generational meanings that contradict and overlap. Four case studies of Ethiopian Israeli girls who navigate multiple educational frameworks, provide a window into the conflict between Jewishness and blackness as it happens in the body. Their understanding of skirts as a link between interiority and exteriority enables the triumph of learning over teaching. Even though Blackness and Jewishness are co-constituted as mutually exclusive, these girls use traditional forms of Jewish learning to create a coherent and resilient religio-racial identity by redefining the relationship between opposites: heaven and earth, Ethiopia and Israel, Jewishness and Blackness.