What Color Was Moses’ Wife?

This summer, on a sticky night in Harlem, I devoured a plate of Ethiopian Doro Wat 🔥⚡️👌🏿 This dish was outstanding—and served in a historic setting. Years ago, the restaurant was a hub known as Jimmy’s Chicken Shack, where some of Harlem’s best thinkers and creatives—think Redd Foxx, Charlie Parker, Malcolm X, Billie Holiday—would refuel. 

Don’t you know Tsion Cafe, which I can’t rave about enough, is owned by a black Jew?!

Chef Beejhy describes herself as “a proud Ethiopian, a proud Jew, and a proud black woman.” And why should she be anything else? 

Of course you know why. Because when we think of Jewish people today, we seldom think in color. Even though some 12% of Jews in America are just like Chef Beejhy, people who celebrate multiple cultures and don’t have a hard time squaring all that with their Jewish faith and culture. 

Even though famously, Zipporah—Moses’ wife—was an African woman 👸🏽💃🏾💃🏾💃🏾

According to Hebrew text, Zipporah was a Cushite, referring to an ancient part of present day Ethiopia. But just as fascinating to me, is considering who would have been considered a “real Jew” in a tradition and faith that pre-dates white supremacy by a few thousand years and some change.

Dope Black Jews. Photo: My Jewish Learning.com/Getty/Wikimedia Commons

Think about it. Whiteness is only 500 years old. Judaism is some 5,000 years old. 

This means across history people who knew themselves to be Jewish could easily have taken their very different skin shades for granted, especially in the Middle East, where colors and cultures have been mixing for eons. 

So why today’s conflation and presumption of whiteness as a precursor to “real” Jewishness? 

That’s a really long and important conversation, which cannot be unraveled from the project of white supremacy itself. It’s the story, in part, of how Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish folks went from being the bottom of Europe’s most oppressed other group, to becoming assimilated as white in America—with black and brown folks below them. And just to keep things spicy, in the non-logic of racism, white supremacists still consider Jews enemies of whiteness, targeting Jewish people in violent anti-semetic crimes (see Pittsburgh) and ideas (see Tucker Carlson on replacement theory) that persist today. And you can’t really talk about the non-whiteness of Jews without acknowledging not just the murders of the Holocaust, but centuries of state-sanctioned pogroms and Church-backed inquisitions. 

And yet. Anyone white passing in a white supremacist society—whether Jewish or Dominican—enjoys a subset of white privilege without asking for it. 

See how this gets hairy?

Look. Here’s all I’m saying during this rich season of the Jewish high holidays: make room for more Zipporahs. That’s not just tongue in cheek from a black Tswana woman married to a Ashkenazi Jewish dude, it’s also an invitation to expand your expectation of who’s Jewish.

If you’re lucky, the next Jew you meet has skin as deep as mine and cooks as deliciously as  Chef Beejhy!

Happy holidays if you’re celebrating. 

Big L,

p.s. If you’re in NYC, order Chef Beejhy’s Doro Wat now! Your stomach will thank me later 😋🤤