Photographs by Wayne Lawrence
Text by Molly Langmuir
The ad, plastered in the subway in the sixties, showed an African-American boy eating a rye sandwich: YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE JEWISH TO LOVE LEVY'S. If you were black, in other words, you weren’t Jewish. And to be black and Orthodox—that would mean encountering disbelief at your very existence.
Estimates for the number of black Jews in the U.S. vary wildly, from 20,000 to more than 150,000, with some experts saying the population is too small to accurately measure. But MaNishtana Rison, who has become a prominent voice for Jews of color thanks to his advocacy work and dating website, estimates there are probably only 50 or 60 blacks among the roughly 500,000 Orthodox in Greater New York. “For the most part, we know each other,” Rison says. “It’s what we call Jewish geography—even if we’ve never met, we at least know someone in common.”
Wayne Lawrence became interested in photographing black Jews after he moved to Crown Heights, where memories still linger of the 1991 riots, and noticed a few black Orthodox living up the street. “It’s not that they identify as black Jews, but the fact that they identify as Orthodox,” he says. “What was surprising to me is that they’d want to be a part of something that didn’t necessarily want them there.”
The men and women he photographed included converts and some born into the faith, some of them Lubavitchers, some who call themselves Hasidic, and others who simply say Orthodox or “observant.” “You have to admire their courage,” he says. “They’re just trying to carve out their own space.”