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Jews of color discuss identity at Chum’s

By Caleigh Bartash

Section: Arts, Featured

February 2, 2018

Brandeis Hillel presented their second coffeehouse in a series of race talks on Thursday, Feb. 1 at Chum’s with coordinators Anna Stern ’18, Aviva Davis ’21, Shari Boiskin ’21 and Yael Jaffe ’18. Featuring five acts and six performers, the content of the showing was both enlightening and empowering. Audience members sat comfortably on Chum’s couches as they observed a variety of exceptional acts including comedy, musical numbers, slam poetry and a music video.

First, emcee Anna Stern discussed the purpose of the coffeehouse: to get the Jewish community engaged with race and racial justice. After the short introduction, Michelle Banayan ’18 took the stage to share her experiences as an Iranian Jew in a poetry reading with a comedic twist. She recalled growing up in a Persian community after her family left Iran during the Islamic Revolution. She cited her creative influence from Canadian-Indian poet Rupi Kaur and delivered punny quips about avocados, dog allergies and most of her difficulties as a left-handed person. Banayan’s act was relatable, with mentions of late-night Netflix binges, the small desks in Gerstenzang and the Bop It! toy of her childhood, but her comedic timing was the highlight of the show. She ended with a piece comparing life to a gym. Before leaving the stage, Banayan also offered her Instagram, “vegan_milkandhoney,” where she posts pictures of her playful poems, like the ones she performed at the coffeehouse.

Next up was Davis, who performed the song “Hurts,” by Lebanese-English singer Mika, a ballad about the power of words. Her voice was soft and soulful, though she clearly felt passion for the lyrics and related to the artist. Once the song ended she described her experiences as a Jew of color. Aviva reminisced on one particular question she has been asked since kindergarten: Does she believe in Jesus? She shared that although she had not known the answer when she was five, she has been working on knowing enough about herself to answer others’ questions. Her strong sense of humor and wit were apparent as she considered her perceptions of how other people envision Jews, saying others weren’t “as dashing or drop-dead gorgeous.” Throughout, she focused on the importance of intersectionality within Judaism and finally answered for herself that, for Jews, believing in Jesus is “not our jam.”

Third to the stage was the singing duo made up of sisters Selen Amado ’18 and Deniz Amado ’18, Turkish Sephardic Jews. Selen and Deniz reflected on their struggles of maintaining religious connections despite living in a predominantly Muslim country where they said Judaism could not be openly talked about. They remembered how difficult it was to attend Jewish youth programs at home, but professed their appreciation for the safety and openness they discovered at Brandeis. Deniz strummed a guitar as the sisters serenaded the crowd with Sephardic, English and Turkish songs. Their voices were sweet and light as they sang, especially during their rendition of Birdy’s “People Help the People,” with clear talent shining through.

Slam poet José Castellanos ’18 returned for his second race talk coffeehouse with a strong presentation of a spoken word poem he wrote about vision and perception. He pondered passionately over the stares of contempt he has received as a self-identified light-skinned Hispanic and Jew. His powerful piece explored the ways others see him as a Jew of color, but also how he perceives himself. The final lines of his poem seemed to acknowledged that though the poem was from his personal experience, it also came from his identity and the “Eyes of a Jew of color.”

Although the final act, Japanese-Jewish filmmaker Noah Iimura ’18, was not present for the presentation of a music video, his message was clear. After hearing an interesting hip-hop song on social media, he reached out to its creator with the intent of creating a special music video for it. In the end, he created a compelling visual accompaniment to the rap track that merged the powerful lyrics with a public service announcement. In the video, a passerby stops to smoke and talk with a homeless veteran about alcoholism and loss. His call for action about youth homelessness as well as drug and alcohol addiction was a piece of art with purpose that brought the coffeehouse to a commanding close.

José Castellanos is a columnist for The Brandeis Hoot.

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