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Growing Up Black and Jewish in America

March 24, 1991|LAURIE OCHOA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the coffee table of Tsan Merritt-Poree's small Westwood apartment, just a few minutes from her office at UCLA, is a stack of family photos. She picks up a small black-and-white print of an elegant black woman sitting erect in a slim lace dress, her white hair neatly pinned up. "That's my grandmother, Dolly Johnston-Ternoir," Merritt-Poree says. "She was so glamorous. Married seven times and loved to talk about it. She was a model, and sometimes she'd have these gold snake bracelets going up her arm like Medusa."

"And this," says Merritt-Poree as she picks up another sepia-toned portrait, "is my great-grandmother Elizabeth Cohen-Johnston. She came from a German beer-brewing family, and even though you can't tell from the picture, she had blond hair and blue eyes."

Elizabeth Cohen is Merritt-Poree's link to her Jewish heritage. Merritt-Poree, who is black, keeps kosher in her own home, and as a restaurant chef, has developed a series of what she calls progressive kosher recipes. She's studied baking in Germany, apprenticed at a French restaurant in Hanover, N.H., and for a time simultaneously held three restaurant jobs--as a breakfast caterer, as a lunch-time waitress and as a counter person on the late shift at a Boston greasy spoon diner.

In 1987, at the age of 25, she was hired as managing chef at Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel. Soon after, she was hired away by famed Harvard Law School professors Alan Dershowitz and Arthur Miller for the opening of their strictly kosher deli, Maven's Kosher Court on Harvard Square. In 1989, Merritt-Poree, who grew up in Berkeley, moved back to California to become the director of UCLA Extension's Culinary Arts Department.

"When people find out I'm Jewish they always ask me if I'm an Ethiopian Jew. Then they ask, 'Why did you convert?' Not if I converted, but why . No one ever thinks I could be an American, and they certainly don't think that I could be from Ashkenazi stock. But I am."

Still, it wasn't until Merritt-Poree was in college at Dartmouth that she became a practicing Jew. "I always knew I was Jewish growing up," she says. "But I wasn't raised Jewish. If a friend of mine was going to shul during Hanukkah or Rosh Hashana my mother would encourage me to go along. But most of my upbringing was pretty nonreligious. My mother took a passive role, partly I think because there was so much turmoil about Jews marrying blacks."

Merritt-Poree's great-grandmother was a Jew who married a black man, and half of her family disowned her because of it. "Think about it," Merritt-Poree says. "She married him in the mid-1800s. Even today people in half the states in America would ostracize you."

Her great-grandparents, Elizabeth Cohen and James Johnston, were married in Ohio, in a county where interracial marriages were permitted. That doesn't mean it was a wholly liberal-minded co1970173049"religious free zone."

When Elizabeth Cohen married James Johnston, her parents gave her the huge sum of $10,000 as a payoff to leave the family. With this money, Cohen put Johnston, who was an aspiring concert violinist, through Juilliard. He then supported the family as a musician. "I'm told he got a dollar a minute to play," Merritt-Poree says.

It was Merritt-Poree's rediscovery of her Jewish roots that got her digging into the family history. "One of my roommates at Dartmouth was Jewish," says Merritt-Poree, who was a religion major. "And when she found out I was Jewish too, she felt it was important to introduce me to the things I missed growing up. I really enjoyed the ritual. And I really liked the idea of Shabbat; it was a time to relax and try to reflect and celebrate family and just being alive."

Here in Los Angeles, Merritt-Poree attends Shabbat services less often."I'd like to go to services every Shabbat, but I don't. Part of it is laziness, and part of it is feeling that I just don't want to be stared at for being different." For being a black Jew.

"It's strange, I've always found that the Orthodox community is much more receptive than the Reform community to 'different people.' I once asked a rabbi about why that was, and he said that as you move away from the core of a religion, you have to justify your reason for subscribing to that religion and then for not being more devout. It becomes more exclusive; you feel that you're part of a special little club.

"But the more religious you are, the less you need justification; it becomes a way of life. In the Orthodox community, which comes closest to practicing what is written in the Talmud, the feeling is that as long as you are Jewish and as long as you daven with us, we don't have anything to hide. We aren't scared off by someone who may look a little different."

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