The Good, the Bad and the Not So Pretty

From Ghetto to Ghetto: An African American Journey to Judaism

Ernest H. Adams

iUniverse | $20.95 | (ISBN: 978-1-4401-2085-5) | 272 pp

Reviewed by Daji Kuweza

book cover

In the interest of full disclosure and transparency, it should be noted that I have been a friend of the author and that I’m specifically cited in the text as one of his colleagues during his college experience at New York University. He also makes a point of mentioning me when he makes public presentations.

The Good:

Writing an autobiography is a task that carries the potential for perilous revelations about oneself and those we know. The author, Ernest H. Adams, does an excellent job of making the reader aware of all his imperfections and insecurities as he struggles to overcome them and ‘make something of himself’. His epilogue provides a fantastic summary of his obstacles and triumphs and proposes a philosophical view of what African-Americans need to do in order to adapt to the changing world as full members of the human family.

His life literally begins in the basement of life - a smelly basement apartment in Harlem, NY - and his life-path involves difficulties to which many of his friends, neighbors and associates succumb. The path is made even more difficult by some of the in-grained mechanisms that African-American culture has developed as a means of compensating for physical and mental abuse by the dominant white culture – usually in the form of self-defeating thoughts and actions built upon expectations of under-handed treatment and other actions that lead to distrust both of whites and of fellow blacks. Adams had a certain amount of dysfunction in his family, specifically with his mother and father, which he resolves and understands better by the time he concludes his story. It is encouraging to see him evolve and work through his numerous self-doubts. He gets little support from his mother or father in this regard, both of whom had been beaten down by the system and both of whom try to guide him to limit his expectations and keep them in line with those that they’ve created for themselves.

At a young age, he confronts racial discrimination and terror in South Carolina and a less harsh version in New York. His mother occasionally tries to show him a broader world by exposing him to the New York life, specifically in Manhattan, beyond the borders of Harlem. He mentions additional broader exposure, through a school program, but he doesn’t provide detail. We follow him through the coming of age during the Civil Rights movement and the development of the Black Power movement. He provides insights into the struggles he and his friends confronted in trying to make sense of those social movements and learning to apply their lessons to their individual lives.

But we’re constantly finding that he has tremendous problems with self-esteem. Friends, and sometimes acquaintances, have greater success than him in navigating and attaining rewards for their efforts, which causes his self-esteem to further erode.

At his core, he shows that he is a deeply troubled man in search of self-confidence and a sense of purpose. Even as he makes academic and career progress, he remains a messy, unhappy person. One must be happy for him when we discover that he finds this confidence and purpose. In his case, he finds it via exposure to Judaism.

His writing is somewhat confusing while occasionally jumping back-and-forth through different years and events in a somewhat incoherent fashion, with overblown and over-embellished flowery phrasing and imagery, but it becomes clear that he finds acceptance among friends and professional colleagues who happen to be Jewish and this leads him to explore their methods of worship as well as their ideas.

The Bad:

In my experience, people who study and become psychologists often do so in hopes of discovering things about themselves. This author is no exception. While he makes declarative statements about Judaism and his experiences in the US and Israel, we never get a road map of how he arrived at his decision to embrace Judaism as his own religion.

He never reconciles his pre-Judaism beliefs with his new religion, nor clearly states what most of them were. His mother was a Jehovah’s Witness and he grew up fully participating in their affairs, even making regular Sunday morning bible presentations. Although he later eschews Witness views, and rejects Christian ideas - declaring himself an Atheist - we never hear what makes sense to him and what does not, in terms of religious doctrine. Yes, in his youth, he finds it impossible to accept that God allows outrageous harm and death to happen to black people, and so rejects a belief in God’s existence. But his later acceptance of God in terms of Judaism does not explained in terms of why and how he reconciles this idea with the idea that God allowed the Jewish Holocaust.

In fact, the essential weakness of his story of conversion is that it does not have a religious focus, but an ethnic one. This is done at the same time that he tries to make a case for the universality and non-ethnic appeal of Judaism by citing non-European groups of people, of various colors and nationalities, who are Jewish. Yet, simultaneously, he writes about confronting reactions to his being a Jew, from the larger white American Jewish community.

The bad news is that when confronted with negative reactions and actions from white American Jewry, he is always forgiving, but when confronted with negative reactions and actions from African-Americans, he is not forgiving and extremely annoyed. In one segment, he even gets cowed into accepting an obvious racist slight because he wants acceptance from all his Jewish friends who are appalled that he has “out-ed” a fellow synagogue member as a “racist.”

Being accepted is such a strong desire for him, but he never attempts it with any other groups besides Jewish people and definitely not with any groups who are not white. He exhibits limited exposure to other cultures and religions and makes poor comparisons.

Adams goes to Ethiopia via Israel and is surprised that most Ethiopians immediately recognize him as an American. Later, he finds another Ethiopian who thinks he is an African from another part of Africa. He doesn’t try to understand this, but regularly declares no particular connection to Africa, but a definite connection to Israel as his ”motherland.”

He references Alex Haley’s Roots in a way that this writer personally knows is inaccurate. We both heard Haley’s story, in 1969, while students at NYU, several years before the book was published and seven years before it became a TV-mini-series. At one point during Haley’s presentation, he noted that various Africans could ”see” places of origin in facial photographs of black people in Ebony magazine. Adams notes this, without specifically mentioning Ebony, while referring to the same discovery his mother made when she made a trip to Africa. Yet Adams doesn’t realize that this type of African recognition should apply to him, as well. If he truly associated, socially, with Africans who had resettled in the US he could have made this discovery without leaving American soil.

Whenever he travels to Israel, he is subject to terrorist searches and pulled out of the line because he laughingly says that he is a “BMW” – Black Man Walking. Even his white Jewish-American friends are pulled out when the airport security people learn that they are with him. He makes no effort to ever visit Africa, Ethiopia or elsewhere, except via Israel and as a Jew. He meets African Jews in Israel and knows of other African Jews from his readings. He has no curiosity or interest outside of his self-imposed confinement.

Adams notes that he regularly gets questioned – but only by African-Americans - about the political aspects of being Jewish and supporting Israel. He cogently notes that the question is posed because most African-Americans see the Palestinians as victims in the establishment of the State of Israel. Although he pronounces that he once believed and supported this position, now that he has become Jewish, he doesn’t know why people don’t see that Israel has a “moral” right to exist. In this, too, there is no explanation of his road map or how he arrived at his new position or view, but merely declarations.

The Holocaust happened in Europe and the Israeli settlers and Zionists were Europeans, who looked-down upon their non-European Jewish brethren. This is one of the things that Adams discovers in his travels to Israel, and which we (myself and others) published in a NYU publications in 1971, but he wasn’t paying attention.

He also makes a poor analogy between the efforts of Marcus Garvey and Theodore Herzl. Zionist Jews, who originally planned to go to Uganda, but later shifted to Palestine, differed from Garvey’s ‘”Back to Africa” movement in an essential way: Garvey intended for the African diaspora to re-integrate itself with the inhabitants of their African motherland; Zionism was a plan for the Jewish diaspora to displace the inhabitants of their Arab-Palestinian motherland.

The Not So Pretty:

I have never seen a statistical study of Jewish intermarriage with other religious groups that cites the number of females versus the number of males who engage in intermarriage, but from anecdotal references (people, news stories, etc) and observations, it seems that most conversions are made by women who convert to Judaism rather than men.

When Adams came to Atlanta for a book presentation and signing, he shared the stage with one such female convert. Her story was about being in love and making a change, and it was told in terms of religion, not ethnicity. She was white and her husband was white and the issue was about religious observance.

The Portuguese used to have a colonial strategy in Africa that required any native African who wanted to attend school, achieve educational goals and improve their lives to become an “assimilado,” effectively eschewing one’s African connections to family and clan in order to become “Portuguese.”

One cannot but wonder if Adams is a willing victim of a form of ‘assimilado’-ism. Whenever discussing inter-ethnic relations, he ponders why people cannot see that he is both Jewish and African-American. In reality, he is both, but when he discusses how to resolve differences he descends into the litmus test argument: that African-Americans must recognize the moral right of Israel to exist. This belies an ability to be effectively both. He chooses one side over the other, as he makes plain in several pronouncements throughout the text – that he is Jewish, first and foremost.

Our great icons of the Civil Rights struggle built coalitions with many people of different opinions and religious persuasions. Jews were a part of this coalition, but were not the only white participants. Catholics, Protestants, Greeks, Italians, etc., were all a part of the effort, but historically, they got short straws in any discussion about non-black participation.

In one peculiar sentence, Adams states that “I had no knowledge then and have none now of Jews precipitating racially motivated attacks on black people.” When I read it, I thought, ‘has this man never heard of Meir Kahane?’ Kahane, who was eventually assassinated in New York City, established his Jewish Defense League in Brooklyn, as a semi-terrorist organization that Brooklyn African-Americans knew was capable of baseball bat attacks, if one could not explain what they were doing in a particular neighborhood. Kahane eventually moved to Israel, where he was an advocate for the ethnic cleansing of Arabs, and eventually banned by the Israeli government from running for office when he was classified as a racist.

At one point, Adams references the killing of a Jew in Brooklyn, during a riot. He exhibits ignorance of the events that precipitated this killing – the vehicular homicide of black children, playing on a sidewalk, who were run over by a car driven by a Jew. That driver was never charged with the crime, never had a trial, and was, instead, given a pass out of the country so that he could flee to Israel. This would never have happened if the situation had been reversed and a Jewish child, playing on a sidewalk, was killed by a black driver. None of the major Jewish organizations offered to help return the Jewish driver to the US to stand legal charges and trial, an action that would have undoubtedly prevented the riotous situation.

Those Jewish individuals who were instrumental in Adams conversion are fellow Manhattanites, a sort of distinctly different class of professionals who are relatively liberal. His book is primarily written as a sermon-to-the-choir, those who are already converted, considering it, or who were raised as Jewish. At the same time, it is appealing and memorable as a stroll-down-memory-lane for those who lived through the same time period and dealt with some of the same issues of the 1950’s thru 1980’s. His triumphs over self-doubt and low self-esteem are inspirational. Those who don’t have the same levels of self-doubt and need for acceptance, will find some portions of his views disturbing.

Ernest Adams has a PhD in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University and JD from New York University. He practices as an Executive Coach, Life Coach, Diversity Coach and Consultant and psychologist. He lives in New York City.

Daji Kuweza, is a software developer and technical writer, a sometime publisher of various socio-political periodicals, and has recently agreed to be a blogger for the Center for Civil and Human Rights. He resides in metro Atlanta, GA.

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