TV panel probes being black and Jewish
BY KAREN BERKOWITZ email@example.com September 5, 2013 6:24PM
Aaron Freeman and Capers Funnye were interviewed about Black Jewish Racism on Aug. 27 at the Highland Park Public Access Studio. The program was moderated by Suzanne Cahnmann as part of her monthly series, Cahnmann’s Current Events Roundtable. | Karen Berkowitz/Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 5, 2013 3:18AM
Aaron Freeman and Capers Funnye weren’t born into Jewish families. They also weren’t schooled in the Torah as youngsters or immersed in Passover traditions from a tender age.
They chose Judaism as adults and, as African-Americans, don’t fit the typical image of the practicing Jew.
The two were interviewed about their choices Aug. 27 at the Highland Park Public Access Studio. The program on Black Jewish Racism was moderated by Suzanne Cahnmann as part of her monthly series, Cahnmann’s Current Events Roundtable. The show with Freeman and Funnye is set to air in October on channels 10 and 19.
Freeman is a black comedian, author and radio host who lives in Highland Park. Raised as a Catholic, Freeman chose Judaism 22 years ago and attends Aitz Hayim Center for Jewish Living in Glencoe.
Funnye is a prominent black rabbi who is the spiritual leader at Beth Shalom B’Nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation on Chicago’s Southwest Side. He was the first African-American rabbi to be elected to the Chicago Board of Rabbis. He also happens to be a cousin once removed from Michelle Obama. His mother, Verdelle Robinson Funnye, and the First Lady’s paternal grandfather, Frazier Robinson Jr., were brother and sister.
Asked about their gravitation to Judaism, Rabbi Funnye said his spiritual journey away from his Methodist upbringing began at 17 years old.
“I was offered a scholarship to become a Methodist minister,” said Funnye, who was unable to shake theological questions about the New Testament account of the Resurrection.
“Judaism says that it is OK to question. It is OK to synthesize your intellect with your spirituality,” Funnye continued. “Judaism has allowed that, and I live it every day, because I question every day.”
How did his family feel?
“I have two sisters who also converted to Judaism and a third who was on verge of conversion when my mother said, ‘Is everybody going to be Jewish?’” Funnye recalled.
Freeman handled the “why Judaism” question like the comedian he is.
“The Jews are the biggest, baddest, richest and most powerful gang on earth,” quipped Freeman. “Why would I not want to be a part of the biggest, baddest, richest and most powerful gang on earth?”
Freeman said he also liked making out with Jewish women, and the easiest way to find them was to attend synagogue.
On a rare serious note, Freeman encouraged anyone who thinks Judaism is a white person’s domain to check out a WTTW program on Funnye’s congregation on YouTube.
“You can see a version of Judaism that most of us are not privileged to see,” said Freeman.
Freeman is married to Sharon Rosenzweig and the two have co-authored “The Comic Torah: Reimagining the Good Book.”
During Cahnmann television taping, the guests also were asked their thoughts about issues, such as violence, that disproportionately impact black youth.
Noting his congregation is in a depressed area of Chicago, Funnye said he has worked with clergy from area mosques and churches to create safe havens. Funnye also works with local schools on “Weeding Out Hate,” an anti-bullying and violence strategy that plants seeds of opportunity and hope.
“In Highland Park, the African-American community has the same problems as the rest of the community,” responded Freeman, citing overspending and compulsive use of social media as examples.
“The African-Americans who are poor in the inner city have the same kind of problems as the white people who are poor in the inner city. The African-Americans who are over-privileged on the North Shore have the same kinds of problems” as their over-privileged white counterparts, he said. “It is not a melanin-based issue.”