Marra Gad’s new memoir, “The Color of Love: A Story of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl,” is the multilayered story of her life as a biracial Jew. Although it has been a life with loving parents, there were also hostile relatives and Jewish communities that were not always welcoming. Adopted as an infant, Gad was born to a white Jewish mother and a black father. The rabbi who arranged the adoption had no idea the child’s father was black and told Gad’s parents they could refuse the child. Instead, the Gads knew deep in their souls that Marra was their daughter. Their love illuminates the book’s narrative. However, much of Gad’s extended family made it clear that she was neither white nor Jewish in their eyes.
Originally from Chicago, Gad is now a Los Angeles-based television and film producer. She remains devoted to Judaism despite the racism and rejections she has often encountered in Jewish spaces. Gad also writes about her rejection in African American communities.
Gad recently spoke to JewishBoston about her memoir, her determination to take her place in the Jewish community and her decision to care for an elderly aunt with Alzheimer’s disease who displayed “a clear hatred” for Gad for much of her life. At the start of the interview, Gad noted she was donating a portion of her book sales to Second Nurture, a Jewish nonprofit that supports Jewish families wishing to foster and/or adopt children.
A major theme in your memoir is that we are all made in the image of God—b’tselem Elohim. How has that Jewish concept inspired you?
It’s an interesting moment to be asking me this question. I recently returned to LA from the URJ Biennial in Chicago. While I was there, it once again confirmed to me that we have a racism and intolerance problem in our community. Answering the question of how we fix it starts with each of us as individuals. I look at how we are behaving as a community, as well as how I’m behaving out in the world. I consider my behavior very carefully because I know what it is to be frozen out—sometimes aggressively, sometimes subtly.
I also know some people do not view me through b’tselem Elohim. There is a real sacredness in being human, and I honor that. We are all a human family. My parents understood the sacredness of being human. The minute the rabbi said there had been a mistake and my parents didn’t have to keep me, that was the moment they declared their understanding of b’tselem Elohim.
The crux of your book is your relationship with your great-aunt Nette. How did you cope with her racism toward you, and how were you able to be so generous and loving to her at the end of her life?
Again, it’s about b’tselem Elohim. I’ve been in therapy for over 25 years, and my humanity is continuously evolving. It’s a miracle that I’m still here. I decided that to survive, I was going to live a beautiful life I would be proud of. Nette provided me with a concrete moment in which I had to declare the kind of person I am. Was I going to walk the walk or wear a red dress at her funeral? To abandon her at her most vulnerable would have been vengeful. That is not how I’m built. I made the right choice to care for her. I know who I am, and that was the gift I received from my relationship with Nette. I processed her racism the same way I process everyone else’s. I do the work so I don’t carry racism with me. If I didn’t consciously do the work to let go of that toxicity, I would be dead by now.
Please reflect on some of your experiences as a biracial Jew.
I’m turning 50 in April, and once upon a time I used to explain myself to people, particularly when I attended synagogue. Some people thought I was a caregiver, or they automatically sent me to the kitchen. At the URJ Biennial this year, a woman who was also attending the Biennial presumed that I was hotel staff, complaining about her room service even though I was clearly wearing a presenter’s badge. Sometimes it makes sense to engage in a conversation with someone about how badly that just went, and sometimes it doesn’t. Had this woman apologized, that would have been a different thing, but she wasn’t sorry for mistaking me for the help. [See editor’s note below.]
This past Rosh Hashanah, I went to services in LA with a friend, and a woman would not stop staring at me. She asked my friend what I was doing there, and he told her that I usually go to Chicago to be with my family for the holiday, but I had decided to stay in LA this year. What this woman was asking was why there was a black woman seated next to her at service, even though she had watched me pray in impeccable Hebrew. If people who are confounded to see a non-white Jew don’t immediately apologize, they dig in. They don’t understand you can exist in my form and be a Jew.
On the other hand, there are plenty of black faces where my Judaism is met with similar confusion. I’ve been born into two tribes—black and Jewish—who should both know what it is to be treated badly because you are considered other. In my book, I say we should do better than this. I saw “we” because I view it as a collective problem. I continue to be baffled at the way we, in the Jewish community, go out of our way to tell each other that we’re not Jewish enough. We can’t even agree on how to spell Hanukkah. It’s not that hard—the Torah teaches us how to treat each other.
How has your book been received?
The book has been warmly received on tour, and I’m grateful for that. It seems to be prompting a conversation about how important it is to have face-to-face interactions, something that is missing in societal discourse in this century. For example, a young Latinx Filipinx woman came up to me at one of my readings and asked me how she should manage racism in her synagogue. I told her it had taken me 50 years and a lot of therapy to be grounded in understanding about who other people think I am and what God I should pray to. In the end, none of that matters—I know what is real and true. I am black and white and Jewish, and I am grounded in my wholeness.
What advice do you have for making Jewish people of color feel welcome in our communities?
It isn’t just about Jews of color versus white Ashkenazi Jews. It’s about how we treat one another. Every single person who comes to a Jewish space or comes to our Shabbat table should be greeted with the same level of respect, care and love. This is about the sacredness of our humanity. That work begins with individuals. Each person must admit, “I have my intolerant moments—we all do, and we have to acknowledge we have a problem.” If each of us can’t do that, then we do have a problem. There should be special sensitivities toward people who have been clearly ostracized and considered other in our Jewish community. I believe in the Jewish people and in human beings—we have the capacity to be better people. If I had to choose a religion, I would still be Jewish. Judaism is rooted in such beauty and the idea of family and community.
What do you hope people will take away from your book?
Love is always a choice, and love in the face of hatred is a powerful choice. I made a choice to make sure Nette was cared for because I know what it is to be hated just because I exist in this form. If my parents had agreed with the rabbi who arranged my adoption, I would have been placed in the system as a difficult kid to find a home for. My parents truly embodied unconditional love. When you grow up in that kind of environment, even with other problems swirling around us all the time, I’m glad that’s the Kool-Aid I drank. My brother and his wife recently adopted a baby. In the end, my biological and adoptive family is one that was created out of love.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Editor’s note: Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, publicly apologized on Facebook to Gad for the racism she encountered at the URJ Biennial in Chicago. The apology reads, in part: “I need to publicly apologize to Marra Gad, who endured numerous acts of racism at the recent URJ Biennial in Chicago. I’m the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, and what happened to Marra happened on my watch. I’m deeply sorry for each painful encounter.”
He continued: “Marra and I spoke yesterday, and I heard in her own words the pain of coming home to her movement’s Biennial and being made to feel other and unsafe. She came to Biennial as a featured presenter to share her extraordinarily powerful and moving memoir ‘The Color of Love,’ which documents her lifelong encounter with racism in our Jewish community. Her message could not be more timely and urgent. …We must all acknowledge that racism isn’t only ‘out there somewhere.’ Racism lives as well in our Jewish communities, and it lives in each of us. We can’t work to dismantle structures of racism in our society until we acknowledge that. The change we are tackling requires our commitment to go very deep at the very moment when hate, bigotry and racism are being fomented all around us. This change we desperately need will not happen quickly, but what’s at stake is our integrity as a Jewish community.”