Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

Jewish Indians: Members of two tribes that have glimpsed the brink of their extinction

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By Jonathan Tilove

February 2, 1994

c. 1994  Newhouse News Service

Jewish Indians. That’s right. Jewish Indians.

We’re not talking the Lost Tribes of Israel, though across a broad swath of American history that is precisely who such diverse and influential thinkers as Cotton Mather, William Penn and Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, thought the Indians were.

But we are talking members of a tribe who, through conversion or intermarriage, are also Members of the Tribe.

There may not be a lot of them, but there are people who are both Native American and Jewish, and beneath their unlikely, sometimes comic commingling, there lies a deeper, more hallowed connection. It is a kinship born of each glimpsing the brink of their own extinction. But their stories also tell of the endless permutations of American diversity, and what is gained and given in the crossing.

In their very uniqueness, Jewish Indians are exemplars of the extraordinary richness of an American multiculturalism that is so often muddied up by the lumping of people into categories like white and black, Hispanic and Asian, and even Indian and Jew that serve more to obscure than explain.

There is painter Richard Glazer Danay, who grew up Caughnawaga Mohawk and Jewish in Coney Island.

“I’m a Shmohawk,” says Danay, who counts among his uncles Nathan Glazer, co-author of “Beyond the Melting Pot,” and Joe Glazer, a labor folk singer. Danay says growing up Jewish meant that it was not a question of whether to go to college but where.

Today, Danay serves on the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Board and teaches at the University of California at Long Beach.

There are the Albuquerque sisters Mayera and Jessica Abeita, age 16 and 14, who have been bat mitzvahed at their mother’s synagogue, with some Indian flourishes, and done traditional dances at their Laguna father’s pueblo.

“They know where they come from on both sides,” says their father, Gus, who would like them to marry within the pueblo but is not counting on it.

There is Jeffree Itrich, also of Albuquerque, whose Cherokee grandma, Bennye Lee Parrott, was working the cigar counter at the train station in Tyler, Texas, just after World War I, when a Jewish tire merchant from a very Orthodox New York family, struck by her beauty, told her to go home, pack her bags and come away with him. She did and they stayed married until his death in 1953. (She just died recently in a California nursing home.)

Itrich herself was previously married to Joel Brooks, former director of the Albuquerque Jewish Federation, whose first wife was also a Jewish Indian, who had converted to woo an earlier Jewish boyfriend.

“Here I am a boy from Boro Park, Brooklyn, I went to an Orthodox Yeshiva, I’ve been married twice and both turned out to be part Cherokee,” says Brooks, whose hobby is studying “exotic Jewish communities” around the world.

That the meshing of Jew and Indian should itself be considered exotic is more a matter of stereotyped preconceptions, of the relatively small number of either Jews or Indians, and the fact that most of those places with large populations of one have small populations of the other.

But there is hardly a family tree in America that does not find itself a tangle of some sort of ethnic, religious and cultural difference, if of a less arcane variety.

The intermingling of Indian and Jew began in the 1800s when a few Jewish merchants married women from the Indian tribes they traded with. The most notable case was that of a German Jew named Solomon Bibo who in 1885 married an Acoma Indian woman in New Mexico and ultimately went on to govern the pueblo, the only white man ever to do so.

In his last novel, “The People,” left unfinished when he died, Bernard Malamud wrote the story of a Jewish peddler who becomes an Indian chief but cannot lead his adopted people to a place of safety and happiness.

The last scene Malamud wrote had the Jewish chief and his tribe on a train being transported, like Jews to the camps, to a “miserable” new reservation in Missouri. “A place of death,” says the Indian named Last Days.

Malamud’s final words: “The moaning of the Indians began as the freight cars were moving along the tracks.”

Suzan Shown Harjo, a Cheyenne poet, writer and activist in Washington, D.C., knows this to be more than bleak metaphor.

“Indians, like the Jews, are survivors who have lived lives on the run, who have not had time over many generations to grieve or mourn or even bury their dead and who have been the victims of the most hideous kinds of politics and personal attacks,” says Harjo, a former head of the National Congress of American Indians.

Harjo knows firsthand. She is the widow of Frank Harjo, a Jewish Indian whose parents were united in a Malamudian veil of tears.

Frank Harjo’s mother, Frances Licht, escaped the horror of the Warsaw ghetto for freedom in New York City, only to run into the arms of Duke Harjo, a Muskogee Indian who was in the Navy. They met and married and moved back to the misery of the Muskogee reservation in Oklahoma.

“They moved to Oklahoma, where the two most hated groups of the day were Indians and Jews,” says Harjo. In the space of a few years, Frances Licht had gone from one benighted ghetto to what to her must have been an even stranger one a world away.

“It’s just awesome to contemplate,” says Harjo, though she says, “She probably partnered up with Duke Harjo because they had a lot in common, more than they knew.”

Just above the Arctic Circle in Kotzebue, Alaska, Ken Erlich, a Jew, a state judge, and before that the only attorney in private practice above the circle, lives with his Inupiat (Eskimo) wife, their three Jewish-Inupiat children and five grandchildren.

Erlich’s mother survived Auschwitz. He was born in Montreal and as a child moved to Minneapolis. Home was always temporary, transitory.

Now, he says, there are only two places in the world he knows he could always go and it would be OK. “One is Israel,” he says. “The other place is where I am.”

Despite the sometimes harrowing tales, there is something, at first blush, intrinsically funny about the mere juxtaposition of Jewish and Indian.

“It has a kind of Mel Brooks, who’d have thunk it quality,” says Mel Marks. Marks is the author of the self-published “Jews Among the Indians: Tales of Adventure and Conflict in the Old West,” which has become a minor hit in the Jewish book club circuit.

And Mel Brooks could not, for example, improve on Chicago’s Vonda Gluck – Chippewa, Cree, Sioux, a pinch French, and, since her marriage and conversion nearly 30 years ago, 100% Jewish, right down to the inflection.

“I remember my mother saying that Jews made good husbands,” recalls Gluck. “She would never say it in front of him, but I remember her telling church friends that my father was such a good man, she thought he might be Jewish.”

Dad wasn’t, but Vonda determined her husband would be.

When Vonda’s first Jewish intended died in an accident, she quickly found another, one Stanley Gluck. Despite Stanley’s concern that she might become “too Jewish,” Vonda converted and was for many years president of the synagogue sisterhood. She also played a leadership role at Chicago’s American Indian Center along with best friend Sharon Skolnick, an Apache woman (she says her great-grandfather, Chief Loco, ran with Geronimo) who is likewise married to a Jewish man. The Skolnicks’ eldest daughter, Debbie, in fact, is quite literally a Jewish-American Indian princess, having been crowned Chicago Indian Princess a few years back by then-Mayor Harold Washington.

“I don’t believe there’s anyone out there who’s pure anything anymore,” says Greg Isaacs, a Jew and Taos Pueblo Indian. “Anyone who says they are is just not thinking clearly.”

Isaacs, 27, who owns an Indian gallery at the pueblo, says he likes the fact that he can “shape change,” moving in and out of Indian and Jewish life more easily than somebody who is entirely one or the other. But, he acknowledges, that also means he is never entirely accepted or comfortable in either world.

For now, he exults in his “uniqueness.”

But his father, Tony Isaacs, at a more melancholy time of life, recalls how after his Taos wife, Ida, died a few years ago, he tried going to a “white” party in town and did not fit in.

Isaacs grew up in Los Angeles and got interested in Indian music as a Boy Scout. There was something deep and ancient that reminded him of the cantorial music he heard in synagogue. He would end up devoting his life to recording Indian music for a label he created, called Indian House. Yet, despite his immersion in Indian life and his marriage to a pueblo women, he knows he is not really Indian either.

Especially now with her gone, he says, “It’s a very marginal existence.”

It is the Jewish-Indian as the ultimate outsider. Or perhaps penultimate.

“It’s been very hard being Eskimo and Indian and black and Jew,” says Kavelina Anderson, 22, who is all that and an aircraft mechanic in Bethel, Alaska, some 700 miles from her hometown of Anchorage.

Her father, Craig Anderson, a black man from Belleville, N.J., moved to Alaska in 1965, converted to Judaism (back then, he says, they called the congregation “the frozen chosen.”), married a woman with Indian and Eskimo blood, and had a family.

“I knew I was different,” says Kavelina, the second of three girls. “Boy, was it ever obvious.”

But she’s made her way, finding strength and order in a religion that she appreciates never attempted to colonize and convert native peoples, requiring them to repudiate their language, their culture and their past. Jews, like Indians, don’t proselytize.

“It works for me,” says Kavelina of her religion. “I don’t have to be oppressed.” She has even found some Albanian Muslims in Bethel to “not eat pork with.

“I don’t have to forsake one part of me for another,” she says. “So I don’t.”


Written by jonathantilove

July 8, 2012 at 7:52 pm

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