Martin Luther King, Jr. Was Jewish, Right?

“Martin Luther King Jr. Was Jewish, Right?”  And Other Stuff Kids from Multicultural Families come up With.

“I have a dream that one day … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  1963, Washington D.C.

On the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1960s, King’s dream of racial harmony was already thriving in many households.  Growing up biracial in that locale and era I was in good company. Brownish kids with wild, free form hair were visible at every turn.  Whatever wasn’t perfect in my life, having parents of different races didn’t feel unusual.

When my husband and I were planning our family, we knew we wanted what I’d had: a hometown where being mixed was as ordinary as breathing.  That’s what we’ve got.  Our town is full of multiracial, multicultural, adoptive (transracially, internationally, and otherwise), interfaith, multi-national families, as well as families headed by same-sex parents.  At school, my children have always had at least three fellow biracial classmates.  No one from our town has asked if I am my children’s nanny.

What I love most is that these kids are so immersed in diversity, it’s not diversity to them.  Children in our town think Jewish, for example, comes in all colors and nationalities—that having two mommies is something to boast about (most kids only get one!).  Maybe our town’s borders support a too-protective bubble, but I hope normalizing difference fortifies our children, provides a sense of grounding for when they venture into the less-blended world outside.

When my daughter was in second grade, I helped her class celebrate Hanukah in December and then returned in January to read a story honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.   As I was on my way out, one little boy stopped me:  “Wait,” he said, “Martin Luther King was Jewish, Right?”

When kids share snatches of their open-minded world-views, it’s so refreshing.  You have to stop and acknowledge how much adults assume, how fixed our ideas can be.  The following is an essay I wrote a few years ago about my son’s multi-ethnocentric melding of two great men.


Lisa W. Rosenberg, 2009

            “Hey, Mommy—” Theo looks up from the picture he’s drawing: a couple of robots and something exploding.  “Was Grandpa Mel Martin Luther King?”

I smile at the question, which has come up before.  My six-year-old son has conflated my late father with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  It’s not hard to follow his reasoning.  Theo’s grandfather has been dead longer than he himself has been alive; as far as he can see, my father and Martin Luther King have more in common than not: both black, both deceased, each iconic and legendary.

We refer to my father, who died of cancer in 1995, as Grandpa Mel, as if he’d actually survived to be a grandpa.  I show my children his pictures and tell them stories about his life.  On Saturdays, over their pancakes, I pour maple syrup prepared Grandpa Mel-style: piping hot, butter melted right in.  Not that my children want for grandfatherly love. The grandpas my children know adore them.  They read to them, play with them and even make them pancakes.   Like my mother and my husband’s mother, they are white and Jewish; three quarters of my children’s ancestry being Eastern European.  The African quarter—my father’s imprint—is easy to see in my daughter, Zoe.  She understands that we get the brown in our skin and the texture of our hair via Grandpa Mel.  Theo’s black ancestry is less apparent: his skin is pinker than brown, and while his hair gets curly in the summer humidity, he’ll be lucky to have a decent Jew-fro by the time he hits puberty.  Still, Theo knows he takes after Grandpa Mel in other ways.  Small of stature, paradoxically deep of voice—that was my dad; that’s my son.  Round face despite a slight body and thin neck.  Thick glasses that make him look wise beyond his years.  In the right light, when Theo is concentrating on a drawing, a book or a Lego structure, frown angled down to meet the glasses on his pale-yet-African-inflected nose, my little boy brings tears to my eyes.  That’s Mel’s Williamson’s grandson.

Theo’s association with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began with a photograph of my dad, one of many my mother keeps on display.  In the picture, my dad is slighter than King, and wears round, black-rimmed glasses (the reverend wore none).  But his brow is knit with intensity, as King’s often was; he’s deep in conversation with someone outside the frame, unaware of the camera.  Between the facial expression, the dark suit, and the hairline—tight, black kinks high on a broad, brown forehead—if you looked quickly, you might see King, too.   I’ve observed Theo staring at the picture, wheels turning inside his head.

The similarities between my father and King weren’t just physical.  My dad, though an atheist, had enormous respect for the black church; he had a rich bass and was a masterful orator.   He marched for civil rights too—in Mississipi, Chicago, and Washington—handing out pamphlets, registering voters alongside fellow blacks and like-minded whites.

Theo was three years old the first time Martin Luther King, Jr. made an impact on him (the connection to Grandpa Mel being a few years away).   On the Friday before King’s birthday, a friend of mine picked Theo up at preschool for a play date with her son.  The boys, both children of biracial, black and Jewish parents, were chatting excitedly about the important man they had learned about that day.  What was his name? my friend asked, believing she knew the answer.  There was silence as the boys looked at one another, uncertain.  At last, Theo spoke up:

“Marvin Lutenstein.”

Theo aged three as Pirate Knight

When I heard the story, I had a good laugh at my son’s Jewish-ization of the great civil rights leader, touched that he saw the world through the lens of his blended ethnicity.  Then I wondered, as I often wonder, how much of my father’s history and culture will register for my children, with no one but myself to impart them.  I cannot kid myself; my father will never be Theo’s grandpa the way his living grandpas are.  Grandpa Mel can’t teach him chess, throw him a baseball or applaud his masterful tennis swing.  Still, I can hope that as Theo grows and learns about the world—guided by the loving adults in his life—he will one day understand his value as the joining of his two cultures, a walking image of King’s own dream.

10 responses to “Martin Luther King, Jr. Was Jewish, Right?

  1. I love Marvin Lutenstein. That is precious! So much in common. We have to continue to fight to get “isms” out of our world.

  2. Thank you, Lisa, for sharing this beautiful essay, bringing me so much closer to you, your deep loving memory of your Dad, and your delightful picture of the kids. I love the way you hold on to all these memories, keep them so vital. Wilma

  3. This is a beautiful post Lisa — love the essay and the connections you make between our human being being same kind of different.

  4. Another uplifting/poignant post! Thanks for sharing this!

  5. I love that your kids know your long-deceased dad as Grandpa Mel. What a powerful way to share him – more effective than, just describing him as your father. He is their Grandpa. It sounds like it brings him right into your house and makes him part of the kids’ lives.

  6. Love that! Marvin Lutenstein. Great story. 🙂

  7. Thank you Jennifer, I truly feel that way, though I do get wistful thinking about the joy they would have brought him!

  8. Reblogged this on Lisa W. Rosenberg and commented:

    I’m re-posting this one today, as Black History Month Draws to a close–another post within a post–thinking about the wonderful and original ways children interpret our words and their world.

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