Philosopher Lewis Gordon's Impact on Black Jewish HistoryHistorians in the News
tags: Jewish history, Black History, African Diaspora
Lewis R. Gordon is a world-renowned philosopher, not a history professor. But his impact on Black history and Black Jewish history in particular has been profound.
The head of the philosophy department at the University of Connecticut, Gordon, 60, previously founded and directed the Center for Afro-Jewish Studies at Temple University. And before coming to Temple in 2004, he created and led the Africana Studies Department at Brown University.
Along the way, he’s mentored scores of students, many of whom have gone on to do serious scholarly work in Jewish studies. One is Walter Isaac, a member of a Hebrew Israelite group not popularly associated with serious academic study. After graduating Yale, Isaac became a research fellow under Gordon at Brown and later followed him to Temple to earn his doctorate.
“I was researching the influence of the Cardozo family in the creation of Rhode Island’s Hebrew Israelite communities. I was also looking for mentors to help oversee my doctoral-level research in Jewish studies,” said Isaac, who teaches at the University of Tennessee Knoxville and is an ordained Universalist rabbi.
“At that time, most Jewish studies programs — including some heavily funded ones with world-renowned scholars — simply weren’t interested in using resources to study the problems faced by either African diaspora populations of Hebrew ancestry,” Isaac said, calling Gordon a welcome exception.
“Dr. Gordon saw the value in the work I was doing. He has definitely had a major impact on many areas of intellectual life — including American Judaism,” continued Isaac, who has gone on to produce scholarly works on Hebrew Israelites, as has another of Gordon’s Temple proteges, Andre Key of Claflin University.
Along with his classroom progeny, Gordon himself has written extensively about Jews of color, including a 2016 paper in the journal American Jewish History about the subject as an academic discipline, “Rarely Kosher: Studying Jews of Color in North America.”
Joining the University of Connecticut to lead its philosophy department in 2013, Gordon also has appointments with the school’s departments of Judaic Studies, Caribbean, Latinx, and Latin American Studies, Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies and its Institute for Brain and Cognitive Science.
His seminal work is What Fanon Said: A Philosophical Introduction to his Life and Thought, and he is an expert, if not the expert, on the Black Caribbean existentialist, drawing from his own roots.
Gordon’s roots begin in Kingston, Jamaica, where he was born to a Sephardic and Mizrahi mother and a Chinese and African father. Their Jewishness was centered in their home.
“My family’s experience is something I’ve seen all over the world — it’s very familiar in places where you have people who are Jewish in a heavily Christian environment,” Gordon said in an interview. “So, we worshipped at home. The prohibitions around food and the way it’s prepared, the way you wash the house — the history we talked about — those things were so much part of our identity that we wouldn’t call the actions Jewish, or the moment Jewish. It was just a way of life, so natural and normal among my family members.”