For 18 years of her life, Lacey Schwartz didn’t know her true identity. She had been led by her family to believe that her parents were both white Jews, but her dark skin color told a different story. Then, when she became an adult, it was revealed that her mother had a secret affair with an African American man. This is when Schwartz began a journey involving a self-identity crisis as she coped with this life-altering news. Now, she’s showing the world her story in her self-made film, Outside the Box.
Schwartz, who is the managing director of Truth Aid and director of outreach for Be’chol Lashon, said she hopes her film, which is still in-progress, will get people talking and thinking about family, community, and identity issues, since she struggled with them herself. “For me it took a long time to integrate my two identities of being black and Jewish. Initially I compartmentalized both identities and looked at being black as disconnected from being Jewish. I really had to push myself to acknowledge that was ridiculous and that I had to be able to accept myself as both things and that there is no real distance between the two. I had been raised in a world where being Jewish meant being white. I challenged myself and that assumption by connecting to the many racial and ethnic diverse elements of the global Jewish world.”
For her thought provoking film, Schwartz has so far raised over $280,000, but needs $75,000 to take it through the festival circuit. Truth Aid, which she runs with her partner Mehret Mandefro, as well as Be’chol Lashon are collaborating to produce it. Diane Tobin, the Executive Director of Be’chol Lashon, said, “For those of us with complicated Jewish stories, [Outside the Box] will be tremendously comforting and vindicating. And for others, it will be unsettling, and further proof that the Jewish community is going to hell in a hand basket. But whether you love it or hate it, I think it will stimulate game-changing dialogue.”
Schwartz and Tobin are working hand in hand creating an educational outreach campaign for the film. Tobin wants to screen it in classrooms, museums, and community centers “in order to kick start a much needed discussion about how Jewish identity is transforming in the 21st century.”
Finding a concrete statistic on how many Jews of color there are is difficult, but the New York Times estimates that no more than 10 percent of America’s Jewish population are Jews of color . It is no wonder that Schwartz felt different in her community, where her kind is rare. When asked if she was ever discriminated against, she said, “I don’t know if I would use the word discriminated… Judged maybe… Definitely questioned. For better or worse I tend to avoid situations where people would have an opportunity to discriminate against me.”
Despite the unfortunate presence of ignorance and hate, globalization has positively contributed to the wider acceptance of more diverse Jews, according to Tobin. “Jews are part of American life and are affected by social trends. Taboos around interracial and LGBT unions are diminishing, transracial adoption is increasing, and people see being Jewish as one of many choices. America is becoming less white with a majority of Americans approving of interracial marriage. Given that 50 percent of Jews intermarry, Jewish diversity is increasing.”
Tobin believes that Schwartz’s story will be particularly captivating to younger people trying to find their personal identity. “Whereas Lacey’s life story maybe be unique, her honest no-holds-barred approach to resolving questions and pushing boundaries is universally compelling, which I think will particularly resonate with younger generations who are searching and whose Jewish identity is one choice among the many identities they may navigate.”
Mandefro believes that Schwartz’s film will be inspiring, and give people the gumption to stay true to themselves despite what others may think. “[Outside the Box] is a very courageous film that demonstrates that resilience begins with vulnerability,” she said. “Lacey bears all in this film in ways that make you want to dare to do the same.”
Schwartz agrees with Mandefro, and hopes that “Outside the Box” will contribute to a better world. “On a personal level, I want [people] to come out of [the film] not just thinking about my story and my family, but about themselves – who they are and what they need to do to come out of their own box. I think if people continue to push themselves to live more authentic lives it will increase our collective well-being.”
To donate to Outside the Box, please visit TruthAid.org.