Interview'Being black and Jewish was a new concept for me'

A biracial Jewish filmmaker refuses to shy from thorny questions of identity

Lacey Schwartz Delgado’s dual identities as an African-American and New York Jew inform her documentary, ‘Little White Lie,’ and her current work with youth via Be’chol Lashon

Reporter at The Times of Israel

  • Lacey Schwartz Delgado. (Courtesy)
    Lacey Schwartz Delgado. (Courtesy)
  • Lacey Schwartz Delgado holds the Torah at her bat mitzvah. (Courtesy)
    Lacey Schwartz Delgado holds the Torah at her bat mitzvah. (Courtesy)
  • Lacey Schwartz Delgado with her mother Peggy Schwartz, as a child. (Courtesy)
    Lacey Schwartz Delgado with her mother Peggy Schwartz, as a child. (Courtesy)
  • Lacey Schwartz Delgado with her mother Peggy Schwartz in a still from the documentary 'Little White Lie.' (James Adolphus/ Courtesy)
    Lacey Schwartz Delgado with her mother Peggy Schwartz in a still from the documentary 'Little White Lie.' (James Adolphus/ Courtesy)

As simmering racial tensions in the United States bubble up to the surface in recent years, outreach advocates continue to push for dialogue as a way to build bridges. These include Lacey Schwartz Delgado, whose personal story of navigating her Jewish and African-American identities might make her the perfect person to help others understand the complexity of the issue.

For about a decade, Schwartz Delgado has worked with the outreach organization Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), which advocates for Jews with diverse backgrounds worldwide, where she is currently the director of the group’s New York office.

In 2014, Schwartz Delgado chronicled her own background in a documentary film, “Little White Lie.” Executive produced by Be’chol Lashon, the film is a nuanced exploration of its director’s struggle to unravel a family secret that had a permanent impact on her life: At the age of 18, Schwartz Delgado discovered that her biological father was actually an African-American man with whom her Jewish mother had an extramarital affair.

In the five years since the film’s release, much has changed in America. The country’s first African-American president, Barack Obama, a Democrat, was succeeded by Republican Donald Trump, who won a contentious 2016 election against rival Hillary Clinton.

Trump’s campaign was marked by inflammatory rhetoric. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people,” he said of Mexican immigrants. A year later, protestors from the left and right — with the latter including white nationalists and the alt-right — clashed in Charlottesville, Virginia, resulting in deadly violence.

Schwartz Delgado recognizes that the conversation about race has been “complicated” in recent years. “At the same time we had Obama, we also had Black Lives Matter,” she said. “Out of that, politically, we had Trump.”

Lacey Schwartz Delgado produced and directed the documentary ‘Little White Lie,’ and is the head of Bechol Lashon’s New York office. (Michael Hill/ Courtesy)

Throughout this challenging period, “a lot of people are really dedicated to having difficult yet constructive conversations,” she said. “I am trying to help provide these tools as conversation. The vast majority of people are really interested.”

The film is an illustration of how to navigate the sensitive terrain of race.

“I think our national research [indicates that] people — whites, and people in general — tend not to talk about racism, not [because they] are racist, [but that they] fear saying the wrong things,” said Be’chol Lashon’s director, Diane Tobin. “In our conversations in Jewish communities, they understand race is important to talk about — a cultural competence [that’s] a lifelong goal.”

“We have to engage [people],” Tobin said. “Sometimes, we all make a mistake, but we keep on moving past it. Lacey is very candid in talking about her identity, family, race. I think it’s a really great experience for everyone to experience, a model of how they should live their lives.”

“Little White Lie” follows challenging times in the director’s life.

Lacey Schwartz Delgado holds the Torah at her bat mitzvah. (Courtesy)

Growing up in a Jewish family in Woodstock, New York, Schwartz Delgado noticed that she looked different from her parents, Robert and Peggy Schwartz. Her skin was darker, and her hair was curlier. At her bat mitzvah, a synagogue congregant assumed she was an Ethiopian Jew.

Initially, her parents responded to their daughter’s confusion by saying that Robert’s great-grandfather came from Sicily, a cultural crossroads linking Africa, the Middle East and Europe. As she went on to high school and college, she began to question this explanation — especially after her college choice, Georgetown, listed her among the African-American students in her first-year class. At age 18, after her parents divorced, she found out the truth: her mother Peggy had had a romantic relationship with an African-American man, Rodney Parker, who was Lacey’s biological father.

Lacey Schwartz Delgado as a child with her mother Peggy Schwartz. (Courtesy)

“When I first started off the film, I was really wrestling with how to integrate my own identity, being both black and Jewish,” Schwartz Delgado said. “Implicit in that was that being Jewish was synonymous with being white. The idea of being black and Jewish was a new concept for me.”

“Lacey was making a film about her journey, essentially,” said Tobin. “Once we understood her story, what she was trying to do, it certainly resonated for us as an organization.”

Tobin said that Be’chol Lashon “still actively” promotes the film and uses it “frequently,” adding, “It’s a moment when a lot of organizations in the Jewish community are interested in race in a variety of ways.”

“One [scene] comes to mind that we often screen as part of our training,” Tobin said. “[Schwartz Delgado] goes to Georgetown for the first time. She starts life as an African-American student… At the same time, she’s living life at home as a New York Jew. It’s a very interesting moment in the film, I think.”

Schwartz Delgado described going to Georgetown as “the ultimate coming-of-age experience.”

Lacey Schwartz Delgado in college. (Courtesy)

“I was at home before college, before my parents split up,” she said. “I was 16, my parents in a great sense defined who I was, defined my identity. Almost in opposition, [I left], went to college, I was allowed to have space, explore my identity for myself.”

This resonates for the filmmaker when she holds screenings at colleges today, where students — including those living away from home for the first time — are starting to articulate their own budding identities. On October 10, the day after Yom Kippur, there will be a screening of “Little White Lie” at Fordham University, organized through the Fordham Center for Jewish Studies.

Running Be’chol Lashon’s New York office, Schwartz Delgado said, she works with “some of the issues around identity, Jewish identity,” that are “more polarized on college campuses.” She tries to help students understand that “Jewish identity is not just through one lens. There are black people who are Jewish.”

At campuses in the New York metro area, she said, “We are doing work… to help students find alternate spaces from a position of diversity, inclusion, with Jewish programming for the holidays, with speakers, people coming together,” including a multi-year project with the UJA Federation of New York.

For Schwartz Delgado, it was after college and graduate school — at Georgetown and Harvard Law School — that her quest for self-discovery began in earnest with “Little White Lie.”

A Passover seder from Lacey Schwartz Delgado’s childhood. (Courtesy)

“Your late 20s, early 30s, is an ideal world,” she said. “You’re able to reconcile where you come from with who you are. There’s a lot of tension for people in their lives. Are they able to reconcile that, accept who they are, and who their family is, even when it’s not perfectly aligned with their identity?”

Addressing these questions over nearly a decade, Schwartz Delgado interviewed multiple people: her mother Peggy, Robert — the man who raised her as his own — as well as her biological father, Rodney. She also spoke with extended family members and friends.

Some interviews were more difficult than others, and at times people got emotional on camera, including the filmmaker herself. Throughout, she appreciated the honesty that people showed, often when discussing the subject for the first time.

“Only through honesty and empathy can change and growth happen,” Schwartz Delgado said.

Through these conversations, Schwartz Delgado shows how she was perceived by family and friends.

“One of the things that was really cool was that different people reacted to different things differently, or to the exact same thing differently,” she said.

Lacey Schwartz Delgado with her mother Peggy Schwartz in a still from the documentary ‘Little White Lie.’ (James Adolphus/ Courtesy)

Schwartz Delgado’s conversations with her parents took place one-on-one, mixed in with everyday tasks such as cooking or dog-walking. She describes these exchanges as challenging but gratifying.

Talking with her mother, Schwartz Delgado realized that Peggy thought she was protecting her daughter by not telling her about her biological father for many years. As Peggy opened up, Robert held back; the film depicts Schwartz Delgado repeatedly, sometimes unsuccessfully, contacting him to talk.

“A big part was understanding and acceptance,” Schwartz Delgado said. “My father would not deal with it or understand.”

She said it was “complicated” engaging with Robert, who raised her and who she considers to be her father, but said, “We worked through it together and maintained our relationship. I really loved coming out of this.”

Lacey Schwartz Delgado, left, with her mother Peggy Schwartz. (Courtesy/James Adolphus)

Yet, she explained, “[For them to] accept me for who I am, I had to accept them for who they were.”

This included Peggy telling her daughter that, given the chance, she would not have done anything differently.

“I get it,” Schwartz Delgado said. “As a mother myself, there’s complexity, different layers. I also think, at a certain point in life, we have to accept our past, moving from a place of being guilty to being responsible for our actions.”

Schwartz Delgado’s attempts to talk with her biological father, Rodney, were met with reticence.

“I think the way he comes across, our relationship, the struggle to do that, I think [this] is accurately shown in the film,” she said.

Lacey Schwartz Delgado as a baby with her mother Peggy Schwartz in 1979. (Courtesy)

Rodney died during the filming of “Little White Lie.” Schwartz Delgado said that attending his funeral, along with Rodney’s other children, “a really complicated moment, both in terms of any funeral when someone passes, and then multiple layers [in his funeral], my mother’s relationship, my extended family, his family, a lot of layers.”

Despite losing Rodney and enduring difficult conversations with Peggy and Robert, Schwartz Delgado feels that she can finally be open about her complicated past.

“The anxiety and tension that existed, the secrets held onto, have been released,” she said. “For me, personally, it’s a relief. I’ve moved past that.”

She has become a wife and the mother of two young sons. She is married to Antonio Delgado, a Democratic congressman for New York’s 19th District.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy with a delegation of members of the United States House of Representatives in Jerusalem, August 11, 2019 (courtesy Hadari Photography)

Schwartz Delgado joined her husband on a group trip to Israel last month led by veteran Democratic congressman Steny Hoyer. More than half of all Democratic congressional freshmen took part in the trip, which saw the American lawmakers meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then-opposition leader Benny Gantz, and PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

The film shows the Schwartz-Delgado wedding — a mixture of traditions incorporating Soul Train, the Electric Slide, and the hora.

“It’s very emblematic of my journey, where I ended up,” Schwartz Delgado said. “My husband’s family and mine all come together. It’s very meaningful to the story, my journey comes out on the other side.”

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