COVER STORYDecember 2020/January 2021

Seasons of Strength

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By Elissa Einhorn

When a Black comedian and a Jewish go-go dancer fell in love in the 1960s, they faced a turbulent world, but one outcome was destined – Rain Pryor.

The multitalented daughter of legendary comedian Richard Pryor and Shelley Bonus, a professionally trained dancer who performed on Shindig! (a musical variety series that aired in the 1960s), Pryor will headline the Jewish Federation of San Diego County’s OPTIONS event, which according to Stacie Bresler-Reinstein, one of three OPTIONS Committee Co-Chairs, “is the largest outreach and fundraising event, where women find inspiration, meaningful connections and sisterhood.” The February 28, 2021 appearance will be the first virtual appearance for Pryor and will reference her one-woman show, “Fried Chicken and Latkes” that, for nearly 20 years, has entertained audiences of every hue about the journey of growing up Black and Jewish in 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s America. (She and famed producer Norman Lear have been in talks to develop a television version of her show, but those have been put on hold due to the coronavirus.)

“The message of the show is the idea that I am Black, and I am Jewish,” Pryor begins. “The world still needs some change, and we are working on that change – I am working to be the change. This year has challenged us to reflect and see some deep-seeded [issues] that I have been exploring for years. Our construct of European, Ashkenazi Judaism is being torn apart in terms of my identity and all sorts of Jews coming to the table.”

Co-Chair Judi Gottschalk is proud to bring Pryor’s story to the San Diego community under the theme, ‘Seasons of Strength.’

“OPTIONS gives those of us who are passionate about the work of Federation an opportunity to talk about our obligation to take care of each other, and to celebrate each other in joy. Rain’s experiences are critical to hear because they are integral to our collective Jewish story.”

Co-Chairs Carla Modiano agrees. “Federation embodies the power of togetherness, continuity, and the responsibility we have as a local and global community.”

Born into a complicated life with a mother and father who were part of the “flower power” and “love culture” generation, and just two years after Loving v. Virginia, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that ruled laws banning interracial marriage violated the Constitution, Pryor’s parents had a grand plan for their daughter when she arrived in 1969.

“They made a choice to have me,” she explains, referring to a time when interracial relationships were uncommon. “They said, ‘Her job will be to change the world.’ They came from a pure place in a world that really was against Vietnam and other injustices.”

Pryor coped with her unconventional upbringing by performing with typical teenage gigs like selling hot dogs on the beach, sprinkled in.

“My art is what kept me going,” she says. “My home life was chaotic and crazy because [my parents] were chaotic and crazy. They were young. My mother was 21 when I was born. Her life wasn’t done yet. She had a kid that looked like me in a world that wasn’t ready for me.”

Regardless of the challenges she had to endure, Pryor is living up to her intended destiny, adding her own self-defined goal which is to show up and be accepted without explanation.

“I want to get past our conversations about race and religion,” she says. “I want to dismantle everything. Nobody wants to keep everything as it is.”

Jewish Roots Sowed in Brooklyn, Grown in LA

Richard and Shelley’s only child together, Pryor was primarily raised by her second-generation American Jewish maternal grandparents, Bunny and Herb Bonis, following her parents’ divorce six months after her birth. She also spent a great deal of time with her great-grandparents, Charlotte and Gus, who emigrated from Russia and Austria. The sounds of them speaking Yiddish and Russian still ring in her ears.

“I consider them my parents,” Pryor says of Bunny and Herb. “I lived on and off with them while my mom lived across the street. They took me to school, we did homework together, they drove me to dance classes, they fed me…”

As a child, Pryor cooked traditional Jewish dishes like kugel and brisket with Bunny, lovingly recalling, “Food was always at the center for us. We did it and we did it together.” She and Herb bonded over music. Proudly boasting that her grandfather “could sing like Sinatra,” he instead, packed up the family’s Brooklyn home when Shelley was a teenager and headed west to California to become Danny Kaye’s manager for the next 35 years. (Fun fact: Kaye, a fellow Brooklynite, was born to Ukrainian Jewish immigrants. The youngest of Clara and Jacob Kaminsky’s three sons, he was the only one to be born the United States.)

Herb died in 2011 at the age of 92. Bunny, 99 years old, is not-so-patiently waiting for the day when she will join her husband. Pryor eases into character with an authentic New York accent, one she undoubtedly learned from Bunny herself, and with hand gestures to match, she channels her maternal role model: “What are they keeping me here for? Maybe your grandfather has a girlfriend up there?”

While her childhood sounds idyllic in some ways, including as a graduate of Beverly Hills High School, Pryor also saw the dark side of life – drugs, hookers, and racism. She was called the “N” word, had rocks thrown at her, and found crosses burned on her lawn. She relates to the extreme prejudice Iranian Jews who fled Iran after the revolution faced when they arrived in Los Angeles in the 1970s to begin anew in an ultra-White community.

What she didn’t find growing up were kids who looked like her. “No one like me was represented in my Temple. I didn’t realize there were so many Black Jewish girls until recently. I was like, ‘Where have you been?’” Astonishingly, until the end of high school, when she met another Black Jewish girl while roller skating and the two proclaimed to be sisters for life, the only other Black Jewish girl she knew was her sister, Elizabeth, whose mother also is Jewish.

Currently making her home in Baltimore – ironically, a historically segregated city – Pryor says, “Now I go to Temple and there is a big community of Black people.” It is also where she is raising Lotus, her 12-year-old daughter who identifies as Black and Jewish, and, as she points out to her mother, Italian, to honor her father’s Sephardic roots.

“She is convinced if she took a genetic test, she would show up as part Italian,” Pryor quips.

Leading and Changing the Black Jewish Conversation

Recently, Pryor added “Schusterman Fellow” to her already accomplished resume that includes comedian, actress, author, producer, playwright, activist, and dancer. The highly selective 18-month leadership development program, under the auspices of the Charles & Lynn Schusterman Foundation, Schusterman Fellows “are committed to leading the charge for change in the Jewish sector and the broader world, empowering others and tackling complex challenges.”

The fellowship, Pryor says, gives her a platform to be part of the conversation about what it means to be Black and Jewish. Extending beyond the immediate opportunity, she says, “My goal in life is to bring this multicultural voice to Judaism globally, without having to justify the fact that I am Jewish. I shouldn’t have to prove that, based on the color of my skin or if my mother was Jewish. If I identify as Jewish, I am Jewish.”

Tapping into her activism, she goes even further, explaining, “I can identify with Black Lives Matter and stand against anti-Semitism. I know how to have those conversations. Black Americans, Jewish Americans, and anti-Semitism – how do we bring each other together? How do we show up and spark a conversation and see ourselves reflected in our history and the stereotypes and the world we are living in now?”

One way is through her show. Pryor has performed “Fried Chicken and Latkes” to sold out crowds and for diverse audiences, including Federations, Jewish Community Centers, and the National Black Theatre to name just a few. The show earned her notable accolades, including the NAACP Theatre Award for Best Female Performer Equity and the Invisible Theatre’s Goldie Klein Guest Artist Award, both in 2005. The same year, she was nominated for the NAACP Best Original Playwright Equity. She believes her art, her personal experience, and her continued commitment to show up as who she is, will help to change the world.

“Is it scary to talk about racism and social injustice?” she asks. “Yes. These are scary conversations, but I am excited that they are at the forefront of our minds. It’s how we start to shift – by bringing these issues out from underneath the rocks. Hidden in the dark conversations is the light.”

Rain Pryor will virtually appear at OPTIONS, the Jewish Federation of San Diego County’s largest women’s event. For more information, visit jewishinsandiego.org/options.

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