“No, really. Where you from?”
“New York!” But I know they’re not really asking which state I hail from. I’ve been under the inquisition enough times to know. Plus, it helps that some people’s curiosity has gotten the best of them and led to questions like:
“Where are your parents from? Where are your grandparents from?” and even “No, where were they from before that?” Excuse me, but what kinds of questions are these from people I’ve just met?
And yet, I’ve always gotten these kinds of questions. Questions that I attribute to features that don’t always peg me as Hispanic but more often biracial (half black/half white). These same features don’t strike many people around the Shabbos (Sabbath) table as “Jewish” in the Eastern European sense. Looking “exotic” tends to make people very curious.
When the news comes up at the Shabbos table, one woman says disdainfully: “Why do they have to sing the national anthem in Spanish? Our national language is English. Everyone should speak English! One language unites us.” She nods, looking around for agreement.
But I, bilingual Spanish-speaking me, respond: “As if those guys on the news didn’t speak English? I mean, they translated the national anthem from English. Maybe, you should stop speaking Hebrew, being all Jewish, because it isn’t very American after all? Or maybe culture and language doesn’t have to DIVIDE us.”
I’ve also been the “racial representative.” Representative for people of color everywhere. But I realize when someone asks, “So, seriously, why do Hispanic women dress like that?” that they really believe I have some magic crystal ball connection that helps me understand all people of color. Long after realizing anger has gotten me nowhere, I’ve tried to change gears, tried to take a second to assume the best in people. They’re not trying to be racist. (Even though, they are.) Sometimes, I say, “How should I know?” But more often than not, I find myself representin’: “People from different cultures have different dress codes” and “So, you think we should all start wearing burkhas (the enveloping outer garment worn by women in some Islamic traditions for the purpose of cloaking the entire body)?” People try to understand different cultures through the lens of their own and too often decide that anything different is “weird.”
Judaism doesn’t want to make people feel “weird” so it’s actually socially unacceptable to ask someone if they converted. If someone converted, they’re Jewish and that’s enough with that. But people will ask indirectly. And though I am a convert, I wonder about all the Jews of color that aren’t. The common assumption is that a person of color can’t have been born a Jew. But we need only look at the rich landscape of colorful Jewish faces in Israel (not to mention America) to see that this assumption is untrue. The best defense again is EDUCATION. “No, sir, as a matter of fact, not every Jew is a bagel and lox eating, pasty-faced, curly-haired neurotic with a big nose! Spread the word!” Okay, so I’m still a little angry.
Unfortunately, the Jewish people are no strangers to racism. They perpetrate it as much as the next guy. Someone asked me: “How could a people who have suffered the Holocaust be so racist?” Because Jews have suffered centuries of anti-Semitism that has created an “us” versus “them” mentality that continues to poison interactions with non-Jews and Jews who don’t fit into cookie cutter boxes for race and ethnicity. I’ve met a half-Asian, half-white girl whose Jewish affiliation became nonexistent after her Hebrew school classmates terrorized her with racially charged attacks. I had an Asian convert tell me that after all the racism he’s endured, he remains tied to Judaism only for his son’s sake.
So as an Orthodox Jew of color, I’m all about…EDUCATION! I educate whoever’s in need: about what it means to be Orthodox, a Jew and a person of color all rolled into one. Sometimes, I educate whether or not the ill-informed are ready to listen. Maybe it’s the former teacher in me but I just can’t allow people to walk around “all ignorant.” And neither should you.