I often find myself in uncomfortable conversations because of my hyphenated identity. It’s hard for people to wrap their heads around someone who claims to be an American Jewish Latina. How can she be all those things without her poor little head caving in? Aren’t there too many options and too many flags and too many homelands, between Israel, the Dominican Republic and America, to choose from? She must feel more comfortable just being one of those things. One of those things must be important than the rest, they suspect. That’s how I ended up in a conversation where a white Jewish guy explained that it’s the inbreeding that makes Jews really quite superb.
“That’s why we have so many Nobel Prize winners,” he offered cheerfully, blinking at me through the lenses of his large black glasses.
I know you want to tell yourself that he didn’t know I was a convert but indeed, he did. He thought I’d married into the Jewish family so I could take full advantage of such prestigious bloodlines. He didn’t stop to think if his comments might offend me, the product of not an ounce of Jewish inbreeding, the product of 100% Dominican parents. Wouldn’t I be offended by listening to him talk about Jewish superiority? No, he thought, because he was one of those people.
There are those people who believe that I converted because I thought Judaism was better than being Latina. To some others, converting means that I don’t care about being a Latina at all. To still others, it means that I want to take my Latino heritage and bury it deep in the ground. And trust me, I get it, some people think Judaism rocks and though I don’t disagree, my identity is a little bit more complicated than those people understand.
“When are you going to learn to cook Jewish food?” I was asked by a friend at a recent Shabbos meal. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard it.
I smiled politely and offered, “Isn’t all the food I cook Jewish because I’m Jewish?”
I’ve been told, never asked, to learn several Eastern European recipes since I converted. I’ve been told that part of becoming a nice Jewish girl is learning to cook Jewish food. But when did gefilte fish win the battle against rice and beans for top choice of Jewish foods? I think my Sephardic (spiritual) ancestors would disagree with what some people think constitutes Jewish food. Again, I converted for the religion, not the recipes.
Too many people, both Jews and non-Jews alike, think that Eastern European culture IS Jewish culture. It troubles me that Ashkenazi Judaism still gets top billing this way in Jewish circles. That people still think most Jews don’t look like me. That people think I’m not really Jewish because I REFUSE to learn how to make potato kugel . I won’t force my plantains on someone and call them racist if they don’t bite, if they’ll stop insinuating that I’m slightly anti-Semitic for finding potato kugel more than bland.
Yes, it’s true that I will choose plantains over herring any day. I’m an ethnic Latina but not an “ethnic” (read: Ashkenazi) Jew. I know that when my (thus far imaginary) children grow up, they will know that Judaism is more about how you pray than what you eat (as long as it’s kosher). I won’t tell them that just because Mordechai’s Ima believes in matzah brei on Pesach and Mami believes in yucca that either one of us is a better Jew because of it. I’ll look my baby straight in the eye and say, “Kid, Jews come in all flavors.”
Because it’s true, Jews DO come in all shapes and sizes and colors. But when you walk into a Jewish day school there doesn’t seem to be too many people that look like me, something that is changing thanks to adoption, conversion and intermarriage in the United States. Still, it’s no secret that Ladino and Spanish aren’t often choices on the day school curriculum even when the kids are living in middle of Latino Los Angeles. So you can bet, I’m worried that my own kids will think they’re a minority if I don’t drag them to Israel and the Dominican Republic once a week where they will surely encounter plenty of Latino Jews, plenty of black and brown Jews, plenty of black and brown people period. I fear my kids will be asked to represent every Jew of color everywhere on a day to day basis. That seems to be my fight. I don’t want it to be theirs.
I don’t want my children to be fighting the same stereotypes that the Jewish community, the American community and the Latino community (everyone’s in on it!) have been fighting for as long as we can all remember. We should have moved past stereotypes now but we haven’t. They say Barack Obama is a big leap in the right direction and I hope he is. But in the Jewish community, I don’t want people to forget that Judaism is not a race because so many of us Jews come from different races. We are a nation, a people, a culture (and what kind of culture is to be a loosely interpreted). Judaism is big. It’s multicultural, it’s multiracial and multinational. Judaism often doesn’t fit into just one of those tiny little boxes that people use to define themselves.
Someday soon, I hope people will think of me when they think “Jew.” Look, they’ll say, there’s a nice Jewish girl and she’s got an awesome afro! Isn’t that nice? She loves merengue. She loves a good sukkah. She hates sour cream on latkes (or anything). And of course, she’s a saucy girl who peppers her English with Spanish, Hebrew and sometimes, even Yiddish. She’s as much a Jew as those who don’t know their way around Hebrew. She’s as much a Jew as those who thrive on bagels. She’s as much a Jew as any other Jew you’ve ever met and the tie that binds is Judaism, not the color of their skin or what goes into their stomachs.
And then perhaps, every Jew of color I meet won’t tell me about the thousands upon thousands of times that they’ve been asked if they were REALLY Jewish. Perhaps, every convert of color won’t confess to being worried about not being accepted in the Jewish community because of the color of their skin. Perhaps, we’ll really start showing everyone else that Jews are different because we’ve moved past racist assumptions and accepted our multicultural reality.
So to recap, I’m Jewish, I’m Latina, I’m American and I’m staying that way.