Hispanics/Latinos · Israel · jews of color · Jews/Jewish/Judaism/Orthodox Judaism · religion

Hispanic for Purim

Email received on Purim

Dear Aliza:

I had to share this with you! It’s about the always annoying question: “Are you Jewish?”

So, yesterday I went to a Purim party with two of my friends, one who is an Israeli Jew and another who is Dominican and Catholic. I am also Hispanic, though not Dominican. We went to a Chabad party and overall had a good time until the questions of “Are you Jewish?” came up!

Besides myself and my friend Juan, there was only one other person of color there but we were cool with it. During the time, we were there, my Latino friend Juan and I were the only ones that kept getting the questions:

“Are you Jewish?”
“How did you hear about the party?”
“Do you know what Purim is?”

At one point, this guy came up to talk to me and the conversation started off nicely and then he looked at me and asked, “Um, so how did you find out about this place?”

I told him I go to many Chabad parties and he said, “Are you Jewish? Because you don’t look it.”

I was getting really impatient, so I said, “Oh, I’m sorry, do I have to look Jewish to be Jewish? Do I have to look Ashkenazi?”

He laughed and told me I looked Hispanic. I replied, “Well, maybe that is because I am Hispanic. And I hope you are educated enough to know that there are many Latino Jews.”

He said, “Oh. Yeah, I know, I just never meet any.”

We exchanged a few more words but I ended the conversation when he kept asking me how I knew so much about Jewish “things.”

Even though I haven’t converted yet, this exchange annoyed me. I was intimidated about going to Jewish events at my college because I didn’t know if would be accepted. The population is almost exclusively Ashkenazi and most of the kids are really young, anywhere from 18 to 22. Turns out they are more accepting than most adults I’ve met at parties outside the community. At my college, no one has ever once questioned my identity.

Hope you had a good Purim.

Hispanic Woman Converting in NYC

***

Dear Hispanic Woman Converting in NYC,
SIGH. SIGH. SIGH. I’ve been there. I’m still there. But on Purim, I had some respite from those tired questions. Thank G-d. I had a fabulous Purim!
A bunch of us Jews of color got together for one Purim party and then party-hopped to another party. We managed to hang out with a bunch of (sensitive) white Jews who never once questioned us about our Jewishness, even when we made comments that offered that our Jewish backgrounds might be quite different than theirs. And not being questioned or interrogated actually made us feel more comfortable sharing ourselves and our stories and listening to theirs.
Aliza

11 thoughts on “Hispanic for Purim

  1. Reminds me of my best friend (other than my fiancee). His name is Christian (lol) and he is a Puerto Rican Pentecostal (I choose friends who share the same political and social values rather than theological beliefs. I am a religious Jew, he is a religious Christian, and we respect each other for that). He now lives in the South Bronx and I live in Brooklyn (not really in an Orthodox Jewish community). We went to a Chabad Purim Party last year, and I handed him a yarmulke, and told him, “If they ask you anything, say that your name is Dovid, that you're Sephardic, and that you're from Riverdale.” In the same way, before going in to the party, I took off my kippa sruga (which I normally wear) and put on a black velvet yarmulke and wore a white shirt (I normally wear a polo or sweater). We still laugh about that one, although it is sad that many Jews judge on appearance. Even though they say they're welcoming, I still do not believe that Chabad is 100% accepting of people who are religious, righteous non-Jews or even of Modern Orthodox Jews, such as myself (ironically, while the Litvishe world and other Chasidim are at odds with Chabad, they still have animosity for the Modern Orthodox, for various reasons). In an interesting way, Purim is about putting a mask on (the shadow self, in Jungian terms). We ate well and drank well that night, and both assumed alter egos as to avoid the scourge of Haredi intolerance- after all, how often does a Puerto Rican Evangelical Pentecostal Diplomat who loves Israel and is philo-Semitic in every sense of the term and a Neo-Orthodox (note I didn't say MO- I am not a torah u'maddanik, I have no kesher to YU or YCT nor do I fully accept Haredi shitot; I don't fit into labels that well), Sephardic (with an Indian last name, nonetheless), Academic, Intellectual, Religiously Liberal and Socially Conservative Psychiatrist Rabbi who are best friends walk in together at a Chabad Purim party?

    It is also interesting how when people start playing Jewish geography, I am put in the unfortunate decision to explain that I do not live in Boro Park, Flatbush, or Williamsburg. All I say is that I live in aneighborhood with an Orthodox shul, and that should be good enough, but it really isn;t because some people can;t fathom the thought of an Orthodox Jew living apart from “the oilem” and all the conveniences of Glatt Mart and Kosher Delight. They think I am either lying or chiloni when I say that my neighborhood is within the Flatbush/Boro Park eruv, and that I do my shopping for groceries at the local Key Food, fruit stand, and weekly, I pick up meats and deli items when I am in Boro Park.

    It is also sad that many within our community are so anti-Christian and take such a boogeyman approach to the Church that my friend has to use an alias and even my fiancee has to use a Hebrew alias (her name is Christina, so between a Christian and a Christina, you can only imagine what I am up against, due to communal intolerance and ignorance).

    Not all of us have it easy on Purim or on any other time when we are out and about in the Jewish community. I am made to feel extremely uncomfortable for the above-mentioned reasons- I am too liberal for the Haredim in many ways, yet too right wing for a lot of MO people. I don't come from the 'right' background nor do I have the 'right' yeshiva education (I am a BT, learned independently, and received semicha from a Rav in Brooklyn), nor do my friends seem to belong to the right nationality or religion (all of my friends are Christians or Catholics from the Catholic university I went to).

    We need increased tolerance on all fronts- for gerim, BT's, for those who don't live in large Orthodox communities, for those with names not of Jewish origin, for those who actively practice other faiths but nonetheless should be honored for their love of Israel, and for those who are who they are and who do not fit into any one caste concieved by the frum velt.

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  2. And just to be clear and fair, I don't think it's clear from this woman's story whether or not the people asking her questions were Chabadniks, ultra-Orthodox Jews or even Orthodox Jews at all. All kinds of Jews attend Chabad parties.

    Overwhelmingly, I've heard from converts that Chabad has been quite welcoming, with only a few exceptions, even though they don't perform conversions. Chabad usually presents a much more open front though I have had the pleasure to meet many ultra-Orthodox Jews who were non-Chabad and were involved with kiruv (outreach) and were also very open to people different than them.

    I think it's hard for a lot of people to understand that religious people (whether Muslim, Christian, Jews) have a lot of common ground, especially in the face of an overwhelming secular world that has very different values. I have had very interesting conversations with Christian friends about religion…or just about anything else. But it's hard for people who mostly surround themselves with people like them to understand that you can be friends with people who are different…but actually quite similar to you in a lot of ways.

    Hey, I really like Kosher Delight! Though my waistline doesn't. Their burgers taste just like Burger King whoppers!

    The anti-Christian issue is a whole other blog in itself. I think we can all agree that we shouldn't write off a whole group of people because of the mistakes of a few but to the same token, the Church has not been a good friend to Jews in the past. There are A LOT of issues there.

    Tolerance, understanding, communication, yeah, we need a lot of things if we're going to change the way that Jews deal with each other and outsiders and vice versa. I think there's got to be some sensitivity education on all sides.

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  3. I wasn't necessarily talking about interfaith relations, but to stigmatize people who have the name Christian or Christina is ridiculous. What is a convert supposed to do if they have either one fo those names? Are they supposed to reject their given name, which is a link to their past and identity, just because they are embracing a new religion, and just because Jews don't like the religion the name came from?

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  4. There is a great article I read but can't find written by a recent Jewish convert named Christina about her first name. And comedian Chris Campbell goes by his Jewish name Yisrael. I think it's an individual choice, obviously, but I agree people can't be faulted for what their parents name them…though they often are (and in this case, I'm thinking of names that have racial or ethnic connotations).

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  5. I agree, Aliza. I think, though, that if people choose to be referred to by the name their parents gave them, that choice should be respected. People shouldn't have to feel that their conversion changes them on all levels, including how they are known to those closest to them. They may feel that how they would be called up to the torah is not necessarily how they wish to be referred to in the world at large. I think that when dealing with converts, the community must respect this decision. And I yearn for the day when I won't have to tell my friend to lie about his name so we don't get thrown out, or so the rabbi doesn't spit on the ground or groan 'oy vey' in disgust. Prejudice takes a long term to be undone.

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  6. Yes, some Orthodox rabbis will spit on the ground when a person mentions anything pertaining to Christianity, Islam, or another religion. King of like those old wives tells involving spitting when you walk past a church, so as to not be “tainted” by the ayin hara (malocchio, mal ojo, whatever you call it) that emanates from those institutions.

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  7. Update from woman who sent the letter:

    “In response to one of your readers who wondered if it was Chabadniks who treated me that way, the answer is no. I've never had any issues with Chabad clergy, they have always been very welcoming. These questions came from a guy attending the party, in his mid thirties who just decided to strike up a convo with me. He didn't appear to be religious and when I asked him if he came to chabad events he said no.”

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  8. The sad truth is that some people believe that being born of a Jewish mother is of greater importance than whether someone actually follows Jewish Law and thirsts after Torah.

    The Syrian community and a few others harbor this attitude.

    However, I believe that if someone is an observant Jew and converted from another religion, or if they are even not Jewish (yet) but espouse similar values to mine, than they are 100 times more my brother or sister than someone born Schwartz, Friedman, or Abadi.

    So yes, I do feel more connected to a righteous ger than to an atheist or irreligious person with a Jewish mother. And I believe that the Halacha makes this clear (I wrote a shiur on this topic- I can post it here, if you'd like- there is basically a strong halachic tradition going back to Yevamos 1a which states that even if a person is born a Jew, they aren't necessarily always a Jew, unlike the righteous ger who clings to divrei torah).

    What do you think?

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