I’m a Latina Jew. I live in New York City, famous for the diversity of its population; after all, 37 percent of the city is foreign born. But still now in 2014, the fact that I identify myself as Latina and Jewish, creates a bit of wonder among some Jews and Latinos.
First of all, people ask me what is the difference between Hispanic and Latino. The two words are often used interchangeable nowadays. While this article is from my own perspective, I use the definition of “Hispanic or Latino” stated in the 2010 United States Census: “Hispanic or Latino refers to a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race.”
The truth is that Latino or Hispanic are words used mainly in the United States. In Argentina, I’m Argentinian. If you ask a Colombian he will say he is Colombian. If you ask a Mexican he will say is Mexican. We only are “Latinos” in United States.
According to the 2010 Census, 50.5 million people (or 16 percent) were of Hispanic or Latino origin. In New York City near a third of the population (28.6 %) are Hispanic.
I have encountered some Jews who are used to identifying Latinos with people from Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic. For them, I’m not Latina. I’m from Argentina. That happens because most Jews in New York City know that Argentina has a big Jewish population, and they are aware that I can be Jewish and Argentinian.
In fact, “There are about 14 million Jews around the world, representing 0.2% of the global population. Jews make up roughly 2% of the total population in North America. More than four-fifths of all Jews live in just two countries, the United States (41%) and Israel (41%). The largest remaining shares of the global Jewish population are in Canada (about 3%), France (2%), the United Kingdom (2%), Germany (2%), Russia (2%) and Argentina (between 1% and 2%)”, according to data from a report produced by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.
So, although Jews in Argentina are only 1 to 2% of the population, it is still one of the largest Jewish communities in the world.
What do American Jews know about Argentina? Many Jews also know about the Nazis who fled to Argentina after the Second World War, and that there were two suicide bombings against the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and the Jewish community (AMIA). Sometimes I’m asked if I know Rabbi Marshall Meyer, who founded the Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano.
How many people identify as Latino Jews? According to The Pew Research Center’s 2013 National Survey of Latinos and Religion, “a majority (55%) of the nation’s estimated 35.4 million Latino adults identify as Catholic today.” About 22% are Protestant and 18% are religiously unaffiliated. Around 1 percent belongs to other religions. So Latino Jews are less than 1% of Latinos.
It is hard to talk about issues of race and religion. I’m white. My family came from the former Soviet Union. My dear Bobe came from Kishinev. So some people would tell me “you don’t look Latina.” They are confusing being Latino with race. Let’s go back to the US Census definition that clearly states, “Hispanic or Latino refers to a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race.”
Jews sometimes assume I’m Sephardi. Here the confusion comes because I speak Spanish and I’m from Argentina. Well, first of all, Sephardim spoke Ladino, which is different than Spanish. But, in fact most of the Jewish community in Argentina arrived from Germany and Eastern Europe and are Ashkenazi.
I think it is very important for Jews to learn more about Latinos and for Latinos to learn more about Jews. We work together. We live in the same cities. As the Hispanic population in the United States keeps growing fast, Jews will need to interact more with Hispanics. The Jewish population also keeps changing and is time to accept each other’s differences. Education is the best defense against prejudice and intolerance.
For Adat Israel in Guatemala City, Passover is a special celebration. We are a community with 30 members, with Rabbi Elyse Goldstein who is our rabbi. We all feel like going out from Egypt being released and we are not slaves any more. The first step is to gather the money. We have to buy our matzah in Guatemala there is only one store where we can buy it, so we wait until they have the price. We also have matzah ball mix and Passover cake from Canada. Delicious!!
The menu is important. This year we want salmon and we will try to extend our budget to get it, but if we cannot afford it, we will have tilapia, which is also a good fish. The ladies from the community share the work in the kitchen. One cooks the main dish, another with the side dishes, another the soup, another the dessert and another the elements for the keara, the seder plate. Someone is in charge of the haroset. Last year we made a special Guatemalan version with apple, wine, honey, almonds and red beans! It was a big hit.
All the cleaning tasks are also distributed among the members. Two of us have to clean the windows, another two the floor, the stairs, the bathrooms, the rugs, the kitchen. Too much work to do, but together as a big family, we get done quickly and efficiently.
We know that in the blink of an eye, the holiday will be with us, Nisan 14. The first night we celebrate Pesach in our own houses, with our families and some friend that want to share with us the ceremony. The second night, Nisan 15, we celebrate it with the whole community and many friends. Some of them live in Guatemala and work for the embassies, others are visitors. We don’t close our doors. Everybody that wants to share with us that special occasion is invited and welcome.
For the seder we follow an adaptation for Latin America Una noche de Libertad de Mishael Zion y Noam Zion, a beautiful book full of color and music.
The great night finally comes. We wait for our members, our visitors and we set the tables as beautiful as we can.
Last year we added one new element, Miriam’s cup, suggested by a dearly friend of our community. After a special blessing all the women take a sip of water from that cup.
For Adat Israel this celebration has a very special meaning. We are Jews by choice. In our past there was too much slavery, full of deceit, lies and false hopes. Now that we are Jews we feel really liberated. We are still walking with the help of God and our beloved Rabbi Elyse. If you are in the neighborhood, we hope you will come and join us!
For more about Passover around the world visit bechollashon.org
Carnival, Mardi Gras, Carnaval. These words convey exhuberance, dancing, masks, and overflowing joy (and often excess). From Rio to New Orleans, from Venice to Antigua, the week before the beginning of Lent has always been punctuated with explosions of color, music and parades. And although our own Jewish carnival (Purim) is usually just around the corner and this custom is strongly attached to the Catholic calendar, it is very hard for any local citizen or visitor, Jew or Gentile, to strange himself from the celebrations. The cities that follow this ancient custom usually close down completely during the revelry and just by stepping out of the house one is usually swallowed up in the celebrations.
A few weeks ago, I was celebrating Shabbat with an emergent community of Jews in the port city of Barranquilla in Colombia. I had been invited to perform some weddings and oversee some conversions over a weekend that happened to be coincide with the one of the most splendidly colorful carnavals in the world: the Carnaval de Barranquilla (declared one of the Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity). Given that hosting our Shabbaton in Barranquilla during carnaval would make it a logistical nightmare, we decided to take a break and move it to a quiet resort in the nearby city of Santa Marta. The Shabbaton was a moving and peaceful event full of song, words of Torah, and white linen. But as the sun set and we celebrated the weddings for the new couples, the distant carnaval caught up with us. We had not finished sweeping the broken glass from the chuppah when out of nowhere jumped a reveller in the multicolored persona of the Monocuco (a masked and veiled harlequin with a scepter that teases the crowd). The little girls changed their Shabbat best for red polka dotted dresses and crazy hairdoes, portraying “la Loca” (the crazy woman). And, here and there, through the crowd one could distinguish the undisputed traditional symbol of the the carnaval, the Marimonda (a cheeky anthropomorphic character with the trunk and ears of an elephant, a necktie and big round eyes). The joy of the newlywed Jewish couples mingled with the traditions of their beloved city to create a perfect celebration that lasted well into the dawn of the next day. oung and old, costumed and more collected, danced the night away covered in corn starch and foam to the rhythms of traditional horas punctuated with salsas, merengues, porros, and chirimías.
Throughout history, Jews have collected the traditions and flavors of the places we have been blessed to call home. With time, these traditions (like the pagan eastern european braided challah) become part and parcel and even representative traditions of Judaism. When I was in Barranquilla I asked the community baker to bake some challot for the Shabbaton in a shape that was unique to their city. He was hesitant, given that these Jews in the warm shores of the Caribbean have adopted the Ashkenazi braided loaf as their Shabbat standard. I insisted. Just before Shabbat I was presented with the most wonderful challah one could want in the Shabbat of Carnaval, a challah that was at once uniquely Barranquilla and deliciously kosher: a Challah in the shape of a Marimonda. I hope that in centuries to come this will be a tradition treasured by these new Barranquillean Jews, proving once again, that the great power of the Jewish people is to absorb the best of the beautiful world around us and by integrating it into our millenary system of holiness, elevate and preserve snapshots of the beautiful diversity that has always surrounded us.
I am often asked whether I feel more Cuban-American than Jewish, or vice versa, and it has always struck me as an odd question. That’s like asking whether I like my right eye better than my left. Sure, if you close one eye, you can still see, but the world looks so much better with both eyes open. That is sort of how I feel about my two cultures. On the surface, it may seem like my Cuban culture is in direct conflict with my Jewish one, particularly when it comes to the pork-friendly nature of Cuban cuisine and the dietary laws of the Jewish faith, but just like seeing the world with both eyes open, I feel most comfortable when my cultures work in conjunction with each other.
Fortunately, there is plenty of common ground between the two. Given the fact that both place a high priority on family and tradition, and get-togethers almost always revolve around food, my family has been blurring the cultural dividing lines for decades. This melting pot approach jumps into high gear around the holidays and other family gatherings. My “Jewban” family has been known to serve a creamy flan during Shavuot, a citrus and garlic-infused Cuban-style chicken for Shabbat, and minty Mojito-scented quinoa during Passover. These incredible dishes aside, nothing holds a candle to my family’s recipe for Ropa Vieja, Cuban comfort food at its very best.
Ropa Vieja, which literally translates to “old clothes,” or as my paternal grandmother would call them, “shmatas,” is the Cuban answer to a traditional Jewish brisket. Both use inexpensive cuts of meat that are slow-roasted until tender and falling apart, but Ropa Vieja takes it a step further, and actually calls for the chunks of meat to be shredded to resemble rags. This may seem like it would diminish the allure of the dish, but as Jewish brisket is usually reserved for the holiday table, a good Ropa Vieja is truly cause for celebration. Additionally, as it is important in the Jewish culture to pass our traditions from generation to generation, most Cuban families have had a recipe for Ropa Vieja for ages.
The recipe I feature originated with my Abuela (maternal grandmother), but was passed to me by my Tia Pipa (Aunt Felipa), both seriously tough culinary acts to follow. And while I have the added benefit of modern kitchen electrics like the slow-cooker, the spirit of the recipe remains the same. The perfume of a traditionally Cuban sofrito, made from garlic, onions, and sweet bell peppers, marries beautifully with the warm smokiness from the cumin. And while the brine-y capers that adorn the meat and add a splash of color may seem like a distinctly Mediterranean choice, they act as a nod to the migration of Spaniards that made their way to Cuba and the other Caribbean islands in days of old.
One bite may make you want to close your eyes and savor the moment, but I challenge you to resist the urge. See the world with both eyes open, and celebrate the diversity that makes Cuban-Jewish families unique.
Ropa Vieja, by Jennifer Stempel of TheCubanReuben.com
• 5-7 lbs. Brisket, trimmed of most visible fat
• 2 onions, divided
• 6 cloves of garlic, divided
• 2 large red bell peppers, divided
• 2 bay leaves, divided
• 4 cups beef stock
• 3 tsp. Olive oil
• 1 Tbs dried oregano
• 1 Tbs ground cumin
• 1 14 oz can diced tomatoes
• 1 8 oz can tomato sauce
• 10 stuffed green olives, sliced in thin rounds
• 2 Tbs capers, plus 1 Tbs. of the brine.
• Salt and Pepper to taste
1. Cut your brisket into 2-inch wide strips.
2. The night before you want to serve, add the brisket, 1 onion, roughly chopped, 2 whole cloves of garlic, ½ a bell pepper, 1 bay leaf, and beef stock to a slow-cooker, and set to cook on low for 6-7 hours.
3. Remove the beef and set aside. Once the beef is cool enough to be handled, use 2 forks to shred the beef.
4. Strain the cooking liquid, and reserve for later use in a medium bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and refrigerate long enough for the fat to solidify on top (about 20-30 minutes). Skim the fat from the liquid.
5. Discard the rest of the contents from the slow cooker.
6. Meanwhile, finely dice the remainder of the onions and half of the remaining bell pepper. The rest of the bell pepper should be sliced in short, thin slices.
7. Mince the remaining garlic.
8. Heat a large pot (dutch oven style) over medium-high heat. Add olive oil.
9. Add the diced onions and both diced and sliced bell peppers, and cook for 5-10 minutes, or until onions become translucent. Add the garlic, and cook for 2 more minutes.
10. Add the shredded beef to the pot, as well as ½ of the now-skimmed stock, the oregano, the cumin, the diced tomatoes, and the tomato sauce. Stir to combine.
11. Lower the heat, cover the pot, and simmer for 30 minutes, or until liquid reduces and thickens a bit.
12. Add the olives, brine, and capers, and cook for 15 more minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
13. Leave simmering on low on the stove until ready to serve.
14. Serve with white rice.
To read more about Jennifer’s culinary adventures, check out her blog.
Oklahoma City, where I live, has an amazing Jewish community. And, unfortunately, this amazing Jewish community is an expert in dealing with disaster. From the Oklahoma City bombing to the relentless wave of deadly tornadoes that have hit the area, Okie Jews (as we proudly call ourselves) respond with generosity, gumption, and optimism. So when this week our rabbi told us that two relatives of members of the community were in the affected area of Typhoon Haiyan, the community sprung into action. Donations were requested, support for the concerned families was arranged and we decided to help with our prayers by reciting the entire book of Psalms in the coming month (5 Psalms a day covers it all).
In Jewish tradition, whenever disaster strikes it is customary to accompany our physical response together with a spiritual response: prayer, action, and tzedakah (charitable deeds) are the Jewish response to tragedy. Traditionally, prayer come from the book of Psalms with its evocative language of raw humanity and hope has been a preferred tool to raise our awareness of the suffering of those affected but also to inspire us to compassion and proactivity.
As part of my work with Be’chol Lashon, I teach Torah online to Spanish speaking Jews and Spanish speakers interested in Judaism. Inspired by the Okie response, that night I invited my Spanish language learning community on Facebook to join us in the recitation of Psalms for the victims.
“Why are you doing this?” some wanted to know. The answers came from the students themselves. A student from Honduras recalled the help they had received when Hurricane Mitch hit this country. A student from Colombia emphasized the responsibility he felt as a human being with any kind of human suffering. A Mexican student quoted the words of Hillel ”If I am only for myself, what am I?” The support was overwhelming. Scores of people volunteered to connect with my brick and mortar community in Oklahoma to reach out in prayer and action for a community halfway across the world.
These feelings of altruism and generosity are not new but what is surprising is the way in which living in a wired world has expanded the breadth of the planet´s capacity for empathy. In this world where no longer are we separated by six degrees (latest studies calculate it at four and plummeting) of separation. A synagogue in Oklahoma might be the vehicle for scores of Latin-Americans to connect with a tragedy halfway around the world and to do so in unmistakably Jewish ways. Tehilim are being said, and donations are being gathered by total strangers for total strangers. For all of its downsides, our global village has allowed the highest forms of tzedakah (in which both the donor and the recipient do so anonymously) to break the barriers of the pushke and the local synagogue and go global.
As part of a gap year between high school and college, I spent six months in Santiago, Chile. I was there partly to improve my Spanish, and partly to study music. I wasn’t expecting to meet any other Jews while in Santiago, Chile—the country is predominantly Catholic, and the Jewish population is vanishingly small compared to that of the US. Through a stroke of luck (and some of those Jewish connections that pop up where you least expect them), I ended up finding a home stay with a Jewish family in Santiago just a few weeks before arriving in Chile – and of course I immediately took the opportunity.
Just a few days after arriving in Chile, I went to my first Shabbat services with my host family, not really knowing what to expect. For Adon Olam the Rabbi sang a mariachi tune (complete with sombreros and guitars), which was by far the weirdest yet most entertaining rendition of Adon Olam that I’ve ever heard. I was fully prepared to accept this as Chilean Judaism, but, as I eventually figured out through my garbled Spanish, the mariachi was just a pre-Purim special. (In general services were much more similar to what I was used to from home, but now I’m starting to wish that home had a special pre-Purim Adon Olam performance too).
Before going to Chile, I’d only ever been a part of the Jewish community that I grew up in, so I can only guess which parts of my experience were uniquely Chilean and which were just a part of Judaism I had yet to see. For example, I suspect that there are not very many Jewish wedding receptions with all-night dancing outside of Chile. (My host mom told me ahead of time that it would be rude to leave much earlier than 3 am). I may be wrong about that, though, since the only other Jewish weddings I’ve been to were as a little kid. It wouldn’t be the first time I was wrong, since I already found out that Hashkiveinu is not in fact a lullaby unique to Chile. (Imagine my surprise showing up at the my first Shabbat in college only to hear them singing a Chilean melody!)
Having already found this unexpected connection between Judaism in Chile and at home, I’m hopeful I’ll rediscover many of my Jewish experiences from Chile: meeting new friends at every Shabbat dinner; accompanying Shabbat melodies on my violin; celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut el Estadio Israelita (think Chilean JCC); going to the spunky, 100% student-run Chilean branch of Hashomer Hatzair. It’s a fantastic thing to have a thread of shared experience that connects me to others living in a country halfway across the globe, and I’m still discovering just how deep the connection goes.