Despite its air of frivolity, or perhaps because of it, the upcoming Jewish holiday of Purim offers the opportunity to explore the challenges we face when it comes to identity inclusion and race. Both the story of Purim and the rituals of the holiday speak directly to a contemporary sensibility and provide us with some important lessons for living in a diverse multicultural world.
The king of the story of Purim, Achashverosh lived in the city of Shusan in ancient Persia. But his kingdom was vast, stretching over 70 nations from India to Africa. People of many backgrounds and religions came under his rule, including Jews and he was glad to host all at his palace. According to the legends of the Indian and Ethiopian Jewish communities, Jews had lived in those lands even before the Purim story era. The king had a Jewish advisor, named Mordechai (Esther’s uncle and guardian) but that did not mean he was aware of the value of the Jews as part of his multicultural empire. The king allowed Haman to threaten to destroy the Jews.
Ultimately redemption of the Jews serves not only as an omen of Jewish good fortune but also as a reminder of the folly of any society that does not value all its people. Among the many nations, the Jews as a group were singled out because of one element of their identity. By contrast, we need to be able to see people for who they are and not judge them negatively for being different; otherwise we will be no better than Haman.
Esther, the heroine for whom the biblical story is named, is a complex character. Born to a prominent Jewish family, she hides her Jewish identity to become queen. There is no record of what she looked like but her look must not have stood out as distinctly Jewish to others, allowing her to ‘pass’ undetected as a Jew. All of us have elements of our identities that are immediately visible to others and elements of our identities that are hidden. Esther’s ability to conceal her Judaism allowed her to navigate the politics of the palace community.
Every one of us, to greater and lesser degrees, learns to navigate different social and cultural settings, putting forward or concealing elements of who we are. At the same time, we often are seen as who we are on the surface, which can be misleading or not tell the full story. Haman, might have been more strategic about his approach to the Jews had he understood that one of the king’s favorite wives was a Jew. Living in a diverse society demands both the capacity to navigate elements of our own identity as well as be aware of our biases and assumptions about others.
And as everyone knows, the customary costumes provide a real life opportunity kids and adults alike to try on different identities. But even the foods, hamantaschen cookies filled with sweets, the raviolis that Italian Jews eat, or the kreplach of Eastern European Purim tradition, all have a hidden element, challenging us to look beyond the surface.
Purim is a festive holiday with much fun and good food. But concealed in the story and in the rituals of the day are a series of complex and meaningful issues that demand our attention in an increasingly global world.
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.
Drake’s recent SNL skit (see below), perhaps unwittingly but then again perhaps not, highlighted how a bar or bat mitzvah can deeply impact how a young person views his or her Jewish identity in the context of other identities. A bar or bat Mitzvah can be a defining moment in the development of one’s Jewish identity, but it can also feel like prioritizing one identity over others. Especially for the growing population of Jews from mixed racial, ethnic, religious and other backgrounds, the bar or bat mitzvah may be the first setting where the varied familial and sometimes non-familial influences of a young Jew come together under Jewish auspices. It can be a valuable opportunity to celebrate and honor the multiple elements of a child’s identity. One need not leave heritage at the door when stepping forward as a Jew. On the contrary, it is perhaps the best time to reassure young Jews that participation in Jewish life does not diminish any other aspects of one’s self.
Below is a list of some general suggestions on how a family or community might create multicultural b’nai mitzvah celebrations. These are general in nature and we would love to hear from families, clergy and communities that have found their own ways to engage multiple heritages.
Music: Jewish services rely on music and even the Torah is chanted. Most American synagogues rely on music that is either American, or European in origin. However, there are multitude of rich Jewish musical traditions representing the myriad of places there have been or are currently Jewish communities. Ask about learning to chant Torah in a different nusach or tune, or bring in piyyutim or prayers that represent a different Jewish cultural heritage. There is a long tradition of adapting secular tunes to sacred words. This can similarly be done to connect the songs of one culture with the prayers of Judaism.
Torah Study: Bar and Bat Mitzvah students usually share some insights into the weekly Torah portion. If your family traces origins to Spain, for example, ask your rabbi if there are any sources he or she can recommend that are Spanish or descended from Spanish Jews. Indian? Then draw on the wisdom of Indian Jewish tradition. Throughout the generations, rabbis have learned from the wisdom that lies beyond the Jewish community. Not specifically Jewish sources of wisdom can also be consulted in helping to shape or answer questions that will be addressed by the child in question.
Dress: Nowhere is it written that one must wear a suit or a dress and heels on the bimah. Kimonos, saris, or kilts are all perfectly acceptable for the child and the family members. Kippot can be made from any kind of material and look great in tartan, African cloth or Thai Batik. Similarly, tallitot, prayer shawls, can be made from any cloth as long as there are four corners with proper tzitzit knotted on each.
Language: English is not a sacred Jewish language. American Jews use English because it helps us understand the Hebrew -which is a sacred language, which most of us don’t know. So if your family speaks Korean, Amharic, or Flemish, send out multilingual invites or consider sharing some of the blessings in that language. Worried your guests won’t understand? Don’t be. Many don’t get the Hebrew either but we know from experience that they can find that meaningful.
Food: There is nothing holy about lox and cream cheese. Kimchi or Jerk chicken are just as appropriate for a Kiddush or for your party. If your caterer is unfamiliar with a dish that you hold dear, consider sharing some family recipes. Just check in with the synagogue that to be sure that what you are serving accords with the dietary policies.
Artwork: Art from another culture can be incorporated into the celebration in a variety of ways, on the invitation, the insert in the prayer books, as decorations in the synagogue or celebration hall. I attended a celebration at an Orthodox synagogue recently to find Japanese origami garlands festooned in the sanctuary to honor the mother’s culture. Let the creativity extend to flower or table arrangements as well.
Mitzvah Project: Many communities have made doing good works, Tikkun Olam, a part of the process of preparing for becoming bar or bat mitzvah. From collecting money for a project in a distant land to volunteering to help new immigrants from a familial country of origin, there are countless ways the bar or bat mitzvah can use their Mitzvah project to bridge the components of their identities.