Jewish& is a blog by Be’chol Lashon, which gives voice to the racial, ethnic and cultural diversity of Jewish identity and experience. The original multicultural people, Jews have lived around the world for millennia. Today, with globalism and inclusion so key in making choices about engaging in Jewish life,Jewish& provides a forum for personal reflection, discussion, and debate.
Denise and Justin Dautoff have been married for 21 years. They have raised two daughters, celebrated two bat mitzvah, lit countless Hanukkah candles and been involved in supporting all aspects of community life. The story of how they met and the rich and complex Jewish-Latino life they have created together could be the script of a Hallmark Channel movie. Be’chol Lashon spoke with Denise Dautoff to learn more about how openness and shared values brought them together.
Be’chol Lashon: Tell us a bit about your background?
Dautoff: I was born and raised in Watsonville, California. My mother was a single parent from the time I was four years old. When I was about nine or so, I remember people coming in and out of our home in the evenings – my mother would offer to prepare their tax returns. Many were farms workers she had come to know from having worked at a health clinic in Watsonville. I would also accompany my mom to protests for better working conditions for farmworkers and tag along when she would help with voter registration drives in Hispanic communities. When I was in junior high, my mother worked in various office jobs until she went back to school and received a degree in Criminal Justice.
My mother and I lived in a two bedroom house with my grandmother and a few other family members while my mom attended college. Although we were poor at the time, we never felt like it because everyone else in the community lived the same as we did. In my grandmother’s home, we had a large extended family who lived like a commune, sharing everything we had. At that time, my life was my extended family.
Although my grandfather was born in California, his parents and ten brothers and sisters remained in Mexico. He would eventually help them immigrate to Watsonville. My grandfather began working in the lettuce fields at the age of 17. He worked hard for many years for the same company. After being recognized by his superiors for his hard work and dedication, he was promoted to a field foreman, running lettuce crews. Years later, he was given a management position running a warehouse with 40 or more employees. He instilled these same work ethics to his eight children, who are all now professionals. The majority of my family was born in the United States and speak both English and Spanish. My great grandparents were Mestizo, a mixture of European (Spanish) and Native American ancestry. We currently still have family members living in Mexico.
BL: How did you meet your husband?
Dautoff: Justin’s grandparents and parents were in the horticulture business. His parents owned a cut flower farm on the outskirts of Watsonville in La Selva Beach. Justin spent his childhood years working on the family farm and developing friendships with the migrant field workers, whose children would become his best friends.
BL: So you met him on the farm?
Dautoff: No, I first met him at a dance in Watsonville, near where I went to high school. Although Justin did not attend that same high school (his parents sent him to Aptos High School which was considered one of the better schools in our area), he ended up transferring to Watsonville High School at the end of his sophomore year. He wanted to complete his remaining high school years with his best friends that he grew up with. We met that summer at the dance in Watsonville. He approached me and asked for a dance; we’ve been together ever since.
BL: How old were you?
Dautoff: I was 15 and he was 16. After that night of dancing, we quickly became best friends and were inseparable.
BL: How did your families’ react?
Dautoff: Justin’s family was loving, warm and welcoming from the beginning, as was my family towards Justin.
Justin is the oldest grandchild and he had a special bond with his grandparents, especially his grandfather, Carl Pearlstein, who we called “Baba”. As a toddler, Justin couldn’t pronounce Bubbe, instead of calling his grandfather “Baba” and from that point on the family just referred to him as “Baba”. Justin admired his grandfather – he was everything to him. We spent a lot of time with his grandparents more than anyone else in the family. His grandparents had a huge influence in guiding and shaping who we are today.
BL: Was the fact that they were wealthy and Jewish hard for you?
Dautoff: No, not at all. His entire family were so kind, loving, unpretentious and down to earth, not just to me but to my whole family as well. They would invite my mom and grandmother over and spend time just hanging out and sharing food and stories. We shared many of the same values I grew up with, the importance of family, the importance of community and the importance of hard work.
Justin’s great grandparents (Ida and Moishe Pearlstein) were immigrants as well, immigrating from Eastern Europe to New York. They were also very poor, peddling anything they could to make money at the time. Justin’s grandfather, Baba, left New York in his twenties. He took a bus from New York to San Francisco with only $17 in his pocket. Baba’s mother, Ida, had always loved flowers so Baba began selling flower bulbs out of his apartment bathtub. With hard work, integrity, and tenacity, he built a company that eventually evolved into one of the largest nursery growers in the U.S. called Nurserymen’s Exchange.
After graduating high school, Justin decided to take a year off. Baba sent him to Israel and Taiwan, where his family had connections. When he returned, I had graduated from high school and we began a business selling plants to independent grocery stores. We would start at 11:30 in the evening, hitting stores and stocking their floral department throughout the region, ending our day at 7:30 in the morning. We did all the work ourselves, sharing a commitment of making it successful.
Baba instilled in us what Justin’s Great-Grandma Ida would say to him daily, “Do as your little heart tells you, but always let it be guided by integrity, good sense, courage and humility”. These words we hold true to our hearts, as they are also instilled in the hearts of our girls. At our daughters Simcha on their Bat Mitzvah day, Justin’s speech to our girls was not long, fancy, intellectually clever or humorous, it was this one single quote from Great-Grandma Ida, whose wisdom will be passed down for generations to come.
BL: But you did not grow up Jewish, was that part strange?
Dautoff: No. Not at all. Since the age of 15, that was just what we did with his family and they included me in all of it. I loved the traditions and felt a connection to it. My family was not particularly religious growing up. Christmas was special though because we would celebrate it with our large extended family, but it was mostly about being together, opening gifts and the food (tamales) more than anything else. Hanukkah is a huge event for Justin’s family. His extended family would all come together, light the Chanukiah, exchange gifts and eat latkes. It is not so different.
BL: You raised your daughters Jewish, sent them to Jewish schools, have a strong circle of Israeli Jewish friends, belong to a synagogue but only recently decided to convert to Judaism, what made you do it?
Dautoff: There was never any pressure and it was entirely my choice. The timing was right, it just felt like the right thing to do. I wanted to be part of the tribe. I’m living a Jewish life with Jewish values and traditions and now feel more connected. I was living a Jewish life but was not fully Jewish. Now I am fully Jewish.