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Plantains, Rice, & Beans
15 Dec 2009

What’s a Jewminicana? Well, for one, a Jewminicana is a Dominicana who converts to Judaism. But reverse that because I’m a Jewish Latina…in that order. But just because I put my religion first doesn’t mean I think my culture should be second.

I often find myself in uncomfortable conversations because of my hyphenated identity. Like the one where the white Jewish guy explained that it’s the inbreeding that makes us really quite superb. “That’s why we have so many Nobel Prize winners,” he offered cheerfully. The whole time, he knew I was a convert but he didn’t stop to think if his comments might offend me. No, he was one of those people.

To those people, converting means that I thought Judaism was better than being Latina. To some others, it 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. I get it, you think Judaism rocks and though I don’t disagree, my identity is a little bit more complicated than that.

“When are you going to learn to cook Jewish food?” I was asked at a recent Shabbos meal. It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard it. 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. I converted for the religion, not the recipes.

Too many people think that Eastern European culture IS Jewish culture. It troubles me that Ashkenazi Judaism still gets top billing 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 (yuck!). I won’t force my plantains on someone and call them racist if they don’t bite, if they don’t insinuate 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 (for now) imaginary children grow up, they will know that Judaism is more about how you pray than the style of food 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 in a Jewish day school there doesn’t seem to be too many people that look like me. Ladino and Spanish aren’t always choices on the curriculum even when the kids are living in middle of Latino Los Angeles. I’m worried that my kids will think they’re a minority if I don’t drag them once a week to Israel and the Dominican Republic where they will surely meet plenty of Latino Jews. I fear they’ll be asked to represent every Jew of color everywhere on a day to day basis.

Much like myself, my children will probably be fighting the same stereotypes. We won’t want people to forget that Judaism is not a race. It’s a nation, it’s a people, it’s a culture (and that’s a loose interpretation of the truth). It’s big. Judaism doesn’t fit into these tiny little boxes that people use to define themselves.

Someday soon, I want people to think of me when they think “Jew.” Look, there’s a nice Jewish girl and she’s got an 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.

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, we’ve moved past racist assumptions into a multicultural reality.

So to recap, I’m Jewish, I’m Latina and I’m staying that way.

Aliza Hausman is a Latina Orthodox Jewish convert, freelance writer, blogger and speaker. Currently working on a memoir, she lives in New York with her husband.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.