Monthly Archives: June 2013

Y Nuestra Mishpocheh También

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I have to admit I am having a bit of writer’s block.  All week I have been debating what topic I should discuss and writing draft after draft of nonsense.  I think it is largely due to the fact that a lot of people are reading this.  It makes me feel this probably fictional sense of pressure to keep everyone interested.  I have to be honest with you, before your expectations exceed my reach, sometimes I don’t have anything interesting to say.  I can blame it on the fact that sometimes I am too focused on the mundane to examine things too deeply. I work, I get tired, I worry about money and family and finch and how my spiritual journey is going (hopefully not in that order).  I just worry, I don’t think about these things in a constructive, interesting or innovative way, I simply worry and stress.  To alleviate the adult onset stress  I play Farmville 2 or I watch bad television (Real Housewives anyone?) instead of thinking, or even writing.  But today I got an email from my dad.  It is worth mentioning that my dad doesn’t email me.  I honestly don’t think my dad emails often, he probably does so for work because he has to and he sometimes emails my grandmother because it is one of the few ways that we can communicate with her.  However this email from my dad was worth waiting for, it was so my dad; it was funny and sweet, it was thoughtful and excited.  So I went into my blog drafts and chose to write about the most important category in this blog: family.

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I have a pretty big and interesting family, I wish I could describe in great detail each and every member because they are all rather unique, but this would take several posts and probably all of my allotted space.

Let’s start with the basics, my parents.  I was born lucky.  Both of my parents are incredible.  They are both smart, funny, attractive and complex people.  From the time I was born they chose to be open and honest with me about everything (even when I didn’t want them to) and fearlessly (or at least seemingly so) approached any topic I would bring up (there is no such thing between the three of us at TMI). Both made a great effort to raise me to be more tolerant, more understanding, more empathetic than they are.

My mom is absolutely brilliant.  She is a fascinating woman with a great sense of humor.  She is also the best writer I know.  She is passionate about basically everything, which often makes having a conversation with her about a specific topic difficult.  She is loving and devoted to a fault.  She is overprotective, but never to the point where she has clipped my wings. Seeing her feeling defeated destroys me.  She is more than any little girl could hope for in terms of a woman to aspire to.  We have endured a lot of growing pains in our relationship but she will always be my mother, my friend, my guide.  If I can be half of the mother and woman she has been, I will consider my life a success. I must admit, she is also the reason people are reading this blog.

My father is exceedingly creative.  His humor is a little bit sarcastic and dry.  He is an incredible father.  He is kind and considerate.  As I grew up he always made an effort to learn what I liked;  he still proudly asserts that he knew my favorite television show was Charmed.  He is hardworking.  He is a little crotchety.  I always knew my father had set the bar high for what I wanted in a partner.  I expect he knew it too.  He never liked any of the (albeit there were very few) guys I brought home.  Without ever saying an unkind word about them,  I knew he wanted better for me, I don’t think he wanted me to settle.  Regretfully we don’t get to spend as much time together as we used to.  We used to talk about every random topic we could think up, he is a great conversationalist.

I also have a gorgeous and quirky sister, who taught me how to apply mascara and lives too far away for my liking.  A grandfather who grows wiser with age and whose sense of adventure I hope to inherit.  A great uncle with strong convictions.  Three grandmothers who have shown me three very different approaches to life (one whom I am thankful loves me every day as if I was her own).  A plethora of loveable aunts and uncles, from a hippie Cuban-British pack I cannot imagine life without to a more traditional Cuban-Mexican group I absolutely adore.

However, this is a mere scratch on the surface of who I consider my family.  There are many I share no bloodline with, but are just as significant and close as those that I do.  And then there is my mishpocheh.

When my boyfriend and I started dating I wasn’t sure how to explain my very close relationship with my family, and I definitely had no idea what his relationship with his own was like.   Very quickly it was all very clear because familial relationships like ours are difficult to conceal.  As he grew more comfortable with me I realized he talked to his mom daily, what a relief!  As we began to talk more about our own families I was thrilled because family is pivotal in my life.  We realized that Jews and Cubans share what many others consider to be excessive family involvement.  Yet it was perfect for us.  He understood that I needed to spend time with my mom and I understood he needed to spend a significant amount of time chatting with his since she lived several states away.

I wish I could say that this meant meeting the parents was easy.  It wasn’t.  Meeting his parents was absolutely nerve-wracking.  Saying that I really wanted them to like me is an understatement.  My mother would encouragingly (and with obvious bias) remind me that they had to love me because I was awesome.  That, unsurprisingly, did not give me any sense of ease.  I met his dad first, in passing, and had absolutely no idea if he liked me or not.  I was dumbfounded.  My boyfriend did not provide any clarity.  Regardless of how much I worried I knew the person I really had to win over was his mom.

I met her much later and amidst a difficult situation.  It is sad to say this gave me a certain advantage, but I can say that merely because these circumstances facilitated showing her how much I (and my mother) loved and cared for her son.  The moment I saw her, an adorable tiny blonde in Coach sneakers running around the airport, I knew it was her.  The second we were finally introduced I liked her.  And amazingly, over dinner, it wasn’t long before she kind of admitted that she already liked me.  Since then our relationship has blossomed.  I love catching up with her on the phone, getting excited emails from her when there is a Kate Spade sale, and coordinating trips so that we can all spend time together.  I think in many ways we are similar women.  We are both very good at taking control, we like to plan ahead, and we both like to speak our minds, regardless of timing.  Moreover, I can’t not love her, she raised the best man any woman could ask for.

So now I have the family I was luckily born into (including those unofficially adopted) and my mishpocheh, which comes with aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents I have the mazel to also call family.

I can’t be Just Jewish…

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These last few weeks have caused me to consider things I had naively failed to see before.  What does it mean when I, a Cuban born and raised mutt, become Jewish?  To me that answer was simple and unexamined, I would be a Jewban.  That seemed simple enough, I could be Cuban and I could be Jewish without a second thought.   It’s not like I would be the first, the term actually exists.  This concept, however, became inescapably problematic as soon as I left my comfort zone.  Despite the kindness others showed me I felt alienated, confused, and worst of all, insecure.  Not only was I not sure about the decision I used to be so sure about, I began to worry about what my choice would mean to members of my family.  I would never want my family to feel alienated.  Although I understand that sometimes they may not understand what I am doing or why, I never want anyone I love to feel detached from my life.

Let’s consider for a minute what being Jewish means, not as a convert but as someone who is born into a Jewish family.  Being Jewish is difficult, it is almost ineffable.  Is it a religion? Is it a race? Is it a culture? Can it be just one of those things? How can I be part of something I cannot completely define? It is unlike being born into a Christian family, where some form of Christianity is a religion, but the people can be Spanish, Mexican, Irish, or any sort of mix of racial/cultural backgrounds.  You can be a Christian or not, it is not in your blood.  However you’ll always be Spanish, Mexican, Irish or whatever else.  Whereas even if you’re not religiously practicing Judaism, you’ll still always be Jewish even if your background is Polish, Russian, Hungarian or whatever else.   As a result I have to ask, how can I be part of a people I wasn’t born a part of?  I know there are books written about this, but it doesn’t make it any easier.  It is as if my boyfriend wanted to be Cuban.  He couldn’t technically; despite of how welcomed by my family he is, or how much he learns about my culture, or how well he fits in he’d never actually be Cuban.  So that leads me to wonder, how could I ever be completely Jewish?  Despite of the countless cultural similarities between Jews and Cubans it stills feels unquestionably distinct.

Regardless of what my genealogy may uncover (I have been working on my family tree, trying to figure out where I come from, hopefully I will be able to write a post about that soon enough) no one in my immediate family was raised Jewish or even grew up around Jews (at least post-revolution).  This means that the customs that come with both the religion and the culture are utterly unknown.  Sure, I can become religiously Jewish.  I can learn those customs, attend services, observe holidays, read the Torah, but there will always be a part of being Jewish I will be missing.  With time I will surely feel more culturally Jewish, but it can never be complete.  I will definitely be more religiously Jewish, but when I hear talk of “our people” will I ever feel fully connected or entitled to belong?

Beyond that, even if hypothetically I could become fully Jewish, what happens to my family?  What happens to the people that raised me to be the woman I am today? Are they to be forever disconnected from me the second I emerge from the mikvah?  This weekend I came across a passage that broke me.  As I read from my Introduction to Judaism book I read a reference to converts and their family members :  “The general description in the Talmud of the relationship of a convert to his gentile relatives is that they are no longer his relatives at all.  “A convert is like a newborn child” (Yevamot 22a), which means that entering Judaism is like a new birth, and all his past life does not (legally) exist.”  As much as I love the book of Ruth and find her actions admirable,  I have no intentions of forgetting my people.  I honestly can’t even fathom that completely disconnecting from my roots will make me completely Jewish.  It won’t mean I grew up lighting Hanukkah candles or making brisket or inserting Yiddish into my vocabulary.  It would mean I have broken from my people, but not my roots. Much like one can never stop being Jewish, I can’t stop being Cuban.  I will always have grown up eating frijoles, speaking Spanglish, and basking in the Caribbean sun.

I may live in a bubble, Miami has that strange quality, but I am making peace with that.  My Rabbi encouragingly asserted that my complexity, my differences make our community richer.  So I may never be just Jewish, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t be Jewban.

Son, you know you’re a Finch, don’t you?

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230192_951760173008_7045624_nI love animals, especially dogs.  I grew up with several dogs and cats, I don’t ever remember not sharing my life with at least one pet.  However, a couple of years ago I adopted my very own ball of never-ending energy.

217716_951760472408_4649493_nFinch and I met April of 2011 in the Humane Society of Greater Miami while I was volunteering.  It was love at first sight.  He was the sweetest puppy when we first met, and perfectly behaved when I brought Ringo (the family dog) to meet him.

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However, the second we got him home everything changed.  He has what is apparently commonly known as a “beagle howl,” the sound it unlike anything I’d ever heard before and generally quite loud and startling.  He also has the terrible habit of eating everything in sight (this includes shoes, pants, and  cat poop).

                          feeench

We had never lived with such a difficult pet, but he was a member of the family and we made adjustments,  there was no more leaving shoes in common areas, we closed all the doors possible and I got him a crate.  The crate situation was extremely short-lived; my mother thought it was a horrifying form of torture and banished it to the tool shed.

253600_993494417248_287976_nStill, despite his faults Finch is an absolutely incredible dog.

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He makes everyone fall in love with him. He will not relent until you pay attention to him, he will yell, jump, and cry until you show him love.  I have witnessed several people who are not particularly fond of dogs fall in love with my baby.

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He also hates rain, it terrifies him and it is heartbreaking to watch shiver and shake as it pours (which is a common occurrence around these parts), his honey-brown eyes wide.  Once the storm passes he curls up by himself and falls asleep for hours.

230154_951766864598_2628675_nFinch also hates being alone.  When I go to work, if no one stays with him, I return to a fifteen minute beagle howl monologue, presumably expressing how I’ve wronged him.

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Whenever I get upset at his misbehavior, he looks up at me just the right way and I am completely disarmed and dissuaded; his expressive face allows him to get away with everything.

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For his first birthday (since we don’t actually know the date we celebrate the date we adopted him) my mother wrote an ode to the Finch:

Este es Finch. Hace hoy un año que llegó a nuestra casa. Es un perrito especial, nervioso, muy testarudo, cariñoso y juguetón. Mi hija lo encontró, sin buscarlo, en una perrera. Yo no sé cómo ni por cuánto tiempo soportó este animalito tan sensible la calle y la dura vida de un perro en una perrera, tal vez en una jaula, sin nadie que lo consolara cuando llovía o tronaba, sin el enorme caudal de amor y atención que necesita cada día. No es un perrito fácil. Cada vez que se acuerda de quién es, se come algo caro y que a uno le gusta mucho: un ajustador de Victoria’s Secret, una manta de cashemira, el lápiz de ojos preferido. Después te mira con sus ojos de caramelo y sale corriendo con sus patitas cortas, levantando la derecha a lo Charles Chaplin, y no hay nada que hacer, solo sonreír y echarse la culpa a uno mismo por dejar las cosas donde no debía. Tiene uno de los peores alientos perrunos que haya olido en mi larga experiencia con la raza canina y una voz alta, aguda y demandante que taladra los tímpanos. Pero su alegría no se compara con nada, la manera en que busca que lo quieran, sus ocurrencias, singularidades y su tremenda “personalidad” (ya quisiera mucha gente que conozco tener la mitad de su gracia). Nunca sabremos qué día nació realmente este perrito, pero nuestro Finch nació hace exactamente un año, cuando él encontró una familia que entendiera sus peculiaridades y nosotros, el perrito precioso y simpático que completa nuestro hogar, que ha llenado desde entonces con su alegría.

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Brisket: the catalyst for this blog (and a few other recipes)

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Part of my cultural discovery has delightedly come via food.  I love food, it always has been an important part of my life and it is definitely a part of my culture; Cubans love to cook, to eat, and to feed.  Everything in our lives, whether it is a cold or a breakup, can be resolved with the right meal.

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My cures-it-all food is café con leche (Wiki explains Café con Leche) and unsurprisingly my mom makes it better than I do and offers to do so every time I feel sick, tired, or sad.

My personal recipe for a quick and always delicious café con leche is one cup of milk, one tablespoon of  Nescafé Taster’s Choice Original (I buy the travel packets and bring them with me whenever I travel outside of Miami, they definitely came in particularly handy when I went home with my boyfriend and I was able to make café con leche in the midwest) and two packets of Equal.

cafe con leche

So it was quite the pleasant surprise when I learned that Judaism came with a very similar passion for food.  Every holiday is filled with delicious foods, most of which fell outside my familiar palate.  I fell in love with paprika and matzah (matzo? I can never get the plural/singular right) balls, I even developed a taste for gefilte.  Most importantly, at this point I cannot live without challah, I look foward to Shabbat every week and it is one of the reasons.  Particularly Saturday mornings, when I enjoy the perfect breakfast:  challah (local tip, Publix has the best challah), schmeard with yogurt butter and dipped in café con leche.

Challah

Two (three if we count the cookbook writer) very important women in my life have only strengthened my passion.  For graduation my fabulous future mother in law got me Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Cookbook, quickly I perfected my matzah balls and discovered chicken paprikash (whoever you are, go make it right now, it’ll change your life Chicken Paprikash, I subbed rice for chickpeas and it was incredible).

chicken-paprikash

Now, to the point of this post: Brisket.  The second woman in my life who only furthered my food fanaticism is my mother.  She is an amazing cook, she can create and recreate like nobody’s business.  I have been cooking along this amazing woman for at least a decade and I must credit her for my cooking talents.  For as long as I can remember I have wanted a slow cooker and for my last birthday my mother got me just that.  I have to embarrassingly admit it is one of the best gifts I’ve ever gotten, it is red, perfectly sized and has allowed me to make some exquisite dishes (the first was an Asian inspired chicken with peanuts and orange that was a major hit in my household).  However,  my slow cooker has been pivotal in developing my own signature Jewish staple: Brisket! I have been making brisket for Shabbat for at least three weeks now.  The first week I went traditional, inspired by Joan and the Shiksa (Shiksa’s Slow Cooker Brisket, check out her blog, it is awesome) and it was really good.  I have to admit, however, that my brisket is consistently more Jewban than Jewish) with a texture similar to ropa vieja.

ropa vieja

Thankfully, my boyfriend (the only real connoisseur of Jewish cuisine) loves our bicultural brisket.

My second brisket adventure was inspired by the Southwest, simply because I love those flavors.

We usually get a brisket in the $9 to $11 range, I am not really sure what the weight is (maybe 5 pounds?), for the Southwestern we marinaded the brisket overnight in Cuban mojo and honey barbecue sauce, freshly chopped onions, garlic and peppers along with a couple of bay leaves, paprika and cumin.  The next morning I set the slow cooker to slow and added the onion and peppers in, then placed the brisket on top adding a little pineapple and black bean salsa and slices of corn on the cob.  About eight hours later I removed the brisket, sliced it, and placed it back in the slow cooker for about an hour.  It was pretty delicious and just the right amount of spicy (the salsas were mild and the barbecue sauce was just a little warm).

However, my latest brisket creation has been my best, by far.  Inspired by my Italian ancestors (they’re way, way, way back there in the bloodline) I wanted to make Italian brisket.

It started with our usual bed of garlic and onions, then I rubbed the brisket with extra virgin olive oil, freshly ground black pepper, and a rosemary garlic blend by Spice Islands, and I let it marinade overnight.  The next morning I followed the same routine I had the last two Friday mornings, I placed the onion and garlic underneath the brisket then threw several plump sun-dried tomatoes in along with half a jar of piquillo peppers (if you can’t find these locally I am sure fire roasted red peppers will do the trick). About eight hours later I removed the brisket, sliced it, and placed it back in the slow cooker for about an hour.  By far, this has been my favorite brisket.  It was moist and flavorful and went very well with my favorite $5 bottle.

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Please feel free to ask questions shall you have any and hope we meet again!

images via flickr.com,  tumblr.com, sergios.com, askgeorgie.com and versaillescuban.com