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.

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16 responses »

  1. My beautiful little cuz, that is a very complex analysis you have made of a very complex life choice which i’m sure I don’t need to tell you as “you are living it”. I’m incredible proud of you for questioning any choice filled with such inherent complexity as this one. Having lived among that culture for 22 years (you do have a family member with “some” experience in this matter :-), I can tell you that for the “average” Jewish man or woman living in Israel today, the differences in the “every day aspect of the culture” not the religion, between the Cuban and the Jewish culture are “minor” at best! They are loud, emotional, huggy feely, the whole family comes over when ever they want…ect (same as us, they are the Cubans of the Arab world!).
    As to you leaving or isolating your family, that’s impossible as your family will never leave or isolate “you”!! But the “why” do what ur doing…that is a very personal one and in my perspective, you need not explain anything to anyone, but be “very extremely freaking 1000% sure” that you are doing what you are doing because of “you”!! not anyone else!! Love you and I’m so freaking proud to be part of your family!!!

    • Thank you! I’d never heard “Cubans of the Arab world” but I have definitely heard that we are the “Jews of the Caribbean!”

      • “Jews of the Caribbean” is common when comparing “us” to them., I like it better comparing “them” to us . We rock!! 🙂

  2. Just signed up to receive your brilliant and amusing blog. I also love animals (dogs, cats, most mammals but nothing that crawls– ugh!) and feel somehow related to Finchicito as well as to you thanks to your mother, a dear friend. As for Jubans, we’ve hung together since the term was even known, back in Cuba, long ago. I’m familiar with the mystical connection between brisket and ropa vieja. Anyway, GJO, I love your writing. Hope to see a lot more. 🙂

    • Silvia, thank you so much for your kind words. I hope you continue to enjoy my writing and feel free to share any insight/thoughts/ramblings any time. As for the mystical connection between brisket and ropa vieja it is quite undeniably delicious. Thank you for joining me on this journey.

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  4. For me, part of my process of becoming Jewish is embracing my family. We have not always gotten along, especially my mother and I. Part of me squaring with HaShem is forgiving my family and seeking forgiveness as well. We were made to enjoy life! I see nothing wrong with embracing both.

    • Lynn, I totally agree. I also get a lot of joy sharing things like Shabbat with my family. I hope you can find peace in your relationship with your mom, I know sometimes these relationships require work and patience.

      • My other thought: what a “Jew” is, ethnically and culturally, DOES vary by region. Sure, European-style Judaism is similar. But what about in Africa? or India? If you fit in with your local community, then good. 🙂 Part of what brought you to Judiasm IS your culture, so it shouldn’t be discarded. It can’t be, really… we can never completely shed our past. 🙂 And thank you. You know you’re an adult when you have the aha moment of, “My parents are fallible, too.”

      • That is such a good point, inevitably it does vary. Even as far as Sephardi traditions are so different from Ashkenazim. I know that often what I struggle with how I feel, and it changes over time. I feel blessed that I found a community that loves and accepts me, and I can only work on learning and strengthening these relationships. And although that aha moment may not be easy, I think it makes for the building of a better relationship.

  5. Hi Lelita. This is your (younger) grand-uncle Rene. Your article was very smart, about Judaism and your conversion into it. I wouldn’t worry or loose sleep over. And don’t ever deny your background, because you are beautiful, smart, funny, with a wonderful Cuban family and all descendants of the old World (Europe). Long time ago i learned that when we embrace other cultures, our owns will always be challenged. It is normal to be asked, where are you coming from, when did you leave your original country, what is your religion?, etc. I also learned that what makes the world so wonderful and beautiful is exactly that, diversity and the changes that this bring on people. Those who do not understand this, well, is their loss. I know that you will always be loved and accepted, because your are a magnificent human being. and Gregg is very lucky and his family are very lucky to have found you and your wonderful black beans and rice Cuban family. Of course I think that you are lucky as well to have found such wonderful people. I myself should be a Jewish man. I love Judaism. as a matter of fact, we have been called The Jews of the Caribbean. don’t mistake this with the Pirates of the Caribbean, that’s a movie with many sequels now. Love you so much, Tio Rene. Rj.O PS, don’t ever give up black beans and rice, and tostones, of course.

    • Tio, thank you for your kind words. I know (and love) that we share so many inexplicable similarities. Greg and I are both very lucky to have found each other, for many reasons but one of them is definitely the beautiful diversity we can bring to our now very extended family. I could never give up frijoles, but instead of tostones I’ll take two order of platanitos 😉

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