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.