“So where you from?” they ask.
“New York,” I say.
“No, really. Where you from?”
“New York!” But I know they’re not really asking which state I hail from. I’ve been under the inquisition enough times to know. Plus, it helps that some people’s curiosity has gotten the best of them and led to questions like:
“Where are your parents from? Where are your grandparents from?” and even “No, where were they from before that?” Excuse me, but what kinds of questions are these from people I’ve just met?
And yet, I’ve always gotten these kinds of questions. Questions that I attribute to features that don’t always peg me as Hispanic but more often biracial (half black/half white). These same features don’t strike many people around the Shabbos (Sabbath) table as “Jewish” in the Eastern European sense. Looking “exotic” tends to make people very curious.
Still, it strikes me as funny to call myself a Jew of color. Especially when my nicknames growing up were “Snow White” and “Vampire.” But there aren’t many Dominican Jews who can trace their lineage back to the island before the Dominican Republic took in European Jewish refugees during World War II. I’ve only met a few Dominican Jews who weren’t white. So, I guess you could say I am a little exotic.
Sometimes, I wish I wasn’t a Jew of color. I just want to blend! But the results of blending have been, at times, unsettling. When people don’t know I’m a Jew of color, I become a “racial spy.” Jews and those who don’t identify as Jewish alike sling hurtful comments in front of me, believing that I must be not one of “them.” That it’s okay to be racist because there aren’t any non-whites at the table. Or no one Jewish around. But during the “joke” about the Mexican housekeeper, I protest, “Hello? I’m offended!” And somewhere, later, I’ll have to pipe up to defend the Jews.
And sometimes, that’s just the kick in the pants these people need, to be reminded that a “joke” that’s not okay in every circle might not be okay in ANY circle.
In one incident at the Shabbos table when we were discussing current events, a woman said disdainfully, “Why do they have to sing the national anthem in Spanish? Our national language is English. Everyone should speak English! One language unites us.” She nodded, looking around for agreement.
Then I, bilingual Spanish-speaking person that I am, had to respond: “As if those guys on the news didn’t speak English? I mean, they translated the national anthem from English. Maybe, you should stop speaking Hebrew, being all Jewish, because it isn’t very American after all? Or maybe culture and language doesn’t have to DIVIDE us.”
Why am I always the one whose job it is to be offended and the one always there to defend? It makes me angry.
It’s tiresome to be the “racial representative,” representative for people of color everywhere. But I realize when someone asks, “So, seriously, why do Hispanic women dress like that?” that they really believe I have some magic crystal ball connection that helps me understand all people of color. Long after realizing anger has gotten me nowhere, I’ve tried to change gears, tried to take a second to assume the best in people. They’re not trying to be racist. Sometimes, I say, “How should I know?” But more often than not, I find myself representin’: “People from different cultures have different dress codes” and “So, you think we should all start wearing burkhas (the enveloping outer garment worn by women in some Islamic traditions for the purpose of cloaking the entire body)?” People try to understand different cultures through the lens of their own and too often decide that anything different is “weird.”
Judaism doesn’t want to make people feel “weird” so it’s actually socially unacceptable to ask someone if they converted. If someone converted, they’re Jewish and that’s enough with that. But even knowledgeable Jews will ask me indirectly whether I converted. And though I am a convert, I wonder about all the Jews of color that aren’t. The common assumption is that a person of color can’t have been born a Jew. But we need only look at the rich landscape of colorful Jewish faces to see that this assumption is untrue. Newsflash: not every Jew in the world is Ashkenazi, or white, or even from New York!
Unfortunately, the Jewish people are no strangers to racism–they are targets of it, and yet they still perpetrate it just as much as the next guy. Someone asked me: “How could a people who have suffered the Holocaust be so racist?” Because Jews have suffered centuries of anti-Semitism that has created an “us” versus “them” mentality that continues to poison interactions with people who don’t identify as Jewish and Jews who don’t fit into cookie cutter boxes for race and ethnicity. I’ve met a half-Asian, half-white girl whose Jewish affiliation became nonexistent after her Hebrew school classmates terrorized her with racially charged attacks. I had an Asian convert tell me that after all the racism he’s endured, he remains tied to Judaism only for his son’s sake.
My mother used to tell me that black people were evil, Mexicans slept with their brothers and sisters and white people had it all. And maybe, it would have been easy to grow up to believe these things if I didn’t have a black best friend, a Mexican friend and a white husband. The way to combat stereotypes, racism, is to tear them down with the actual knowledge that comes from meeting and knowing people who are different (but not so different) from us. Segregation only leads to more segregation. So what?
I’m not a big fan of assimilation. But in some ways, I’m an assimilated Dominican woman. Cutting myself off from the rest of the world would have left me pretty lonely on that little island in the Caribbean. It’s all about balance. Being a Modern Orthodox Jew to me is about being true to Judaism while living it up in the modern world, safeguarding my Judaism but also participating in the best the world outside has to offer. We can’t be “a light unto the nations” unless we understand the world around us.