One day I hope to be enough: my experience growing up with dual ethnicities

Guest post by Jecka
Photos by Jecka.

“But you don’t look Jewish!”

So goes the story of my life as a Hispanic-Jew.

My mother’s side of the family hails from Puerto Rico, and religiously-speaking every member is completely Roman Catholic. I’ve spoken broken Spanish my entire life. My father’s entire family is made up of Russian Jews, and as a baby I was converted into Judaism.

“Jew-Rican.” “Christmukkah.” “I’m Jew…ish.”

These are just a few terms I created or adopted over the years to add levity to the confusion people would experience when they learned about my ethnicity. I grew up on Long Island, New York, where there was a very high population of Jews. It was common to see symbols of both Christianity and Judaism, especially in public schools. Seeing Stars of David alongside Christmas trees and crosses on school windows, the walls of department stores, and in newspaper advertisements was commonplace. This dual expression of spirituality perfectly reflected my own household.

It wasn’t until my teens that I started to feel like I was being torn into two whenever I thought about identity: am I a half-Russian Jew, or half-Puerto Rican?

I spent every Christmas between the ages of two and 26 with my mother’s family — it’s “their holiday.” I’d light the menorah as my Catholic cousins stared and snickered (although they’d stop laughing when they’d see me open my Chanukah presents days before they could even touch their Christmas gifts). I remember feeling left out when the whole family would leave my father and me at the home of my grandparents while they headed out to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

I am the only one on the entirety of my mother’s side who isn’t fluent in Spanish, the one who doesn’t have a Spanish-originated last name, and the only one who had a Bat Mitzvah. On my father’s side of the family, I am the only one who has dark skin, has a Christmas tree during December, and had to be converted to Judaism instead of being born into it.

For years I struggled with not feeling “Jewish enough” or “Puerto Rican enough,” and these feelings lasted for years. To this day, at the ripe age of 28, I still have an internal struggle and a feeling of not having an ethnicity. I sometimes wish I could be like my Muslim friends who “look Muslim” and go to a mosque. I sometimes find myself envious of my Christian friends who have Irish, Italian, African, or French ancestry. I wish my faith could “better match” my appearance. I long to speak better Spanish so I can fit in with my mother’s family, but at the same time worry that speaking Spanish could put me at risk of being even less Jewish.

I don’t know if I’ll ever feel “Jewish enough” or “Puerto Rican enough.” Until I hit that day of epiphany, I’ll continue to fast on Yom Kippur, put up a Christmas tree every December, and break the ice with, “I’m probably the only Puerto Rican Jew you’ll ever meet.”

Comments on One day I hope to be enough: my experience growing up with dual ethnicities

  1. OMG! I’m a Sephardic (Spanish) Jew with a Long Islander mother who is marrying a New York Puerto Rican and we’re having Jewish babies and talking about Christmas and this article is so incredibly relevant to my life that I’m immediately emailing it to my fiancee and I can’t believe this is on Offbeat Home right now ahhhh!!!

    • Wow! That is so awesome! Having to explain families in such a long sentence is something I’m very used to. 🙂 Best of luck to you and your fiance!

  2. There is a big community of Hispanic jews in Latin and south america. Several of my Spanish professors in college were Jewish. None of them were from Puerto Rico, but Wikipedia has an interesting article about the Jewish community on the island. It might not help – especially because your family doesn’t sound too interested in the intersection of the two cultures, but it might be fun to see how other groups have combined being Hispanic and Jewish.

    • That’s very interesting. In the 18 years of living and growing up on Long Island, I never met another Hispanic Jew.

      It isn’t that my family isn’t interested in intersecting the two cultures, because we did when I was growing up – we had a Christmas tree and a menorah (although I never equated the Christmas tree to anything religious whatsoever until I was in my teens). My fiance and I agreed that we’ll raise our future kids under the Jewish faith (they’ll go to hebrew school and get bar/bat mitzvah-ed, etc.) but, like my upbringing, they’ll have Christmas. (I never knew Easter was a religious holiday until my teens as well!)

      But, yes, I am curious about the Jewish groups that have Hispanic roots.

      • My family is Catholic and from (Spanish -speaking) Argentina, and my sister married an Argentinian Jew, with (most) of the Jewish tradition. They now live in California, so believe me, it CAN be done!! 🙂

  3. This really resonated with me. My father is from the Middle East, and my mom is from South America. I was born and raised (mostly) in the US. Once I turned 18 I left and I’ve lived in Europe and Asia over the past six years. My father’s family is Muslim, my mother’s is Catholic. I am neither.

    What I hate is when people try to define my identity for me, or tell me my own ideas about who I am are wrong. ‘Oh, so you’re not really American!’ ‘Oh, you’re only half _____.’ I define myself as of the three nationalities, and I don’t like to specify percentages. Can other mixed people do so? Sure! Does anyone else have the right to define me? Nope!

    Another thing that bothers me is when people tell me my family is so ‘interesting’ or ‘ethnic’ or say that their family is boring in comparison to mine. Um, I’m glad our lives are entertaining to you? As a child, I remember going to a friend’s house for dinner. Her mom served us meat, vegetables, and mashed potatoes each in its own neat quadrant on the plate. I was fascinated. We never ate like this in my home – almost every night consisted of a heaping plate of rice and stew from my father’s mental catalogue of recipes he grew up with, meat and veg and carbs all mixed together. Whenever people tell me they wish their family had more culture I tell them about my fascinated 8-year-old self, marveling at this radical way of eating. Everyone has culture, but sometimes you’re so immersed in your own you don’t realise it.

    • “Another thing that bothers me is when people tell me my family is so ‘interesting’ or ‘ethnic’ or say that their family is boring in comparison to mine.”

      I agree with this SO much. I remember one year when I felt left out because my cousins went to midnight mass on Christmas Eve, so I asked to go with them. They said, “Ugh, but it’s SO BORING! You shouldn’t want to go!” I did anyway, and although my cousins were bored to death, I was so overwhelmed with the new-ness of a Catholic mass (the songs, etc.) that I wasn’t bored at all.

  4. Interesting! Maybe you should introduce yourself to Rebecca at the blog Fosterhood in NYC – http://fosterhood.tumblr.com/ ? She is adopting a baby who is half Jewish, half Puerto Rican (Jewrican?) and is trying to keep both of those cultures alive for her daughter, even though she personally comes from neither culture. She would probably love to hear from you and get advice! (email fosterhoodblog (at) gmail)

  5. I know where you’re coming from, though not in terms of physical appearance. My mother is Jewish and my father is Catholic. My soon-to-be in-laws have a hard time reconciling the idea that I am both Jewish and Christian. I celebrate the Jewish holy days and the Christian holy days. But for me the struggle is more in how I am interpreted by others, rather than how I perceive myself. I think it is always hard to be different, and yes, there was a moment of epiphany for me where my dualities suddenly made sense, or more specifically, stopped mattering at all. I’m white so I could pass for either Jew or Christian, though I live in an area where the Jewish community is not very visible. I think for me I had to come to the realization that everyone is just acting out the cultural scripts they have chosen, whether by birth or association. Because I didn’t fit within the expected pattern, people felt threatened by me. I actually had a friend tell me I was Jewish enough to date but not Jewish enough for him to marry. He was also Jewish. But I stopped caring about other people’s opinions about my faith. My faith and my ethnicity are my own and no one else’s. I’m confident you will arrive at that point sometime, even if you haven’t up to this point in your life.

    • “I actually had a friend tell me I was Jewish enough to date but not Jewish enough for him to marry. ”

      …seriously?? That trumps anything I’ve been told (t0 my face, at least). I can’t believe the things that come out of some people’s mouths.

  6. My mom is half Puerto Rican and half Jewish (Romanian), too! She wasn’t raised in the Jewish faith though. Her mother (Jewish) and father (PR) converted to Presbyterianism as some sort of weird compromise… so I have little to no knowledge of either Judaism or Catholicism.

    Either way, I know exactly what you mean about stretched between two identities. I speak some Spanish, but not enough to call myself fluent. I certainly don’t have enough knowledge of Jewish culture to feel like I’d be anything but an imposter if I were to claim it.

    My dad is generically white. He doesn’t have any info about his ethnicity beyond “dunno, maybe scots-irish?” By appearances I’m also “white.” So in terms of building a racial/ethnic identity there’s always a conflict between feeling like I’m either co-opting someone else’s or denying my own.

    Then there’s the whole issue of wanting to pass on all of what I am, ethnically speaking, to my own kids, whose mother is white (English).

    • That’s definitely one thing I didn’t touch upon in my post, but wanted to: my future kids.

      My fiance was raised Catholic, but he’s a self-admitted Athiest. We agreed we’re raising our kids Jewish, and although my fiance hates many things about Christianity and religion in general, I do want our future children to have a connection with my in-laws’ parents culture. Growing up, I’d still “celebrate” Christmas with my mom’s family and it was a blast! (Seriously, Puerto Rican Christmases are the best. Period.) I’m glad my mother never denied me of that, and I don’t want to deny our future kids that connection with their grandparents.

      • First of all, thanks for the chime-in on my comment: it was very reassuring!

        Second, that’s sort of our stance on holidays with my parents: I want them to enjoy the holiday traditions in my family, as that’s my heritage, so we go there to “celebrate” Christmas (and possibly Easter, though that’s been celebrated at my sister’s/brother-in-law’s the last few years, since they have small children). While we will teach them “why” those holidays exist (if nothing else, so they are aware of what the “majority religion” believes, as it might help them in school–again, kids can be mean), they probably won’t go to church much (if at all) with my parents/my side of the family, unless they’re curious and want to go. But there’s no way I would have them miss out on making cookies with their Grammy on Christmas Eve and celebrating with their cousins.

        PS: My Jewish husband gets more excited about all of the traditions in our house on Christmas than all of the other adults (my parents, my sister/b-i-l, and me) combined. He pesters us all morning about when we’ll open stockings (usually we do that sometime in the afternoon). It’s cute.

  7. Another “Jew … ish” checking in here. Father’s side is German/Russian/NYC Jews, mother’s side is English/Irish/Scottish American mid-west Methodists. We put bacon on our latkes and Stars of David on our Christmas tree. Favorite over-lap holiday? East-Over. Try putting ham on matzah, it’s great.

    I am glow in the dark white, but being Jewish is sometimes enough to “other” me regardless. And when I went to Israel with Birthright, the Israeli Jews looked down on me and the other “mixed” girl.

    It’s hard to walk in two worlds. Keep on keeping on, though, you’re in good company here.

    • This is something I worry about with our (due-in-May) baby, as my husband is Jewish (similar background I would guess to previous poster Sarah, except that his mother had also converted to Judaism and is of English background), while I was raised Christian (background German/Swiss/Irish/Dutch/English…).

      We don’t do pork in the house or do a Christmas tree, and we plan to raise our children as Jewish (with a knowledge of Christianity and awareness of traditions I had growing up), but I still worry that in our mostly Christian local community, our children will always be treated as the “other,” while in any more formal Jewish setting, they might still be treated as “other” or in some way “not really Jewish, because their Mom isn’t.”

      My husband didn’t take advantage of Birthright, but I rather wish my kids could at least have the option. I don’t think they’ll qualify, though, and I would hate to have them treated differently because of my background. Still figuring things out in our little household…

      • I am Jewish and maybe I am progessive on this. But I consider someone Jewish if they say they are Jewish (either because they came from Jewish parents and still follow the faith, converted (or not (meaning they never through a formal process, but feel right just saying Jewish), or whatever other combo). I think if you find the right shul or group of people, it won’t matter.

        • Thanks for weighing in. Yeah, my husband is Reform, so in general, it shouldn’t be an issue, but I still am concerned. Whenever we have gone to shul (locally they only really do the High Holidays), people just assume I’m Jewish, but I worry that if we ever want to get our children more involved in the community, they might experience some sort of “you’re not *really* Jewish”-type discrimination. If nothing else, because little kids often parrot what they heard their parents say.

          As it is, there isn’t much of a community in our town, or region in general, so we probably won’t have many opportunities to be more involved. No community center or day schools around here, or at least, the closest active-year-round shuls are 45 minutes away.

          • Hey! I’m the author of this post and just want to chime in!

            My mother never converted to Judaism but always went to shul with my father and I. She would even say prayers. My mother, though from a very Catholic family, never had an issue with not going to church as she was the least religious in her family. Instead, she’d go to our synagogue and be perfectly fine with it.

            In the end, just find what works for you. Like your husband, my father and I always went to a Reform synagogue where they were more open to mixed-culture families, although when I was converted to Judaism as a baby, it was in a Conservative synagogue and it was OK with that congregation, too.

    • It is definitely hard to walk in two worlds. My dad was a Polish Jew and my mom was a Protestant. Before my mom and I converted to Judiasm when I was 5 or so, we had Christmas but I don’t think we ever went to church. From age 5 to age 9, we were Orthodox Jews. We left the community and downgraded to a more Reform existence which was stifled somewhat by my Catholic stepfather. I’m married to an atheist whose family does Christmas. I think I would identify myself now as culturally Jew-ish agnostic.

      We’re expecting a son this winter, and we’re not planning to raise him under a specific religion. We will celebrate the seasons with him. I will teach him a bit about Judiasm, and he’ll have to learn about Christianity to get all of the literary and cultural references. He’ll do Christmas with his family, and hopefully learn the traditions of other religions along the way. He will learn how to be a good human being outside of the teachings of religion. If he chooses a religion for himself when he’s older, that is fine with me.

      I don’t want Christmas to be awkward for him as it is for me, but I don’t know if my plan will work.

      • Even though we plan to raise our children as Jewish (still likely to be more cultural than religious in that regard), we still intend to teach our children about other religions and ultimately encourage them to make their own decision about belief. To me, religion is such a personal thing–only you can truly determine what you do/do not believe, and ultimately, when our children are old enough, they can decide themselves what that is (or is not). Frankly, as long as they aren’t opting to go out and hurt others, I don’t care what religion or belief system they choose (or do not choose). Perhaps my viewpoint comes from knowing wonderful people of many different religions.

  8. My husband’s story is similar to yours. He is the product of an Israeli Jewish man and a Syrian Arab Muslim woman. He always says that inside the home, it was easy to just be himself, because his family never made their mixed background an issue. The rough part was going out and being among a group you wanted to be accepted by – but not being accepted. My husband was raised largely Jewish, but made a formal conversion to Islam a while ago. One of his big reasons for doing so was because he said he felt “more at home” in Islam because his Muslim community had never made him feel like he had to choose. He unfortunately encountered Jewish people who would argue that he couldn’t really be Jewish under their laws because his mother was a Muslim, or an Arab, or for some other reason. That stuff sticks with him even now, from what I can tell. When he converted, I realized that it had very, very little to do with theology, and almost everything to do with community. Muslims made him feel accepted, something he got less from the Jewish community he was part of. He often says that the Jewish-Muslim barrier seems like an especially hard hurdle for a lot of people to get past, and he can somewhat understand it, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be fought against. He likes to argue that he, himself, by his very existence, is an argument that racial, ethnic and religious harmony is not only possible, but wonderful. I sort of like that way of looking at it.

  9. I’m half Puerto-Rican also (my father grew up on the island, my mother is from German ancestry) and the number of people who don’t understand me is amaze-balls. I used to get so many ignorant comments: “You don’t speak Spanish so you’re not a real Puerto Rican.” No, I don’t speak Spanish fluently, but that doesn’t make me any less Hispanic. “You don’t look Hispanic.” Um, actually, yes I do. I just don’t fit your description of what a Hispanic person looks like. “You don’t act Hispanic.” Oh really? And how are all Hispanic people supposed to act? “You don’t seem Hispanic.” What the hell is this even supposed to mean? I get these comments a lot less now that I’m an adult and in my 30s (I’m thinking that’s because mixed race and ethnic peoples are shown more in the media now than when I was a kid. Also, the “face of America” is changing as well.), but thinking back on all of the comments really pisses me off. I was too young to realize how ignorant people could be, too naive to know how to respond to them, and even too young to figure out how I felt about the comments. So rock on with being your awesome, Jew-Rican self! There’s no other way to be you than to just be yourself.

  10. You probably know about the Sephardic Jews…they are from Spain, originally. Sounds to me like you’re 100% American and that’s a beautiful thing to be.

    • Thank you so much! Yes, I know about Sephardic Jews; however, my dad’s family are all Ashkenazi… but, yes, I do keep this knowledge in my back pocket for when people say you can’t be of Spanish origin and be Jewish. When I tell people there are such a thing as African Jew, many don’t believe me. *sigh*

  11. Like so many people posting I can completely empathize with the mixed emotions of mixed ethnicity. I feel like these are also feelings that are likely experienced by our other friends who do not conform to whatever the dominant individual looks/sounds/believes in their own locale.

    I’ve struggles with the “enough” problem for a long time and finally decided to tell people that I’m just “Canadian” – because living in multi-cultural Toronto, I thought that people would just let me be. But, much to my chagrin, I soon found that what makes being mixed (in any way, really) difficult, is that people want to be able to define/categorize/decide where you fit into their worlds. This isn’t necessarily wrong of them, but it sure as hell is hard for us.

    In order to deal, I’ve started to focus on what my self identity is and figure out what I like/love about myself and my mixedness that I wouldn’t have if I weren’t mixed. Also, (easier said than done, I know) trying not to get frustrated with people who don’t get it is also key!

  12. Are you familiar with the works of Vanessa Hidary (ie the Hebrew Mamita): http://www.hebrewmamita.com/about? I believe her background is actually Syrian but her appearance and growing up with a major love of hip hop culture meant most people assumed that she’s Puerto Rican. She has done pieces about people saying how she doesn’t not “look Jewish” or “act Jewish”. I don’t think she has all the answers for you, but you may find it relate-able. If you have a chance to see her perform, I highly recommend it. She’s a lovely person.

  13. Wow! I saw the title was like “Ha that reminds me of my friend who is Jewish and Puerto Rican” And found out that the person in the article is a mix of those two races! But her story is much different, as I don’t think she really identifies with either identity. Her mother was Jewish but was a run away and pretty much renounced her religion. Sure my friend has fond memories or matzo ball soup, but don’t celebrate any holidays. Her mother got pregnant with a Puerto Rican man, who was deported, and she didn’t want her daughter to know anything about him. So she grew up mostly without a father, struggling. Eventually her mother remarried a Catholic man, and both converted.

    It is weird, she is only “Jewish” in a sense she knows the culture, goes to certain holidays with her grandparents, but doesn’t celebrate anything herself. She mentioned how she is sad he boyfriend doesn’t go to mass during Christmas, how she would want to get married in a Catholic church etc. And she I think tries to search and relate to her Puerto Rican heritage. She found her siblings, but never got into contact with her dad. I think she is aware of her heritage mostly because of her appearance, she jokes that she has a latino booty, and curly hair.

    • Oh, yes, I have the wide Latin hips and curly hair. As mentioned in my article, I “look Puerto Rican”, but there are some features that definitely don’t fit the mold that people expect from a Hispanic woman. As a result, I enjoy playing the “Guess My Ethnicities!” game with coworkers and strangers… another mechanism I’ve found to break the awkwardness. I’ve had lots of guesses; in fact, most people think I’m “some kind of Indian” or “some kind of Hispanic”. (And, yes, those are pretty much verbatim responses I’ve gotten in real life.)

      Your friend seems to have many parallels in her life with mine, which is reassuring and something I was hoping to discover when I submitted this article. 🙂 Thanks for your comment.

      • The comment about the “Guess My Ethnicities!” game stuck with me, especially the Indian part since I get a lot of comments about looking Indian (although my dad’s family is Dutch-Indonesian, so that’s closer than some people get to determining my heritage without me outright spelling it out). I confuse everyone, though, since I ended up not looking predominantly like one of my parents.

    • There’s something wrong with that story, Puerto Ricans are natural US citizens and cannot be deported. Maybe that’s what your friend’s mom told her so she wouldn’t dig? Who knows

      • It could be that she wasn’t even aware that Puerto Ricans are US citizens. A survey by the Economist completed back in May of this year shows that less than half of the participants were aware of this. Keep in mind this is after Last Week Tonight did a segment on Puerto Rico (and I mention this because that show has become as much of an inadvertent news outlet as Facebook). So there was probably even less awareness of that information back when the story was told. The word deported might have been used to (incorrectly) indicate the guy going back to Puerto Rico for whatever reason.

  14. Thank you so much for writing this article and sharing your story with us. I’m also Jewish and of mixed heritage (half-Ashkenazi, half-Chinese), but never belonged to a congregation or had a bat-mitzvah. And like you, I’ve never felt “enough” of either one of my heritages–not Jewish enough, and since I don’t speak Chinese or really know much about my Chinese heritage, never Asian enough. It’s very tough to reconcile your own identity when you’re mixed, much less deal with how the rest of the world views you.

    And I completely agree on the “Guess My Ethnicities!” game! If someone’s seen me wearing a Star of David pendant in the past, they immediately assume I’m Israeli. But more times than not, I’m actually mistaken for Hispanic (I’ve gotten Puerto Rican, Cuban, and one girl in high school MATTER-OF-FACTLY telling me I was Ecuadorian. Um, no? But thanks for being so sure of it?)

  15. My family has a mixed racial background, but my parents grew up in the same neighborhood. I think because my parents have similar cultural backgrounds, I haven’t struggled with my identity as much. I consider myself American. My family has been in this country for at least four generations. Most of the time, that is enough for me.
    The problem is with the perceptions of others. My heritage is European, African, and American Indian, but I’m often mistaken for being Latina or simply African American (in the summer, when I’m tan). It’s awkward when people try to shove me into a racial subculture that I don’t really fit in, especially when they’re angry/confused that I don’t speak Spanish.
    My advice is to be proud of who you are, and, especially of the things you’ve chosen, like your religion. Focus on what you want to be instead of how you want to be seen because people will always make mistakes, and it’s not your job to be easy to categorize.

  16. This isn’t as extreme as the other responses, (well maybe if I grew up in Ireland) but my mother was Protestant and my dad Catholic(Italian). It seems silly but even just having that split I feel made me less close to my dad’s side. My cousin married a Protestant and my Aunt said “What are you going to raise your kids atheists?” in front of my mother. It seems so stupid but it was things like that made it clear that I didn’t belong even though we had no meat on Fridays, Christmas Eve, and Good Friday. I also did Lent. I was baptized and confirmed but it was in the “wrong” church. But then my mother’s father didn’t like my did when he found out he was an Italian and not Irish. He could deal with the Catholic part, just not the Italian.

  17. You’re not alone AT ALL! There is a huge community of Hispanic /Latinx Jews, you just need to find us. Check out the FB group “Puerto Rican Jews Rock!”. The YouTube channel Flama regularly has Joanna talking about being Jewish and Latina. There is plenty out there, seek us out.
    I’m PR married to an Israeli, and our JewRican kids celebrate all of the holidays. We live in Israel, and the Latinx community here is small, but we exist!

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