by Cristina D. Ramirez
For many years after I decided to make the Jewish faith mine, and the Jewish community my community, I found it hard to feel really connected to the community in communal spaces. I was asked, a lot, what I was, where I came from, how I happened to be in synagogue or at the JCC. Why was my name so ‘Christian’. Every outing to participate in services, go to the kosher deli, attend an event was a forced opportunity for me to reintroduce myself, to prove that I belonged. This went on for so many years. I picked up some Yiddish along the way, learned how to pronounce Hebrew with an Eastern European inflection during services, learned the Ashkenazi minhag, learned how to order my sandwiches in a particular way while in a group, and got my elevator speech down pat for introductions and first time conversations.
Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? Yes, I am Latina. Yes, I was raised Latino Roman Catholic to a Spaniard mother and Mexican American father in the U.S. I knew something was different about me and I asked my parents to not make me go through confirmation classes at 13. I could not confirm or affirm something that I did not believe in. Over the next few years, I was drawn to learning about Judaism, the Hebrew language, studying about Israel, and began attending services at a synagogue. I got to college and as an undergrad, chose one of my majors to be in Philosophy & Religious Studies where I could study academically Biblical Hebrew, Biblical Literature, Judaism, and the Prophets. I then went to study Middle Eastern Studies with a focus on Israeli Politics and Culture for my Master’s degree. There, in Texas, the land of half of my ancestry (when you include Mexico), I asked a Rabbi if I could convert. It took years of study. I spent my time attending all the types of services I could to see the differences. I went to Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Chabad Lubavitch, Renewal, non-denominational services, but there were no Sephardi/Mizrahi services or resources available to me. So, I converted through an Ashkenazi Rabbi at an Ashkenazi synagogue.
But something else interesting was happening over those years. I was learning that my father, whose family came from Nuevo Leon, Mexico, was in part, descended from the Crypto-Jews that fled Spain during the Inquisition and settled in another part of the world. Over time, the generations of my family converted to Catholicism. But something remained among some family members, the spirit of our ancestors. I became the first member of my family in over 500 years to formally return to Judaism. But my return was not easy. The constant explanations of why, how, and are you sure followed me. I moved a few times to a few other states and ended up in Richmond, Virginia. Here I started out in one synagogue and even celebrated my Bat Mitzvah as an adult. The COVID-19 pandemic changed my world.
I was balancing work, staying in and away from people, and trying to find something to ground me, give me sustenance during the stressful time. I did a google search for live streamed services. I dove into Torah study, set up my living room to have my favorite synagogue’s services live stream on YouTube. I then purchased a siddur from a small press in England that created a new Sephardi siddur. As I continued to be one of the few Latina librarians in my region, I also focused on access to Spanish-language resources, programs, and materials for the community. My worlds never seemed to intersect the way I wanted them to, needed them to. One day I stumbled upon Jewtina and applied and participated in the second cohort of the PUENTES Fellowship.
That is when things started to come into focus. The experience of that fellowship, the comradery, meeting and interacting with other Latino Jews made me realize I can integrate, be proud of all parts of me, stop explaining and just be me. I participated in a local Community Leadership Institute program through the Jewish Federation of Richmond. I never felt the need to explain myself. I am here in this space, and I am asking for more resources, representation, and attention paid to diverse Jews, Jews of Color, and Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews. Then I saw the JIMENA Sephardic Leaders Fellowship. I thought well I might not get in but I am going to try. I did and the world has opened up even more. I am able to circle back to my other heritage as well. My mother is from Segovia, Spain, where there were five synagogues at the height of the Middle Ages and were sadly, the Edict of Expulsion in 1492 was crafted just a 15-minute walk from the family home at the Alcazar. My mother, in addition to having Jewish ancestry also has North African ancestry. I feel I can continue to explore all parts of myself. And to advocate for U.S. Jews to consider the rich diversity amongst their ranks and to be more open to learning about the incredible heritage and history of the Sephardi/Mizrahi communities.
There are so many opportunities for U.S. Jews to embrace the rich heritage of all Jews in communal spaces, in educational spaces, in recreational spaces, and in their lives. I advocate for inclusion of this heritage, history, knowledge, and traditions, to be included in Sunday school classes, as part of programming and events in Jewish spaces, and for these topics to be made more readily available through more comprehensive library collections in Jewish spaces. If Ashkenazi Jews do not know or are unaware of the rich heritage of their Sephardi/Mizrahi brothers and sisters, how can they ever have a complete understanding of their own heritage and history of the Jewish people? And if Ashkenazi Jews don’t realize that by being more open and welcoming to Jews of Color, Jews by Choice, and Jews who decided to return (after a 500-year hiatus like me), then they are missing out on strengthening the community, standing against antisemitism and racism, and diminishing the power of diversity and beauty that all Jews bring to the community.