April 23, 2010
My mom and I noticed the difference as soon as we stepped off the bus in Iowa. We were short and dark-haired. Everyone we saw seemed to be tall and blond, natural or not. I should have been tipped off by the readiness of the university to offer me a scholarship for being a National Hispanic Merit Scholar for SAT. Generally places seeking to bring in minorities are low on minorities, surprise! As we walked around gawking at the farm-fresh faces, the friendly motorists who pulled over to give directions when noticing our map and the Disney-like way chipmunks and bunnies loitered around campus, we knew this place was different from the world we came
|"My brothers and I came up with the term "cashew" to describe ourselves as Catholic Jews. But rather than being both, we were really neither."
"Are there Jews here?" I randomly asked the lady who was conducting our tour.
"I think one of the guys in my office is Jewish." Both her reply and her wrinkled brow made my shoulders droop. As good as no.
Why had I even asked? Growing up in a no-faith family, my only experience with religion had been a Christmas tree, a menorah, going to youth group at friends' churches and attending Catholic mass with my dad in high school. I could claim more knowledge of the inner workings of a mass than a minyan. My brothers and I came up with the term "cashew" to describe ourselves as Catholic Jews. But rather than being both, we were really neither.
Being unbaptised, unconfirmed and un-bar/bat mitzvahed left us out of the religious loop with our friends. My grandmother lived in Chicago, so their bubbies didn't know her from the ladies' guild at synagogue. That made me not Jewish. The fact that I hadn't had a lavish party with a DJ, bubble machine and Torah reading meant I couldn't marry Jewish. At least so I was told by a few misinformed people. I joined Jewish friends in all kinds of secular activities, but only attended two religious events before college: confirmation at the Conservative synagogue and a Purim party--both with the same best friend.
But I knew I was Jewish. How? I have no idea. I just knew that since my mother was born Jewish, and her mother was born Jewish, I was Jewish too, and so would be my future children. I was too self-righteous to pull that card to miss school on High Holidays. I felt it wasn't right to reap the supposed benefits of a religion I didn't practice.
So what made me put that poor college admissions clerk on the spot that day? The desire to find people who were like me.
Back home in Texas I was only considered marginally Hispanic, as my dad's Puerto Rican family was on the fair side and my mom's Jewish family was the white only the Polish can muster. I felt like a fraud claiming a minority scholarship until I saw how different I looked from my corn-fed classmates, with my dark curly hair, big lips, big hips and olive-undertoned skin. When I met up with the other scholarship winners I saw plenty of others with fair skin, to my relief. So if I couldn't find my religious peers in Iowa, I at least had cultural ones.
Imagine my surprise when cruising the tables at the club fair and finding a lone Hillel table amongst a sea of Lutherans and Christian athletes. No one was manning the booth, but I signed the contact sheet--a small act that changed my life forever.
I met Jews who were welcoming, and more important to my future, looking for information, inspiration, connection and growth.
We couldn't have been more different: Iranian, Puerto Rican, Chicagoan, Texan, Iowan, frat boy, engineer, journalist, economist, traditional, Reform, Cashew. But we had a thirst. We read books, poring over the university library's religious section. We attended seminars, traveled to conferences, hosted events and were contacted by a local kiruv kollel that had started 30 minutes away. I had no idea what "kiruv" or "kollel" meant. But the rabbi brought pizza or donuts, a sure way to keep college students coming, and for dessert, a whole new way to think about love, God, religion, life and myself.
Fast-forward a mere three years and my life was unrecognizable from the freshman who was lost physically and spiritually. I now dressed modestly all the time, kept kosher, observed Shabbat and was on my way to Israel.
If I thought Iowa had been a shock, it was nothing compared to being in Israel. Living near Mexico meant I was unimpressed by being surrounded by a foreign language and an unfamiliar cityscape. But I had never seen so many Jews in my entire life. The wonders continued in seminary as I met Jews from almost every country of the world, from all backgrounds, cultures and interests. I met other Jews who ate tamales alongside kugel, who understood my pain at not having rice during Pesach, who danced salsa better than the hora.
Now I'm not surprised to swap tips for kosher mofongo or dealing with not eating Grandma's lechon (pork roast). No one's journey duplicates my own, but it is very comforting to meet people who can appreciate my background, share anecdotes and recipes and look like the face I see in the mirror. I no longer call myself a Cashew. Rather I am a proud Jewriqua from Boriqua, a Puerto Rican Jewess.