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A Surprising Challenge In An Intercultural Relationship

Originally published August 18, 2008. Republished March 11, 2013.

Being an interfaith family was interesting. Being an intercultural/interracial family, well, that was interesting too. Managing English, Spanish, and Hebrew? OK, so it takes some effort. The real challenge was ... food.

Yes, food. Not making the compromises to have a Pagan-and-Jewish joint household, not the changes brought about by my eventual decision to convert to Judaism several years into our marriage, no. It was the food.

I'm a New Yorker. I grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the '80s. I ate lox and cream cheese on bagels, loved knishes and swooned over challah from the bakery on Lee Ave. I thought I was OK with Jewish food.

Arroz Con Gandules
Arroz con guandules, rice with pigeon peas, is the national dish of Puerto Rico. Photo credit Wikimedia Commons.

And then I had my first seder. It was an all-woman, feminist affair. It was lovely and moving...until I got my first up close and personal experience with the bane of my existence — gefilte fish. My people are from the Caribbean. We get fish. We make it myriad ways, all of it tasty, and looking like fish. There is nothing fish-like about the gefilte. Zilch, nada, nothing. It was an assault to my poor Puerto Rican palate.

Then seven years later I began dating my husband. He and his family used phrases like "brains are a delicacy" (sorry, if it doesn't work for Abuela, it's not working for you either), "tongue is yummy," and my favorite, "but my gefilte fish is different." I, who always prided myself on trying and eating practically anything, found myself surrounded by items I just couldn't enjoy (and the chicken feet crossed both the Puerto Rican and Jewish divide). I began to worry. I enjoyed the religious aspects of Judaism — davening, going to shul, Shabbat (my friends have awesome Shabbat lunches), etc. I even converted. But food became my stumbling block. Try doing Passover when beans are a staple of your diet.

Then it got worse. Our daughter got diagnosed with anaphylactic food allergies to eggs and dairy. Suddenly, many of the foods on my in-laws' Shabbat table became as forbidden as pork. Chopped liver, latkes, matzah balls, kugels, cream cheese, many of these things were now deadly to my child. Holidays took on a sense of dread. I suddenly found myself on a surprising mission — how could I make many of the foods I hated, that my husband loved and wanted to share with my daughter, accessible?

I began calling friends, borrowing cookbooks, searching the web. Vegan latkes were possible. The same with challah and cakes. I found vegan matzah ball recipes online, but they required tofu. What do we do? We decide to follow Sephardic tradition and allow beans. We began to think outside the box, change recipes, figure out how to get the feel of things while keeping it safe. And we learned something.

Jewish food isn't just Eastern European, or Israeli. Jewish food is the food of all Jews. My arroz con guandules are Jewish. The coquito recipe I learned from my aunt, in my hands, is Jewish food. We also learned that while food is a huge part of Jewish culture, it's what the food does — create community — that matters.

So what if our matzah balls are bound with tofu instead of eggs? Paerve, vegan meals are just as tasty on Shabbat as anything else. Shavuot does not need dairy to be celebrated. Oneg Shabbat is possible for all of us with a little bit of kitchen creativity. When I started serving my stewed beans with kasha, my husband declared it "the perfect JewRican blend."

It hasn't been easy. My daughter has had anaphylactic reactions the last two Passovers. Sometimes our recipes flopped. But we have managed to create new food traditions, and focus on the positives, like the joy we experience when our 4-year-old says motzi. We share meals with friends.

Though I never did learn to like gefilte fish.

Yiddish for "stuffed fish," a patty made of ground up varieties of fish, matzo meal and spices, boiled in fish broth. A popular dish on Passover, sometimes served on Shabbat and other holidays as well. Hebrew for "Sabbath joy," the term for the light refreshments served after a Shabbat service. Of the culture of Jews with family origins in Spain, Portugal or North Africa. From the Yiddish word for "prayer," it's often used as a verb in English. ("I'm davening at services tonight.") The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." A bread that comes in a few different varieties; its most common variation is a braided egg bread, though there are water challahs that don't have eggs, and there are whole-wheat challahs which sometimes also don't have eggs. It is customary to being Sabbath and holiday meals by saying blessings and eating challah. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A Summer holiday commemorating the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, it is also known as the Feast of Weeks, as it comes seven weeks after Passover begins. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Yiddish word for a potato pancake, traditionally eaten during Hanukkah. Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover. Hebrew for "brings forth" or "expels," the first unique or identifying word of the blessing over bread ("...brings forth bread from the earth"). Some say this blessing over bread, others recite it as a catch-all before a meal. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals. Yiddish for "synagogue."

Ruby Velez asks the hard questions in Rochester, NY where she lives with her husband, her daughter and their family dogs, Murphy and Bilbo.

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