Gefilte Fish Con Maduros: A Multicultural Jewish Family


Originally published July 22, 2008. Republished February 28, 2013.

“You married a white boy!” a high school pal exclaims in an email after discovering my wedding photos on MySpace.

“Why did he marry you?” my grandmother later asks in Spanish while watching my wedding DVD.

The former elicits the usual eye roll. “I’m Jewish now,” I respond to the latter.

But does “I’m Jewish now” really explain how G-d in his infinite wisdom brought together a Dominican American girl from New York who grew up on welfare checks and an Eastern European mutt (some Russian, some this, some that) who grew up in Los Angeles five minutes from Beverly Hills? Probably not.

On the short list of things my husband and I have in common is Judaism. Judaism is our way of life. It dictates the way we live day-to-day. It is our value system. It’s what we’ve both chosen to center our life around. In this way, in the way we love Judaism, we are truly bashert, truly soulmates.

Platanos Maduros
Platanos maduros orfried plantains. Photo: Noway Jose.

But I didn’t convert until I was an adult and he was born in a Modern Orthodox home. I am descended from Caribbean natives, African slaves, Spaniards and Frenchmen who practiced Santeria, voodoo, Catholicism. He’s descended from a long line of rabbis in whose footsteps he follows. I struggle to keep up with davening (prayer) at synagogue on Shabbat, while on the other side of the mechitza, the division that separates the sexes in an Orthodox synagogue, my husband is reading Talmud in-between “lulls” in the davening.

Soon after we were married, we realized we didn’t speak the same language.

“Give me some water,” I’d say.

“What are you ordering me around for?” he’d respond in a huff.

My eyes would grow wide with surprise.

He’d say: “Hmm, do we have any water?” (Translation: Get me some water.)

“Yeah, it’s in the fridge,” I’d say, not bothering to look up from my book.

And he would give me a dirty look. Seeing his, I’d reciprocate.

I didn’t understand him when I met him.

“I met a guy who wants to tutor me in Jewish studies,” I told the rabbi supervising my conversion.

“Hmm. Tutor you in what?” he said with a wry smile knowing full well what “this guy” wanted to tutor me in.

Three years later we try to meet in the middle. We’ve learned to talk and think the way the other person does, teaching each other explicitly and establishing ground rules. Never make assumptions. Things don’t always mean what they seem. I learned to understand statements in the form of question. (It’s the polite way, he’d say. No, it’s the way you were taught, I’d correct.) He had to learn to be more specific. (Blunt, you mean? I’d nod.)

And those were just our minor struggles when we were both speaking English.

During a synagogue speech, my husband sits next to me whispering translations for the Yiddish and Hebrew the speaker peppers in with his English. As I grow more anxious, excluded and ready to tune the whole speech out because the language barrier overwhelms me, my husband reaches out to hold my hand. I feel less alone. He never stops whispering in my ear.

“Vamonos,” he announces to me at the end of every Shabbat meal. “Let’s go” in Spanish. It makes me smile every time. Growing up, Spanish was my special language. It was what we spoke at home. It was the language my sisters and I used to hide from English speakers. Now, it’s the language my husband’s learning to understand me, my culture and those secretive conversations I still have with my sisters.

“Mira,” (Look!) he says, pointing to a Spanish-language newspaper. He reads aloud to me, translating sentences into English. I correct his mistakes. We laugh. I help him again later when he begins the homework from his Beginner’s Spanish class.

Gefilte fish
Gefilte fish. Photo: Rad Rafe.

We’ve visited Los Angeles and Israel together, the places my husband has called home. I bask in the dry heat of both. I’m stunned by how much nicer Angelinos are than New Yorkers. In Israel, he takes me on my first ever road trip: from the holy places of Jerusalem to the Roman ruins of Caesarea. My mouth never closes from the awe.

We plan a honeymoon to the Dominican Republic. It’s more than a Caribbean vacation. It’s the first time my husband sees where my family emigrated from, where much of my family still lives. Together, we learn about my ancestors.

We live in New York; we met in the neighborhood where I grew up. My husband moved into a rundown building next to my old elementary school. Seeing my neighborhood through my eyes, seeing it through his, has helped us learn to speak the same language.

Our Shabbat table looks a lot like our marriage. Everything we serve is kosher but still strikes our guests as unexpected. We serve rice and beans, of course. They are a staple of any Dominican meal. But it’s my husband who makes them, though he has trouble pronouncing their Spanish names. We serve gefilte fish, too, like his Polish grandmother still does. I throw it in a pot to boil. Stumped for side dishes, we decide on maduros, the sweet yellow plantains my mother used to make. We debate adding edamame, a soybean appetizer we recently discovered at a Japanese restaurant. We blend together what we love best about our cultures (and other cultures), consciously and subconsciously making decisions about what matters most and what doesn’t.

If I didn’t have a “mixed” marriage, what my grandmother thinks is “intermarriage,” I don’t think I would be the person I am today. Teaching my husband about Dominican culture has taught me more about myself and where I come from. I learn to appreciate what I once overlooked because he teaches me to savor them. Learning about his roots has opened up a new world to me that becomes less foreign when I face it with my hand in his. We are the face of multiracial, multiethnic, multicultural identity. But really, we’re just two people in love.