Interfaith Questions Faced by a Jewish-Puerto Rican Couple

By Sheryl Santiago


On our first date, in the midst of that awkward getting-to-know-each-other conversation, George asked me what type of person I was attracted to. I thoughtfully responded: “Goal driven. Smart. Sensitive. Good sense of humor.” When I asked him the same question in return, his answer was quick and concise: “Jewish.” When I pressed him for an explanation, he had no trouble telling me that he enjoyed dating Jewish women because he found them to be smart, funny and usually brunette. I was amused and somewhat flattered.

It was during that same date that I discovered George was Puerto Rican, something a more enlightened woman would have realized considering his last name is Santiago. I didn’t react well, saying everything from “but you don’t look Puerto Rican” to “I don’t date Puerto Ricans.”

We had worked together at an advertising rep firm for a few months before I agreed to a date with him. Though I thought he was cute and funny, I had just been through a painful breakup and had no interest in dating. I had recently moved to Manhattan, happy to have left behind the years spent in Gainesville, Florida, where I had graduated from the University of Florida. I was born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens and Staten Island in a working-class family, and this move to Manhattan was a big and exciting step for me. It was supposed to be just me and my best-friend-and-roommate living the good life, with no men around to complicate things. So it took George months of creative persuasion to finally get me to say yes to dinner.

That date was over 20 years ago and today George and I are happily married with two children, my surname is Santiago and our first date “story” has been told and retold many times. After all these years, George still hears that he doesn’t look Puerto Rican, I still get asked how my family felt about us getting married, and yet, it’s all worked out rather nicely. There have been, and continue to be challenges, but none that we haven’t figured out somehow. Perhaps our biggest challenge stems from George’s unique story.

George’s parents moved to New York City from Puerto Rico as newlyweds in the 1950s and he was born soon after. He spent his youth in the south Bronx and by the time he was entering high school, a guidance counselor had recognized his potential, sat down with his parents and explained that an educational program designed for minorities called “A Better Chance” could be George’s ticket to just that. They agreed to let him go off to an elite boarding school in Connecticut, which was followed by an Ivy League education at Columbia University, all on a full scholarship. The result was a man who was sophisticated, had lost any discernable ethnic or regional accent, and was very different from his parents and two siblings. Those differences drove a wedge between them that has unfortunately become permanent.

Though initially resistant to accepting my new boyfriend, my parents couldn’t help but love George, who, visiting their home for the first time, brought them an array of delicacies that included Dr. Brown’s soda, bagels, farmer cheese and smoked fish (clearly, dating all those Jewish women had paid off.) He knew when to throw out the occasional Yiddish phrase, and listened intently to my father’s stories about his years driving a taxi in New York. When I visited their home, George’s parents were warm and welcoming, and all the ethnic foods and accents I discovered seemed downright exotic.

After three years of roller-coaster dating and breaking up because of my trepidation about the staying power of our Jewish-Catholic/Puerto Rican relationship, we decided to take the leap and get engaged. Then came the inevitable questions.

What kind of wedding ceremony will you have? George said he didn’t really have any attachment to his religion, but wouldn’t consider converting either. His parents, devout Catholics, never pressured us in any way–unlike my parents, who warned me that if a priest participated in the service they wouldn’t attend or pay for the wedding. We were married at a catering hall with a cantor officiating.

Will you change your last name (from an obviously Jewish-sounding one to a clearly Hispanic one)? Yes, I did. In fact, it was a bit of a relief to shed the lengthy “Manashowitz” for the shorter “Santiago.” Over the years I have found it important to inform people that I’m Jewish, but it stems from some inner fear that if they don’t know, they might say something anti-Semitic around me. I also find it troubling that because of my last name I regularly get mail and phone solicitations in Spanish. I resent the assumption that I can’t or don’t speak English.

Before our second anniversary, and facing the birth of our daughter, it was: How will you raise the children? George hadn’t been particularly religious and, after lots of debate and discussion, agreed that since their mother is Jewish, his children might as well be raised as Jews. Up to that point in our marriage, we hadn’t really delved into the religion issue, but when it came down to it, I admitted that I had a lot of pride in being Jewish and it meant a lot to me to raise Jewish children. More than that, I wanted my children to have a better education and understanding of their faith than I had: Growing up, I attended a Conservative synagogue with my parents and two brothers, but only on the High Holy Days. I never attended Hebrew school, and the ritual Bar Mitzvah celebration was almost exclusively for boys. George’s only real hesitation stemmed from his concern over how his parents might feel. We were relieved when they showed support and told us they were much happier with us giving our children some religion, rather than none.

Then came: How will you deal with the December Dilemma? Though we celebrate Hanukkah as our “family holiday,” we also have a Christmas tree. We don’t put holiday lights outside of our house, but I can’t resist the beautiful wreaths, garlands, nutcrackers, angels and other seasonal décor, and I display them around the house. We visit George’s parents on Christmas Eve or Christmas day to celebrate with his family each year.

A few years ago as my daughter approached the age of 13, it was: How will you explain the Bar/Bat Mitzvah ritual and its significance to the Catholic side of the family? This was not easy, as George’s family had never been inside a synagogue before and seemed very uncomfortable with the prospect of being included in the service. After I sent them information to read and talked them through it, the tension lessened, but did not disappear.

Our family lives a comfortable suburban lifestyle that is not considered (stereo)typically Puerto Rican. Our children love Puerto Rican food and they also love “Jewish” food. They’re familiar with Latin rhythms and klezmer, and they take pride in their interesting mix of backgrounds. We are actively involved in a local Reform synagogue, where we met most of our closest friends, who happen to almost all be intermarried. George feels very welcome and comfortable there, and it is our spiritual home.

Other questions have and will continue to come up, but I’m confident that we will face each of them together and do the best we can. The truth is that I feel fortunate that my children are exposed to both of these rich cultures and that my relationship with my Puerto Rican husband has not only endured these challenges, but often been enriched by them.


About Sheryl Santiago

Sheryl Santiago lives with her husband and two children in Fairfield, Conn., where she works in spa marketing and is involved in local government as a member of the Representative Town Meeting.