The Lonely Journey of a Puerto Rican Jew

By Franklin Velazquez


As a little child on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I wondered about the Jewish world that existed side by side with our Puerto Rican one in the late ’50s and ’60s. I was raised Roman Catholic by Puerto Rican immigrants who arrived in the mid-’50s, seeking economic betterment. My parents spoke only Spanish at home. Their English at the time wasn’t that good, and we went to a Spanish language mass at St. Mary’s Church on Grand Street.

Next to that world of Catholicism and Puerto Rican culture existed a strange world of Jews, ranging from Ashkenazi secular to Orthodox Hasidic Jews. Hebrew letterings were all around the Lower East Side, on shuls and stores. The Puerto Rican and Jewish worlds interacted with a certain distrust towards each other as well as with moments of cooperation. Our school board elections were often contentious and racially charged events. Despite the conflicts, most of my friends, as well as my teachers, at P.S. 110 were Jewish, mostly from liberal backgrounds. I have good memories of playing with my friends at the Grand Street Coop.

Over the years, I felt drawn to Judaism, curious about the resiliency of the Jews and their sense of compassion towards the world. As I read the works of Maimonides, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Buber and Mordechai Kaplan, a new spiritual horizon opened itself to me. I discovered the wonderful world of the One God that connects us to each other and beckons us to transform this world. I learned that I, too, could struggle and wrestle with God to find new meaning in my life. This process and struggle led to my conversion in a Reform temple in 2003 under the spiritual guidance of the very loving and caring Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman.

This pull toward Judaism also manifested itself unconsciously. For years prior to my conversion I had Jewish dreams involving Hassids dancing around me and one with a rabbi pointing to a volume of the Mishnah. My soul was literally pointing to its need to cross into another spiritual dimension and world. The Star of David was waiting for me.

Of course, my conversion was not without its difficulties. My wife, of Italian Irish background, who was also raised Catholic, married me prior to the conversion. My children, Noah and Sara, who are now 10 and 4, respectively, were born prior to my conversion. As I moved toward Judaism, my wife was connecting herself to a humanistic community that had meaning for her: the Ethical Culture Society. These simultaneous scenarios created tension, especially in breaking the news to the Catholic in-laws and in determining in what religion to raise the kids.

Upon my conversion, I felt an aura of Judaism around me that was hard to dispel. It also meant that I wasn’t always sensitive to the religion of my wife. Sometimes, I was guilty of spiritual arrogance that isn’t healthy and can be alienating. In a sense I wanted everyone to be Jewish despite having entered a marriage in which this wasn’t even a consideration. For two years, my son went to Jewish religious school where he learned to read Hebrew. My wife acquiesced, but I know it was hard on her on some level. This year, the car pool arrangement to get my son to his religious school broke down, which means that Noah is back at Ethical Culture Society religious school. This outcome is rather difficult and sad for me since I wanted to share my spiritual journey with my son.

An apartment building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where Franklin Velazquez, a Puerto Rican and Catholic by birth, lived in close proximity to Jews. He eventually converted to Judaism.

As a Latino, interacting with an Ashkenazi-dominated culture has had both its rewards and strains. I love klezmer music as well as Spanish ballads. I love matzah ball soup as well as rice and beans. I love Latino culture with its sense of pain and happiness, a culture so close to the Jewish one.

One very difficult issue of going to a large synagogue in the suburbs is that I haven’t met other Latino Jews. I also haven’t gotten to know other synagogue members well enough to be invited to their homes. This is at variance with my cultural and religious upbringing in which people frequently visited each other and created deep personal ties. Since I am relatively new to the congregation and do not have a Jewish family, I miss out on sharing my Judaism with other Jews in my own personal space.

My closest friend at the synagogue, who has been incredibly supportive, has been my former Hebrew teacher Rose Wolf. Rose is an Ashkenazi Jew who was able to leave Germany in time to avoid the concentration camps. She has told me how difficult it was for her to sit in a classroom in a corner specially designated for a Jew, all alone. I love these older Jews who still remember the feeling of oppression. In a sense, they know what it is like to be a Latino growing up with discrimination. This historical and emotional connection is important to me.

The interfaith struggle within my marriage continues. Ultimately, our marriage must be founded in deep love, tolerance and acceptance of the other. I cannot impose my religion on others. But, I do want to continue to expose my children to Judaism. I want them to know that living a good life is like stepping into the reality of Torah, taking the good with the bad, but always knowing that the sacred infuses this reality. Whatever happens, I want my children to experience God, whichever way they choose to define God, and that life is about experiencing what Abraham Joshua Heschel called radical amazement.



About Franklin Velazquez

Franklin Velazquez lives in Mamaroneck, N.Y., with his wife, Bridget, and their two children, Noah and Sara. He practices psychotherapy at anoutpatient clinic and holds a social work and law degree.