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My Jewish-Ukrainian-Puerto Rican Heritage

My father’s family is of Ukrainian Jewish heritage. They have been in the United States since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. My mother’s family is Puerto Rican, of Caribbean Indigenous, North and West African, Spanish, and probably Arab heritage. My parents were both born and raised in New York City, in the United States. I was born and raised in Puerto Rico, in a remote community where there were no other Jews. I only saw my father’s family on short yearly visits to the United States.

I love being a Caribbean Jew, mixing two rich, warm, verbal cultures. My parents were excellent allies to each other. I grew up with each of them telling me about the other’s culture, with my Jewish father making tostones (fried green plantain with garlic) and my Puerto Rican mother making sure there were cheese blintzes (crepes wrapped around sweetened soft cheese) in the freezer, in our house in the middle of a tropical rain forest.

I loved watching my parents twirl around the kitchen, dancing to and singing the Russian song Kalinka; my mother singing Tumbalalaika in Yiddish1; and my father lecturing on science and politics and composing silly rhymes in his accented Spanish.

Caribbean Jews have played important roles in the region’s struggles to liberate itself from colonialism, and I am proud to be a part of that.

EARLY EXPERIENCES OF RACISM AND ANTI-JEWISH OPPRESSION

My early experiences of racism were with my father’s family. My Jewish grandmother tried hard to separate me and my brothers from our Puerto Rican heritage, constantly asking if we wouldn’t rather live in Brooklyn (New York City) and trying to give my baby brother, Alejandro, a Russian Jewish nickname. My Jewish cousins, growing up as white USers in the 1950s and 1960s, never asked us anything at all about our lives in Puerto Rico.

My grandmother paid for me to go to a Jewish summer camp in New York State. There was only one other child of color there, a Cuban boy. The other children decided we were a couple. The only adult of color was the African-heritage cook. I would sneak off to spend time with him in the kitchen. I went to a high school with many middle-class Ashkenazi Jews2 and few people of color, where I was ridiculed for being Puerto Rican. (Some of the girls sang an offensive song, from a popular musical, about my country: “Puerto Rico, my heart’s devotion, let it sink back in the ocean.”)

My early experiences of anti-Jewish oppression were in my barrio3 in Puerto Rico. Our best friends made little crosses of twigs and then asked my brother and me to step on them, so they could see if it was true that God would strike us dead with lightning. Since we were going to hell anyway, because we hadn’t been baptized, it didn’t matter. The local priest told his congregation that Jews worshipped the Goddess Diana and were pagans. Many public school teachers were trained at a Catholic college and passed on oppressive misinformation. One teacher I liked told my class that Jews got up every morning, spit on their money, and then counted it. Another said that before Jesus Christ was born, everyone lived in trees and counted backwards.

EUROPEAN JEWS

European Jews who migrated to the United States were offered a similar middle-agent role to the one they’d had in Europe, this time in relation to U.S. people of color. They acquired white patterns, including racism and imperialism, while still experiencing anti-Jewish oppression. Because there’s much more awareness in the United States of racism than of anti-Jewish oppression, many U.S. Jews with white patterns use ideas about race to try to talk about their own oppression as Jews and will insist that they are not white.

It’s true that Jewish white patterns are not the same as Catholic or Protestant white patterns, and that because of Jews’ particular history of oppression, Gentiles of color and white Jews have sometimes built strong alliances with each other. But insisting on being identified as not white is in fact oppressor material.4 What it says to people of color is that because European Jews have been targeted by anti-Jewish oppression, they don’t have to face and clean up racism, that their suffering gives them special rights to continue acting on oppressor patterns. It says, “I suffered; therefore I deserve white privilege.” Among many things, it is a profound betrayal of U.S. Jews of color, who find ourselves abandoned to the brutality of racism by our own cousins.

JEWS OF COLOR

I have spent a lot of my adult life, in and out of RC, being forced to choose between being with people of color or with Jews. My Region5 has traditionally scheduled Jewish and people-of-color workshops on the same weekend. This is based on the unaware assumption that Jews of color don’t exist—that all Jews are white and all people of color are Gentiles.

As a Jew of color, I am expected to act as a mediator between non-Jewish people of color and white Jews. What usually happens is that as I try to explain each group to the other, I am attacked by both, with white Gentiles standing aside as if these conflicts have nothing to do with them when in fact they carry oppressor material about all of us. I am expected to take the risk of speaking for both sides, without being supported or protected.

Most white Jews in my life know nothing about Jews of color and have never expressed any curiosity. People of color who show up at Jewish events are assumed to be the Gentile friends or partners of white Jews.

We Jews of color have come to exist by many different historical pathways. Some of us are mixed-heritage, converts, or adoptees. Some of us are from ancient cultures of African, Middle Eastern, or Asian Jews. Some of us are the result of more recent migrations from Europe to Latin America, Africa, and Asia. We’re very diverse, but in my experience white Jews hardly think about us at all and are ignorant of our varied histories; or if they do think of us, they see us as an exotic sideshow, not a central part of Jewish life.

I am often assumed to be Sephardic6 because of my Spanish surname, even though Latin America has a large population of Ashkenazi Jews. In the United States, Ashkenazi culture totally dominates what’s understood to be Jewish. It’s taken for granted that all our ancestors spoke Yiddish and ate latkes7!

LATIN AMERICAN JEWS

As a Latin American Jew, there’s another realm of ignorance I confront. Our entire Latin American continent is targeted on a daily basis by U.S. racism—as it has been, since 1492, by European racism. Our countries have been savagely plundered—first by European owning classes; then by the U.S. owning class, via multinational corporations. Our leaders have been murdered by CIA8 agents, our liberation movements violently suppressed by U.S.-trained death squads and torturers, our natural resources stolen, our chosen governments overthrown, our labor brutally exploited. The imperialism under which we’ve suffered for five hundred years is thoroughly racist. Although it falls far more harshly on visibly Indigenous, African-heritage, and Asian-heritage Latin Americans, all of us in Latin America have been targets of it, even the national elites who are its agents, and all of us battle internalized racism and colonialism because of it.

Latin American Jews are no exception, but when we arrive in the United States we are “reclassified” according to U.S.-centered ideas about race. Those of us who are darker are assumed, like many U.S. Jews of color, to be Gentiles, and those of us who are lighter, who come to this country after, perhaps, half a lifetime of facing racism at home, are assumed to be white—are expected to identify with white U.S. Jews more than Latin American Gentiles and to have had no experience of racism. In each case, we’re cut off from one of our two main sources of allies.

Anti-Jewish oppression plays a role in this. Jews are historically seen as having no allegiance to their countries of origin, as being permanently apart. Here in the United States, Latin Americans with Ashkenazi Jewish surnames (most people are too ignorant of other Jewish cultures to recognize non-Ashkenazi surnames) may be denied access to resources for Latinos/as or refused membership in Latino/a organizations on the assumption that since their ancestors came from Kiev or Berlin instead of Naples or Barcelona, they are not real Latin Americans. Gentile Latin American immigrants aren’t asked if they have Native or African heritage.

Being targeted by racism is a political condition, not a genetic one. What communities it makes sense for U.S. Latin American Jews to join, who we can best make alliances with, who can best understand our experiences and offer us safety for discharge, depends on our histories, not U.S. ideas of the blood quantum (a legal classification of people during slavery, based on percentages of African and sometimes Native “blood”).

INTERACTIONS OF RACISM AND ANTI-JEWISH OPPRESSION

As middle agents, European-heritage Jews have often ended up being the local administrators of racism and class oppression in urban U.S. communities of color. Jewish landlords, employers, shopkeepers, school administrators, union officers, doctors, and social workers are much more visible sources of oppression to urban Puerto Ricans than the white Gentile owning-class people who own the banks, control the corporations, and run the government. Just as white Jews took on9 racism as a path to what looked like security, U.S. Latinos/as have been willing to take up10 anti-Jewish oppression as a weapon against racism and classism, attacking the Jewish slumlord not for being a slumlord but for being a Jew. As a Jew of color, I get caught between my two peoples, each of them acting out oppression at the other (although the overall societal position of U.S. Jews is much, much better than that of U.S. Puerto Ricans and other Latinos/as).

What this means in my day-to-day life is that even when I’m relaxing with my own people, I am never sure I won’t suddenly get hit with an oppressive remark about some part of my identity. Because of their anger about racism and classism, combined with centuries of anti-Jewish oppression in the Catholic church, I am often unable to count on Latinos/as to stand up against anti-Jewish oppression. I have heard everyone from Chilean revolutionary exiles to young Chicano/a students say that all Jews are rich exploiters, responsible for the poverty of their people.

Most Latino/a organizations and groups assume all U.S. Latinos/as to be of Christian heritage, and in California, where the majority of Latinos/as are Mexican, we’re all assumed to be Catholic. (Puerto Ricans also have strong traditions of Protestant and Evangelical Christianity.) In and out of RC, it’s usually taken for granted that everyone in a Latino/a group shares the experience of Catholic rituals and practices, loves roast pork, and so on. This makes me and the many other Latin American and Latino/a Jews invisible, as if we are oddities.

I contributed a story, by request, to an anthology of Christmas stories by well-known Latino/a authors. I wrote about Christmas in rural Puerto Rico, which I celebrated as a child, and also about Hanukah, which I also celebrated. The editors left my story as it was in the English version but cut out all reference to my Jewishness in the Spanish version. They clearly thought that Spanish-speaking people would have no interest in Jewish culture, perhaps even that it would offend them. It didn’t cross their minds that there are Spanish-speaking Jews who might celebrate both holidays.

Several Latino/a political organizations are using as part of their literature The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (a document created by Russia’s Tsarist secret police about a supposed international Jewish conspiracy to take over the world). Allies of color should be demanding that this stop.

Anti-Jewish oppression is of course harmful to Jews. It is also a distraction that weakens the liberation movements of people of color—confusing them about the real structures of economic and political power that they must face and dismantle.

It is painful to run into anti-Jewish oppression within Latin American revolutionary movements, like the independence movement of my own country or, as I mentioned before, the Chilean resistance to the dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s. In Puerto Rico, where there are few Puerto Rican Jews, U.S. developers who are Gentiles are opposed as agents of imperialism and their religion isn’t mentioned, but those who are Jews are identified as such. My Jewish father was a leader in the Puerto Rican independence movement for fifteen years, but this isn’t usually mentioned when he is written about.

Aurora Levins Morales
Oakland, California, USA
Reprinted from the RC e-mail
discussion list for leaders of Jews


1 Yiddish is a dialect of High German that includes Hebrew words and is written in Hebrew characters.
2 Ashkenazi Jews are Jews of Central and Eastern European descent, who generally identify as white.
4 “Material” means distress.
5 A Region is a subdivision of the International Re-evaluation Counseling Community, usually consisting of several Areas (local RC Communities).|
6 A Sephardic Jew—a Jew descended from Jews in Spain or Portugal
7 Latkes are traditional Jewish pancakes made out of grated potatoes.
8 U.S. Central Intelligence Agency
9 “Took on” means adopted.
10 “Take up” means adopt.


Last modified: 2021-06-01 12:29:59+00