The first time I was asked how it was possible that I was Jewish and Latin American, I was confused by the question. I was 15 years old, had just arrived in Los Angeles from South America, and was attending my first day of 9th grade at a Jewish high school.
It was clear to me that when Jews from Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa left their countries of origin in search of religious freedom or new life opportunities, they had landed in the United States just like they had ended up in other ports around Central and South America.
As the question kept coming up, I began to understand that it was based on ignorance about the history of Jewish migration to Latin America, along with an assumption that If I was Latin American, I had to, therefore, be indigenous of the land and not possibly “ethnically” Jewish.
I found myself educating people on facts like these:
The bewilderment in people as I shared these facts, emphasized to me, over and over, the lack of education and exposure to different Jewish stories many had received.
And it left me thinking about my own experience of Jewish education. Having attended Jewish day schools from kindergarten to high school in Argentina, Brazil, and the United States, something was consistent: The stories, customs, and focus of all that I learned was based on the subculture and traditions of Eastern European Jews, also known as Ashkenazi Jews. As a Sephardic and Mizrahi Jew, with roots from the Middle East and North Africa, I seldom heard or was taught the stories of my ancestors, their foods, music, customs, or trajectories. My story, our story, was not being told or taught.
I wondered if this ethnocentrism in Jewish education was due to Ashkenazi Jews comprising the majority of the Jewish population, hence making their stories the “mainstream”, or whether it was a matter of color and power, as those of Ashkenazi descent often have lighter features and, up until relatively recently, held higher levels of education and socioeconomic status. Perhaps a combination of all those factors.
Whichever the reason, the result has been a lack of awareness or acknowledgement of different Jewish stories. And with that, a dual process in which those of us whose stories are not told feel somewhat foreign and disconnected from our own Jewish community and, simultaneously, those who are not taught our stories see us as disconnected and foreign to them.
As a Jewish people, we have come to know and experience the repercussions of being othered by society. And it is exactly the power and strength of our community which have allowed us to survive and thrive as we have through centuries of adversity.
When we erase our own stories, we create an internal divisiveness that is harmful at the individual and communal level. Alienation and disconnection not only affect our mental health, they also have real implications for the wellbeing and strength of our survival as a group. As we continue to battle against racism, antisemitism, and ignorance from the world, we need to also fight to not replicate an internal version of that between each other.
The richness of our Jewish culture has been kept alive by tradition and the carrying of these stories and customs from generations to generations. In order to maintain and strengthen the wellness of our community and the individuals in it, it is imperative that we preserve and celebrate our diverse stories and all that we bring with them.
Nowadays, when the question comes up of how I am both Latin American and Jewish, I continue to welcome the opportunity to educate others about our shared history. These one-on-one conversations have an impact. Even greater change will come when Jewish educators make advancements in their curriculum — so that all of our stories are acknowledged and taught universally.
At The Well uplifts many approaches to Jewish practice. Our community draws on ancient Jewish wisdom, sometimes adapting longstanding practices to more deeply support the well-being of women and nonbinary people. See this article’s sources below. We believe Torah (sacred teachings) are always unfolding to help answer the needs of the present moment.
Jewish Population by Country, WorldPopulationReview.com
“The Jewish State: An Attempt at a Modern Solution to the Jewish Question” by Theodore Herzl (1896)
Sephardim and Ashkenazim: Closing the Gaps?, Jewish Action
The Spectacle of the Invisible: Sephardic Jewish Identity in Multicultural Education, Explorations in Ethnic Studies