Wednesday, April 30, 2008
In fact, I owe you a good post on the JCC Manhattan talk I attended today, Jews of Color: Wrestling with the Angel of Identity, which was advertised as:
"Join Joel Sanchez, LMSW, and member of the Jewish Multiracial Network and a panel of Jews of color, as they discuss identity obstacles faced by Jews of color within the mainstream Jewish community and within their own core racial/ethnic communities in the United States. The panel will discuss their struggles as well as the transformative and integrative aspects of these struggles. The evening will include a film on the African-American and Caribbean- American Jewish experience and an opportunity for questions and discussion."
It was incredible! Explosive!
But alas, it's bedtime.
I do want to post links to: Swirl, a national multi-ethnic organization that challenges society’s notions of race through community building, education, and action. Director Jen Chau spoke at the talk.
Also, check out The Jewish Multiracial Network of which moderator, Joel Sanchez, is a member. I hope to attend their 11th Annual Retreat this summer.
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
I published yet another essay in Chabad's The Jewish Woman magazine, The Wake-up Call. If you can believe it, this particular piece, which chronicles my battle with depression, is much more of a tell-all than the last piece I published on Chabad on conversion and race. You can find all my published work in the left-hand corner in Aliza's Portfolio under Aliza's Published Work.
Hey, people, despite the last post, I promise you, I had a fantastic set of seders. Stop apologizing.
My favorite seder was the second because my non-Jewish little sister got to experience her first seder with my in-laws in Los Angeles.
But the first seder was great fun thanks to my husband's aunt and her precocious sons. While Auntie R. matched my insightful comments from The Survival Kit Family Haggadah with her own, her sons joined us in reading Ma Nishtana from 300 Ways to Ask the Four Questions. Our Ma Nishtana was quite the extended cut being read in Korean (which no one at the table spoke) as well as English, Spanish, Hebrew and French.
The biggest disappointment with the first seder was that we were so wrapped into detailed, comprehensive readings of each section that we had to cut parts of it short. Everything is still so new to me that I look forward to reading each part of the Haggadah and then commentary from other books. (Hey now, stop that eye roll!) And I also made myself a pest by repeatedly interrupting my poor husband's first attempt to lead a family seder by voicing my disapproval at his director's cut. In his defense, everyone under 18 was snoring long before the afikomen was found.
The second seder was a team effort, though my poor husband did most of the leading again. I wonder if he realized that studying to become a rabbi (on top of being the eldest) meant that he was taking on this kind of responsibility. This reminded me of how recently my husband's been called upon to make some witty commentary on the parsha whenever we're at someone else's Shabbat table. Groan.
Luckily, at the seder, my husband's younger brother, a college student who makes it his business to learn 24-7 as he explores a possible career as a rabbi, chimed in several times with little stories related to the seder. I don't always understand what little bro is saying, what with all the Yiddish and Hebrew he peppers in, but the family jumps down his throat every time he fails to explain himself to us newbies so I'm technically covered. Still by the time all the screaming is through after he tries to speak yeshivish, I kind of lose my train of thought.
Our trip to LA turned into one of those frightfully stressful family trips again despite bringing my sister along. I probably wouldn't have survived as well if not for her. Unfortunately, LA is always a culture shock. When I'm not on the outs with one family member, it seems like I'm on the outs with another. My husband juggles his family, our family and time for himself rather badly while he's there. And I'm overwhelmed by such close contact with family gatherings. I grew up in a bubble where extended family rarely visited much after I hit double digits.
A close friend offered that the added conflict comes from class and race issues. In Los Angeles, I still feel like I'm trapped in Pretty Woman trying to buy fancy digs on Rodeo Drive and failing miserably. Whenever I forget I'm the only Hispanic person besides the maid, some subtle or blatant (We're in America, so speak English or get out!) racial comment wakes me up. My friend says I'm having a hard time processing how to be "white" by which he means fake, um, I mean polite, or um, gracious. My true feelings are often broadcast through my facial expressions or from my lips.
And did I mention that most of the apartments I've lived in could fit in the garage of some of the fancier houses off Pico & Robertson. Washington Heights is a long, long way from being five minutes from Beverly Hills. Only in Beverly Hills, after all, can my husband point to a random pedestrian and joke that he's probably a star and actually be right (it turned out to be the guy who played Leo on Charmed). LA just doesn't feel real. Kind of like most of my life, right now.
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Between trying to do some writing without my trusty speaking software and ergonomic desktop setup and stretching throughout the Seders, the effects of fibromyalgia on my body have become obvious to those around me and the relatives have felt the need to make comments on my fibromyalgia. Usually, the fibromyalgia is silent and insidious but when I'm forced to do downward dog during Ma Nishtana to help relieve the pain, all eyes stray my way. This visual has inevitably led every other relative to act as on-call doctor.
Everyone wants to help. "You should try a naturopath. You should try accupuncture. You should try this homeopathic remedy. Try energy healing?" And the most insensitive have repeatedly suggested that fibromyalgia "is all in my head" even after I've pointed out that according to many doctors, it is in my central nervous system. It's hard for people who have suffered a toothache or backache now and again to imagine that one could wake up one day to find that a toothache or backache has spread all over the body to make every day a painful one.
After two years of coping with fibromyalgia, I should have heard it all. Seen it all, heard it all and just about tried everything under the sun. Nothing's changed except that though my close friends and I have learned to cope with my fibromyalgia, the less seasoned veterans have not. My close friends seat me near the nearest exit at the table so I can stretch out during meals. My sister sighs in frustration when she sees me "waste energy" trying to perform a repetitive function I should have asked someone else to do for me. "Conserve your energy!" she bleats in annoyance. My husband coos sympathetically when I announce I'm in pain (knowing it means I'm announcing I'm in more pain than usual). But everyone else copes by offering often hurtful advice.
After hours of ignoring comments about my fibromyalgia, I finally broke down at the seder. I offered one relative a glimpse into the fibromyalgia section of the nutritional healing book that another relative had brought to show me at the seder. The relative begged off, refusing to read the passage about my mysterious illness, once again insinuating that I was exaggerating something that was all in my head.
"You wouldn't tell cancer patients that they don't have cancer because you can't see it. Just people you can't understand what's wrong with me doesn't mean that there isn't something wrong." And my sister chimed in later that most sane people don't try to play doctor with these cancer patients unless they have an MD. Perhaps, the online Pain Exhibit, featured in the NY Times this week in "Pain as an Art Form", will give everyone, suffers and skeptics alike, some food for thought. Perhaps the first step to understanding the pain of others is accepting it.
Thursday, April 17, 2008
Given the format of the story, there was tons of background information that I wasn't able to share. For instance, the way that I found my father, after nearly ten years without speaking to him, was actually very interesting. It's one of those little things in my life that affirms for me that there must be a G-d creating miracles in this crazy world.
I was 21 when the story developed. I was living with my aunt, A, after leaving my grandmother's house under duress. I had been living with my grandmother since running away from home just weeks before my 18th birthday.
My grandmother was unhappy with having me live with her. She already had a daughter, another aunt, L, who was just a year older than me living with her. On top of that, her relationship with her thirty-something husband (you read that correctly) was becoming increasingly strained. My grandmother, if she had known what one was, would have forced me to wear a burkha around the apartment just to stop her husband's wandering eye from wandering over to me. I was really naive. I didn't have the skills to cope with the situation at home with my grandmother and the post traumatic stress disorder that hit me just after running away from home. I was in the midst of starting a whole new life in college and a break-up from a first boyfriend who was ready to come out of the closet.
So, I ended up living with my aunt, A, the elder of my mother's two younger sisters. Things ran much more smoothly while I was living with her but there were still many bumps. I realize now, I didn't have the skills (and I still don't) to cope with healthy family relationships. I didn't know how to express my feelings to any adult who was related to me, much less an aunt with whom I'd already experienced a year estrangement after some dicey family politics. She wasn't ready to be a mother to a almost adult. After some months, she asked me to leave, too, after helping to set me up in summer housing before my senior year of college.
Trying to find a place I could afford after the summer housing stint came to an end, and on my measly salary, led to many sleepless nights. I was desperate. So desperate, in fact, that I responded to any ad, even a strange one from a young man in Inwood. We talked quite often before I went to see the place and he was incredibly flirtatious. My friend, C., refused to let me move in with him but she agreed to see the place with me first to appease me.
When we arrived at the strange guy's apartment building, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of déjà vu. C. interrogated the guy while I dazed off, unable to shake the feeling that I had been in the building before. After her interrogation was over, I made her follow me upstairs to survey every floor before knocking on a door I chose at random.
"Hi, my name is.... I think that I had family that used to live here," I said to the Hispanic guy I didn't recognize when he opened the door.
"Really? You're.... I'm your cousin. It's me, E.. My mother will be so happy to see you. Wow. That's amazing. You're father has been looking for you for four years!" Esteban sputtered quickly in a voice marked by confusion and astonishment.
My father was a cousin to both of E.'s "kissing cousin" parents. I hadn't seen these cousins since about age 14. Eight years had gone by. We'd lost contact after moving out of Washington Heights, the neighborhood south of Inwood, and hightailing it to the Bronx where my mother stopped pining away for my father enough to give birth to my half-sister, the grocery store owner's baby.
But E.'s family didn't have my father's contact information. And E.'s and his brothers were bewildered to see and interacted uncomfortably as I detailed my story of woe, of running away from home because of endless years of abuse at my mother's hands. Thankfully, his mother and father, my godfather, treated me like a long lost daughter. "We always knew your mother was crazy! There is no way you would have run away with some boy like she told your father. You were always such a good kid." C. listened patiently, translating the mostly Spanish dialogue in her head to the slightly similar Italian she spoke at home.
After hours with my cousins, my godfather sent me to see my father's sister, N. She would have my father's information, I was assured. I hadn't seen her in over twenty years. I still had nightmares about the day my mother had left her mother-in-law's apartment in a fit of rage and fury. N was living in the apartment now and when C. and I showed up on her doorstep, I was disoriented with fuzzy, volatile memories of crying in the hallway as we left my grandmother's house.
"Hi, I'm your niece. I know you haven't seen me in twenty years but I'm your brother's daughter. I'm D's daughter."
The door opened to reveal my shocked aunt along with her daughter, a preteen cousin I'd never met.
My aunt was amazing. Those early months that we reconnected were some of the best in my life. They were tough because I was still struggling with near homelessness, poverty and depression but reconnecting with my father's side of the family was giving me the family I never had had. Most of the family was eager to make up for lost time. Everyone agreed that my mother was the "crazy one" and hailed me as the child they wished they had had.
Everyone except my father.
My mother has always been a skillful liar. The monstrous shift between the identity of a sweet mother she presented others and the violent dictator she was with us had always unsettled my sisters and me. Despite my father's own violent past with my mother (the story explores some of this), he had fallen for her latest bag of tricks. She had convinced him that I was a wayward, boy crazy runaway that she was glad to be freed from. She painted a dark picture of the daughter he had only ever known through rare visits and phone calls. According to my mother's tale, I was a good girl gone wrong. And my father believed it all.
Hysterical phone calls between my father's sister and I ensued after my father berated me on our first phone call. He called me names. And like my mother had before him, the worst he could come up with was that I was my mother's daughter. She had called me evil, tainted by his blood. He called me crazy, tainted by her insanity. I had expected to be greeted with the open arms I had received from my aunts and cousins. Boy, was I wrong.
In the end, my aunt appealed to my father's memory of my mother.
"Do you really believe her mother? Her lying mother? The mother who has always lied to you? The mother who we have always known was mentally ill?"
My father never apologized but he took my calls. I called him regularly, hoping to build the relationship we should have had, the kind that inspired father's day cards. But he never called me. And it was C. who suggested that visiting him was a once in a lifetime experience that she was willing to fund, even if he wasn't. And because of her generosity that Christmas, six years ago, the present I unwrapped was a new family.
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
The most interesting part for me was being back in Washington Heights with my four-page typed printout of the racist comments that I've endured since I entering the Orthodox Jewish community two and a half years ago. Many of the comments, both subtle and blatant, were made while I was living in Washington Heights during my conversion. Some ignorant people carelessly make derogatory comments about the Dominican community, about non-Jews, and I would jump up to explain and defend.
The general thought we hoped the audience would walk away with was deep and just in time for Pesach. That Jews, the bearers of a tradition seeped in both privilege and slavery, should never forget where they came from and use the duality of their tradition to truly become a "light unto the nations." Perhaps the answer to the anxious convert who asked me how the Jews having survived the Holocaust could perpetuate the evils of racism would find hope in the idea that some Jews haven't learned enough to truly embrace their tradition but maybe this Pesach, they will.
Uri L'Tzedek is on Facebook at: Join the Group.
And once again, here's the latest update of the story of taking my frum bathing suit out on the town: The Girl in the Wetsuit.
Sunday, April 6, 2008
Why all the revisions? Well, first, there's the issue of trying to explain all the culture clashes that my little story tries to capture.
Then, my teacher suggested that I had to explain all the different ways ghetto is used in the story:
1. Ghetto: referring to speech, "speaking Ghetto" which growing up in Washington Heights was a mix of Spanglish and Ebonics.
2. ghetto: referring to class, "acting Ghetto" which refers to speaking Ghetto but also acting "low class" or inappropriately.
3. ghetto: referring to a place that looks "low class" and dingy
According to Wikipedia, ghetto means quite a lot:
A 20th century American co-opted usage of the term informs us that ghetto is a section of a city occupied by a sub-group who live there, especially because of social, economic, or legal pressure. The term "ghetto" is now commonly used to refer to any poverty-stricken urban area. Though as most Jews will tell you, "ghetto" was first used to the places where Jews were forced to live to separate them from non-Jews, a point that this revision brings up briefly.
Ghetto is formed in three ways:
1. As ports of entry for racial minorities, and immigrant racial minorities.
2. When the majority uses compulsion (typically violence, hostility, or legal barriers) to force minorities into particular areas.
3. When the majority is willing and able to pay more than the minority to live with its own kind.
But the real reason there's this latest revision is that a classmate attacked my last revision for:
1. being possibly racist in the way I mention skin tones: "It sounds like you think you are better than the dark complexioned Dominicans"
2. hiding the details of my illness as well as my physical self behind my clothing (A possible commentary on the modesty of my dress?)
But worst of all, she asked me the following leading questions with all their insinuations:
1. Are you purposely trying to separate from your Dominican culture? (Ask anyone who is forced to consume my special blend of green goo that I lovingly create for the perfect black beans to go with all my appetite for brown rice.)
2. Before you converted how did you feel about your culture? Has that changed? Why did you feel so separated? Were you made fun of?
3. Who is calling you white when you have an afro? Why do you refer to yourself as the only white girl when you are not? Who are you? How do you identify yourself?
By the end of her email, I was seething which may or may not be good preparation for tomorrow when my husband and I will be speaking on race and Judaism.
I think it's hard for people to imagine that you can be both Dominican and Jewish. I've had people tell me that being Jewish was so much more important that it obliterated my Dominican identity or at least it should. I've been told to learn to cook more Jewish foods and give up my fetish for sweet yellow plantains. And while I'm all for squash pie, I'd honestly rather eat paper than a potato kugel. No offense to the potato kugel lovers out there.
But have my feelings changed towards my culture?
Growing up, the only inkling that I had that there were people that weren't Dominican was on TV. The whole world as I knew it was Dominican with the exception of a few of my classmates that seemed really foreign: African Americans, Greeks and Arabs. I probably thought, living in my own little world, that they all went home to eat rice and beans and tostones, too. I didn't realize that I was Dominican and other people weren't until I went off to high school and college where I met people increasingly less and less like me.
High school was great. Except for the blacks and Hispanics fighting it out like cats and dogs sometimes, we separated ourselves into groups mostly by musical tastes, artistic inclinations and sometimes cultural divisions. There were the kids who liked rock. The kids who liked drawing Japanese anime characters. Then there were the little groups of Columbian kids who hailed from Columbia and felt more comfortable speaking Spanish and then another group for the Hispanic kids who mostly conversed in English.
College was awful. I was segregated from the few Hispanics in the school because of affirmative action. Because my SAT scores were high, I was shut out of the program that had given most of the Hispanic kids a chance to bond during a summer after high school at the university that was to give them more preparation for college. By the time the school year started they were a clique and people regressed to junior high school asking if I was "half-white" because my English was so good and I was so light-skinned.
And I didn't feel like I fit in elsewhere. I had had white friends in high school but these people in college were different. People made stupid comments about my big curly hair, asking to touch it or making racially charged commentary. A lot of the people I met had never met anyone Hispanic before and that led to some cultural confusion. One editor at the school newspaper told me that because English wasn't my first language, it explained the shoddy sentence structure in my articles. Even when the article had focused on the fact that English was my first language and how embarrassed I was for my Spanish.
Junior high school was a terrifying experience. Boys told me that men didn't like smart women. I was at the top of my class. I dressed differently because we bought most of our clothes at stores where everything was $1. The common way of putting people down was to call them "white" or "on welfare." My family was actually on welfare and we dressed like it. My shoes were expensive but they were orthopedic and everyone else was wearing the latest sneakers.
My family was also extremely well-educated in a neighborhood of mostly single women with kids supporting themselves through welfare. Many of these women were immigrants coming to the US for a better life as my grandparents had.
You see, my parents had both gone to school in the US. My father had a college degree, my mother completed most of it. My aunt was valedictorian of her class at the same US high school and she turned down Columbia for Cornell. From an early age, my sisters and I were all voracious readers. Reading was our favorite past time. Our favorite place on earth was the New York Public Library. Later we would add the Metropolitan Museum of Art to our list.
But all that education separated me from classmates who had less literary aspirations and calling me a "nerd" became synonymous with being, talking and acting "white." These cooler, less studious classmates made my life a living hell by calling me names, pulling my hair, passing me cruel notes, dubbing me "leader of the Nerd Patrol" and then deciding that anyone who was friends with me would be summarily attacked.
I never called myself biracial but I probably should have. People mistake Hispanic for being a race, when it's really an ethnicity like being Jewish is, in that there are many people from all different races within it. My father is white. My mother is brown or black. They would circle different boxes on the US Census despite sharing the same ethnic background. As would my mother's parents, a white Hispanic woman and a black Hispanic man.
Growing up, I didn't even know what biracial meant. But family members, friends and enemies all throughout my life commented on my inability to fit into either the black box or the white box. "You'd look white if it weren't for your hair," a classmate told me. "You have the perfect nose" or a "white nose," others would say.
When I stopped straightening my hair like most of my Dominican relatives hailing from Washington Heights or Santo Domingo, it confused people even more. With a tall curly afro, it was presumed that I was half-black and half-white...a half-black/half-white guy on the subway even used that as his opening line. I was treated poorly for looking Jewish, hit on for looking North African and ostracized for "being" white or not fitting some stereotype of what Dominican people should look like.
Becoming Orthodox and Jewish made me realize that I was Dominican. And how Dominican I really was. I realized that speaking two languages, understand Latino culture and eating different foods separated me from some people. And I wasn't just Dominican, I was part of an America that most Orthodox Jews don't see. These are the Jews that hastily assume that when I say I'm Dominican or Dominican American, I probably wasn't born in the states. They're the ones that bug me through Shabbos meals to tell them where I came from and aren't satisfied when I utter back, "Washington Heights." They're even less satisfied when I say that my parents grew up here but that America doesn't let me hyphenate myself as "American-Dominican" despite the gaps in my Dominican cultural upbringing.
I didn't become Jewish so I could be less Dominican. I'll always be Dominican. I didn't decide that Jewish culture was better than Dominican culture. I chose to add Jewish culture to live my life the best way I could for myself. I think some people misunderstood and thought that I was making a statement about how they should live their lives, but I wasn't. Being a Dominican American Jew is the best way I know how to live my life but I have worries. I worry that running in mostly Jewish circles will isolate me the way that running in mostly Dominican circles as a child did. I want to be a citizen of the world, comfortable everywhere. Now, I often find myself uncomfortable everywhere.
I worry less about how I identify myself (because I'm just me) and I worry much more about the way people choose to identify me and what that says about their perceptions of culture and race. Race, as the photo of the book title I used for this blog, suggests stresses the reality of human differences as do culture and class.
Saturday, April 5, 2008
Thursday, April 3, 2008
But this week, my husband asked to be written out of the picture. When waiting until the last minute for an essay writing assignment for a class turned him and our love life into my guinea pig, I was sure that he would be uncomfortable. He was. But that was just the tip of the pointy iceberg that would come between us. He asked me to work him out of even the briefest cameos he makes in my latest string of personal essays. And then the clincher was when we started talking about what the things I write say about him, me and us.
When I received the book deal offer, I only half-smiled. I was excited about being in print. Even excited to tell the story of my conversion, though I never imagined that would be what my first book about. But when I thought about my husband's role in all this book mess, I just didn't see how writing a book about my life would do my husband's future career as a rabbi any good.
From what I've learned about rabbis and rebbetzins in my short Jewish life, they're all a little mysterious. They're our very own stars of our Jewish People magazine. Congregants lurk around ready to catch the Rabbi and the Missus acting "just like us" and then ponder what they think about running into the Rabbi walking his chihuahua or the Missus getting her expensive haircuts. I've heard people talk about Britney's mental health issues in the same tone they've discussed whether the rabbi's wife covers her hair or how the rabbi likes to forgo a tie for the casual look. You know, that well it's not like we're talking about real people so we can say whatever we want about them tone. So it's lashon hara...so what?
Even without a blog, my very own website, without handfuls of magazine pitches and personal essays and a book to write, can you imagine me as the oh-so-mysterious Jackie O mixed with Audrey Hepburn Rebbetzin? Sure, I've grown since the days when I introduced myself in energetic details rants that ensured you could at least walk away to write a short biographical piece about my life. But what I've grown up to be a writer. And writing about what I know means writing about me, my skewed little view of the world, my twisted little piece of the world and the people in it. Cue the tension.
Tuesday, April 1, 2008
Meanwhile, I've been trying to work on two pieces, one about struggling with depression, the other about struggling with fibromyalgia. The fruits of my labor can be found here: Aliza's Works in Progress. And possibly, only ever there because I think my husband's threatened to go into hiding if they get published. I guess you'll decide if they're worth such extremes.