Have a Feliz Chanukah at Multicultural Holiday Fiesta

Dreidels won’t be the only thing spinning at this year’s Be’chol Lashon Chanukah celebration. The menorah-minded are advised to watch out for Chinese Lion Dancers, Brazilian capoeira experts and an Afro-Cuban drum band.

That kind of multi-cultural melange is par for the course with Be’chol Lashon (Hebrew for “in every tongue”), a project of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research. The organization cultivates and celebrates diversity in the Jewish community, including Jews of Asian, African and Latin American descent.

“The goal is to change the stereotypes of how Jews see the Jewish community,” said Diane Tobin, who with her husband, Gary Tobin, has guided Be’chol Lashon.

The free event takes place Sunday, Dec. 10 at the Mission Cultural Center, in a heavily Latino part of San Francisco. Tobin chose the setting with the neighborhood’s Hispanic flavor in mind. The Family Arts Day itinerary takes place in the afternoon, while the evening’s festivities include an adults-only dance party and a live theater performance.

“We expect people will walk in off the street, look around, recognize themselves first then say this is Jewish on top of that,” added Tobin. “Our hope is for them to understand that Jews are everywhere in every culture.”

Oily treats will be on hand, though latkes may be hard to find. Rather, Sephardic staples like ramblas tapas, tortillas Espa?olas, and bunyelos (fried dough fritters fresh from La Palma Mexicatessan) will be included on the bill of fare.

In addition to the Lion Dancers and Afro-Cuban band, entertainment includes a performance by actress/hip-hop poet Vanessa Hidary of her one-woman show “Culture Bandit.” The Manhattan native is of Syrian Jewish ancestry, and has long weaved New York’s vaunted melting pot into her work.

“I’m fascinated with the concept of what Jewish looks like,” said Hidary, who also uses the sobriquet of Hebrew Mamita. “Coming from a Sephardic background it was important for me to address that in my work. People always thought I was Italian or Spanish. There isn’t much knowledge about Jews of different cultures and skin colors.”

This is Chanukah after all, so menorah lighting is also part of the plan. Gail Gutierrez, a convert to Judaism, will light the candles.

But Gutierrez is not just any convert to Judaism. She’s actually a re-convert, one of the Anusim, the name for those who trace their heritage back to the Spanish Marranos (hidden Jews who adopted Catholicism to avoid the auto-da-fe of the Inquisition).

“There’s a growing recognition among those seeking to reclaim their Jewish heritage,” Diane Tobin said. “All over Spain the government and the people are seeking to unearth their Jewish past and celebrate it. In Mexico, where there are many conversos, there’s still some fear, but slowly and surely it’s dissipating. People are now coming out. It’s safe to reveal the family secret kept for 500 years.”

With her many Puerto Rican and Dominican friends back in New York, Hidary expects to feel right at home in the Mission District, and she looks forward to sharing her thoughts about the wide, wide world of Jewry.

“San Francisco will be a great place to talk about these things,” Hidary said. “I love when my audience is as diverse as the message.”


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