Hispanic Jewish culture explored in film, on stage, in class

When most people think “Jewish culture,” the word “Hispanic” probably doesn’t spring to mind.

But Judaism is the faith of nearly a million worshippers across Mexico and the rest of Latin America. And more references are cropping up in American pop culture.

Hispanic Jews’ stories are being told in movies such as “My Mexican Shiva,” a film in Spanish, Yiddish and Hebrew, and in plays such as Steppenwolf Theater’s “Sonia Flew,” about a Cuban immigrant raising two children with her Jewish husband in Minneapolis.

Now, DePaul University is offering a class in Jewish Latin American culture.

Tracing the roots
Led by Achy Obejas, DePaul’s new Sor Juana De La Cruz writer-in-residence, students are tracing the roots of Judaism in Hispanic culture, starting with the Spanish Jews who sailed to the Americas with Christopher Columbus in 1492 and covering Jews who settled in the Caribbean and South America and Hispanic Jews living biculturally today. They are studying historical tracts and a rich body of works by Jewish Latin American writers and filmmakers.

Obejas, who was born in Cuba, has written books on the Cuban-Jewish experience.

“The notion of the Jew in Latin America works really well as a metaphor for the public and private tensions of immigration and assimilation that play themselves out in the U.S. today,” Obejas said.

Of her own experience, Obejas said, “The congregation where I go, there are Guatemalan Jews, Argentinian Jews. They’re Latino, but, in the end, they’re Jews.”

5,000 in Chicago area
Rabbi Michael Azose of the Sephardic congregation in Evanston, where Obejas worships, estimates there are perhaps 5,000 Hispanic Jews in the Chicago area, “but I believe there is no Hispanic or Latino that doesn’t have some Jewish blood in them because [in Spain] so many intermarried with Christians.”

Tonie Jo-Na Poole, 27, an undergraduate anthropology major at DePaul, said she’s taking Obejas’ class in part because she has African-American, Hispanic and Jewish roots and, beyond that, sees cultural awareness as a key need in a global society.

“We’re all becoming TransAmerican,” Poole said. “Look deep down, and you’ll see we all have similar foundations.”

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