Maria Ramos-Chertok’s Recipe For Integrity
“I’m Cuban. I’m Jewish. I’m Cuban. I’m Jewish?”
That was more or less the monologue in the mind of Maria Ramos-Chertok growing up in New Jersey as the child of a Catholic Cuban immigrant father and an American Jewish mother who had converted to Catholicism. One could say she grew up more than a little uncertain about her identity.
“It’s taken me my whole life to come back to my roots, and understand who I am,” Ramos-Chertok reflected on a recent visit to the JCCSF, where she consults and offers trainings for customer relations staff.
Now, there is a web site to help other women of mixed Latina and Jewish heritage to navigate the experience.
“I’ve decided to launch LatinaJews.com as a way to connect, share stories and share resources,” Ramos-Chertok explains on the site. “Each time I listen to a story from a Latina Jewish woman I always end by saying, that is such an incredible story – you should write about that! That’s exactly what LatinaJews.com is set up for – to create an on-line forum for our stories to be told. The purpose… is to shed a spotlight on the vast diversity that exists within the Jewish community.”
Ramos-Chertek’s story is itself incredibly complex. As she details in her own piece on the site, “Add Water and Stir,” her maternal grandmother, a Soviet immigrant, reinforced the fact that Maria was Jewish by lineage, yet offered few religious or cultural practices to illuminate what this meant. It was only when she left home at 18 to attend the University of California at Berkeley that Maria’s encounters with other Jewish students set her on a path to understanding these components of her being.
When, in the course of that journey to awareness, someone informed her that the meaning of her maternal grandfather’s name – Blumberg – carried more or less the same meaning as that of her father – Ramos – she writes, “the convergence of my two distinct cultural heritages somehow confirm that I am real; not a mistake.” With both of those surnames referring to flowers, she felt “that these two worlds can live in me and grow, blossom and express beauty. It is the first time in my life that I remember thinking of myself as one and not two.”
Many years later, meeting her future husband Keith Chertok, who was raised an Orthodox Jew although he doesn’t observe strict Orthodox Judaism as an adult, also helped to put many missing pieces of her knowledge and awareness into place. Today they are raising their two sons, Joshua, 9-1/2, and Michael, 7-1/2, in the Jewish tradition. But as the boys frequently like to confirm, ‘“Mama, we are 1/4 Cuban and 3/4 Jewish (1/2 Russian, 1/8 Polish and 1/8 German) – right?”
“It’s so healing for me to see my sons growing up so comfortable with their background and mixed heritage,” she said.
Ramos-Chertok studied law and criminal justice, and in May 2001, was selected for an award from the National Hispana Leadership Institute. As one of two Latina Jews in her fellowship class, Maria was asked, “Where…does one find Latina Jews?” In 2001, her answer was “I have no idea.”
But the question planted a seed that bloomed into action a decade later. The website went live in February, and was showcased at the 2012 Bay Area Limmud conference in Asilomar, California that month.
“Identity can be such a complex notion,” she noted. The website represents her commitment, she said, “to giving our subculture a voice.”
The on-line anthology will collect personal essays and memoirs from Latina Jews all over the world, and Ramos-Chertok expects that there are many such stories in the San Francisco Bay Area community. The website will initially be launched in English, but will accept written pieces in both English and Spanish. The site will collect demographic information from the Latina Jews who contribute so that visitors can view the diversity of countries represented and the different ways Judaism exists in Latina families.
The site includes a growing resource list of short stories, articles, books, films and other relevant websites; Ramos-Chertok hopes that LatinaJews.com will become a clearinghouse for issues related to this demographic and for those who seek information about it.