The Women Who Came Before Her

The author and her daughter. (Photo courtesy of the author)

Each day this week, the Scroll will be featuring a post from a writer at JN Magazine—short for “Jewnited Nations”—a website “here to change the monochromatic monolithic perception of Judaism.” Each post has been commissioned and edited by MaNishtana, the pseudonym of Shais Rishon, a Tablet contributor and editor-at-large at JN Magazine.

My daughter Dvorah is a wonder.

Despite the challenges that come with parenting a tween, I’m constantly amazed at her presence in the world. I look at her and written in her skin, the structure of her face, or the wave of her hair, I imagine that I can see her foremothers. My grandmother Carmen is present in the shape of her nose, my spouse’s grandmother Gretel in her smile. My daughter’s existence is a testament to the tenacity of relatives gone too soon, who traveled, often alone, to a place where the language was new, The smells unfamiliar, and where it was colder than what they were used to, literally and figuratively. Her mixed ethnicity is a sign of growing tolerance, symbolic of a world that is learning to embrace diversity and change. What would my great-grandmother Providencia say if she knew that decades later, there would be a little Jewish girl walking the streets of Boston with her eyes?

The lesson of Passover, just weeks away, is one that reminds us that we fled adversity, and struggled as we made our way to freedom. I feel an obligation to her, to make sure that she knows that the story of the Haggadah is still relevant today, for it is a story lived by her own relatives, European and Latino alike. Her family fled oppression, from both a growing Nazi threat and the racist policies instituted in Puerto Rico, and came to a place that was filled with promise and pain in equal measure. In honor of all they gave up, it is incumbent upon me to turn their stories into lessons that hold relevance today. Passover, with its large family gatherings, is the perfect time to do this, and to make their stories and sacrifice as meaningful and powerful as the story of how we crossed the Red Sea.

Lately, she’s been interested in hearing these stories. She asks for them regularly, wanting to know all about what it was like “back then.” She wants to know if her Latina great grandmothers told me any scary folk tales, asks about how relatives fled Germany. My daughter is becoming hungry for this knowledge, wanting to know if she resembles one person or another. She never questions her life as a Latina Jew—to her, Jews of mixed ethnicity simply are. In my daughter’s eyes, this cultural heritage is to be celebrated, her religion embraced, her ethnicity and religion co-existing in ways not possible 50 years ago. She asks if there are ways to include her diverse background in the celebration of her bat mitzvah, a way of sharing this bounty.

So, when I stand to speak on the morning of her bat mitzvah, I know what I will say. I will tell her that she is the living legacy of amazing, strong women who have come before. She is the daughter of women who left all they knew behind, seeking a better life. She is proof that their hope was not in vain, for her very existence says that the world is changing, and that hate and intolerance will never triumph over love and equality. I will make sure that she knows she carries such strength within her—the strength of her namesake who chose to convert to Judaism and embraced a religion that was foreign in the town she grew up in, and yet, made her own. She carries the strength of a 16-year-old German girl who came to America, alone on a ship, because her home was no longer safe for members of that same faith, and the strength of a young Puerto Rican woman who left behind the siblings she raised in the hopes of improving their lives.

She is a wonder, and a miracle, because her existence means that all those women—Gretel, Carmen, Marciala, Sarah, and others—triumphed. They persevered in the face of persecution and hardship and privation, and because they dared, my daughter, Dvorah Carmen/Sarah Chavah stands here today. Their memories will always be a blessing, passed down through the lives of their descendants.

And someday, many generations from now, in another city, perhaps in another country, there will be another little Jewish girl walking its streets with blue-grey eyes that can be traced back generations to an island in the Caribbean, and a smile born in a town in Germany.

Ruby Velez is a Brooklynite currently living in Boston, where she gets to indulge in her love of exploring old graveyards. She’s passionate about feminism, studying religion and mythology, issues of social justice, and animal rescue. She shares her home with her spouse, child, and rescued furkids of the canine and rodent persuasion.


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