Tostones and Matzoh: A Puerto Rican-Jewish Journey
I am a Catholic woman, born and raised in the sunny island of Puerto Rico. I went to Catholic school from kindergarten to twelfth grade, the same school my parents attended, the same school all of my friends (and their parents) attended, and the same school my children would one day attend when I married a nice Catholic Puerto Rican boy.
Oh, by the way, my last name is Levy, pronounced LEH-vee in Spanish. Being a Levy in a predominantly Catholic country was not a big deal: we were like everyone else. As is often the case, it wasn’t until I left the comforts of home that I learned what a big deal my last name seemed to be.
When I moved to New York, although being Puerto Rican was not unusual, being a Levy from Puerto Rico was. How did a Catholic Puerto Rican (not unusual) end up with a Jewish last name (very unusual)? The questions were endless: Are you Jewish? Is Levy your married name? Did you convert and change your name? Was your mother Jewish? The answer, simply, was always, “My father was a Levy, and so were his father, and his grandfather, and his great grandfather…” Well, you get the point.
The Jewish question was more interesting. The Levys that came to Puerto Rico were conversos, Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism during the years of the Spanish Inquisition. Later, during the Spanish conquest of the Americas, Levy males settled on the island, looking for better economic opportunities than those available in their native Spain. Some married local women, others sent for their families, but they have been in Puerto Rico, and Catholic, ever since.
When I met my partner four years ago, he was the nice boy my parents (and I) had always hoped for. He has a Ph.D., is a talented professional musician, speaks Spanish perfectly, and is a sophisticated New Yorker. He is also Jewish. He was very clear from the beginning that he wanted to live in a Jewish home, complete with a kosher kitchen and Jewish kids. On the other hand, I was very clear that, although I did have a Jewish last name, I was not interested in conversion and felt great affinity to my own traditions. After many conversations, workshops, and experiments, we decided to move in together. This meant that I would support and participate in a Jewish home and that he would support and participate in my need to celebrate major holidays with my very Catholic family in the island.
Two years later, we have created a loving home where the mezuzah on the doorway complements the vejigante Afro-Puerto Rican mask on the wall. We celebrate Pesach (Passover) with his family, and Christmas with mine. I read from a Spanish hagaddah (book that tells the Passover story) and he sings aguinaldos (traditional Puerto Rican carols) to my elderly aunts. The challenges have been, and still are, many. But the rewards, the love, and the joy in our daily life make it all worth it. I have relished the learning that has taken place, on both our parts, to make this relationship work.
When I told my parents about the nice Jewish boy I met in New York, my father said, “He’s Jewish? Great! The Levy’s are going back to our roots!” And in many respects, I feel that I have. One day, I will teach my children how to dunk tostones in a garlicky sauce to complement the Christmas dinner of roast pork and rice in their abuela’s (grandmother’s) house in Puerto Rico. And I will hide the matzoh during Pesach knowing the fun that the kids (and their bubbie!) will have when they go looking for it. When I walk my children to their Jewish day school and say a kiddush (blessing over wine) before Friday night dinners, I will rejoice in their living in a Jewish Puerto Rican home.
I am a Catholic, Puerto Rican woman, and yes, my last name is Levy. Being a Catholic Puerto Rican with a Jewish last name is no longer unusual, it is my life.
Teresita Levy is the Administrative Director of the Center for Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies of the City University of New York and a full-time doctoral student in the Latin American History program at The Graduate Center. Teresita lives with her husband in a “New-Jew-Rican” home in Brooklyn, New York. This article was an entry in the InterfaithFamily.com Network’s Essay Contest, “We’re Interfaith Families…Connecting with Jewish Life.”