“Where Do I Belong?”

Latin-American Jews now make up a significant cohort in Miami, Winnipeg and many communities in North America. Many of them are women in their 20s and 30s, but not much is known about their lives, their plans, their views on women, the ways they see themselves and how they’re perceived by others. Sonia Perel and Karen Gitelman Wiernik of Argentina, Galit Markovitcz of Ecuador, Carla Btesh of Panama, and Rosa Einhorn of Venezuela had dinner around the Lilith conference table recently for some frank talk.

AMY GREENSTEIN, a former Lilith intern, RACHEL KRANSON, a Lilith contributing editor, and MELANIE WEISS, Lilith assistant editor, hosted. Here is Amy’s story, first:

Growing up on Long Island, eating arroz con pollo was as common to me as eating kneidelach. And until I started getting confused looks and giggles from friends at the age of eight, I called slippers conchlettas. When I reached my 20s, I wanted to know more about the Cuban and Romanian flavors that spiced my mother’s speech and cooking. That’s when I learned about my family’s buried treasures.

When my mother’s family left Romania, they moved to Cuba. My mother lived in Havana from the age of eight to the age of 15. After painstakingly learning Spanish and building up a clothing business, the family thrived there. But when Castro came to power, they begrudgingly left their new island home and moved to the United States.

When they left Cuba, they were not allowed to take the belongings that they had worked so hard to acquire. They buried their most precious treasures underneath the floor, hoping to return one day and reclaim them. More important to me than finding the objects themselves is to unearth more of my family’s history.

In my professional life, I’ve followed a path that has taught me about my cultural background. I helped found Judios Latinos, bringing Latin American Jews together for cultural events in New York. And I work as the assistant director of young leadership development at HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society — the organization that, by no coincidence, resettled my mother and thousands of Latin American Jews displaced as a result of the 2001 Argentinian economic crisis. Knowing the hardships my mother had to overcome — she came alone to the U.S. at 16 — has given me a deep appreciation for the difficulties immigrants face today.

The Latina Jews we invited to talk with us at Lilith were immigrants of choice. Their lives were stable in their countries of origin, but they came here to seek out new cultural and social opportunities. Unlike young Russian-American Jewish women Lilith has profiled in the past, these Latin-American Jewish women still feel pulled back to their home countries, often — and sometimes ambivalently — travelling back and forth. Their circumstances could hardly be more different from my mother’s. But the Latin-Jewish culture shared by both my mother and this cohort of women remains a hidden treasure to most Jews in the United States, who aren’t aware that Buenos Aires is home to the second largest diaspora Jewish community, let alone that there are Spanish-speaking Jews at all.

[During the process of transcribing our conversation with these women, we received the sad news that Karin Wiernik, after battling a difficult illness, had passed away. And soon after, my mother died suddenly as a result of a severe asthma attack. I dedicate this article to their lives and to their memory.]

Lilith: What’s life like for Jewish women in your home country?

Carla Btesh: In Panama’s Jewish community, Sephardic girls get married at 18. Most teenagers — men and women — don’t go to college. Now that’s changing, especially for men. But Panama is a very traditional society. We started in Syria, also a traditional society, so there’s not such a difference. But I went to college, my sister went to college, so did many of my friends. Still, I am generalizing about marriage at 18: every weekend someone gets married, at 18, 19. A girl my age who is not married, people think what is wrong?

Sonia Perel: And generally the Sephardic Latin Jews are not the ones who come here.

Rosa Einhorn: A lot of Latin countries are very conservative, and girls get married very young. Good Catholic values.

Carla: The aunt of a friend of mine, her daughter got married at 23. The daughter said, if I don’t get married this year my mother will charge rent. She may have been joking, but truth underlay her humor. In Jewish Orthodox Sephardic communities all around the world, girls get married young. I think Ashkenazim get married much later.

Lilith: Is your situation — as a woman — different here?

Galit Markovitcz: Here it’s normal to get married and continued working. In Latin America, less so. It’s possible, but not normal.

Karin Gitelman Wiernik: In Argentina, in my generation, there are a lot of women professionals. Things are changing also because of the economy; both men and women need to work.

Carla: Things are different there. Men don’t let women be themselves. A majority of women don’t travel without their husbands, for example, although of course some do.

Rosa: But here [in North America] you have to be everything, so it’s difficult to be a woman. You have to be a mom and make a six figure salary! Here, you have to be good at everything, especially in New York.

Sonia: Gender roles, although there is variation among classes, are still very traditional [in Latin America]. There’s still a sense of patriarchy. You really feel it being there and coming from here. It’s more like the U.S. 50 years ago, before feminism. A lot of stuff has happened with feminist thought and the feminist movement in U.S., and there it has been untouched. It’s like traveling back in time.

Galit: And Catholics are even more traditional.

Sonia: Abortion is still not legal in Argentina.

Lilith: Are Jews more liberal in general than the rest of the population?

Carla: Not in Panama! Being Jewish in Argentina is very different. Women in Argentina are very tough, strong, very different from other Latin American countries.

Sonia: In Argentina, the Jewish population is more open, more accepting, than the Catholic part of the population…

Galit: In Ecuador, it is a given that Jewish women will get the same level of education as men. That means going to college and also doing their master’s.

Lilith: Would you say that you’re a feminist?

Galit: Well, I want to grow as a woman. A woman should be able to work. I don’t know if that means I am a feminist or not.

Rosa: I think family values are very important, but so is the professional side. For my mother, I think family will always come first.

Sonia: I want to offer more of a definition of feminism, because feminism can be defined in so many ways. It’s part of the political project. Do I think there is still a long way to go for women? Yes. Do I think its unfortunate that feminism has gotten a bad rap? I do. So to answer the question in those terms, yes, I would definitely consider myself a feminist.

Karin: I think women need the same rights as men and they still need to fight for them, and women have been denigrated over the centuries. I agree with all of that. But I think, unconsciously, I am not so feminist. Because when I chose a career, I didn’t think about making money. I worked five years for free, and I didn’t care about that! For men, it’s different. They feel culturally that they need to make money in order to have a family! So I relegate my own job for his. I don’t think I’m less than him because I’m in the field of education, but I make less money. And I feel comfortable with him making money, and not me.

Carla: I don’t call myself feminist, but I absolutely think that women deserve and need to be independent and, if they choose, to work, whether or not they are married. If I hadn’t gone to college, I wouldn’t be able to be here and have these opportunities, not just to make money, but also to feel good about myself. But we shouldn’t go over the edge: while women should be independent, always studying, growing as a woman, mother, and wife, they should remember that family is also important.

Galit: Latin American women are more family oriented than career oriented. We want to have kids, and…

Carla: Most women get married young, but it doesn’t mean that everybody is like that. Many work.

Lilith: What about being a Jew here?

Karin: I come from Argentina and I found Forest Hills, in Queens. I wanted to be in a Jewish environment, in a good place for kids, with a Jewish nursery school. But most Jewish schools here were too religious for me; we are more cultural. We sent them to school for Israelis, who understand cultural Jewishness, but its hard for my kids, because it’s not for them, they are not Israeli.

Rosa: Where do we fit in here Jewishly? At home [in Venezuela] we had such strong Jewish secular backgrounds, but here it’s defined religiously.

Lilith: There’s some tension between religious and secular expressions of Judaism. Did you have a religious background?

Carla: I did. I went to a Jewish school where they teach you religion, how to pray, how to observe the holidays, Shabbat principles. Panama is a very Orthodox community.

Lilith: What do you mean by Orthodox?

Carla: I was going to bring that up! It doesn’t mean the same thing here. I consider myself Orthodox, and my synagogue at home is Orthodox. But I don’t keep Shabbat. Orthodox in Panama is different — if you are Jewish, you belong to an Orthodox synagogue, you have Shabbat dinners every Friday with the family, strictly do the holidays, etc.. Basically, being Orthodox in Panama means that you are very traditional in your observation of practices, whereas in the U.S. it means that you are very religious in your beliefs.

Galit: In Ecuador, being Jewish was also being part of Jewish organizations that help the community. But here the Jewish organizations I’m involved with are about Israel; they involve internationals and it makes me feel more at home.

Karin: Here in American synagogues they pray in English, not in Hebrew! In Argentina they talk in Spanish, but they pray in Hebrew.

Rosa: It wasn’t particularly religious in Venezuela, it was more JCC. The synagogue was Orthodox, but more people didn’t go, especially not women. It wasn’t the main point, the main point was being part of the community.

Carla: Panama’s community has become more religious in every way; priorities have changed. When I was a kid, I went to school with non-Jews; non-Jews wanted to go to Jewish schools. Today, there are no non-Jews in the Jewish schools. And I think it’s wrong; it’s important to interact. Religion is a good thing, it’s part of your identity, but it’s not everything. You have to be able to interact with people.

Karin: In Argentina, there’s more pluralism, because it’s a bigger community. You can find Conservative, Orthodox, but you can also find very strong secular institutions. Especially Zionist institutions, because the Zionist movement was very popular in Argentina. Americans don’t always understand how large our Jewish community is — In B.A. [Buenos Aires], we have a McDonald’s that is kosher!

Lilith: Do Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews mix?

Sonia: In Argentina, communities are separate. People still use terms for “Russians” and “Turks.” But many more are Ashkenazi Jews — and they look down on the Sephardic community.

Karin: Yes, the older generation thinks they are not educated, that they are more traditional and family oriented. That is the stereotype, not always true.

Lilith: So how are Jews viewed from the outside?

Galit: The phrase “For the death of a Jew” — I might have heard it about three times in my life. I was at a Christmas dinner [in Ecuador], and someone made that as a toast. I was the only Jew there. It comes from the Church. And it happened to me once when I was in college. Someone said, “Don’t act like a Jew.” They don’t even know what a Jew is, because there are so few. They don’t know who we are. But it is not anti-Semitism, just cultural. It’s weird. Here, everything is so diverse and dynamic that you don’t really feel it. Not in New York at least.

Karin: Argentina has it. They allowed all the Nazis to enter, and then there was the profanation of cemeteries. Two terrorist attacks on Jewish schools. I remember at the time that the press was saying that they were Jewish, and also Argentinian. They were making the distinction, like Jews were not also Argentinian. Many South American people do not even know that there are Jews in their countries. They don’t realize people are Jewish unless they are Lubavitch, dress “Jewish.”

Carla: In Panama, since Jews run so much of the economic life, people know about Jews, Jewish holidays, and Jewish practices. But there’s a lot of ignorance about how Jews and Israel are related.

Rosa: I haven’t felt any anti-Semitism in New York.

Karin: I don’t feel the anti-Semitism here, but I feel the racism — against South Americans!

Lilith: Do you think racism works the same here as in South America?

Karin: In Argentina we don’t have black people — they’ve killed them all! So they have different kinds of racism, not against black people but against refugees from Bolivia who came to Argentina, etc.

Carla: A French person in Panama once put a swastika on my father’s car, but a Panamanian would never have done that!

Rosa: In (Venezuela) Jews are considered part of the high class, Europeans.

Lilith: You all describe coming from quite privileged backgrounds, economically. Then you come to the U.S., and because you speak Spanish people assume you’re uneducated, poor, need a green card.

Carla: I realized if I speak Spanish in school [in the U.S.] people would associate me with the Mexicans, and any third world country. However, things have changed, and to speak Spanish is an advantage.

Sonia: I know a blond-haired, blue-eyed woman who, once she spoke Spanish [in the U.S.], felt that people looked at her differently. This happened a little differently to me when I was with my mother in California. No one ever thought that we were speaking Spanish. They thought we were speaking Italian! They couldn’t associate our looks with Spanish! This happened consistently.

Galit: It’s an advantage. People in restaurants treat me much better, they don’t think I would speak Spanish but when they realize I do, they treat me well, they and I feel at home.

Carla: Americans think Latina women are not smart and are uneducated — but that’s all wrong. Not that we’re better, but it’s different. We are very educated. But Americans have that conception of all Latin Americans. When people in America hear Spanish, they think the speaker is very poor, uneducated, and unknowledgeable.

Galit: I feel and am Latin American, even though my parents are European! You are where you grew up.

Lilith: How do you feel about North American Jews?

Galit: I came here because I wanted to meet more Jewish people. But if they ask me where I want to be in future, I don’t know where I want to be. I don’t know if I want my kids here and raise them as Americans. I feel I would miss the values of Latin America for my children.

Karin: I’m raising my kids here, but it’s hard. I think that the nuclear family is the most important thing, so no matter where we are, my kids receive a lot from their parents, who are Latin, who are Jewish. They live in a different society and will always be different. But I value the familial context. I am establishing myself here, though I don’t know if it’s the best place.

Carla: New York also has a lot to offer because it’s very diverse. It’s a great opportunity to grow up here. But I don’t know. I’m here now, so I think it’s a great place to be..

Sonia: I want to go back. I had half my childhood in Argentina, and from 10 on here. From my own experience having had a childhood in both places, it’s very crystal clear that I am having kids there. You need more than a nuclear family to raise a family. You need a whole community.

Galit: Many Israelis say — “I’m definitely going back home to raise my kids there.” But I don’t have that option. The Ecuadorian Jewish community is so small, and getting smaller.

Carla: I was in Brooklyn on Shabbat on Friday, and was very homey, communal. They even had maids! So maybe I don’t need to be in Panama to have that warmth, that community. It reminded me of having a dinner with my family. There was not much difference between my family and theirs.

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