Why Are They So Weird? Translating Dominican to Jewish and Back Again
I can’t escape telling everyone at the Shabbat table that I’m a convert when I tell them I that I grew up in Washington Heights. When they ask if I know Rabbi so-and-so, I tell them I grew up on the other side of the Heights. The YU side? The Bennett side? No, I grew up between Audubon and Broadway,you know, where the Dominicans live.
As a Dominican-American convert, I am charged with being both the Jew that the Dominican cab drivers can talk to in their native tongue and reminisce about living in la capital (Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic) and the Dominican that Jews come to as their go-to-girl for deciphering the psyche of the Dominican population in Washington Heights. It can be a joy and a burden to help my people understand each other. In understanding both, in some way, I am removed from both groups. I hover on the fringes ready to put out the little fires that surface when communication goes awry.
I attended elementary school and junior high school on both sides of the Yeshiva University campus, P.S. 189 and I.S. 143. In elementary school, the most I knew about Judaism was that Jews do not celebrate Christmas. This meant that we celebrated Chanukah with our Jewish teacher. At these parties we got to play with dreidels and the boys (and only the boys) wore kippahs. When I ask my little sister what she thought of the few Jews we saw during our childhood in Washington Heights, she says that given their manner of dress, “I thought they were Amish.” I was even more oblivious. Maybe I was too short to see whether the men were wearing kippahs. Maybe I was too self-involved to realize there was a whole other world going on right next to the mix of Catholicism, Santeria, and empanadas that ruled in mine.
Later though, I had an Orthodox conversion and married an Orthodox man. Once we were married, a Holocaust survivor asked my grandmother-in-law, how anyone could convert after the tragedy of the Holocaust. Upon hearing this I was at a loss for words. I think that I converted because of the Holocaust. In junior high school, the world I lived in and the world that lived next door collided when Hannelore Marx, a Holocaust survivor, came to visit us in the classroom. She showed us the numbers on her arm and told us of the atrocities she had experienced. I was awe-struck that she had been persecuted because of her religious beliefs. I was, in fact, so struck by her story that in my childish na?vet?, I surmised that there must be something incredibly special about being Jewish if someone was willing to kill you for it. I went home that day and stole the Magen David pendant my mother wore on the chain around her neck (along with a cross and saint pendants) and wore it to school the next day.
With the pilfered Magen David proudly displayed on my neck, I marched around the school with a confidence I rarely felt in junior high. Walking into one class, I heard something that would become etched in my soul forever. A classmate, a mean girl who had probably sat next to me as we heard the Holocaust survivor recount her story in the camps, had snickered something loudly enough for the whole class to hear: ?Heil Hitler!?
That day, I felt as if my heart was bleeding. I could not bring myself to focus on the tasks at hand. My little shoulders shook with sobs. Suddenly and with true horror, I realized that a new world had been opened up to me. In this new world, some of the Dominicans around me could be just as cruel as the Nazis. Because of that pendant (before my mother finally discovered that I had stolen her pendant and took it back) I learned over time that many of my classmates and those around me had similar negative feelings towards Jews.
It wasn?t just my classmates who viewed Jews in a negative light; my own family was no different. My mother?s lawyer had the signature side locks, wore a black suit, a white shirt and donned a black hat. He was always kind to us and my mother to him. But behind closed doors I heard my relatives whisper that Jews were cheap, that they owned everything and worst, they had killed Jesus. They think they?re better than us.
When I introduced my first secular Jewish boyfriend to my aunt, she said that even though he was Jewish, he was nice. Her relationship with anti-Semitism was beginning to ebb as my grandmother?s was just starting to unfold before my eyes. When my grandmother had seen a photograph of my Indian boyfriend, she asked with a sniff, ?Does he smell?? When she found out that I was in love with a Jew, my grandmother was so angry that I was afraid she would slap me. Her disgust was palpable and it finally registered that to her, worse than dating a black man, a white man, or an Indian man, was dating a Jew. Was my family, one that lived in Washington Heights side by side with the Jews for years, any more or less anti-Semitic than the other Dominicans around them?
Even though we live side by side in Washington Heights, the fact remains, the residents of Washington Heights live in their own ghettos – the Dominicans are on one side and the Jews on the other. The Dominicans have their customs, the Jews theirs. Both sides assure themselves that they were there first. At least, that?s what I hear from my Jewish friends who were there first. Don?t get me wrong, the Jews can be just as cruel as the Dominicans in their ignorance of the other?s culture. No one seems to get that it doesn?t matter who landed on Plymouth or Amsterdam Avenue first; now, it?s about how we treat each other living side by side.
Just as Shabbos comes to a close for the Orthodox Jews in the area, the mostly Christian Dominicans prepare themselves to attend mass on Sunday morning. The way we pray is different. The way we dress is different. The way we think is different, but the way we view each other, with skepticism and suspicion, is not. If I could just go one day without being asked why they dress that way, why they do or don?t do that, I could learn to find some peace and love both sides unconditionally. But that is not what God has asked me to do. When I begin to tell you that a Jew, a Dominican girl, a Muslim boy, a Chinese woman and a witch were sitting around the dinner table, I?m not cracking a joke, I?m telling you about the last Shabbos meal at my house.
As long as we remain divided, living in our own little worlds, unable to understand each other?s customs and hopes and dreams, I will continue to be the emissary between the land of rice and beans and the land of cholent and kugel. Yes, I serve maduros, sweet, yellow plantains (banana cousins, not bananas!), as a side dish at my Shabbos table. And my husband, Yehuda, tells his friends to go to only Dominican barbers: ?They cut hair the best!? No one has to know that the first time he went to a Dominican barber, with me in tow, his knees were shaking. He claims that it was because he was afraid his limited Spanish would find him being shaved bald.
I know that behind the rude questions I am asked, behind the hate and the senseless acts of violence that occur between the Dominicans and the Jews, there is this little thing called fear. On Shabbos, I asked the girl who thinks the national anthem should be sung only in English, not in Spanish, if she would like to give up her Jewish culture to become ?more American?? Over my wedding photos, I tell my grandmother, that my husband makes a mean recaito, the green goo we blend together to make fantastic beans. My friend, a rabbinical student, steals this green goo to make authentic rice and beans for his relatives in Michigan.
There are little ripple effects of change but still, when my husband goes apartment hunting in Riverdale and remarks that he previously lived in ?the Heights,? the Jewish real estate agent assures him there aren?t too many Hispanic people in Riverdale, ?it?s safe.? My husband doesn?t even pause: ?My wife is Hispanic.?
When a Jew asks me why Dominicans dress the way they do, I ask what the deal is with being tznius? Covering the elbows and knees is one community?s uniform, flaunting one?s assets in tight jeans is that of another. Why are Dominicans so loud? Don?t tell me you?ve never been to a Jewish wedding where you wanted to pull out the ear plugs when the yeshiva bochurs launched into yet another niggun. No, there?s no kissing at the end of the ceremony, I tell my aunt calmly, and no sex under a sheet through a hole. No, Jewish women don?t all shave their heads after marriage and kosher doesn?t mean a rabbi blessed the food. No, Dominicans are not shomer negia. Yes, we even hug strangers and tell them all our business in the first five minutes we meet them. So, of course, when we dance, we make sure to dance extra close.
One night around the Shabbos table, my husband told my African-American students, Keith and Reggie, that he was going to teach them a niggun. After making faces of shock and horror, my students fell completely silent. I could have let it go, but I didn?t.
?What?s wrong, guys?? I asked patiently. Reggie quickly piped up: ?Well, you know, we love you and Yehuda and all, but I don?t know. I mean, maybe he thinks we?re all cool enough that he can use that word with us, but like, it?s not cool.? Yehuda almost choked on his food while I burst out laughing. ?He didn?t say that! He said niggun. N-I-G-G-U-N. A wordless melody.?
If a Muslim teenager can break-dance with an Orthodox Jewish rabbi at my wedding, then maybe we can all begin to fathom leaving the realm of what is comfortable to put our fears on the backburner and bridge the gap between Jews and non-Jews. We may have different paths to follow but we?re all human and that humanity should unite us. It?s all about communication, trying to understand each other and finding common ground. We know about all the ugliness these encounters can bring, but maybe there isn?t enough discussion about all the beauty that can come out of learning about each other?s cultures.