Juan Epstein, the Puerto Rican Jew from the 1970s sitcom “Welcome Back Kotter” may have been a fictional character, but the people he represented are very real. Throughout the 20th Century in Brooklyn and other parts of New York City, as well in Boston, Providence, Hartford and New Haven, Puerto Rican neighborhoods grew near Jewish ones. Intermarriage became more common, resulting in children either raised in the Jewish religion or incorporating Jewish culture into their own identity. Well known Puerto Rican American Jews include the late actor Freddie Prinze (born Frederick Karl Pruetzel) and his son, Freddie Prinze, Jr., talk show host Sally Jessy Raphael (Sally Lowenthal) and TV journalist Geraldo Rivera (Gerald Michael Rivera).
Cassandra Santiago, a West Hartford resident, has fielded a lot of questions about her dual identity over the years. “When people find out that I’m Jewish, they say, ‘Oh, I thought you were Puerto Rican’,” she said. “It’s weird that people don’t understand that being Jewish is not a race; it’s a religion — you could call it a heritage.” Santiago, 24 years old with an Eastern European Jewish mother and a Puerto Rican father, grew up Jewish in the Boston area, and has yet to meet other Jewish Latinos since moving to Connecticut. “When I went to Israel, there were mixes of everything there,” she said.
People with dual identities, when asked whether they feel “more” of one than the other, are likely to reply that answer is never that simple. Gerry Garcia, former New Haven Alderman, who has grown up both Jewish and Latino, says, ” Asking whether one is ‘more’ Jewish or Latino (or favors one over the other) is akin to asking if I am as tall as I weigh.” Yet he finds that in the United States, there’s something about the overlap of these cultures in particular that people have a hard time wrapping their heads around, a sharp contrast with his experience visiting Israel. “It was the first time in my life when I was someplace where being Latino and Jewish wasn’t noteworthy,” he said.
Mark Overmyer-Velázquez, a professor at the University of Connecticut and director of the Institute of Latino and Latin American Studies, married a Jewish woman from New York and has undergone what he calls “a kind of conversion, a way of deepening my identity as part of the Jewish community but isn’t formally, traditionally Jewish.” He said, “I have three Jewish kids, and I’ve spent a lot of time studying with a rabbi, taking courses, learning Hebrew, and travelling to Israel. I have been very involved in the Jewish community and as a result, I am connected with Jewish Latinos all over Latin America.”
Unfortunately, Overmyer-Velázquez says that he has observed higher levels of anti-Jewish sentiment in Latin America than would be the norm in the U.S. “There’s a kind of easy conflation of Jews with the ruling elites,” he said. Even in North America, though, there are some places that are more comfortable for Jewish Latinos to live than others. Places like the Hartford-West Hartford line are best because the region’s largest Jewish and Latino populations are in close proximity. “We moved here because of the large Latino and large Jewish populations,” he said.
Further complicating matters however for many, is the fact that identity is a work in progress. While Overmyer-Velázquez comes from the perspective of a Latino learning what it means to be Jewish, Cassandra Santiago has only recently begun to explore her Latina side more deeply since moving to West Hartford. Overmyer-Velázquez says that exploring a new culture doesn’t crowd out an existing one, that acquiring extra dimensions to one’s identity is simply additive. “Becoming part of a Jewish community and family added a new history, language and experience to my own already cross-border, transnational reality as a son of a Mexican immigrant mother and Anglo-American father.”
For Santiago, the exploration of her Latina identity shifted to a higher gear after enrolling at Capital Community College. “I really am trying to find out more about my Hispanic heritage, so I joined the International Club at school. One day, out of the blue I asked my college counselor, who is Latina, why she kept a glass of water in an unusual place, and she said something about ‘spirits’. Since then, when I go to friends’ and neighbors’ houses, I have started to notice that many people do that. It’s like when Jews at the Passover holiday leave out a glass of wine that nobody drinks.”
“The stories of the Jewish diaspora and the Latin American and Caribbean diaspora have much in common and much to teach each other,” said Overmeyer-Velazquez.
Actually, the blending of the two backgrounds has a long history. Jewish sailors rowed ashore with Christopher Columbus in 1492, and many more arrived with the explorers and settlers that came later. They were fleeing religious persecution, so most early Spanish/Jewish immigrants to the Americas hid their Jewish identities, and often their religious practices and languages fell into disuse. Today, after later waves of immigration, there are roughly 500,000 practicing Jews in Latin America, including about half that number in Argentina, and pockets in urban centers, notably Mexico City.
A popular holiday song called “Ocho Kandelikas” celebrates Hanukah, the Jewish festival of lights, by describing the lighting of eight candles. The song’s language is called Ladino, and the songwriter, Flory Jagoda, wrote it to preserve the endangered dialect, which was nearly wiped out along with most of its practitioners during World War II. Based on pre 15th-century Spanish, Ladino was spoken in communities formed around the Mediterranean and the Middle East after many of Spain’s Jews fled the forced conversions imposed by monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella.
As one candle is lit for each day of the Jewish holiday, its Landino words may have a familiar sound to Latinos. “Una kandelika, dos kandelikas, tres kandelikas…ocho kandelas para mi.”
(Ocho Kandelikas, sung by the Fairfield County Children’s Choir: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1p5FBFdYufk)