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Más Mazels: Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month by Hannah Siegel

Hispanic Heritage Month, saddled in the four weeks from mid-September to mid-October, is a time to recognize the rich history and contributions of Hispanic and Latine people here in the US. And while Christian and Latine culture are deeply intertwined, there’s no question that Judaism also has its own place in Latineamericane life. In a world in which Jews have always been spread far and wide, and interfaith families are becoming more and more common, Latine and Jewish culture are meshing.

Temple Beth Shmuel in Miami Beach, Florida

Here in New York City, 12% of Jewish households are multiracial. In the cultural melting pot of Miami Beach, where Temple Beth Shmuel welcomes its “Cuban-Hebrew” congregation, 15% of Jewish adults are hispanic. Even in L.A., the beating heart of so much Latineamericane culture, music, and innovation, pop-ups like the Jewish-Mexican taqueria J&S have made their mark. But the Jewish-Hispanic community isn’t just a product of cultures coming together; a number of people living in Latin America are practicing Jews, long before they (should they ever) reach the United States. After all, the third largest home of diaspora Jews is in Latin America. The towering arches of the Gran Templo in Buenos Aires, Argentina and the number of kosher bakeries in Mexico City speak to the influence of Latine Jews.

I was born in an interfaith family. My dad is a Jewish man from Yardley, PA and my mom is a Cuban-American, Catholic woman from Orlando, FL. Growing up, we threw enormous family bashes on Noche Bueña, known to most as Christmas Eve, complete with (literal) singalongs to Feliz Navidad and the traditional unwrapping of presents, in which my grandmother famously announced which gift was for which grandkid and from whom. (Parrraaa Hannah, de Lucia y Scott! she might announce). We also had a thick paperback of Judaism for Dummies in the kitchen, that was ceremoniously pulled out each year by my Dad for Passover and Hanukkah. “Why is this night different from all other nights?” my Dad might ask us, pushing up his glasses and adjusting the yarmulke from my newly-13-year old cousin’s bat mitzvah. “I don’t know,” my brother would probably answer, reaching for another helping of charoset.

The result is that, today, I am a relatively uneducated Jew and an even more lackluster hispanic. My brother and I were the kids of third culture kids — our life was thoroughly Americanized. Neither of us speak Spanish or feel particularly connected to Cuban culture. Outside of our childhood and the traditions we inherited, we hardly were. All of this meant that when I came to NYU and decided to live as Jewish adult, it felt like a move away from my Hispanic heritage. But the reality is that our identities cannot ever be split evenly. I will always be the granddaughter of Cuban immigrants, much like I will always be Jewish. I will still give my tias their besitos and open gifts with my cousins on December 24th, even as I plug in the worn out light-up menorah before leaving the house.

For the nearly 250,000 Jewish Latines living in the US, it’s important for us to remember that, even as we celebrate the High Holidays, Hispanic Heritage Month is our party, too.

A note from the author: In this piece, the author has chosen to use the word “latine” and “latineamericane” in place of the more common terms “latino,” “latina,” and “latinoamericano”. Like “latinx” this is a way to make traditionally-gendered adjectives gender-neutral in a way that rolls of the Spanish-speaking tongue.

Hannah Siegel is a sophomore at NYU and Community Initiative Chair of Keshet: LGBTQ+ Jews at NYU.

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