“Well, to start off, what makes you excited about the Jewish Studies program here at UT? What does Judaism mean to you?”
My journey to being asked this question–as a secular, Latina, non-Jewish, International Relations major–was an interesting one. As I sat at the conference table in the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, I thought back to my first encounter with the Jewish campus community and how I now often find myself in ridiculous situations like this.
Rewind to eight months ago and I’m attending Shabbat dinner at Hillel for the first time at the urging of a close friend, Tracy. My entire family is Catholic, and my mother is Episcopalian. Judaism was what I read about in Elie Weisel novels and never something I’d experienced in real life.
Panic seeped in as a woman passed out tiny cups of wine. I guess I take the tiny wine…do I wear the tiny hat too? Oh god oh god can they tell I don’t belong here. WHERE DO I SIT?? Thankfully Tracy interrupted my internal panic attack and I quickly learned that Hillel wasn’t just for Jewish students– it’s a center for Jewish life. It’s for outreach, for learning and for celebrating a community within our campus.
Over the next few months I attended more events and made more friends at Hillel. Some of them even started returning the favor and attended my community events; immigration panels, Latino Leadership meetings, and undocumented student rallies all became a part of the conversation at Hillel. The result of this reciprocal outreach turned into something that would completely change my college career. The Latino-Jewish Student Coalition, an achievement so specific to the UT community, needed to spread to other college campuses.
A few months later, I found myself working day and night with Tracy on raising money, acquiring filming equipment, and scheduling interviews. Our initiative, Project Puente, aims to investigate the roots of Latino-Jewish relations, the parallels between Jewish and Latino immigration, and the history behind this lesser-known community partnership. What better way to get other college kids on board than to make a movie about it? We packed up and drove to Monterrey, Mexico to start filming. This is where my crash course in Judaism really began.
We toured synagogues, interviewed academics, and captured Jewish Latin America on camera. Throughout this process everyone assumed I was Jewish. It was easier to play along than to explain why a non-Jew would want to see their mikveh. I thought I had come along as the immigration reform expert, as the bilingual film visionary, or even just as Tracy’s culturally curious shiksa sidekick. But before long, my observational skills were put to the test.
“Here’s the thing,” Tracy said as we boarded our flight to Buenos Aires. “This hostel we’re staying at is technically for Jews only so you’re going to have to humor me here.”
That old, familiar panic set in. Tricking a bunch of Argentinian Jews?! “But-they’ll know! I don’t even speak Hebrew!!” There were no other options left. We only had enough left in our meager budget for the $10 per night Jewish hostel. “This is all for the benefit of the Jewish people,” Tracy calmly assured, trying to assuage my guilt.
We arrived late at night to winter in July. “Be sure to show them your Jewish card,” Tracy teased. Is that a thing?? I frantically tried to remember every detail of every Shabbat I’d ever attended. The hostel observed strict rules- no phones during Shabbat, no non-kosher food allowed, the list went on and on-and the list was written in Hebrew at the front desk. I knew I would really need to bring my A-game that night, and had to employ “WWCD”-What Would Cory Do?
Tracy and I had coined the term “The Cory Booker School of Judaism” to refer to Jewish outreach on a community level as opposed to a political or business partnership. Cory Booker, New Jersey’s beloved senator and an African-American Christian, was the President of his campus Chabad and is close friends with rabbis; his reasons for engagement are genuine at a grassroots level, and reflect the exact train of thought behind the Latino-Jewish Coalition and our film.
Friday night, I found myself singing along to the short service in Hebrew, barely moving my lips and avoiding eye contact with the other travelers, mostly Orthodox Jews given their traditional garb. At dinner they started a robust conversation on Judaism and exactly what it means to be Jewish. Most of the conversation was in Spanish and Tracy whispered “what did they just say?!” at least every five minutes.
This quickly turned into the most confusing Shabbat of my life, rendered even more challenging when they started pouring shots. Between listening and translating, I also had to quickly formulate responses when they asked for my opinion. I found that apologetically responding “oh I’m Reform HAHA!” was quite an effective excuse. They didn’t seem to suspect anything after I prefaced the shot handed to me with an enthusiastic “L’Chaim!”
Somehow I made it through Shabbat without a scratch, and at some point in the week I started getting a little too in character, ending sentences with Baruch hashem and refusing to wear pants to the synagogue.
“Excuse me, did someone put the meat sponge in the dairy sink?” I asked at breakfast, pointing to this first degree kosher felony with disdain. One of the young rabbis meekishly owned up to it as Tracy choked on her coffee with muffled laughter.
Soon after, we wrapped up filming and made it to the end of our trip. Tracy somehow ended up on a flight back to Texas a full day before me, so I was left to fend for myself and enjoy Buenos Aires one last night. For irony’s sake, I snuck out the back door and walked to the Catholic cathedral down the street. I hadn’t been to mass in years, but somehow I felt the need to balance out the nine synagogues I’d toured with at least one, beautiful Argentinian cathedral.
Upon returning to UT after our summer trip, Tracy and I found ourselves in a whirlwind of academic responsibilities and files of uncut footage. One day a potential donor came to see the Schusterman Center and the director, an invaluable mentor and supporter of our project, asked me to come as well to discuss Project Puente.
“I’m actually not a Jewish Studies major, and I’m also not Jewish,” I responded to a confused donor, “But I’m excited about the Jewish Studies program here because they care about what all students want to achieve. They aren’t just concerned about Jewish Studies, but about intersectionality and outreach beyond their own community. To me, Judaism means celebrating your past while engaging in your future to the fullest.”
As Tracy and I embark on our second stage of filming in the US, we hope to encourage coalition-building not just between Latinos and Jews, but across all cultural boundaries. Now, it’s her turn to get a crash course in Latino culture-and something tells me “WWCD” may still apply.