Posts Tagged ‘Sephardic Jews’

Taking a Bite of Converso History Through Tacos

July 31, 2013

This piece was first published on The Jew and the the Carrot blog at the Forward.

FOOD_TACO_PLATTER_MG_1404

Since 2005, Texas-born conceptual artist and former Heeb photo editor, Peter Svarzbein has been interviewing and photographing Latino families in the American Southwest who are returning to Judaism — believing their ancestors were Conversos, forced converts to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition.

Svarzbein, 33, was looking for a way for more people to feast their eyes on these portraits of Crypto-Jews and to chew on the historic circumstances that connect Latinos and Jewish traditions. That’s when he came up with the idea for a food truck — a kosher taco truck, to be exact.

With the support of various organizations in his native El Paso, including the Svarzbein launched Conversos y Tacos Kosher Gourmet Trucks, an innovative and interactive art installation than ran for a week in the city in far West Texas in late July.

Over the week, the truck made six stops at various community and food events around El Paso (where Szarzbein grew up in a culturally Jewish family with a Hispanic-Ashkenazi background), serving fusion taco plates melding Jewish and Mexican cuisine. The food reflected the questions Svarzbein wants to challenge people with, like: How can a person be both Jewish and Latino? How can culture, religion and identity fuse together over, or through, the U.S.-Mexico border?

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© 2013 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

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Always A Jew, Always An Olivia

June 24, 2012

This article was first published in The Times of Israel.

According to Jewish tradition, all Jews were standing at Sinai. As a child, Carolivia Herron was sure she, too, had been there; that she has seen Moses. But as a little African-American girl with “nappy hair” (of which she later wrote in a so-titled,controversial children’s book) and a Baptist mother and a Methodist father, there would have been little, if any, reason to think that she really had a “yiddishe neshama” (Jewish soul).

But, as it turned out, Herron was Jewish — but neither she nor anyone else (or so it seemed to her) knew it at the time. The story of how exactly this came to be is amazing, and it is one that Herron is now sharing through her latest children’s book, “Always an Olivia: A Remarkable Family History” (Kar-Ben Publishing, 2007).

This professor of comparative literature and African American studies’ genealogical narrative is one of Sephardic Jewish ancestry, but with some highly unusual twists, including a kidnapping by pirates, a rescue by the US Marines, and a long sojourn with the Geechees (also known as the Gullah), a unique community of free African-Americans — former slaves — living on the coastal islands off the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida.

Click here to read more.

© 2012 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

Kol Ishah: Jewish Chicks Rock

January 31, 2010

Naomi Less

Kol ishah is the singing voice of a woman, and something observant Jewish men are forbidden to hear. Too bad for them, because they are missing out. They are not listening to the voices of today’s Jewish women rock musicians, something that even those of us who do not observe kol ishah did not have the privilege of hearing until recently.  Back when I was growing up there were American female rockers who were Jewish, like Pat Benatar, and there were Israeli women rock singers. Girls (and the rest of us) today, however, can look up to young American women who not only rock out, but do so to lyrics that incorporate traditional Jewish liturgical texts, make references to biblical narratives and convey authentic Jewish values and messages. Musicians like Chana Rothman, Naomi Less and Sarah Aroeste aren’t merely rockers who are Jewish. They’re Jewish rockers.

It is also exciting to see how these singers naturally and seamlessly switch between English and Hebrew in their songs. Chana Rothman, whose songs I find to be exceptionally intelligent and well written, does this especially well. This singing in multiple languages within a single song also seems to be a trend among Israeli women singers like HaBanot Nechama and Yael Naim (who sings in French, as well as English and Hebrew). I like this fluidity and breaking down of boundaries, which I have a feeling has a lot to do with the far more globalized world young people live in today.

Sarah Aroeste doesn’t sing in English or Hebrew, but rather in Ladino, having made the decision to keep this Sephardic language alive by giving its traditional songs an updated musical twist. Listen to the engaging and articulate Aroeste discuss her motivation to preserve her family’s culture and history, but in her own unique way:

As Jewish as I was growing up, going to Jewish day school and spending summers in Israel, I somehow had to compartmentalize my life when it came to music. The Canadian me listened to rock music (Culture Club, Tears For Fears, Bryan Adams…What can I tell you? It was the ’80s), and the Jewish me listened to either old-fashioned Hebrew and Yiddish folksongs, or contemporary Israeli pop tunes. It was a musical case of “never the twain shall meet.” It’s generally not the healthiest thing to compartmentalize parts of your life, even your music listening habits. So, as strong as my childhood Jewish identity was, there was something missing.

What was missing was the full integration of my Canadian self with my Jewish self. It never occurred to me that you could express the stuff of top 100 hits, like love, lust and heartbreak in explicitly Jewish music. Neither did I think that you could rock out about God, questions of faith and Jewish values like tzeddek (social justice). It is thrilling for me as a Jewish parent and Jewish educator to learn that young people today don’t even think twice about whether they can or should weave it all together.

Male musicians, like Rick Recht, have been doing this musical melding for some time now. But it is only more recently that Jewish women rockers have taken center stage. It is true that they stand on the shoulders of such giants as the seminal Jewish folk singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman, but it can’t be ignored that performers like Chana Rothman, Naomi Less and Sarah Aroeste are doing something new, different and huge in its own right.

I may be a bit older than the average audience member at these artists’ concerts, but that isn’t stopping me from downloading their music to my iPod and dancing around the house to it. Heck, I’m even considering ordering one of Naomi Less’s “Jewish Chicks Rock” t-shirts, or maybe a “Ladino Rocks” one from Sarah Aroeste’s website. I’m going to pass on the tank top models, though. I’ll leave those for the real rockers to wear. That’s because they have something I don’t…beautifully toned biceps from playing the electric guitar.

The logo for Naomi Less's "Jewish Chicks Rock" project

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.