All names have been changed to protect the identities of the people involved.
Last summer I had the opportunity to intern in Israel at a non-profit organization. I lived in Jerusalem with Leah, another woman who was interning at a different organization. By the end of the first week, when it felt like we were starting to warm up to each other, Leah decided to share that she was scared of me when we first met. Obviously confused, I asked why. She said the following: “Well it’s weird that you studied abroad in Morocco and that you speak Arabic. It sounds like you want to run off and join ISIS or something. And you’re dark and you wear a headscarf, so I really thought I should watch out.”
This is the part where most people would be shocked and not know what to say, but I’ll provide some background. I grew up in the Dominican Republic (yes there are Jews there) and later on the South Bronx, where I was the only Jewish kid in every school I attended until college. When I did interact with other Jews, I was often the first Jew of color they had ever met before. In some cases, I was also the first Sephardi Jew they had ever met. My Dominican family was a surprise for many people, even when I explained how my ancestors came from Spain hundreds of years earlier.
Given these experiences, Leah’s reaction wasn’t strange to me. When I was in elementary school in New York City, my mother saved up some money and tried to move us to a community so I could have friends to play with on Shabbat. The landlord overheard is talking in Ladino and said he didn’t think Puerto Ricans would fit well in his building. Then he turned us away. What Leah said wasn’t new.
“It sounds like you want to run off and join ISIS or something. And you’re dark and you wear a headscarf, so I really thought I should watch out.”
With my kindest, most respectful voice I began, “I happened to study Arabic my freshman year, so Morocco was a sensible choice for study abroad. My family is Sephardi and I grew up on an island so yes, I am darker than you and I speak Spanish. Yiddish isn’t the only language Jews have influenced, there is Ladino and Judeo-Arabic and probably more that I’m not aware of. Though I am unmarried, my family’s custom was that women covered their hair regardless of marital status.”
For hours we sat on the balcony of our apartment and I explained my life to this stranger I had known for seven days. Things that had taken me years to share with my closest friends, I revealed in hours. By the end of the night I felt that she understood. Here was one less ignorant person in the world. For the next five weeks, we ate grilled cheese dinners together. I would make her Moroccan mint tea with the tea set my host mother gave me. She would even tell me about her fights with her boyfriend and how they would soon be engaged.
“I’m scared of you. I’m afraid you’re going to stab me in my sleep. I don’t even believe you’re Jewish.”
I truly felt we had developed a trusting friendship, but mid-July something changed. For three days, Leah didn’t talk to me. She even locked me out of our room twice. When I finally lost my cool and demanded to know what was going on, she said to me: “I’m scared of you. I’m afraid you’re going to stab me in my sleep. I don’t even believe you’re Jewish.”
I wanted to scream and shake her and make her feel even a fraction of the pain she had inflicted upon me, but I didn’t. I don’t get to. The minute I become aggressive, I turn into the monster she imagined me to be.
The minute I become aggressive, I turn into the monster she imagined me to be.
So two days after my 21st birthday I left Jerusalem and my internship two weeks early and flew back to New York. Before I left, I asked the program administrators to let Leah stay. I figured that in a few months I would feel proud that I was so calm and collected, and my mother would be proud too. Over a year has passed and I don’t feel any pride.
A more recent experience took place this past winter during my senior year of college in which I was privileged to go to Spain during winter break with a few good friends. On our first Friday in Madrid, we went to the synagogue to register our names so we could attend services. This concept was new to me, but as soon as we gave in our passports I knew I was in trouble. The Israeli guards were weary of my Moroccan student visa and interrogated me for over an hour. They pulled my friends aside and told them that I was a nice girl, but probably a terrorist.
The guard told me that my white, Ashkenazi friends were “obviously Jewish” but I was “suspicious.”
Even when my rabbi emailed the congregation stating that I was in fact a Jew, it still wasn’t enough. The guard told me that my white, Ashkenazi friends were “obviously Jewish” but I was “suspicious.” I was continuously questioned about my denomination and I couldn’t answer the question, which fueled their suspicion even more. Sephardi Jewish communities do not section themselves off into separate denominations. I’m not conservative or reconstructionist or modern orthodox, I am Sephardi. That’s what I’ve always been. So why didn’t the Israeli guards, in a Sephardi temple, in Spain not know that?
After more haggling, I was eventually let go and we were told we could in fact return for services. I made it three steps outside before I kneeled over and cried on the streets of Madrid. My friends awkwardly stood around me, patting my back, unsure of what to say. I cried out of loneliness more than anything else. I was simultaneously grateful that this was only happening to me, and bitter, that none of them had ever, or will ever, be treated in such a way.
I was simultaneously grateful that this was only happening to me, and bitter, that none of them had ever, or will ever, be treated in such a way.
We returned that night for services, but not without the guard letting me know what a huge favor he did for me. When we returned to the states, I learned that even after Shabbat ended, the guard continued to message my rabbi, asking him more questions about me. Wasn’t the fact that the temple was still in one piece after I left enough proof that I wasn’t there to do harm?
I’ve stopped talking about these incidents and the others that have happened throughout my life with friends. Frankly, I don’t know how to anymore. I am tired.
At the end of the day, this horrible discrimination doesn’t end with me and that’s what keeps me up at night.
I wondered if Leah and the guards and the apartment owner from my childhood remember me. I wonder if they ever feel genuine regret for the things they said and did, for the embarrassment and humiliation they caused me. I’m not naïve enough to expect a sincere apology and I don’t know if I want one at this point. But people like this are difficult to reason with, and they are more common than you might think. At the end of the day, this horrible discrimination doesn’t end with me and that’s what keeps me up at night.
But you can’t steal things that belong to you.
I used to see myself as a sort of culture bandit, taking pieces of my identity from my Judaism, from my Latina heritage, from my Spanish and Ladino. But you can’t steal things that belong to you. I used to believe that resilience meant enduring hatred even if it came from my own tribe but I don’t think that’s true anymore.
So I am here to make a plea: If you are a Jew that is saddened or in any way upset about the discrimination happening in our communities, please listen to those who are trying to tell you they are suffering. Brave people are out there trying to share these experiences – listen to them.
You are under no obligation to “get over” bigotry and discrimination.
For other Jews of color, Jews that hold Ladino in their tongues and not Yiddish, Jews from countries that elicit the classic “There are Jews living there?” – I don’t have to tell you how hard it is. You already know. And you know that some members of our tribe will insist on diminishing your experiences. In the worst cases, they will gaslight you and try to convince you that nothing actually happened and that it’s all in your head. But it is not. I want to tell you that you should never “get over it.” You are under no obligation to “get over” bigotry and discrimination. Other members in our communities are under the obligation to eradicate it.
I won’t pretend to be a scholar because I am not. I never went to day school and I didn’t spend a year in seminary. But I shouldn’t have to cite responsa for you to understand that these things are wrong and cannot be tolerated. The next time someone oppressed shouts “mi la’hashem eilai,” gather to them. Support them. Heed the call.
Katherine Vargas is currently serving as an Americorps tutoring refugee students in a Chicago public school. She recently graduated Brandeis University ’17 where she studied Psychology and Middle Eastern Studies. At Brandeis she was on the steering committee of Hillel Race Talks, a group dedicated to bringing difficult conversations about race to the Jewish community on campus.
Posts are contributed by third parties. The opinions and facts in them are presented solely by the authors and JOFA assumes no responsibility for them.