Marcos Najera asks the Fifth Question – am I a Jew?

Not long ago, I went to a play in East L.A., where I ran into a fantastic young Latina filmmaker named Almudena Carracedo (www.madeinla.com). She's from Madrid. I told her how I visited the town of Najera in the La Rioja region of Spain a couple of years ago, to connect with my ancestry. Almudena asked me if I ever considered my Sephardic Jewish roots. I was dumbstruck.

I had to surf the Web that night to learn more. I knew that the Sephardim people were connected to Spain. But, admittedly, I wasn't sure why or how. In modern Hebrew, the word "Sephardic" essentially translates into the word for "Spain" and Sephardic Jewish people and their descendants come mainly from the Iberian Peninsula, which includes Portugal and Spain. (Most American Jews are descended from either the Sephardic or the Ashkenazi, who come from the Rhineland, now known as Germany.)

Perhaps Almudena was right. After all, at some point, my people emigrated from the town of Najera to Mexico and then to the U.S., right?

Brown Jew? Najera spots his first Seder.
Deborah Sussman Susser
Brown Jew? Najera spots his first Seder.

Well, a few weeks later, Valle del Sol, a Phoenix-based social service agency that serves Latinos, invited me to attend its annual Latino Jewish Seder at Temple Emanuel in Tempe. I figured this was a sign.

First, I had to find out just what a Seder is. I asked some Jewish friends. They told me a Seder is the dinner and religious service traditionally held on the first two nights of Passover, a holiday that commemorates the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.

I am embarrassed to admit that until now, I didn't know much at all about Passover, or any other Jewish traditions. Luckily, now I do. Ignorance is never appropriate, I've decided. And suddenly, I have a sense of urgency to learn more about a people and a community that I've been, for years, a part of through friendships, professional projects, and the arts. I've always wondered if I might have a closer connection to the Jews than I thought.

No one in my family talks about our roots. It's on me if I am going to find out whence I seed, sprout and bloom, culturally, historically, and spiritually.

Clarity came quickly. I knew I must attend the Seder.

For the past several years, Valle del Sol has organized a Latino Jewish Seder. The agency teams up with the local Jewish community to teach Latino people about an important Jewish ritual and the Passover celebration. It's a cultural bridge-builder on behalf of Valle del Sol's Hispanic Leadership Institute. (I attended the Leadership Institute classes six years ago, before they began holding the event, so I never got to go to the annual Seder.)

I asked Aaron Pratt, my friend from KJZZ, to go with me. Aaron's Jewish, and he's dating a Latino man; he's exploring ways to introduce him to Judaism. We decided the bi-cultural Seder could be a learning experience of sorts for both of us.

When we arrived, Aaron gave me a blue kippah, also called a yarmulke, a skullcap worn during traditional Jewish services. Look, I'm all for revering religious customs, but appropriate fashion must always prevail. Thus, as soon as I spied a leopard-skin kippah in the grab box as well, you know I swapped out the blue in a hot second. We sat at a table of former Hebrew teachers and young Latino businesspeople. The teachers were lovely and explained the beautiful meanings behind the service rituals.

Dipping parsley in salt water represents the tears shed by Israelite slaves during their flight from Egypt. Matzoh, the unleavened, cracker-like bread, symbolizes the bread the Jews baked — but didn't have time to let rise — as they were leaving. Tasting the bite of horseradish, followed by the soothing sweet quality of haroset (minced apples, cinnamon and wine) serves as reminders of the bitter and not-so-bitter sides of life.

There was so much to learn that night. Songs. Prayers. Language. I must admit that having teachers at our table was fantastic, but also tricky. They were so excited to explain to us what was happening that all three talked at the same time — and simultaneously with the rabbi. Ultimately, the explanations became confused.

But that's okay. I consider it my training-wheels Seder. After 35 years of my personal ancestry ignorance, I'm going to not just one Seder this year, but two.

I'm even going to ask if I can bring haroset. A Sephardic version, that is. Unlike the more traditional recipe based on apples, we make ours with ingredients more common to Spain and the Middle East: apricots, figs, and coconut.

Notice how I said "ours." You never know. Hopefully, soon I will.

 
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