Last July at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque NM, a very young native-American guy was telling us how most of his village’s dancers were aging. Traditions were slowly falling into oblivion, and youth were not interested in this art. This moved him to create a new dancing group whose members are all in their teens. The evolution of Pueblo pottery narrates a similar story: after generations of simpler, somehow impoverished styles, mid-20th century archaeological findings prompted Puebloan pottery makers to revive more complex, traditional designs that were long lost. Traditional forms, however, are recreated and updated both for traditional use and for commercial exploitation, in a process that has its enthusiasts but also its detractors.
A couple of days later we met with Daniel Diaz-Huerta, an enthusiastic organizer of New Mexico’s Crypto-Jewish community. Every day more and more Hispanic people of Jewish descend reclaim their identity. In consonance with our times, their newly coined Jewish character often doesn’t fit the narrow criteria of what the English-speaking, “white” Jewish community considers as normative. Like in any other social change, the establishment is often suspicious and prejudiced against a collective who doesn’t “look Jewish.” This creates interesting sociological and cultural clashes, which I will certainly talk about in upcoming blog posts.
Back home, I read that an Orthodox beit-din from B’nei Brak has decided that Mallorcan xuetes (or chuetas) are actual Jews. Since their forced conversion to Christianity, this Crypto-Jewish community of my country of origin has been discriminated for being Jewish. More than 600 year later, the Jewish establishment is just starting to acknowledge their identity. I understand: the rules of halachah are (relatively) clear; but maybe –just maybe– it’s time to rethink modern Jewish identity and its implications. In my life time I experienced the slow creation (or restoration) of a practicing, Catalan-born Jewish community. In a way, we had to reinvent ourselves and our tradition, lost for almost six centuries. We had to create a new language of faith and a new identity. Even after the years, the existing local Jewish community –almost entirely integrated by Moroccan and Argentinian immigrants– is still having a hard time coping with this emergent Catalan collective.
Are we, as contemporary American Jews, any different? I don’t think so. Our identity is as fluid as it can be, because it doesn’t come imposed on us anymore. In many ways, today we are all Jews by Choice. We choose to define ourselves as Jews; and being Jewish is only a more or less important part of our identitarian cocktail: we are Jews, Americans, LGBTQ, politically progressive… all of them simultaneously, in a combination unique to each of us.
We share yet another feature with our Xueta, Crypto, and even Puebloan fellows: most of us have not received tradition directly from our parents. We have claimed it a posteriori. Jewish tradition and observance in the Western world has often skipped a generation (or two, or three). We are constantly going back to this tradition but, at the same time, we are recreating, updating and reconstructing it. It’s an impassioned and challenging process that will probably result in a Jewish identity that maybe –just maybe– our great-grandparents would have a hard time recognizing. The effort, however, it’s worth every second.
In this time of crisis and changes, we don’t know what the Jewish community will look like in 10 years’ time, but we are pretty sure that it will have to adapt itself to new challenges and new, fluid identities.