Arts & Culture

Identity…What for?

Last Sunday, Victoria (my Catholic, Latina partner) and Tashi (our 5-year-old) and I had lunch with Victoria’s friend Rita. Rita was born in Cuba, but moved to Miami 48 years ago when she was eight years old. Rita speaks English … Read More

By / December 12, 2008

Last Sunday, Victoria (my Catholic, Latina partner) and Tashi (our 5-year-old) and I had lunch with Victoria’s friend Rita. Rita was born in Cuba, but moved to Miami 48 years ago when she was eight years old. Rita speaks English without an accent. She wore black pants and a black shirt and ate a tofu and avocado salad.

We were talking about religion and identity, which we think about often because Victoria is about to have a baby and because religion for her is about God. For me religion is not about God, it’s about culture and being part of a group. Rita said that religion and cultural identity have been the cause of adversity and war since the beginning of time. "We’re all mixing anyway. Some day we’ll all be the same. Don’t you want to teach your children that we’re all part of the HUMAN tribe?"


Rita is smart and I saw her point. Sometimes identifying as a Jew seems as un-evolved as identifying as a Miami Dolphins fan. (I like sports, but the way people paint their faces orange and baby blue is a little crazy.) And like every sports fan, our team vilifies the other team: we are good, they are bad. When nations do it, it breeds hatred and violence. But I argued the importance of preserving culture. I said, "I’m part of a culture I’m proud of. If we became just like everyone else, who would make the latkes?" Rita said, "Ok, you have cultural pride. But then there’s the flip side. Where there’s pride, there’s shame." Rita said she’s just from Cuba. She’s not proud or ashamed. It just is. I asked if she’d be proud of a great Cuban the way we’re proud of Albert Einstein and Barbra Streisand? She said, "Not really. What’s the big deal?" Well, what is the big deal? Why do we have Jewish fraternities on college campuses and websites like Jewcy and magazines like Heeb? Why do we gather in groups of like kind?

A few weeks ago, I was one of seven people invited to tell a story at an event sponsored by Heeb at the Miami Book Fair International. The only rule was that the story be Jewish. I had some Jewish pride that night, but also some shame.

My story, To Snip or Not to Snip, was about my struggle with circumcision. One woman’s story was Jewish because her mother was a neurotic mess. Another woman spoke with a New York accent and said, "Oy vay," twenty times. There were jokes about sleep-away camp, playing shuffle-board with grandparents in Florida and small penises. The Holocaust was mentioned, of course, and getting discounts and ha, ha, we’re the chosen people. We were caricatures of Jews, at least that’s how we looked to me.

Six high school students sat in the front row. I’d met them earlier that day and I told them I’d be telling a story from my book, My Miserable, Lonely, Lesbian Pregnancy (I see that Jewish is missing from my title). They laughed when I told them my title and so they came. I don’t think the kids were Jewish. They looked like a Miami mix of Latinos and gringos and I wondered what they thought and why we perpetuate these ideas, especially when they’re really not that funny?

Last Sunday night, hours after lunch with Rita, Victoria, Tashi and I were invited to dinner by a new friend named Nighad, who had a boss many years ago who told her to go by Niki. He said people were calling her Nigger. She didn’t know why that was a problem. Now she knows.

Niki is from Pakistan and came to Miami 37 years ago when her husband (an arranged marriage), came to school here. Niki speaks English with a strong accent. She wore a silk, red and purple blouse draped with a scarf. She had a nose ring.

When we walked into her house, Tashi held her nose. The air was thick with unfamiliar flavors. Niki made rice with chicken, beef kabobs, chick peas, and the most delicious goat stew. For the second time that day, we talked about religion and identity.

Niki is Muslim. She told us that being friends with a Jew in Pakistan is impossible. I asked which would be more taboo, to be friends with a lesbian or with a Jew. She said Jew because lesbians are so underground no one would know.She said, "Religion is everything in Pakistan. You are your religion."And I thought how stupid and how sad. I thought about Rita and how really we are all the same. But are we? If so, we wouldn’t have enjoyed the goat stew.