A Latina Jew, Alexandra Rodriguez is excited about getting involved in Baltimore’s Jews of color community.
Rodriguez recently completed her second bachelor’s in American Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where she served as vice president of the Hillel. Now she is attending Paideia: The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden, while applying to doctoral programs to study how pop culture affects society.
What got you interested in the Paideia program?
I had applied to doctoral programs and sadly didn’t get in, so I wanted to do an adult yeshiva while I applied again.
The reason I chose this one is they don’t just focus on Ashkenormative [culture]. As someone who is an immigrant to the U.S. — my parents came from Mexico — it was important to bring my culture into my Judaism, and I wanted to see how other people do it.
One of their main goals is to rejuvenate Judaism and see the different types that exist. We have an Orthodox Sephardic Jew, and another person who’s Swedish but speaks Yiddish.
I’m really enjoying this interdisciplinary but religious program. We forget in the U.S. that there’s a huge community of Jews who are not Ashkenazi.
Right now we’re studying gender and sexuality with a Jewish lens, through things like the Kabalistic text. Something cool I did learn is the language of the dwarves in Lord of the Rings was based on Hebrew.
What will you do when you return?
I’m going to return for Thanksgiving and probably stay, since classes are now online because of the pandemic. And Christopher and I want to create an introductory class on Judaism, to teach people who know nothing about Judaism about what it is, things like how to read Hebrew letters or what is the Talmud or how to say a basic prayer. When we took the JCC’s Intro to Judaism class, they brought rabbis from Reform, Conservative and Orthodox [movements]. We’d like to do that.
I’d also love to help Justin Fair and Harriette Wimms really develop a community for the Jews of color. And also to introduce Baltimore synagogues to different cultures within Judaism. For example, I combined chiles en nogada, a traditional Mexican Independence Day dish, but made it kosher for Rosh Hashanah. Both holidays are in September and use pomegranate seeds, so it was nice to combine them. I’d like to show that it’s OK to celebrate Judaism in new ways. I’m not against tradition, but you can do things like lamb biryani for Pesach.
How else do you celebrate your heritage?
For Sukkot, I had a Day of the Dead altar, without Catholic symbols, to honor people who passed, which I think is a very Jewish thing to do.
What does your Jewish identity mean to you?
Oh, man, that’s tricky for me because I’m a convert. I’m one of those rare people who chose to be Jewish. My husband and I chose to convert together. I was on this journey alone and … he started falling in love with Judaism as I took the classes. So one day before our eighth anniversary we did the mikvah together.
Being Jewish to me means being part of a faith group, a long tradition, a community and an amazing plethora of choices and lifestyles and opinions. The joke is true that if you put two Jews together you get three opinions. There’s so many ways to be Jewish, and I want to give flexibility to my children [one day].
Carolyn Conte is a former staff writer of the Baltimore Jewish Times.