Ashera Austen, 24, is the only person in her family who was born in the United States. Her parents and siblings are from South Africa and moved to the U.S. when her mother was seven months pregnant.
Austen works as a cybersecurity analyst for a remote company during the day and at kosher steakhouse Serengeti at night. She attended Bais Yaakov of Baltimore, a seminary school and Towson University, where she attained a degree in information technology.
Would you say you identify as South African?
I don’t know. I think that I’ve experienced some culture shock in the past. Random things will hit my memory, like I was in a Bracha Bee and I didn’t understand what one of the foods was. It’s kind of like how when we say biscuit, South African people say scone. I remember getting something wrong in the Bracha Bee and saying, “This is not fair.” The food’s name was just lost in translation. It’s not like [my family is] singing South African songs on a daily basis but there are small things.
What is your favorite South African tradition?
South Africa is a culture but it’s not like saying I’m Jewish and we do this every week. There are folk songs that are just so sweet and funny. I feel really connected to them because my dad used to sing them to us when we were young and they were the first songs I learned on the guitar. Also, the food is really nice. We don’t have cholent in our house; we have curry. When my dad makes it for our shul, they ask what kind of cholent this is and we say no, no, no. He’s actually given out the recipe to a lot of people because it’s not a typical thing that people have and it’s delicious.
Do you think that you will continue those traditions with your future family?
Oh, yes. I don’t even think I know how to make cholent. These things are ingrained in me. I like the songs and I find myself randomly humming them. Sometimes I have these nostalgic moments where I will search them on YouTube and YouTube thought I was taking care of a daycare or something. I was getting recommendations for children’s songs for a long time after, but it was worth it to relive those moments of my childhood.
What is it like working at Serengeti?
I really love it. Nowadays, I work two part-time jobs and I could drop Serengeti. I think most of the people who work there have full-time jobs and don’t need to work at Serengeti but it really is a great environment. For the most part, customers are a pleasure to work with. The general rapport of colleagues is really homey. We are all really good friends. Sometimes we can be too good of friends because we will be in the back laughing hysterically, and they have to tell us that there are people that can hear us. Serengeti is more special than any restaurant because either we have regulars that we know really well, or if they don’t come regularly, we get to be a part of special occasions. We are happy to serve them. Serengeti is more than a job for me.
What does Judaism mean to you?
Judaism means to me like my life means to me. For me, when I went to seminary, my biggest thing was finding my own connection to Judaism. My friend in high school asked me a question that really freaked me out at the time. She said, “If you found out tomorrow that you were adopted and you’re not Jewish, would you convert?” I really had to think about it. … Nowadays, I would 100% convert. Judaism to me is seeing more in the world than what the eye can see. Especially now with COVID-19, it is very scary. Sometimes I think about how the world is so scary, I can’t imagine how much scarier it is for people who don’t have Judaism to hold on to.