Personal Statement: Finding My Jewish Roots Abroad

Tuesday, September 13, 2016 - 8:31pm


Illustration by Elise Haadsma


I was told to take off my Star of David before traveling to Spain. Not because Spain is unsafe, necessarily, but because you just don’t know. It was a small detail on my extensive “To Do” list and the impact didn’t really hit me until I landed in Madrid, went to feel the points of the star for comfort and found it missing.

I’m not deeply religious. I’m more Jew*ish*, if you get what I’m saying. I don’t attend temple regularly and I’m definitely iffy on who or what presides over us. But I identify as a Jew. I identify because I would feel guilty if I didn’t, because being Jewish is what my family was. It’s in my heritage, it’s what for centuries my ancestors fought to be. And I’ll be damned if I’m the one, in my cushy life in suburban America, to turn my back on the plight of my people.

I like to say I “chose” to be Jewish. We always celebrated Hanukkah in our house, and I always knew that my dad and mom, by blood, were Jewish. Passover was, and is, my favorite holiday. But because neither of my parents felt strongly about a proper Hebrew school training, it was up to me to ask to join a temple. And we did, and I was Bat Mitzvah’d and so was my sister, and I even went through 12th grade at Temple Beth Haverim Shir Shalom.

In Spain, it is just an expectation that you are Catholic. It’s not rude, it’s just the norm. Muslims are (typically) identified by their clothing choices and their language, but reform Jews hide within plain sight in the folds of normal life. When I first met my host mom, Maria, she told me which churches I could attend if I needed to. I didn’t correct her. Not because I thought that she would have thought less of me, but because it didn’t bother me. So what? I was excited to go to a Mass in one of the ancient cathedrals one day; I was sure the slight discomfort of not knowing what to do would be masked by my enjoyment in another culture.

Then time flew by, and being Jewish never truly surfaced to the forefront of my experience in Spain. It’s not that I didn’t miss it, it’s just that I pushed it aside to make room for new experiences and new cultural boundaries. It wasn’t until an excursion to Toledo halfway through the program that it hit me how much I missed my community.

After a day of looking at cathedrals and monasteries and a lunch at a decent restaurant, the tour guide took us to a synagogue. A sinagoga. We entered into the Jewish quarter, and on the ground there were three bronze plaques, all reading “The Jewish Quarter.” One each in Spanish, Hebrew and English. Like a Easter egg hunt, there were small markers of Menorahs to identify which buildings and streets belonged to the quarter.

Toledo is known for a lot of things: its beauty, its metal-working, El Greco, having existed since the Bronze Age. But it’s also known for the conservation of the Barrio del Judeos (Jewish neighborhood). It was a city with an even mixture of Muslims, Catholics and Jews, and the city represents, even today, that beautiful harmony. But, of course, despite the “tolerance” of the Jews, there were some measures taken to “identify” us.

A plaque read: “The clothes Jews wore were no different from their neighbors. However, there were laws imposed on them which required that they wear a little red wheel, a target, as a distinctive sign that they were Jews.”

Harmless. Jews occupied three sections of daily life. The most elite were translators, treasurers, trusted advisors to city officials. They were wealthy Sephardic Spaniards who garnered respect. The second tier was the merchants and the loaners, and the third was the artisans.

But they all had to wear a red wheel because they were different, because they prayed to one G-d and didn’t hold Jesus Christ in the same light as others. They were different because they had stricter regulations on their food and clothing. They were different because intolerance of differing opinions and faiths was, and still is, rampant in society.

My Jewish identity in Spain was cemented with the tour of Toledo. I felt comfortable in the folds of my own community and it reaffirmed my decision to practice Judaism.

Visiting La Sinagoga del Transito was interesting and humbling. We had visited cathedral after cathedral, and by no means am I complaining about that. They were gorgeous and they represent the paramount strength of human intellect in design. They are filled with a fantastic history and depict the wonder of the human will. But, at the same time, they are not mine to claim. They are there for me to visit, but not to feel at home. So when I visited the temple, I was delighted.

As I understand it — and don’t cite me as your main source — the temple is supposed to be bare of saints and depictions of G-d. There is no iconography and the windows are to be set high up (traditionally) for the fear that people will look in and see us praying. The Jewish people have adapted and recognized the tendency for hate, and thus wish for private prayer and opt for a more confined space by placing the windows that high. Temples are typically not old. They don’t tend to last through the ages. That’s why Toledo was named as a Unesco World Heritage site (or part of it) because of their conservation of the temples and other religious monuments.

So, I’ve never been in a temple that was more than about 60 years old. And all of them that I’ve seen have been very plain with limited decoration. So when I walked (more like pushed my way inside past a wall of people who were inexplicably dawdling in the reception room) into this synagogue, I’m pretty sure I audibly gasped. It’s a different experience than the tall vaults of a cathedral coupled with beautiful rose windows and precious artwork. The synagogue was plain as it was beautiful, as detailed as it was sparse, as empty as it was full. The absence of more was noticeable. The point of the building, unlike the explosion of meaning in a cathedral, was for prayer. It was for community.

So when I stood there, gazing up, it felt right. I felt in a home, I felt in the community. And it wasn’t until that moment that I realized I miss the community that I have at home. To stray a little more into the philosophical: People crave feeling like they belong. Everyone. Everyone, on some level, has a need to feel like they belong to something and to feel order and to feel like they occupy the same niche of the world with other people. For many of us, we all have different niches and different needs, but when we feel at home and at peace is when we find a space that makes us feel welcome. And I had many spaces like that in Spain, but I realized I had been missing my religious niche. I had been missing that connection with others, that same understanding of our background. And I’m not just talking about my temple community, because it’s not like I’m there all the time, but just being around others of the same faith. Half my friends are Jewish, most of my family is Jewish and, more importantly, everybody recognizes that I am Jewish. There was no recognition in Salamanca. And there wasn’t any malicious intent behind it; it is just what it is. But there, in Toledo, I felt that connection.

It was a small connection, but it meant so much.

I asked my friend to take a picture of me outside the walls of the temple. I said, “Can you take this picture of me for my Grandma?” As in, in my Jewish family my grandmother is the matriarch of my religious identity. As in, she is the reason why I feel connected to my religion. As in, I feel beautiful because I am in a space I connect with.


My Jewish identity abroad was by no means a struggle. I recognize my own privileges and know that I do not get to complain when I had this amazing chance to live and breathe Salamanca, Spain. But my Jewish identity is a constant in my life that I had been missing, and I felt like I needed to write a long-winded article about it. I needed to kvetch.