Spicing up my Hispanic Heritage and Embracing Sephardic Traditions

September 6, 2023Josh Rodriguez

Even before I finalized my conversion to Judaism, I was preparing to celebrate my adult bar mitzvah. In a sense, my conversion preparation became a precursor to bigger plans: for a bar mitzvah and a Jewish vow renewal ceremony with my wife Laurie later this year.

I began considering a bar mitzvah for myself because I was inspired by my wife's magnificent adult bat mitzvah in October 2021. We had joined our local Jewish community following a crisis of faith, and it was then that my wife fully embraced her Jewish heritage. Watching her passionately pursue and develop her Jewish identity as she prepared for her bat mitzvah was like watching her sprout wings.

I grew up only partially connected to my Hispanic heritage, much like my wife grew up only partially connected to her Jewish heritage. My father is from Guatemala, so I wanted to find a way to honor my Hispanic heritage while developing my Jewish identity.

As an adult, I've devoted the last three decades to leaning into my ancestry and reclaiming my Hispanic identity. I've focused my professional career on teaching Spanish history, language, and culture. I first came across Sephardic culture as I was studying for my master's degree, but my passion for it has remained throughout the years.

In my current job teaching high school Spanish for native speakers, we talk about Spain's ethnic history and highlight the forced conversion/ouster of Jews from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition. I remind students that 1492 isn't just the year that Columbus sailed the ocean blue, it's also the year of the ethnic cleansing of Jews who lived in the Iberian peninsula. I explain how Sephardic communities were forced to either convert to Catholicism or flee the country.

Today, there is an unknown percentage of Spanish and Latin American people who can trace their ancestry back to these Sephardic Jews who were forced to convert. For all I know, I might actually have a trace of Sephardic heritage in my family tree! Regardless, I am passionate about connecting with Sephardic culture as part of my Jewish and Hispanic identities. Sephardic tradition has a rich history where Hispanic and Jewish culture meet; I wanted to connect to that.

As I approached my adult bar mitzvah, it became obvious that one way I could incorporate Sephardic traditions was to learn Sephardic melodies for the Torah reading. I scoured the web for recordings and found several options. The melody I loved most was sung by Daniel Halfon, the former cantor of the Spanish and Portuguese Sephardi Community of London. His warm baritone voice perfectly matched my vocal range and aesthetic. Though my bar mitzvah wasn't as big a production as my wife's bat mitzvah, it was a rich cultural experience.

In the end, my adult bar mitzvah did a lot of things for me. It offered me a sense of legitimate belonging in the Jewish community as a rite of passage beyond my conversion, allowed me to learn more about Sephardic traditions, and gave me an opportunity to bring an interesting and authentic piece of Sephardic culture to our predominantly Ashkenazi congregation. It also helped me ground myself within Judaism, giving me a way of carving out my own identity that also connects me with my Hispanic heritage.

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