Kimchi and Latkes
Kimchi and Latkes
What do we all have in common? We all live - and balance - complex and nuanced identities, that, when braided together, make us wholly ourselves - and “Wholly Jewish.” Join April Baskin, the Union for Reform Judaism’s former vice president for Audacious Hospitality, as she speaks with Jews of Color who share their experiences, insights, and how their identities enrich and create a more vibrant Jewish community.
In this episode: This week we meet Becky Jaye, who charms us by sharing everything from her various "ands" to the highs and lows of navigating the world as an Asian Rabbinical student in Israel and the larger Jewish community.
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[Becky Jaye:] I feel Jewish. I don't feel guilty about saying I'm Jewish and I'm so proud of being Jewish. Guess what: I eat kimchi every day and it's delicious. And you can be Jewish and kimchi every day.
[URJ Intro:] Welcome to Wholly Jewish: a podcast from ReformJudaism.org. Everybody knows there isn't just one way to be Jewish and there isn't just one kind of Jew. In this podcast. We talk to people about their different identities and how those identities intersect with their Judaism, or in other words: What makes them "Jewish and and..." and what makes them wholly Jewish. This season, the Union for Reform Judaism's immediate past Vice President of Audacious Hospitality, April Baskin, interviewed members of the Jews of Color cohort of the JewV'Nation Fellowship. Today she's talking to Becky Jaye.
[April Baskin:] Becky, I am so curious to know: What's your "Jewish and and" identity?
[Becky Jaye:] My "Jewish and and" would have to be Jewish and Korean and aspiring rabbi or studying rabbi, I guess. One thing that I think I want to include: fashionista. I lived in China for two years and I'm not Chinese, but I feel like that's a part of me. Miguel, my partner, my beloved, he's Spanish and sometimes I feel Spanish and I always feel like a learner and a teacher, but more of a learner and maybe like a prayer appreciator. I would say those are my "ands."
[April Baskin:] I love it. So how do these identities interact with one another in your life?
[Becky Jaye:] That's an interesting question, April.
[April Baskin:] Thank you.
[Becky Jaye:] One that I think about every day, whether I want to or not. I would say that for me, it's both a daily struggle and a blessing when they conflict with one another or when they jive with one another.
[April Baskin:] Say more about that.
[Becky Jaye:] Well, so I'm the only person - I go to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and in my cohort, I'm the only person of color and sometimes it's just really...I mean I notice it all the time. I don't know if other people kind of take stock that, you know, there's a face that kind of doesn't look like all the other faces in our class. And I just don't - sometimes I feel like I don't have the same stories to share, or those same cultural... You know, like, when I think of latkes, I think of a nice crispy potato latke and like a nice heaping spoon of kimchi right on top of it.
[April Baskin:] That sounds so delicious.
[Becky Jaye:] It is so good! But...
[April Baskin:] Also, not necessarily what your classmates - that might not be their first association with latkes...Yet.
[Becky Jaye:] Right. And so, sometimes that can be surprising to people but that's so normal to me. Or to think of myself as Jewish is obviously just, like, so normal to me because that's the core of my identity. But then when people see my face and that I don't present as this white Jew or white Ashkenazi Jew, they...the idea that someone who looks like me could embody some sort of, like, religion or practice a religion or be a part of this religious or ethnic community is so jarring and sometimes, you know, that can elicit some words of hate or, you know, words that are even completely innocuous, but just make me question my own identity as a Korean Jew or as an Asian Jew. But also, I like to find the silver lining in things. And usually, when I do encounter that, I end up learning far more about myself but also our community, and what we really need. And that's what I want to do as a rabbi. I want to provide our community with the different types of love that we all need so that we can just be better and love each other better. And that, to me, I mean now I'm getting a little off track, but that to me is the Messianic age: like, a world where we can listen and love one another. And when I do look at our community and how diverse it is becoming, and it already is, when I encounter those moments of conflict, I kind of like put them in a treasure chest so that I can use them somehow to further my personal - but I think a communal - goal of just making diversity in any way more accepted within the Reform community.
[April Baskin:] I think that's phenomenal. In terms of your - your Jewish "multi and" identity, Becky: How has that evolved for you over time?
[Becky Jaye:] I would say that I think that right now, I'm probably the most confident I've ever been in my identity as a Reform Jew, or my "Jewish and," and, I mean, the way that, I guess the way I would like to frame that is I feel like I am an authentic Jew, which is not something that I've felt my whole life. And that feeling of...It's almost like when I...if you asked me 10 years ago if I was Jewish, I'd say, "Yeah I'm Jewish," but I'd feel guilty saying it.
[April Baskin:] Right, right. I think that's more common than I'd like for it to be.
[Becky Jaye:] Right? And I think there are a lot of aspects to that: One is that I grew up in an interfaith home. My mom was raised Catholic and she is very religious and very spiritual and probably the most important person in terms of my spiritual journey, and actually helping me to realize that I wanted to pursue the rabbinate. And because she is not Jewish, I felt like I was somehow cheating in a way. And then, just based on my appearance, there were times when people just said, like, "It is impossible for you to be Jewish and Asian at the same time, like oil and water will never mix." And as I've lived into my Judaism and really found so many depths and wells of love in my community and in the world community and in my own personal practice, I've, you know, I kind of...oil and water, like oil and vinegar, that makes a really good salad dressing.
[April Baskin:] [laughing] Yeah, it does.
[Becky Jaye:] So I've - I've kind of lived into, I think I've evolved just to be a lot more confident in saying, "You know what? Like, actually, maybe they don't mix quite well, you know, they'll never fully dissolve. But I am a living incarnation of a Jewish Asian person, and I love it. And I think affirming myself in that and reaffirming myself has just been, I mean, I've come leaps and bounds. And that's not without the help of mentors and a strong, strong community. And you know, like, an amazing, amazing family. But there - there were times when I really felt hopeless, especially in college, like I never thought I could, I could ever, like, almost "pass" in quotes. You know, like pass for Jewish.
[April Baskin:] Right.
[Becky Jaye:] And at the place we are now, not only do I feel like I can pass, but I feel Jewish. I don't feel guilty about saying, "I'm Jewish and I'm so proud of being Jewish." Guess what? I eat kimchi every day and it's delicious. And you can be Jewish and kimchi every day, so...
[April Baskin:] Absolutely. My second question for you is, "Was there a pivotal moment that affected your Jewish identity?"
[Becky Jaye:] So when I graduated college, I happened to work across the street from Central Synagogue and I had no idea that Angela Buchdahl, the rabbi there - and she was cantor at the time - was there. I didn't know that that was her place of employment or worship. And I just, I kind of, like, fell in with...it was all very beshert. Like I have no other word to describe this because...
[April Baskin:] It was meant to be.
[Becky Jaye:] Yeah, like a series of events that I really had no - I felt like God was almost playing with me. And I had, you know, I bumped into a friend at a tailgate. He told me to apply for this law firm. I applied, I got the job, then I was brought into a client meeting where someone knew Angela and put us in touch and then we started talking. Then I started taking Exploring Judaism at their synagogue and that's when I actually met who I call my "grandparents," Lee and Barbara, and Lee and Barbara are just, when it comes to - to really finding my Jewish community, they changed my life and I met them in this class. It was mostly a class for people to take an introductory course on Judaism, but they were taking it as a refresher course and...
[April Baskin:] That's so lovely.
[Becky Jaye:] It is, they're amazing. And one day, I was walking on, I think Lexington, and I just bumped into Lee. He's in the choir and he just stopped me on the street and he said, "Who are you? How do I know you?" And I said, like, "We're in - we're in class together. And then we went out for lunch and really, like, from then on, I just had a new family, and Lee and Barbara came to class and we had class that night. And so she came into class and she said, "Oh hello, granddaughter!" And...
[April Baskin:] Awww.
[Becky Jaye:] Then Lee, Barbara and I, we started going to Veselka, like every Sunday for - for brunch, and then we would go to Veniero's for a cannoli and a lobster roll after.
[April Baskin:] [laughing]
[Becky Jaye:] And they just - they never, ever, ever once - They didn't look at me and question why I looked the way I looked and was going to shul. They never once asked me about my being Jewish in a way, that in a place that didn't come from love. I'd never experienced Judaism in that way. And I'd experienced what spirituality and religion could do through going to church and synagogue while I was growing up, but never from a place of unconditional love in the way that they loved and love me, because we didn't know each other before that class, and they just took me in. And when they took me in, and I understood that Judaism, and any religion, could - could really just engender itself from a place truly from the heart. And - but religion and community and culture, all of that, can always be infused by love. No matter what you look like, no matter what your skin color is, and that is when I just fell - I mean it's almost like I fell in love with Judaism again, because I fell in love with Lee and Barb.
[April Baskin:] Right. Right. That makes so much sense. So, I hate to - to leave this portion of the conversation, but um, I'm - I'm beckoned to ask you the next question, carrying that love into - into this next question. So as a person who is Jewish and Korean and a rabbinical student, fashionista, learner, and prayer appreciator, what's something that you never want said to you ever again?
[Becky Jaye:] I was in a situation maybe a year or two ago when I was speaking with someone talking about my experience as an Asian Jew and how difficult it was, not just in an American Jewish community, but also at the time I was living in Israel, so being in Israel, how it was difficult to feel Jewish in a place that feels like home to so many of my friends and family as Jews, and just didn't feel like home to me because I didn't look like I could belong there in a way that could mean that I was Jewish. And more specifically that people often - Israelis often thought that I was a migrant worker in Israel.
[April Baskin:] Oh, wow.
[Becky Jaye:] And so, not only did that - that kind of lead to a different way of being treated, but it was more that I would walk into synagogue and people would say, "Well, why are you here? You're not Jewish." And that was so hurtful to me because...
[April Baskin:] Yeah ...
[Becky Jaye:] To me, if anything, Israel is and should be a home to the Jewish community and I thought I could really practice spiritually there and learn so much, and I did. I did all of those things, but my experience was tainted by how others perceived me and reacted to their own perceptions. And when I was explaining this to a friend of mine, this friend responded and said that I was essentially lying; that that reality could not exist and that I was being too sensitive, that there was no way that that discrepancy or disparity in privilege, whatever, manifests itself in Israel. And it was a really hurtful moment because everyone has their own lived reality - realities - and if there is anything that we have complete ownership of, I believe that it is those experiences that form and shape who we are. What we do with those experiences, you know, that's up to us. But when he said that I was not telling the truth, that was just very, very, very hurtful. And it made me question myself in a way that I don't think was fair to make me question myself. And I believe that all of my experiences have made me into who I am today and I'm really proud of who I am today, and I'm really proud of just, like, being a loving person despite these experiences or as a result of these experiences. I mean, I think it was so painful too because that truth was really all I felt that was connecting me to Judaism at that time. Even if it was not in, like, the best way, but then being told that it had - that my voice didn't matter, like it didn't matter how - how loudly I said what I felt or... the negation of my voice. After that, it just felt like no matter how loudly I prayed or spoke with God, God would never hear me. And that - as someone who, I speak with God every day and I pray with my mom every day, and as someone who speaks with God so frequently, it was such a loss of hope and it took me so long to regain the confidence in my voice and just start learning how to speak again.
[April Baskin:] Well, I'm glad you found that voice and I hope that you continue to have opportunities to heal from that and others, because what strikes me in that story is that from what I know from a number of Jews of Color is that it's highly likely that was the only time something like this has happened to you or been said to you. I want to dive into the second half of this two part question with you, if that's OK. What's something that you have been waiting to hear that you would love to hear?
[Becky Jaye:] I think it's what I'm waiting not to hear, actually. Like, I can't wait for the day when I leave services and someone does not come up to me, or comes up to me and says like, "Great service!" Like, "Oh, that really touched me." But does not ask me if I'm Jewish or does not ask me like, "Are you adopted?" which just happened to me. It's almost like if I were to walk into a community and have people do nothing. Does that make sense?
[April Baskin:] That would be better than what's currently happening as you walk through Jewish spaces and lead in Jewish spaces.
[Becky Jaye:] Yeah.
[April Baskin:] Wow.
[Becky Jaye:] It would feel like we're getting a question that has nothing to do with my - how I appear outwardly. I'm - I'm really excited for that. I mean, I think that that will come as we - we really open our eyes to what the Jewish community can look like.
[April Baskin:] And has always looked like, right? Like that's the thing for me, like, we came from North Africa and the Middle East.
[Becky Jaye:] But I do think, I mean, I say "can" in the sense that there's so much work to be done in welcoming the diversity -
[April Baskin:] There is a lot of work that needs to be done.
[Becky Jaye:] - That I think will make us a lot richer as - as a community. And we don't, I mean in my opinion, we're not there yet. You know, the Jewish community -
[April Baskin:] No, we're not.
[Becky Jaye:] If you were to take every single one of us and - and do a stock, or like, you know that Pew study, we are deeply representative of a diverse community, of deep and rich and beautiful diversity, but -
[April Baskin:] So beautiful.
[Becky Jaye:] When I don't see that represented in some of the places of worship that I stumble upon or, you know, I am blessed to- to come across or when I don't see that in some, like, really any Jewish community event you could - you could come up with, I - what worries me the most is, "Are these people not here because they don't feel welcome? Like, did they not just have the fortune to come across a Lee anda Barbra you know?" And what I want to do is be that Lee and Barbara for those people, for everybody. But I think that, the people who need - there are some people who just need a longer olive branch to come in, because it doesn't always feel like a safe community.
[April Baskin:] Right, right. Which is so tragic, because I suspect you feel similarly: I believe our community is so beautiful and magnificent and has so much to give and yet it's complicated, because for so many people of all different identities, and explicitly in the context of this conversation we're speaking about Jews of Color, it can also be the site of a lot of pain and hurt and isolation. So, to round us out, I think you've actually already answered this question in your other answers and a number of different ways but I'll quickly ask you nonetheless. Who or what inspires you to be a better Jew?
[Becky Jaye:] Well, OK the first person who actually came to mind was you.
[April Baskin:] Oh my goodness! Yes.
[Becky Jaye:] But also, through this fellowship, when I got this, I was - it was, it was you and I interviewed with Aliza. And I remember having a Skype interview in Jerusalem where I was so homesick and Aliza, was this, like, breath of fresh air and she is helping me to remember - asking me all these questions and helping me remember what I love about Judaism and live them out. And then when I met you and your team, this idea that people could be so committed to lifting people up is something that I - I've always wanted to do, and want to do in my rabbinate, baruch HaShem, like. I hope I get there, but -
[April Baskin:] B'ezrat HaShem.
[Becky Jaye:] I needed a reminder of what that looks like and to see that you were doing it, and - and making our lives just, like, really beautiful and perfect in the sense that you brought - you brought love to us, you brought family to us, and a renewed sense of belonging and social justice commitment. And I learned, to me, like, to me that was everything.
[April Baskin:] I'm really, I'm really touched, and I just want to say thank you so much to you for joining our podcast today and kol hakavod for all that you do.
[Becky Jaye:] Amen and thank you back!
[URJ Outro] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of Wholly Jewish. Tune in again for our next episode, and in the meantime you can find daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, current events, and more at ReformJudaism.org. Follow us on Facebook at Facebook.com/ReformJudaism, and on Twitter, our handle is @ReformJudaism. Hope you have a good week. L'hitraot!
April Baskin, a longtime advocate for Jewish diversity and inclusion, is a graduate of Tufts University, a member of the Selah Leadership Network, and an alumna of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation's Insight Fellowship and Jews United for Justice's Jeremiah Fellowship in Washington, D.C. She most recently served as the vice president of Audacious Hospitality at the Union for Reform Judaism. In addition, she previously served as the national director of resources and training at InterfaithFamily.com and president of the Jewish Multiracial Network.