A Little Bit of This, a Little Bit of That, But Always 100% Me

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: Oy vey, have we got a special guest today! Come meet Alexandra Corwin, lover of the Yiddish language and Jewish educator, who teaches us that we are always 100% of all the aspects of our identity.

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[Pullquote:] “And I have seen me watching a telenovela in the morning and celebrating Shabbos dinner in the evening, speaking Yiddish one moment and then speaking Spanish in another minute. 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.”

[URJ Intro:] 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 Alexandra Corwin.

[April:] What's your Jewish and-and identity?

[Alexandra:] I'm Jewish. I'm a woman. I'm Latina. I'm a woman of color, an educator, and a lifelong student.

[April:] And how do these different identities interact with one another for you in your daily life?

[Alexandra:] So I'm a Jewish educator, and I direct a shul in Yiddish-- a Sunday school. And I gain much joy from creating and helping other teachers with their Jewish curriculum that relates back to justice work and anti-racism.

In my personal life, I would say that as a kid, I would hear a lot, oh, you're 50% Ashkenazi Jewish, and you're 50% Latina. And I always didn't agree with that, in a lot of ways. Ethnically, yes, those are my ethnic percentage breakdown. But I'm 100% Jewish and 100% Latina.

[April:] Yes, you are.

[Alexandra:] Yeah. Those things fill me. Those identities fill me spiritually and culturally. And they're really hard to cut up. I don't think that's the way that identity works.

[April:] Yeah, there's a wonderful Africana studies professor, Barbara Love, who says that exact message to people with mixed heritage identity, that you are 100% of all of the heritages that make up who you are. So I couldn't agree more.

[Alexandra:] Definitely. And I see that played out when I reflect on my day, and I have seen me watching a telenovela in the morning and celebrating Shabbos dinner in the evening, speaking Yiddish one moment, and then speaking Spanish in another minute. So it's really great being multiracial-- very culturally fulfilling.

[April:] That's phenomenal. And so in a world that often asks us to fit into neat categories, which you clearly do not-- and thank goodness for that-- and often only one category, what is the interplay of your different ands?

[Alexandra:] Definitely. Well, I would say it all started in my home, where both my parents really were enculturated in each other's culture. And so my expression as a child and having a bat mitzvah and also having a quinceañera, speaking Spanish--

[April:] That's amazing.

[Alexandra:] --in the home, having Shabbos dinners, was really celebrated. And being both ands was celebrated in my house. And becoming older and know that we live in a world that cuts up our identities, I was able to come with that strength, and I'm able to come 100% in most places that I go because of that childhood upbringing. And as an educator-- and I teach multiracial, Jewish children-- that's something that I really have parents in the curriculum hone in on to celebrate both ands, for these children to grow up and be proud of both and know that these identities don't need to be compartmentalized.

[April:] What are the demographics of the students with whom you work?

[Alexandra:] So I work with mostly Ashkenazi children, students all the way from two years old to over 100-- not over 100 years old, over 100 students-- but two years old to b'nai mitzvah age, and in Boston.

[April:] Was there a pivotal moment that affected your Jewish identity, a milestone moment, a light bulb moment, that you could think of in any number of different ways? The experience itself doesn't have to be Jewish, but a moment in your life where something for you fundamentally shifted?

[Alexandra:] So I remember, as a kid and then in my early part of my teenager years, I wasn't very confident in leading Jewish ritual and Jewish services. I was a part of a Jewish youth group

When I was 16 years old. And there were around 50 of us one Saturday night, and I was asked to lead Havdalah. And so I remember being in the middle of the room and having all my peers surround me while I'm saying the blessing for the candle and just feeling this incredible sense of joy.

And those two feelings really came to life. And since then, Jewish community and being a leader in Jewish community has always been something that I know I can find deep and great meaning in.

[April:] What were you feeling when you got invited into the center of that circle?

[Alexandra:] I was feeling loved, accepted, and trusted, for sure, and among people who I cared about and experiencing this beautiful service together.

[April:] How do you bring that Havdalah moment to your students? Have you seen similar moments in the children you work with?

[Alexandra:] Yes. So this is making me really happy to speak about-- kvelling, really. So I've been teaching Jewish studies for a few years now. And last year, in particular, I kind of changed up my pedagogy. And I would start the class with a question.

And on the last day of school, which was a combination of what we've been learning throughout the year, was asking the kids how do you connect our Judaism to social justice? And so the answers that the kids had really distinct and nuanced and unique. And I was inspired to see that, at such an early age, I was helping them accomplish the goal of the school, which is creating a strong sense of Jewish identity with justice leanings.

[April:] Justice at the core.

[Alexandra:] Yeah, with justice at the core.

[April:] My next question for you is, as a person who is Jewish and a woman and Latina and an educator and a lifelong student, what's something that you never want said to you ever again?

[Alexandra:] That's a good question. I think in the context of being a Jewish person of color, as other Jews of color will know, I've heard a lot of comments when I walk into a room ranging from, how are you Jewish? Or are you Jewish? Or how can you be brown and Jewish? And I think that definitely alienates Jews of color from different spaces. So I would say not bringing up race or ethnicity within the first 30 seconds of speaking to someone.

[April:] Huh.

[Alexandra:] Yeah. Who would've thought? But creating a genuine relationship with someone and wanting to know them as a holistic person should always be first when interacting with new people. And of course, we're curious about different people. And I think, naturally, those questions will be answered as you get to know someone, right? So no rush in asking a lot of personal questions when a new Jew of color walks into a space.

[April:] Right. I think that's so well said. Is that something that happens for you often or has happened to you often or many times?

[Alexandra:] That is something that has happened to me often and many times. As a kid, I grew up in a wonderful reform community. And everyone knew me, and that never, ever happened. And same in high school-- I knew everyone.

But when I step out into a community or go to a new synagogue, those are questions that I get-- or a new Shabbos dinner where I don't know people. So yeah, that's something that has happened after 18 for most of my life and I assume will continue happening in the ways that I navigate that have changed over the years.

[April:] Right. Right. That makes a lot of sense. And so the second half of this question is, what's something that you have been waiting to hear? Or what's something that you would love to hear?

[Alexandra:] Welcome. We're so happy to have you and asking questions about who I am, regardless of race or ethnicity, and what I'm up to, in general. And not that I don't want those other questions asked. I just would like them asked a little bit into getting to know someone, or being able to share a little bit of getting to know someone.

[April:] Absolutely. I think that makes complete sense. In a different way, is there anything else, Alexandra, in your experience as a person who embodies so many ands, and as an educator, that you would love to hear?

[Alexandra:] Well, the way that I'm first thinking of that question is, what things am I doing now in my life so that what we will hear as Jews of color 10, 15, 20 years down the road will change? And to answer that, I would say what I'm working on now is creating Jewish curriculum that really showcases the breadth of all different types of Jews, ethnically and racially, so kids, as children in our Jewish community, know that Jews come in all hues.

And for when they grow, they have internalized that. And when they become grownups, they don't think that it's such an anomaly that they would commit these microaggressions, and for Jews of color, as children, to be really internalized that they can be both and. So that's a long-term goal.

[April:] Can you tell me more about that, what that might look like in practice or implementation, or what messages would be in that curriculum that are currently missing from most Jewish curriculum?

[Alexandra:] Definitely. I remember growing up and reading a lot of Jewish books, very seldom finding a character that looked like me or that was a multiracial Jewish character, as well as the pictures on the walls or different physical teaching tools, right, were mostly white.

But now it's really exciting. There's several Jewish children's books that feature Jews of color, colored children. And I think that's a really important and positive thing for our Jewish community. I'm interested in writing my own children's book, as well.

[April:] Oh, that's great.

[Alexandra:] Yeah. So that's something that I'm working on, while doing other things and grad school and working. But that is something that I would really love to see to fruition. And I think when more Jews of color feel empowered and grow older, the media will definitely change, and there will be more diverse media to choose from.

[April:] But I'm just curious-- it may or may not-- but as someone who is regularly switching between English and Spanish and Yiddish, if you see language playing any role in this vision, in this really wonderful vision that you've created for yourself and our community, more broadly?

[Alexandra:] I'm so happy that you asked that question. Because I do think about language a lot. So language, when I'm talking about Jews of color and people of color, as an Ashkenazi Jewish woman of color, I don't like it when Ashkenazi is used as a synonym for white. Because that erases Ashkenazi Jews of color.

Language provides so much culture, a look into culture, a look into humor, a look into values, which is why I'm so passionate about learning Yiddish and keeping Yiddish in the forefront of our minds as a Jewish people. In Chicago, I was really proud, with a few friends in Chicago YIVO to offer Yiddish classes for the first time there in a long time.

[April:] That's phenomenal.

[Alexandra:] Yeah. And to create this Yiddishkeit community. We have a lot of people signed up who are under the age of 30, right? And I think Yiddishkeit, our Yiddish history, and our Yiddish culture, once we learn more about it, it's a type of fulfillment that is hard to put into words. Because you get this cultural context and this history. And you understand things about yourself in new and exciting ways. And so Yiddish is really exciting.

Yeah, I've gotten questions before like, Yiddish? How is Yiddish related to being a person of color? As a Jewish person of color, aren't you more interested in Ladino or speaking Ladino? And to that, I would respond, well, that kind of goes back to this binary of thinking that Jews of color can't be Ashkenazi. And so Yiddish was a language that belongs to everyone who wants to learn Yiddish, right, and sees the beauty and value to it.

[April:] Oh. I've never been so energized by someone speaking about Yiddish. And I love Yiddish. But I have to say, I'm so energized. One thing that comes to mind for me as you're talking about this is multiple things. One, through what you're saying right now, I see how you are truly living out and embodying what you said about truly believing that you are 100% of every element that makes up who you are and that you live fully into each of those pieces.

The other thing that excites me about what you just shared about this class that you led in Chicago is, in addition to all of the benefits that you talked about, I think that there's a real opportunity. Keeping languages alive is so important, especially languages like Yiddish that have so much powerful culture and identity and pride and a very strong ethical grounding and understanding of how to orient ourselves to the world and how to approach the pursuit of justice.

I think that learning Yiddish also provides, really, a truly wonderful opportunity for white Ashkenazi Jews to reclaim their identity outside of a paradigm of suffocatingly simplistic and void-of-meaning whiteness. Part of the goals in my work is continually supporting white Ashkenazi Jews in separating, disentangling, Jewish-American identity from white supremacy and racism.

And that can be hard. And as you're talking, it becomes clear to me that among, probably, a number of different options, truly diving deeply into learning both the Yiddish language and Yiddish culture provides a very clear avenue for white Ashkenazi Jews and multi-ethnic and multiracial Ashkenazi Jews with a pathway to understand their European heritage outside of the paradigm of whiteness.

[Alexandra:] Yes, exactly. You put that so beautifully. And it doesn't do justice to this rich and thick and deep Ashkenazi Jewish heritage to just have Ashkenazi be a synonym for white. Because that's ahistorical, in the PAL settlement. And if you reference Ashkenazi spanning for the thousands of years that it has, and it also, really--

[April:] It robs them of their heritage.

[Alexandra:] Yeah, definitely, definitely. And I would love to see people be more in touch with their Ashkenazi heritage through Yiddish and other means, as well.

[April:] I want to rephrase that. It robs us of our heritage. See that? I caught myself.

[Alexandra:] Yes, robs us-- yeah-- of our heritage. And the organization that I work for, Worker's Circle-- which is just another beautiful evolvement of justice, referring to it as Worker's Circle-- really tries to put that in our curriculum and in our community, Yiddishkeit and this Ashkenazi Jewish heritage.

[April:] Right. And I just, I think it's really a treasure map back to what some Jews may perceive us as having lost and is still right there when we are ready to engage in a process of t'shuvah around our own identity of returning.

[Alexandra:] Mm-hmm, beautiful.

[April:] I love this journey that we're on together, and this conversation. So to begin to wrap up our conversation, I have a final question for you. And you can feel free and empowered to answer it as stoically and seriously or as whimsically or creatively as you would like. Who or what inspires you to be a better Jew? And it's up to you what "better" means in the context of this question.

[Alexandra:] A better Jew to me means being at peace with myself and being centered to be able to take on justice work and keeping our traditions alive and creating spaces where other people can feel alive in our traditions and find joy and depth from them.

[April:] Amen

[Alexandra:] Yeah. And I think that's something that I do as an educator, that I try to do to create these Jewish educational spaces where people can find the joy of Judaism. In terms of Jewish meditation, I consider the Modeh Ani that I say every morning and the bedtime Shema a form of Jewish meditation that keeps me centered, and the justice work that I do at shul, engaging all our Jewish curriculum back to justice work.

And in my own personal life, I would say a person learning more about him is my great-great-grandfather, who looks exactly like my dad. And my dad looks exactly like me. So I feel a really special ancestral connection to him. His name was Shulem. And I'm really into family history.

And so I talked to his grandchildren, who are now in their 90s. And the stories that they share with me about him are just so beautiful. Because I'm able to see how he led with his Jewish identity and justice work.

His granddaughter didn't have enough money to go to law school. And he gave her his life savings to go to law school and to get an education. And I think that's pretty progressive and pretty feminist and justice-oriented for Shulem to do that.

He gave tzedakah every Sunday morning to anyone who asked, even though he didn't have a lot of money. And finding letters that he wrote over the course of the past few years that have been such treasures to find, you see his Yiddish proverbs and quotes that he writes about that really have inspired me. One of my favorite Yiddish proverbs is [SPEAKING YIDDISH]

"A fair world, a radiant world, but, oh, for whom?"

[April:] Speaking with you today has been such a gift, Alexandra. Thank you very much.

[Alexandra:] Thank you so much for creating this space for me to share my story.

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!