Wholly Jewish: Amanda: Identities, Politics, and Spiritual A-Ha Moments

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: Who runs the world? Chances are high that soon it will be Amanda Ryan, a Nebraskan Latina community bridge builder.

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[Pullquote:] When I told her about my Jewish Journey and everything, she changed very lovingly and in a very joking manner, she changed my name in her phone to Hanukkah.

I think it's really cute.

It's just like it's accepting of like this is an identity that I hold and I practice and she knows it's important to me and why not you know kind of celebrate that in a joking manner.

[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 Amanda Ryan.

[April:] Amanda I'm so excited to have you on today, and my first question for you is what's your Jewish and and identity?

[Amanda:] I think my first identity that I most closely associate with would be that like I'm a woman.

Because that's what people in society see most quickly, but then also that I'm a Latina, and that's something that I've been aware of my entire life. Growing up in rural Nebraska where there's not a lot of racial and ethnic diversity and just like really being aware that you know my mom who is Mexican-American and my dad who was white that like we my sister and I got judgmental, I guess the word I'm looking for, looks from both sides of those communities. So from one side, it was like oh my mom was too good to marry another Mexican, and then from the white community there was a lot of also some judgmental looks all going back down to that my sister and I are ethnically mixed. And then of course my Jewish identity, which over the past few years has grown and I've become much more connected to, and it's something that is a part of my life every day and it influences the different work and passions that I have. And then I would say also that my political identity is also something that is influential on the same level as being a woman, being Mexican-American, being Jewish, and that I hold very blessed politics and that also just really informs the work that I do.

[April:] Can you say a little bit more about the work that you do?

[Amanda:] So, I do a lot of things. I am currently on the Omaha Public Schools Board of Education which I got elected to in 2016 and will serve until 2020.

[April:] Mazel tov.

[Amanda:] Thank you. Thank you.

And I also like when I was campaigning and still while I'm in office one of the things that I really was cognizant of is our Omaha Public Schools like our own part in the school to prison pipeline and like what can we do to make sure that we're giving all of our students a chance to not be in that. That we're decreasing their odds and looking at restorative practices and just how we can teach children holistically and make sure that they're still children and that they're just having to sit down and work on different homework and stuff like that.

So, just really thinking about the kids holistically and then the other, my job job is for the Institute for Holocaust Education in Omaha. And we work with middle school and high schools all over Nebraska and western Iowa to work on teacher training so they know how to effectively and appropriately teach the Holocaust and then also we have some survivor speakers that still speak here in Omaha, and we scheduled them in schools. We have a play that goes out, and just looking at some different creative outlets to share that narrative in an age appropriate context.

[April:] That's very inspiring.

And do you see your occupations as part of your "ands", or is that is that sort of separate for you in terms of it sounds like it's a little bit separate, like you have an identity as a politically left woman who is Latina and Jewish and then there's also work you do in the world both in terms of your public service as an elected official as well as as a Holocaust educator and professional.

[Amanda:] I think I have to purposefully kind of make them separate because they are wrapped up in different passions like social justice and and just like taking care of people in general.

So I I personally have to separate them for myself or it would be way too easy for me to get wrapped into absolutely everything and then not being able to like take care of myself.

[April:] So as a woman who is Latina and Jewish and politically left how do these identities interact with one another?

[Amanda:] I think being from you know like basically all of my identities are from marginalized communities or at least historically marginalized.

And so I just, they all influence each other. They're all connected. We can find similarities between different like immigrant stories you know coming to America or having been to America and then you know being told that this isn't our homeland anymore. But then also I don't know. I just I find them all very connected.

[April:] That makes a lot of sense.

[Amanda:] Yeah. They just make sense and meld together for me I guess.

[April:] And so in a world that often asks us to fit into neat and often singular categories what's the interplay for for this like you mentioned they're connected, and how does that play out for you in your life in different spheres both in a social sense as well as professionally? Do you find yourself leveraging them? Are there tensions that arise? Does it feel fluid? Does it shift depending upon the day? What's that like for you?

[Amanda:] I think professionally because they do work in the Jewish world, I now, this has really been like influenced by the fellowship as a whole too, that like now I kind of steered away from trying to code switch as much to fit into the Jewish mold that is in Omaha Nebraska right. And so now it's like constantly reminding people when we're in a meeting like oh but is that truly accessible for x y z type of people in our Jewish community. Is that like accessible to people who are converts or people who are LGBTQIA Jews. You know. So I'm kind of a thorn in the side of some people I'm sure.

[April:] That is hard for me to imagine Amanda.

[Amanda:] So like before I think I would just kind of be a little bit more passive like I'm new to this community. Like I'm different from what is typically here. So you know don't rock the boat too much. But now I'm just like no like this needs to be said. We're planning a film festival right now and there was one film that was dealing with an Indian Jew who's like lived in India, and I was like, in my notes about the movie I was like I love it, I want to show it, and to be honest our community needs to see more color. But I think it was just like like I want that.

[April:] That's great. So you're courageously stepping out.

[Amanda:] Little by little yeah, but it's also strategic right.

Like you also can't completely alienate people in general.

[April:] That's so true.

[Amanda:] And then like with the our are Hispanic Latino community in Omaha like I've been much more vocal about actually being Jewish instead of the default would be Catholic. So just kind of pushing people a little bit more to think outside of what is Jewish and or what is Latino.

[April:] That's phenomenal how is that. What's it been like for you.

[Amanda:] A sigh of relief I think, I think I feel like I can breathe a little bit better.

I feel like I can be more holistically me in all of the spaces that I'm in.

[April:] And how has the reception been for you within the Latino Hispanic community?

[Amanda:] I think fine. Like my main interaction with that community is largely political because that's like my friends in that community, we're all connected through politics.

And they're all for the most part very left as well. So they see those different identities and they realize that those are important aspects to them. I think family wise like it's kind of a hit or miss with some of them.

Like one of my aunts is from Arizona. She's fantastic. And when I told her about my Jewish journey and everything, she changed like very lovingly and in a very joking manner, she changed my name in her phone to Hanukkah and I just think it's really cute.

It's just like it's accepting of like this is an identity that I hold and I practice and she knows it's important to me and why not you know kind of celebrate that in a joking manner..

[April:] Right, and I was thinking as you were talking that it's with family it's interesting because when people join the Jewish community you know there can be anti-Semitism and there's also just grief at times for for families. You know it's it's it's can be complex. So thank you. Thank you so much for sharing. I have another question for you.

[Amanda:] Okay.

[April:] So, was there a pivotal moment that affected your Jewish identity?

[Amanda:] I had been thinking about conversion for a really long time, and when I had moved to Omaha that was kind of my goal was to figure out like what am I religiously. Because everywhere around me are Christians of a variety of sort. I know I'm not that. So what am I? I started working for an interfaith organization in town and our executive director is Jewish. And so I kind of just saw everything that she was doing and the way that she lived her life and like connecting those to her Jewish values. At the same time I was also studying religion and so I think that was my first aha moment because there's several like but there's two that I'll like touch on. So like studying and then working with Beth and just seeing the lived principles, really like a fondness grew and I was like oh, this is something that I could do. But, I also knew like historically maybe like stereotypically what they say about conversion like that a rabbi needs to turn you away however many times. I'm like okay fine I'm going to turn myself away three times before I go and seriously talk to a rabbi about this. So over the course of like seven years that's what I did. And then I started working at the Institute for Holocaust Education and we had our Yom HaShoah program, and I was just sitting there and I was thinking about my place in that and that I helped to facilitate this and that I'm with the entire community that's filling up our synagogue and people are looking past like whether they go to the Conservative synagogue or the orthodox synagogue.

They're all here in this commemoration together with survivors that are still alive and their descendants and I just like I thought that it was really beautiful and I just realized. I was like okay this is like this is where I'm supposed to be. And that like I felt at home and somebody had told me that you'll realize that that's your spirituality and your religion when you enter, whatever that space is, whether it's a church or synagogue, a mosque, or a temple, that when you enter that you'll feel at home and you'll feel at ease. And so I was like okay.

We also just got a female rabbi and I was like I specifically want to work with a woman on this, like this is a deeply emotional thing, journey, that I'm going through, change, and I want to make sure that like that I feel that I can completely connect with the person and give them my whole truth and not leave anything behind, and so things were just kind of falling into place and I was like okay fine. So I did it. And so like that was kind of like my two of my spiritual aha moments.

[April:] So along this journey, that is a very specific and kind of an intense choice to choose to work at an organization that focuses expressly on explicitly and solely on the Holocaust. I'm curious about what drew you to to work at the center, because it seems deeply purposeful but I'd love to hear a little bit more about your you're thinking about what drew you to that specific role and organization.

[Amanda:] Yeah, so my B.A. is in religious studies and then I'm working on my master's in sociology and so I kind of thought although like with the Holocaust you don't want to conflate the Holocaust just with the Jewish population because there are also so many other demographics that were tragically murdered and targeted, but it was just the connection with you know having studied specifically the Abrahamic faiths and then sociology and how people work and operate and what we are in society, that it was kind of kind of like a good melding of the two.

And I also just really wanted to get back into working in the Jewish world because through my interfaith work like I was in and out of it, and I had met so many great people within our Omaha community that I just really wanted to work in that community again, and so when that job came up somebody sent it to me and they're like apply apply apply, and I was like okay, so I did.

[April:] That's great. It's meant to be. So I have a two part question for you now as a person who is a woman and Latina and Jewish and politically left. What's something that you never want said to you ever again?

[Amanda:] Oh boy. So, I think what I would say is the thing that I would never want said to me again is "so what are you", because I'm pretty like ethnically ambiguous I think.

And like people know like oh well you're not y but you're something. And that one just gets on my nerves the most I think and like it works with like the Jewish aspect of it as well. It was funny because when I went to Israel people kind of  assumed that I was a Hebrew speaker. Not necessarily that I was Israeli but like out of our whole group, they had assumed that I was the one that spoke Hebrew.

So I feel like they're still like you're something and I know that there's a good chance that you probably speak Hebrew and I don't.  But then like also in non-Jewish spaces it's just very much like well what are you. 

[April:] How often do you get asked that question?

[Amanda:] So this might be more of a comment on like, well I guess we get in multiple ways. A lot, this is a comment on dating right now. It happens a lot in dating which is really frustrating because then you're worried about whether they're just trying to make you like exotic which is a bigger issue. And then also, it happens a little bit in Jewish spaces. Not a ton. There's been some of like adults that are also of Hispanic Latino descent that they're like oh like you're one of us.

Like I haven't seen anybody like me in a long time. I'm glad you're here.

But then there's also like well you're not like us. It's like who what are you, but not a ton.

[April:] Do you have responses that you give to this whether serious or jokingly? Like what's that exchange like?

[Amanda:] It's more serious. I think I just end up telling people like yeah I'm third generation American on my mom's side. We're Mexican-American. Yeah.

[April:] Yeah. And it's interesting to notice even how your tone changes now by being asked that question, like the wind sort of goes out of the sails.

[Amanda:] Oh yeah.

[April:] You know.

[Amanda:] There's a lot of different layers to it I think. You know and it also depends on the context. Like what I was saying briefly was like with the dating world like there's a lot to unpack there on why they're asking you that in general.

Which could be problematic. And then in other spaces it can also be problematic why they're asking me that. So sometimes it's just, just answer it. To be done with it.

[April:] And the second half of the question is what's something that you have been waiting to hear or what's something that you would love to hear?

[Amanda:] I am kind of thinking that it comes more down to action instead of like something verbal. 

[April:] Sure. Tell me more.

[Amanda:] I think the seeing. I don't know. I guess like seeing some sort of like welcoming or just like acceptance of those identities in those different spaces, whether it's in the Jewish world or whether it's outside of that to where it's not like act like well why is it important to you to be both a Latina and to be a Jew. So like why is that important to you like that that's almost just like a norm like without a doubt, of course that's going to be important to me just as it's important to somebody else who has Polish ancestry, right. But that's not questioned. I think more along those lines like to where those identities are just accepted and that we know that our Jewish community is that diverse that multiple people probably hold those identities very very closely and they're a part of our community and should be welcomed as such.

[April:] Amanda 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.

[Amanda:] I have a mentor, Beth Katz, who founded Project Interfaith several years ago and I started working for her and then like my former boss who's now back in Israel. I've just been really fortunate to have really strong women in my life that can serve as role models. And they both serve, both Beth and Liz, serve as professional role models. Seeing how they work with their employees and how they treat everybody with dignity and and but then also they're Jewish women who live their values every day. And I can see that in both of them and how they raised their children and how they interact with their spouses. And the sense of like family and connection that they have, that they're both just like very influential people that I really look up to. Yeah. But no I've just been extremely fortunate to have really really strong women throughout my life that have shaped me, like I said, professionally, spiritually, that I can go to when like there's some cultural aspects of being like Latino that I am not aware of. But I have those people in that community. And then being a convert like I have those people that I can turn to to kind of like help me shape my traditions and how I do them. But also give me a little bit of grounding in their family tradition as well.

So those people are really influential for me.

[April:] I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to get to know you a little bit better today, and I thank you so much for all of the good work you do in the world.

[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!