Wholly Jewish: Anjelica: Dia de los Muertos Meets Yom Kippur

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: What happens when Dia de los Muertos meets Yom Kippur and Golems meet Zombies? Anjelica Ruiz, this week’s featured guest, shares some of her most memorable, educational, heart-breaking and heart-warming moments.

Three ways to listen:


[Pullquote:] "Have you ever had a counselor, a faculty member, who's looked like me?" And they're like, "What are you talking about?" I was like, "You know, I'm Hispanic... You know, most of the community is white." They're like, "Yeah, but you're Jewish. It doesn't matter." And I was like, "...Oh."

[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 Anjelica Ruiz.

[April:] Anjelica, it's so great to have you on the show today. My first question for you: What's your Jewish and-and, dot-dot-dot identity?

[Anjelica:] So, I did this icebreaker and -- about identities. And we were asked to think very quickly about our first identity. And my first identity is actually not jewish, which was surprising to me. So I would say Hispanic and Jewish and Filipino and teacher and perpetual learner.

[April:] I love it. That's great. So, let's unpack that a little bit. How do these identities interact with one another for you?

[Anjelica:] I think for the most part, my Hispanic-Filipino identities have been very apart.

[April:] When you say apart, you mean apart from each other, apart from what?

[Anjelica:] Oh, um, I think apart from my Jewish identity. So, it's like, I -- before I converted, I identified as Hispanic-Filipino. And then when I did convert, it's kind of like I had two separate identities, almost. It was a Hispanic-Filipino and then it was just the Jewish.

[April:] Why do you think that is, Anjelica? What were some of the experiences surrounding that have that dynamic play out that way for you?

[Anjelica:] Sure. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I was in it completely when I came into the Jewish community, it was a completely foreign community for me. It was also ...the vast majority of it was white. And I think, unconsciously, I felt like I had to in some way downplay my obvious, like, foreign-ness of my brown skin and my Hispanic-Filipino roots. I guess it's -- I guess you would call it code-switching. I do that quite a lot. So, I've tried to bring that more into my work at the temple. But I think for the most part, it's probably, they're probably still pretty separate. At Temple, I'm one person. And then when I go home, I'm a completely different person.

[April:] I have two questions that arise from that. One is what's the work that you do at your Temple? And can you speak more about what it's like to have these disparate experiences, one in a professional Jewish -- and a professional spiritual sphere, and then one with your family and in your personal life?

[Anjelica:] So I work as the Temple librarian and archivist. My official title is "Director of Libraries and Archives."

[April:] So fancy!

[Anjelica:] I'm generally a person who already has many, many identity crises. Like, every year. So I think -- and the fact that these two identities are still very separate, it's caused a lot of angst. Yeah, I don't feel completely comfortable in either sphere necessarily. So, that's still very much a work in progress.

[April:] How has that been for you over time over the last several years? Have you noticed? That sounds, I mean, I'm hearing you say that it's still largely separated, but do you see movement in the direction of those coming together, or is that something that you desire? Do you have a sense of what kind of experience you want to be having in five to ten years from now -- or is that sort of up in the air for you?

[Anjelica:] It's going to be slow. I think -- I also teach religious school. So, I think my first year, it was very much by the book. And then, it wasn't really until my third year that I started bringing my own identity as a Hispanic-Filipino woman into the classroom, where I, like, combined a lesson about, you know, Day of the Dead and Yom Kippur and that felt--

[April:] OOOOOH!

[Anjelica:] Yeah, it was a really great lesson. The kids loved it.

[April:] That's very cool. 

[Anjelica:] I've been trying to do that every year.

[April:] That specific lesson, or that lesson as well as looking for other points of fusion between your Hispanic and Filipino identity and your Jewish professionalism?

[Anjelica:] Right, so yeah bringing my own Hispanic-Filipino identity into the classroom -- and that specific lesson, because they love it. And their favorite lesson they have is golems and zombies.

[April:] Can you say more about that, about golems and zombies?

[Anjelica:] Yeah. So, I usually do it around Halloween, and because the kids have never heard of golems, usually, and so I kind of converted them into zombies, and kids for the most part really love zombies, so they are interested right away. So, it's been a success. The last two years I've done it, so it'll probably be -- it'll continue.

[April:] So, I find it very interesting and kind of uplifting that while you are continuing to navigate and traverse, figuring out how your identities do and don't come together, that that it's in a professional sphere, through teaching others, that you're starting to find some harmony among -- in terms of the different parts of yourself.

[Anjelica:] I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that I'm dealing with children, and they're not as jaded or as um... Yeah, they're not as jaded. It's kind of easier for them to -- I don't want to -- It's not that they're colorblind, it's just that it doesn't occur to them most of the time. And so it's, so if I bring that into the classroom they're just like, oh, cool. You know, they they don't think, oh, well, she probably shouldn't be teaching this, because this is like, Hispanic culture ,and we're Jewish. It just doesn't occur to them --

[April:] They don't have those boundaries yet.

[Anjelica:] Right. And I found that, I was at Green Family Camp as faculty this summer, and I found the same thing. You know, the kids at the end I asked them: "Have you ever had a counselor or a faculty member who's looked like me?" And they're like, "What are you talking about?" I was like, "Well you know, I'm Hispanic. You know, most of the community is white." They're like, "Yeah, but you're Jewish. It doesn't matter." And I was like, "...Oh."

[April:] Right. But you know, those those generational differences are -- can be quite striking.

[Anjelica:] Yeah... Yeah.

[April:] So, moving on to the second question --that was just the first -- is: Can you take a moment to think about and share with me a pivotal moment in your life that deeply impacted your Jewish identity or another element of your identity? Something that happened or an epiphany that you had that shifted things moving forward, in terms of either how you see something, or how you navigate through the world.

[Anjelica:] The first thing that came to mind was actually when the day of my official conversion when I went to the mikvah. I had my mother with me and she had been supportive. But, in the weeks leading up to the mikvah, she was getting a little more... I guess concerned about my eternal soul. And so, we actually ended up getting into an argument outside of the mikvah, and I stormed off and went into the into the mikvah area.

And so, when my rabbi came in, I was crying. And it was really important for me that my mother was there. She and I are very close. It's just been her and me all my life. She's been there for all the milestones and that -- and I felt like if she wasn't there, then it wasn't blessed by her. My rabbi did offer to reschedule. But I actually said, "No I'm going to do this" and looking back, I see now that's where  I really took control of my identity and what I wanted. I did not necessarily bow to what my mother wanted, or what made her comfortable. Because, as you know, since then, my becoming Jewish gave me a sense of purpose, and I've done so many wonderful things that I never would have had the opportunity to do. And so -- but I had to step away from my mother. And I think that was. In that way. I guess Judaism was like-- my converting was kind of like a stepping stone into like my own life, apart from my mother.

[April:] Like a rite of passage.

[Anjelica:] Yeah yeah.

[April:] And how are you and your mother today?

[Anjelica:] I'm aware. I mean, you know, I don't think she's still ...she's still not completely comfortable. But, I think it's an unspoken understanding between us, and that Judaism really put me... I mean, it really changed my life for the better because I had been in such a bad place and I just I didn't know what I was doing. And, you know, my mother was concerned that I was sinking back into depression. But, I think she understands now that I-- it's really been a great thing for me, even if she's not comfortable with it.

So, you know, she she asks about work and everything. I've tried to get her to come to some services, but she's very not religious at all, so she doesn't do that. But for the most part, she's been incredibly supportive and I know it's not easy for her. And that says so much to me about how much -- it means a lot to me that she still supports me, even though it makes her anxious.

[April:] That's something that took a lot of courage. And it's really wonderful to hear that your life advanced in so many wonderful ways. Can you tell me a little bit more about that briefly?

[Anjelica:] Sure. So, when I started the conversion process I was in a really not great job. And I was basically going home and then work and that was it. But then -- I'm usually not a person who likes being thrown into brand-new situations. I'm not a person who takes risks. But this went completely against that, because I had to put myself out there in a way that I never did, because I was too scared that I was going to get hurt. But I've had to keep doing that throughout my Jewish journey. I mean, even now, it's still something I'm not comfortable with. But, you know, I think it gave me a lot of confidence doing that, because then I realized, it's not so bad.  I can keep doing this. This is good. This could -- I could challenge myself.

[April:] You've certainly done that through the JewV'Nation Fellowship, by putting yourself out there.

[Anjelica:] Yeah. And so, it's, you know, and then I've had the opportunity to travel with Jewish groups. And I mean, that was something I had never thought I would have the opportunity to do.

[April:] Where did you travel?

[Anjelica:] So I've been to Israel, I went to Poland, to Cuba, Russia, and Germany.

[April:] Wow.

[Anjelica:] Yeah.

[April:] Globetrotter!

[Anjelica:] Yeah. It's been really awesome. It's been really great to see all the good things that various organizations have done.

[April:] The next question for you has two parts. As a person who is Hispanic and Jewish and Filipino and a teacher and a perpetual learner. What's something that you never want said to you ever again?

[Anjelica:] Probably never want to hear someone questioning my credentials for my current job. One of my pet peeves is people underestimating me, and so I hear that, is just devastating to me and it makes me angry, because oftentimes, I feel like there's other things, like, you know, racist undertones that may be there. And I worked really hard to get where I am, and I would just not like to answer that question again!

[April:] Right. Especially when I suspect you, like many people, have a very demanding job. It's very busy. I can only imagine that's a question that fundamentally questions whether or not you belong in that professional context, could just be very jarring. And out of line.

[Anjelica:] And I'm still questioning whether or not I belong in the Jewish community, ultimately. I mean, I know I do. But it's still a question to me. And so when I run into that particular question I'm just like.... I mean, am I really a part of the community, or am I not? Or it's just, it just throws everything into doubt for me.

[April:] Right. I can very much understand that. You know, obviously I have my own perspective, which is that you fundamentally belong in this community. And there's some confusion and some ignorance that needs to be cleared up within our community, but we would be sorely losing out if we were to ever lose your brilliance and power, that your spirit and personality brings to the community every day.

[Anjelica:] Thank you.

[April:] You're welcome. So the second half of that question is what's something that you have been waiting to hear that you would love to hear, Anjelica?

[Anjelica:] I think it's embarrassing to say, but I would love for someone to invite me to Shabbat or to invite you to their holiday celebration without me having to ask. That's always been a problem for me. I've always had to seek it out. And having to do that is just draining for me, because I don't like putting myself out there, and to have to do it every time... It's just very demoralizing.

[April:] Yeah. That makes complete sense. What I'm holding in my head and holding back the laughter on is that when this is released and published, you may have regretted saying this! Because a Shabbat may not ever pass again where you don't have an invitation to multiple communities all across North America! Courtesy of the URJ!

[Anjelica:] I mean, I've actually said it. I actually said it yesterday. When I was teaching a class. And you know, it's at this point, just like, I know I have to just do what I need for myself and my Judaism. And eventually it will catch up.

[April:] Yes, I think it will now. But did I hear you say, (I think it was chuckling) that you would welcome that challenge?

[Anjelica:] Yeah, yeah. I would, yeah.

[April:] And so to round us out, I have a final, fourth question for you. And just like a heads up, or a tip, you can both, you can either have a serious answer, and/or a silly answer. It can really be anything you want it to be. So, and the question is: 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.

[April:] I'm going to preface this with a story. So, one, my second year I had a student who would come up to me regularly on Sundays and say, "I don't want to be here," and I was like, "Great, I don't either." And I was just like... And so, you know at the end of the year he was still sitting and that was just like... Great. Well OK, have fun in fifth grade.

But the next year, I actually saw him with his class, and he was like, kicking open a door. And I was, I just looked at him and I was like, "Really?" And he kind of looked back at me, and he looked embarrassed. And then as I went into my classroom I heard him telling his teacher, he was like "She was my teacher last year. It was really fun."

And I was like ....yeah. So I think, for me, it's kind of cliche. It's...kids like that. Kids who are very not interested in being at religious school, but the kids that -- but I reach -- hopefully, I reach something in them, that maybe one day, they'll embrace it, or at least -- yeah, they'll embrace it.

I mean, now I have my first group of my first class. They're going to be eighth graders. And last year, they were all like -- they would come up and say hi to me and like, "We miss you! Can you come teach seventh grade?" And I'm like, "No, but thank you!" I think it's, I was really surprised at how -- at them seeking me out. And I take that to mean that I did something right. And that makes me want to keep teaching and keep bettering myself as a Jew.

 [April:] Thank you so much for joining us today.

 [Anjelica:] Thanks for the opportunity!

 [April:] Oh, you're so welcome. It was really a pleasure to get to connect with you and hear your insight and your honesty. So, thank you very much.

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!