Whenever the Jewish High Holidays come around, I find myself in Temple usually for the first time in months and usually the only Hispanic. I’m not terribly religious today, but I grew up in a Jewish household in a Jewish neighborhood in a Jewish community that didn’t quite know what to do with a Puerto Rican family.
I wasn’t the only ethnically mixed kid in temple growing up though- my mother picked our synagogue because it was the only one on Staten Island that would accept interfaith families. Needless to say, it attracted a lot of families like mine. Despite the relatively high concentration of multi-ethnic families, I was the only Puerto Rican kid in my Hebrew school class. It wasn’t that big of a deal most of the time, but sometimes I found myself being very much the different kid.
One of the gifts that our synagogue gave to kids after their Bar/Bat Mitzvahs was a bible with their name embossed on the cover. My name isn’t actually Rachel. It’s Rachel Monserrate. Rachel being the nice Jewish name and Monserrate being The Black Madonna. Nobody ever got it right. My own mother couldn’t even pronounce it right. Whenever she got mad at me my father had to be the one to scream out my full name. She can’t even remember what it is half the time.
In school I always knew when my name was about to be called because I would hear a Rachel and then an awkward pause followed by a butchering of Monserrate and Figueroa. Anyway, shortly before my Bat Mitzvah my mother got a phone call from someone at temple asking how to spell my name for my bible gift. My mother blanked. My father was at work. My mother looked at me. First I spelled Maserati for her. Then Montessori. Then Mozzarella. Then M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E. Then something got thrown at me and I ran out of the room. Later that evening my dad called back with the right spelling.
At Hebrew school next week someone asked us what Monserrate meant. Talk about awkward. It’s a Jewish custom to name your children after dead ancestors so my mom gave me Monserrate after my dad’s (devoutly Catholic) deceased grandmother as way to include him in Jewish tradition. She had no idea at the time of the significance of the actual name. My mother explained that it was my father’s grandmother. I told the guy that it meant that I was going to turn black and start distributing miracles to peasants and passing shepherds as the patron saint of Catalonia. Then something got thrown at me and I ran out of the room.
Fast forward to today and here I am, married to a Jew with a mostly Jewish child with an easy to pronounce (at least for Jews) Jewish name. My daughter’s name is so Jewish that her Hebrew name is the same as her English one. I went from Rachel Monserrate Figueroa to Rachel Levin. Sometimes I find myself missing the identity that used to be such a pain in the behind growing up. If someone calls out Rachel Levin at least five women answer. At least people can pronounce it, though.