Ethno-religious Identity as Locus for Dialogue between Puerto Rican Catholics and American Jews

Ana María Díaz-Stevens

Union Theological Seminary


You begin with several thousand years during which you have nothing except a great, bearded legend, nothing else. You have no land to grow food on, no land on which to hunt, not enough time in one place to have a geography or an army or a land-myth. Only you have a little brain in your head and this bearded legend to sustain you and convince you that there is something special about you, even in your poverty. But this little brain, that is the real key. With it you obtain a small piece of cloth—wool, silk, cotton—it doesn't matter. You take this cloth and you cut it in two and sell the two pieces for a penny or two more than you paid for the one. With this money, then, you buy a slightly larger piece of cloth, which perhaps may he cut into three pieces and sold for three pennies' profit. You must never succumb to buying an extra piece of bread at this point, a luxury like a toy for your child. Immediately you must go out and buy a still-larger cloth, or two large cloths, and repeat the process. And so you continue until there is no longer any temptation to dig in the earth and grow food, no longer any desire to gaze at limitless land which is in your name. You repeat this process over and over for approximately twenty centuries. And then, voilá—you have a mercantile heritage, you are known as a merchant, a man with secret resources, usurer, pawnbroker, witch, and what have you. But then it is instinct. Is it not simple? My whole formula for success.

--Sol Nazerman explaining to his young Puerto Rican helper, Manuel, the "success story" of the Jewish people in The Pawnbroker (Wallant 1961, 22).


A person's socialization and the formation of his or her identity is intrinsically tied to a sense of belonging. The family, community, nation, the political, ethno-cultural or religious group all help us become who we are. This process which begins at birth (some would argue, before) and ends with death is common to all members of society. Membership in human society and identity are not automatic and our integration with others—be they family, ethnic group or religious believers—is a life-long process.

The Socialization Process

To actualize his or her potentiality as a person, each individual needs to "simultaneously externalize his or her own being into the social world and internalize it as an objective reality" (Berger and Luckmann, 129). It is the role of society, however, to provide primary and secondary relationships and an adequate setting for human development. What the social sciences call socialization and others call humanization takes place as persons apprehend and interpret objective events as expressive of meaning. Each individual responds to outside stimuli, understanding herself or himself in reference to the outside world. Through internalization of social norms and values, the individual attains an understanding of other human beings and apprehends the world as a meaningful social reality. Thus, the world other human beings have encountered, modified and reconstructed, and now present to me, I "take over" as an individual. By so doing, I assume the same creative task of reconstructing and presenting it to others in due time. As Berger and Luckmann explain, making the world of others my own and helping others make my world theirs is a necessary social and human process that ultimately transcends the individual. Said more simply, an individual’s formation of his or her identity involves other people.

This presupposes that he [she] and I share time in a more than ephemeral way and a comprehensive perspective which links sequences of situations together intersubjectively. We now not only understand each other's definitions of shared situations, we define them reciprocally. A nexus of motivations is established between us and extends into the future. Most importantly, there is now an ongoing mutual identification between us. We not only live in the same world, we participate in each other's being. Only when he [she] has achieved this degree of internalization is an individual a member of society. The ontogenetic process by which this is brought about is socialization, which may thus be defined as the comprehensive and consistent induction of an individual into the objective world of society or a sector of it (Berger and Luckmann, 120).

The role of society in shaping an individual's identity is dramatically exemplified by the im/migration experience. At times the host society actively seeks to accelerate the process of incorporating the newcomers, but at other times to limit this process. Thus, while socialization calls for a positive personal response to the norms and values of society, it also depends on the willingness of the collectivity to accept the individual within its folds. Beyond internalizing and making sense of the world that is presented to us, we are constantly reminded by the actions of others, especially those having power over us, whether or not, or to what degree, we "belong." In this way, we can see that identity formation is not the isolated activity of an individual. Rather, identity formation is a social construction that takes place in the company of, and with the agency of, others.

Though all institutions of society have a role to play in this process, religion and the family are of primary importance. It is in the family that this process is begun, with religion often playing an ancillary role from the outset through its rites of initiation. As the process unfolds, religion and the family continue to nurture, support and reinforce each other through the teaching and maintenance of common values and world view.


Puerto Rican and Jewish Women: Some Commonalities

Thus, I can say that the primary reason why today I define myself as a Puerto Rican Catholic woman is because I have internalized the meanings and values of Puertoricaness, Catholicity and womanhood. This is what I have been socialized (humanized) into by reason not only of my birth but my upbringing within my family of origin and my religion. Because the underlying ethos of the society where I was raised was a Catholic one, being a Puerto Rican woman is an extension of my Catholicity and my being Catholic woman is an extension of my cultural being. The identity I have constructed for myself is based on a recognition of where I am and by whom I am accepted, as well as a conscious decision of where I want to be and with whom I want to belong. Undeniably, this identity as a Puerto Rican Catholic woman sets certain boundaries and opens up some possibilities. To acknowledge boundaries is to recognize limitations that I can hope and strive to transcend; to name possibilities means to seek ways of utilizing and maximizing resources put at my disposal for greater quality of life and meaning.

Reflection on my own family experience and those of other Puerto Ricans and Hispanics with whom I have contact leads me to conclude that women in our cultures exercise a central role in religious consciousness. With ingenuity and creativity these women have carved out a niche despite institutional strictures. In this endeavor, as in many others, the work of women has corresponded to the needs of the larger community. These women affirm, challenge and transform family and religious traditions, thereby keeping them alive. In so doing, they also affirm, challenge and transform the group's collective identity.

I would like to suggest, or better, pose the question whether this is not also the case for Jewish women. I do not know as much about the Jewish experience as about the Latina reality, but I believe that there are common experiences that make such a comparison a fruitful endeavor. The emphasis upon family and communal values and rituals, and the particular role of women in these, I believe can be the platform upon which a comparative analysis can be based and a dialogue initiated. For American Jewish women and Puerto Rican women in the United States, the experience of holding together family and group identity throughout the im/migration and migration experience may be a point of departure for dialogue.

It is important to remember in this dialogue that Judaism permeated Iberian culture until the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, and that in turn, four centuries of Iberian colonization in Puerto Rico left a marked imprint upon the culture and world view of the Puerto Rican people. After centuries of coexistence in Medieval Spain, Christians, Jews and Moslems acquired many common traits, despite frequent efforts to politicize the differences. Before the so-called "discovery" of these lands we now call the Americas, Sephardic Jews had lived in Spain for centuries at a high level of social, intellectual and economic achievement, bringing to Iberian Catholicism special gifts and closeness to Jewish traditions in spite of institutional attempts to alter this process. These similarities, hidden under a plethora of symbols, traditions, language, rituals and even food and manners, have now become part of everyday experience. The family was the locus of most of these religious and cultural exchanges especially when there were intermarriages and the extended family was the norm. There is no reason to doubt that these influences were transferred directly to Latin America and flourished there where the Inquisition was considerably less influential.

Today, as scholars look at some of the practices of Latin American Catholicism such as la cuarentena (the forty days of seclusion in the family after which the new mother is incorporated into the social group) and the "churching of woman" (which incorporates women to the church community also after the lapse of forty days after childbirth), one may ask what relationship—if any—these may have with the childbirth tkhines or private prayers said by women in Jewish tradition? Was the lighting of candles at sunset on Fridays merely a practical necessity in places where there was no electricity or a remnant of Jewish tradition perpetuated by the conversos? Is the age-old method of slaughtering animals in the secluded farms of our countries and drawing the animals' blood related to Jewish practices of kashrut, or are these simply practical methods of keeping foods uncontaminated based on a common knowledge?

How have Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics appropriated language coming from a Jewish experience and made it their own? Is there a comparable experience in their history of uprootedness, separation from the homeland, exile, migration, diaspora? Is the adherence to age-old religious customs and language another point of comparison? What do Puerto Rican women and Jewish woman share in terms of home, family, the transmission of religious values and the recasting of religious ways? Whether we focus on rituals regarding bereavement or festive celebrations—on wakes, funerals, weddings, births and the initiation of children into the family and community— we need to draw out the differences and similarities for comparative analysis. When we study all sorts of family and communal rituals, as well as the more formalized or church/synagogue rituals, I believe we will discover a basis for mutual appreciation and dialogue.

Puerto Ricans and Jews in the United States: More Commonalities

In addition to shared historical and cultural patterns and these striking commonalities of ritual life, Jews and Puerto Ricans in the U. S. have at least three common experiences that lend themselves as starting points for dialogue: a history of uprootedness and im/migration, strong roles of women in the family, and oppression and discrimination in a secular world on account of religious loyalty. Not every im/migrant has come to this country voluntarily. The process of im/migration is a very complex one where the "push and pull factors" are not easily separated.

But once in the United States, we must realize that we are not alone in this experience. In New York City, as I think is increasingly the case in all major cities of this nation, as soon as people set foot outside of their apartments, they are faced with the necessity of traveling and engaging in a highly complex world charged with other peoples' cultures and meanings. In a world that has often been imposed upon us rather than presented to us for our acceptance, we must learn to transcend boundaries arising out of our own sense of being, our membership in our family of origin, or our ethno-cultural and religious world. Individuals must learn to visit and partake in the world of others, striving to fall prey neither to chauvinism nor to doubt of their own worth.

More pointedly, it is the encounter with the other that pushes many of us to recognize and deepen that which heretofore has been taken for granted, our own identity. In that encounter I must not only ask, "Who are these others" but also question anew, "Who am I?" To this I then add other questions: "How can I keep on being who I am while I share public space and resources? How can I communicate and even be in solidarity with others outside my own group without diluting my identity?"

In this essay I have identified a few relevant areas for conversation between Jews and Puerto Rican Catholics, using the categories of socialization and identity formation. Having briefly developed the link between religion and culture in the personal and collective identity of Jews and Puerto Ricans, and explored tentative connections regarding the role of women, I wish simply to point to one further point of convergence: historical experience.

In Edward L. Wallant's novel The Pawnbroker (later a prize-wining movie), an elderly Jewish shopkeeper employs a Puerto Rican youth as his helper. The two protagonists have their own set of troubles. Each is immobilized in his private pathos. The Jewish pawnbroker is consumed by his memories of the Nazi concentration camp. The young Puerto Rican sees his boss as uncaring and unconcerned with the crime and social conditions of the neighborhood that make life nearly impossible. The story ends tragically because neither Jew nor Puerto Rican could transcend his own reality.

In contrast to Wallant’s perspective, I feel more confident about the future. By relying on a dialogue between us, beginning with what we share, we can also discover and strive to transcend what keeps us apart. I am hopeful we can begin intentionally to build a larger community where what we hold in common can be nurtured and celebrated, and that which is particular to each group becomes the basis for new challenges, growth and enrichment rather than a source of separation.

Dialogue holds the possibility of strengthening our personal and communal identities, increasing our understanding of each other's definition of reality, broadening our notions of self, and enabling us to interpret mutually the world we share. Then perhaps, as Berger and Luckmann explain, we can establish a "nexus of motivations between us [that] extends into the future. Most importantly [there will be] an ongoing identification between us [as we] not only live in the same world, [but] participate in each other's being" (Berger and Luckmann, 120). If we set this goal for ourselves, we will indeed become richer human beings as members of our respective groups, as members of a larger world community, and as people of faith who seek God's revelation in each other.

Ana María Díaz-Stevens is Associate Professor of Church and Society at Union Theological Seminary, New York City.


List of Works Consulted

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______ 1993. Oxcart Catholicism on Fifth Avenue. The impact of Puerto Rican migration upon the Archdiocese of New York. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

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Wallant, Edward L. 1978. The pawnbroker. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company.