Feeling The Latin Beat


Charly Rodriguez plays Latin jazz. So does Charly Schwartz: which may come as a surprise to his fellow band members in La Onda Va Bien. Schwartz and Rodriguez are the same person: the Brooklyn-born son of Cuban Jewish immigrants who raised him on equal parts Havana rhythms and "Hava Nagila."

To avoid confusion in his musical career, Schwartz uses his mother’s maiden name, Rodriguez, the legacy of a Sephardic heritage.

"Charly Schwartz? I don’t get it," he says in mock imitation of fellow musicians. "Schwartz doesn’t have enough vowels to be Latin."

Like many in his generation of Jews with roots in Spanish-speaking cultures, Schwartz, 34, says he feels strongly connected to both aspects of his bicultural background. His grandparents landed in Cuba by chance, he says, and to them Jewish identity always came first.

"My first language was Spanish. I’m a Hispanic person," says Schwartz, an alumnus of Tel Aviv University and former regional director for Hadassah’s Young Judaea youth movement.

News of the most recent census findings that Hispanics, at 12.5 percent of the population, are the country’s largest-growing minority shined a spotlight on the explosion of Latin culture in American food, television and especially music.

In the Jewish community, the findings spurred outreach by Jewish community-relations groups and the Israeli consulate to the Latino community at large, sometimes enlisting Spanish-speaking Jews in these efforts.

But more significantly within the Jewish community, the past decade has seen a mini-boom in Latin-tinged culture, with the appearance of new books on Jewish communities in Central and South America and the inclusion of Spanish-language entries in Jewish film festivals.

On the Latin music scene, some Jewish musicians are spicing up their salsa repertoires with Jewish tunes. Ben Lapidus leads his quintet, Sonido Isleno, in a rumba revision of the traditional prayer "Oseh Shalom." And the band Hip Hop Hoodios is finding a niche with Jewish-themed, sometimes tongue-in-cheek rap songs like Raza Hoodia ("Jewish Race") and "Ocho Kandelikas" ("Eight Little Candles"), based on a Chanukah song in Ladino, the language of Sephardim.

"I see a movement," says Ilan Stavans, a Spanish professor at Amherst College, of the recent spate of Latino-Jewish publications and films. "It’s very refreshing." His own survey of Jewish-Latino literature since the Middle Ages, titled "The Star and the Scroll" (Routledge Press), is due out in December.

Stavans says the change has come in part because of a new openness in American-Jewish self-perception.

"Jewish identity is less monolithic than it used to be," he says. American Jews are trying to go beyond the Holocaust, shtetl and Middle East politics to see "other branches of Jewish identity."

In New York, as in other cities with sizable Jewish populations, Jews with roots in Latin America are finding new ways to emphasize their heritage. Some come from multi-faith and multi-ethnic families. There is also a small but growing number of Christian Latinos who have uncovered Jewish aspects of their family history and are actively exploring their Jewish heritage.

Many Latino Jews in New York are immigrants or the children of immigrants. Recent economic upheavals have added to the number of young South American Jews heading northward in search of opportunities here.

Stavans, who describes his Mexican-Jewish background in his memoir "On Borrowed Words" (Viking, 2001), says he sees an effort to "re-ethnicize Jewish identity": especially among younger American Jews raised in a society that celebrates diversity.

He has also witnessed the emergence in the past decade of about two dozen groups across the country (in New York, Chicago, Miami, San Antonio and Santa Fe, for example) to discuss issues and hold programs of particular interest to Spanish-speaking Jews.

One of the newest of these groups held a party last week at Makor, a Jewish community center on the Upper West Side. The group, Judios Latinos (Spanish for "Latino Jews"), held its first meeting in April and began planning programs that would bring together students and young professionals who moved to New York from around the Spanish-speaking world.

At the party, about 100 people sipped drinks and danced to hits from their home countries: Argentina, Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico and Spain, among others. (A few interlopers from the United States in the crowd dismayed some partygoers.)

Karina Mueller, 31, a marketing professional and native of Buenos Aires, started Judios Latinos at the suggestion of Michael Steinhardt, a family friend and Makor’s founder.

Mueller said she had been seeking a way to bring Latino Jews together to replicate the tight-knit Jewish communities common to many Spanish-speaking countries. "A big comment I heard from a lot of Latin American Jews was, ‘We don’t know where to go to meet each other,’ " Mueller explains.

Spanish speakers in New York tend to socialize with people from similar backgrounds, taste in music and sense of humor, congregating at clubs with a Latino clientele like Kana on Washington Street or Suba on Delancey.

"Being Jewish adds a whole other element that brings us closer," Mueller says. But, she adds, there has been no place for Spanish-speaking Jews to congregate outside of synagogues. Makor’s appeal to Judios Latinos, in part, is its lack of specific religious affiliation.

The center’s creative director, Rabbi David Gedzelman, says Judios Latinos is part of Makor’s larger emphasis on "multi-ethnic, multi-racial Jewish identity." Last month, for example, Makor held a panel dedicated to Asian-Jewish identity. A Jewish-Persian festival is planned for October. And next month the center will host a discussion among African-American, Latino- and Syrian-Jewish speakers organized by the Jewish Multiracial Network.

Many Jews view Judaism in terms of ethnicity and ethnic heritage as much as religious identity, says Jeremy Burton, who is slated to speak on Makor’s multi-racial panel. "What is considered ‘Jewish’ tends to be very Eastern European," he says.

Burton traces his own Mexican-American heritage back at least six generations on his mother’s side. "They didn’t move to the U.S.," he says. "The U.S. moved to them."

His mother converted to Judaism, he says, but his family found opportunities to blend the two cultures, for example, by eating "oil-soaked" Mexican pastries during Chanukah.

Burton grew up in New York in the 1970s and 1980s, and attended Jewish day school in Washington Heights just as the neighborhood’s Latino population was growing with an influx of immigrants from the Dominican Republic.

At the time, the issue of conversion and multi-faith families "was not a front and center thing" in the Jewish community," Burton says. "Even dealing with Sephardi culture was not so big in those days."

As a result, "Each of us had to make choices" about how much ethnic identity to expose, says Burton, the executive director of AMOS: The National Jewish Partnership for Social Justice.

"Celebrating Jewishness isn’t just Eastern Europe," says Burton, whose father’s family is Hungarian-Jewish. "There are Yemenite Jews," he says, "and braided challah is just as unfamiliar to them as it might be to Mexican Catholics."