Navigating My Jewish Identity While Teaching in Spain
It's time to address a slightly uncomfortable topic: Judaism in Spain. For those of you who don't know, I identify as an ethnic Jew, meaning I follow more of the cultural traditions than the religious practices, but my identity as a Jewish person is still integral to who I am. I won't lie, I had some reservations about moving to a country infamous for its history of Jewish and Muslim expulsion (i.e. the Inquisition), so I was gleefully surprised when I discovered there is a decent population of Spanish and international Jews living in Madrid.
Kahal, an international organization connecting young Jews to cultural and religious experiences during their time studying or teaching abroad, sent me information on events in Madrid where I could find a community. My second week in the city, I thought I would try attending the Shabbat dinner at MJSC (Madrid Jewish Student Center) after Kahal forwarded me the info.
In typical Spanish fashion, our dinner didn't begin until about 9pm, but I watched the center quickly fill with other young Jewish people before the meal. In a new country I suddenly felt like I belonged somewhere. I still go to dinners at MJSC and have found a strong group of people to lean on.
Aside from having my weekly safe place, I generally don't feel too threatened as a Jew in Spain. Now, I still won't walk around with a Star of David, or chai, or any obvious symbol because the political group Vox has been growing (think racism, homophobia, antisemitism, etc.). I also recently learned that many students at my school are children of parents from this group. During Hanukkah, I introduced the holiday to many of my classes and discovered I am the first Jewish person they've ever knowingly met. I never planned to hide this part of my identity from my students, but I knew from the beginning that my school is in a remote area where they have likely not been exposed to different types of people. I could see their faces change when I announced this news, but I mostly gleaned curiosity from their eyes. If anyone had anything negative to say, they certainly didn't say it to my face. My only hope is that these impressionable students learn tolerance and are made aware of other cultures and identities through Madrid’s Language Assistant program.
Additionally, I’ve taken this as an opportunity to explore the story of my people in Spain because, while the history is painful, it is also a well of interesting information. I visited Toledo and Segovia, both home to some of the oldest synagogues in Spain. I got to walk around the Jewish Quarters and see where my ancestors could have lived (I’m merely speculating - I haven’t successfully traced my lineage back 500 years). Such a steep cultural connection doesn’t exist in the United States, given that it is relatively new and Jews did not originate there.
I am still learning to be openly proud of my identity, but I sometimes wonder if I had to come to a new country with a new group of young Jews to be able to confront this part of myself. I am grateful to have a home with MJSC, especially with my favorite holiday, Passover, around the corner. Unlike many people of color who come to Spain from the US, I don’t face daily profiling or discrimination. I will always have reservations about revealing my identity because we have not historically been the most accepted, but overall I am relieved with how Spain has received me when I’ve chosen to share that part of myself.
As I sit on the train on my way to my first day of school, I share some reflections on my first week as an Aux in Madrid.