Aztlan, Anew: U.S. Latinos Leave Catholic Church to Seek Ancestral Heritage
“What we’re doing is praying with our feet, with our bodies.”
Centzi Millia, a 31-year-old Aztec dance instructor prepares for an afternoon class, wrapping her long blonde dreads into a bun and gathering small children into a circle. “We honor the Mother Earth with our bare feet, and the vibrations we create — the Mother Earth as a living being feels those vibrations.”
The dance starts in a flurry of drum beats and the bass jangling of Ms. Millia’s chachayotl, the thick anklets of Aztec danzantes made of rattling seed pods.
“It was actually at Knott’s Berry Farm, of all places, that I discovered the danza,” Ms. Millia says after class, sitting in the sunlight of Kuruvunga Springs, a remnant site of the ancient Tongva people nestled between Santa Monica Boulevard and Wilshire. “My parents would say those were the dances our people used to do, but that’s as far as they would tell me.”
Eighteen years later, Ms. Millia is one of several Aztec dance teachers in Southern California. A child of Mexican immigrants, she represents part of a trend among Latinos in the U.S. who are shifting away from the Roman Catholic Church. Though the Church still holds sway among new immigrants from Latin America, the children of these immigrants have been turning toward forms of Protestantism or are choosing not to affiliate with any type of religion.
However, Ms. Millia and some of her second- and third-generation peers raised in traditional Catholic households have left the Church not to follow any alternate form of Christianity or atheism, but to pursue the spiritual paths of their pre-Christian ancestors. As she pursued dance, Ms. Millia’s elders taught her how it was reshaped and used as a tool by Spanish conquerors to lure the local people away from their native, or indigenous, beliefs and toward Catholicism.
Instead of dancing for Mother Earth, Ms. Millia says that dances became offerings to the Virgin Mary. The special days of celebration for the native people became Catholic holidays. These kinds of revelations pushed her away from the church.
With the abundance of coverage of the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican, here’s our show about a Jesuit priest who’s living a life of Christian service that flies under the radar. Father Greg Boyle’s gang intervention programs in Los Angeles are becoming more well-known, but his ideas behind them often get short shrift.
He makes winsome connections between service and delight, and compassion and awe. He heads Homeboy Industries, which employs former gang members in a constellation of businesses. This is not work of helping, he says, but of finding kinship. The point of Christian service, as he lives it, is about “our common calling to delight in one another.”
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
“Even if you like living alone, that doesn’t always mean you want to be alone.”
The author and journalist Lisa Napoli does this thing where she opens her door on Friday nights and throws a “party” in her LA abode. Anybody can come and socialize. It’s such a lovely idea and seems like a great way to build relationships and foster community in one’s own way.
The sentiment of this idea reminds me of a story theologian Roberta Bondi once told about being involved and showing up:
“I would just find when I came home at the end of the day, I would be so exhausted that I could hardly contain myself. And I would be met at the car, usually, pulling into the driveway by my two children and my husband, who would all come out to tell me all the things that had gone wrong in the day, like the washing machine had overflowed and the rug in the dining room was soaking wet. And I would think, ‘Oh, I just want to go back to school.’ I would come into the house, and Richard and I would fix supper, and then we would sit down and eat and I would fall asleep with my head in the mashed potatoes. But the fact is that I knew all along that, however it was, it was better that I was there than that I wasn’t there, that my family needed me, that being part of a family means showing up for meals. And prayer is like that. However we are, however we think we ought to be in prayer, the fact is we just need to show up and do the best we can do. It’s like being in a family.”
Standing in the lowly place with the easily despised, and the readily left out, and with the demonized — so that the demonizing will stop — and with the disposable — so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away. That gives me life, that’s where I want to be. I think that’s where Jesus insists on standing.
A Home for Middle Eastern Gay Men to Celebrate Both Identities
by Andrew Khouri, USC graduate journalism student
“The hookah breaks the ice,” said the man behind the bar.
A collection of old, silver-painted water pipes styled as light fixtures hang above his head, bathing in gold a crowd of men as they puff away on flavored tobacco below. The pulsating beat of Arabic music wafts onto the outdoor patio from inside the bar, where throngs of gay men dance together, and scantily clad male go-go dancers gyrate on stages.
A similar scene of rhythm, smoke, and liquor plays out nightly throughout Los Angeles, a city revered for its immigrant and gay cultures. But for party-goers at this weekly romp, the atmosphere was a new one. Most hailed from the Middle East, where homosexuality carries social and sometimes even legal punishment. In Saudi Arabia, homosexual sex carries a maximum penalty of death, and even in Lebanon, which has a burgeoning gay club scene, “sexual intercourse contrary to nature” is illegal.
Tattoos and Torah: One Woman’s Journey to the Rabbinate
by Robyn Carolyn Price, USC “Reporting on Israel” Journalism Student
Rabbi Rochelle Kamins has not always felt Jewish enough. No youth group or summer camp. She never did all of the things that young Jewish people were “supposed” to do. But she always wanted to feel like she fit, and that she could belong — tattoos, motorcycles, and all. Relaxed in her office at Kehillat Israel, a Reconstructionist Congregation in Pacific Palisades where she is the youth activities director, Rabbi Rochelle talks candidly about her non-traditional road to the rabbinate and why she doesn’t plan on conforming anytime soon.
“I think everyone has an image of a rabbi,” says Rabbi Rochelle laughing. “They think old white man with a beard and big hat. Just like when you ask most kids what God looks like, he is still the man on the cloudy throne in the sky.”
Rabbi Rochelle is a bit of an anomaly. Adorned with tattoos, albeit inconspicuously, she drives her Honda CBR F4i motorcycle through Los Angeles traffic en route to perform one of her rabbinic duties. Ordained in 2009 as a Reform rabbi, she has built an image on being different and welcoming people into Judaism that might not fit the mold.
Her goal is to make change in the Jewish community — in the way that Jews look at other Jews. She has a passion that stems from a lifetime of feeling like people were looking at her as if she could not be a part of the community, because she didn’t participate in all of the things that constituted being a “good” Jew. As a rabbi, she aims to help people foster connections within the community while being a reflection of what she believes are different, yet acceptable routes to Judaism.
She tells the story of a couple who asked her to perform their wedding on a Saturday, the day of rest in Judaism where working or getting married is against tradition. The couple grew up Jewish and were interested in maintaining a Jewish household, however were not currently connected to a synagogue. They shared with her horror stories of other rabbis who had refused to perform the ceremony and told the couple that they were not Jewish because of their decision to get married on Shabbat.
“I had a conversation with them and explained the tradition,” recalls Rabbi Rochelle. “The date and the place for their wedding was already set. Is it the worse thing in the world? No. The worst thing in the world would be if the next rabbi said no. And the next rabbi said no, and the next. Then they would be lost. Why would anyone come into a community if they feel like the door keeps getting slammed in their face?”
Raised in San Francisco by her mother, a more traditional Jew from the Bronx, and her father, an L.A. Socialist Jew, Rabbi Rochelle’s experience was anything but traditional. “How the two of them came together and created a rabbi is anyone’s guess,” chuckles Rabbi Rochelle.
Her upbringing, however, cultivated a sensitivity for Jewish people whose lives did not fit perfectly within the boundaries of traditional Jewish practice or thought. “My dad’s parents were basically communists,” says Rabbi Rochelle. “You know L.A. Socialists had meetings in their house. One of my grandparents’ good friends was a lawyer who was defending people at the Supreme Court during the Red Scare and all of that. My dad’s father was very anti-organized religion. He was all about science and reason. My grandfather was like, ‘Oh sure you can have a bar mitzvah, if you believe in that.”
Her father, who is in his sixties, never had a bar mitzvah until she performed it last November. “We had a deal,” says Rabbi Rochelle with a smile. “He said he would have a bar mitzvah when I could be the rabbi. It was pretty cool.”
Her mother shares that her daughter’s decision to become a rabbi came as a huge surprise: “I knew after she went to college that she would do something with kids and Judaism, but had no idea that she would take this route.”
Veering from the beaten path has become one of Rabbi Rochelle’s hallmarks. She successfully petitioned UC San Diego to allow her to create her own undergraduate major in Modern Israeli Society and Israeli Culture. And in rabbinical school she wrote her thesis on the question of tattoos in Judaism, “The Illustrated Jew: A New Jewish Perspective on Tattoos,” hoping to give a reference to people like herself that were trying to find a balance between the secular world and their Judaism.
“I did a ton of research before I got my tattoos,” she says. “And I eventually came to the conclusion that body art did not make God angry with me or make me a bad Jew. I am not a bad person and I live my life with integrity.”
Rabbi Rochelle’s body is adorned with two tattoos, although the second one can hardly be considered a single tattoo. It initially started off as a tattoo on her back that spelled the word “love” in the shape of a heart. It has since morphed into an olive tree, which makes the heart appear more like a carving in the tree. The olive tree has special significance in Judaism.
The word emet, meaning “truth” in Hebrew, is tattooed on her hip and was designed to look like it was written on her body with a black Sharpie. The tattoo’s placement was carefully chosen, as she wanted it to be a bit hidden, just for her, and to serve as a reminder to always walk in truth and integrity.
Walking in truth and integrity for Rabbi Rochelle has not always been an easy road to travel. Adopting the unpopular position that someone’s sexual preference, body art, or piercings has nothing to do with their spirituality has presented its fair share of challenges. She is aware that she might be looked at as a bit of an outsider, and is sometimes referred for jobs that quite possibly nobody else will take. Weddings on a Saturday. An interfaith wedding with a minister. She gets the impression at times that people refer these jobs to her because they think, “Oh, it’s Rochelle, she’ll do anything.” That just because she is open in some ways, that she has no boundaries or rules, that there is no method to her madness.
“So many people go through the motions,” says Rabbi Rochelle. “They go to religious school. They do the things, but there is no real connection. I want people to stay connected and to let people know that even if they feel different, like they don’t fit or they don’t belong, there is still room here. You know, they say that Abraham’s tent was open on all four sides, so that visitors or people coming from any direction — he could greet them. I really think that is what the synagogue should be and that is what a rabbi should be. A rabbi is like Abraham, open on all sides and ready to welcome anyone in when they are ready and from whichever direction they come.”
Robyn Carolyn Price is native of Los Angeles, California. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree from New York University, and studied in Florence, Italy. She is currently a Masters Candidate in the Specialized Journalism Program at the University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Communications & Journalism. Her specialization is American politics and its effects on marginalized communities.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
An Israeli “Tribe” in Los Angeles
Israeli brothers fare well when it comes to immigration and employment
by Christin Davis, USC “Reporting on Israel” Journalism Student
In a one-bedroom condo just off Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, friends and family of the four Zilberberg brothers — immigrants to Los Angeles from their home in Israel — began arriving around 9 p.m. on a Friday. The host, Jonathan Zilberberg, 34, scrambled for a wine opener to start the traditional blessings as the two braided loaves of challah, bread for the Jewish Sabbath, wait under the customary embroidered cover.
As someone turns down The Black Eyed Peas’ most recent single, kippah head coverings are distributed to the men in preparation for prayer. With more men than kippahs, paper towels turned up at the corners suffice.
Conversations in Hebrew converge with those in English, as Oz Zilberberg, 38, gathers everyone at the table. The oldest man in the room, in his mid-40s, leads the prayers before passing a glass of wine to the men, in order of age, and then the women.
The Zilberbergs are among some 17,000 Israeli immigrants reportedly living in Los Angeles County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey. The brothers immigrated and established careers before economic decline left 12.5 percent of Californian’s unemployed, as of December 2010, with virtually no variance between the native-born and foreign-born populations.
Each Friday night, the group of about 20 meets in Hollywood for a Shabbat dinner — the beginning of a 24-hour break from work.
“Shabbat dinners are like a small part of Israel,” Oz Zilberberg says. “It helps us remember where we come from and keeps us together as a tribe.”
The brothers’ father was the only surviving member of his family after the Holocaust; he fled to Israel as a refugee from Yugoslavia in 1947.
“Growing up, our father questioned if there was a God, and asked where he was during the Holocaust,” Oz Zilberberg says. “As adults, we divide religion from religious organizations, but we keep the basics.”
On this particular night, over a catered kosher dinner of fish, beef, rice, potatoes, and hummus, discussion centers on the recent unrest across the Middle East and what instigated much of the citizen uprisings — economics, specifically unemployment.
Recent news reports have covered the protests and promises for jobs and monetary assistance in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, and Iran. The head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, even warned in January that the “Arab soul is broken by poverty, employment, and general recession,” according to the Associated Press.
Israel, as Shabbat dinner attendees note, is following the turbulence closely. It has been spared from the unrest, but has not escaped the pertinent issue of unemployment. In November 2010, the Central Bureau of Statistics reports, the unemployment rate in Israel stood at 6.8 percent, including roughly 216,000 Israelis. Haaretz calls unemployment “Israel’s other existential threat,” second only to its destruction by outside forces.
Oz Zilberberg arrived in Los Angeles in 2001 following 10 years serving in the Israeli Defense Forces, a recent divorce, and a year traveling in South America. One by one, his three brothers immigrated to L.A. as well. Jonathan Zilberberg arrived in late 2001, and the brothers opened a construction company together, California Construction Center, which specializes in home remodeling throughout Southern California.
“Israelis are great businessmen by nature,” says Lian Kimia, who immigrated to Los Angeles from Israel as a child and now works as a project manager for the Israeli Leadership Council (ILC), a non-profit geared toward connecting Israeli Americans with their home culture. The ILC operates 13 programs spanning all ages, including one specifically for young professionals.
“Most have served in the army and come with the mentality that everything is life or death, and that you have to do everything to the best of your ability and bring new ideas and solutions to incorporate into your work ethic. Many Israelis here lead their professional lives the same way.”
Tatyana Kodner, director of Refugee and Immigrant Services at Jewish Vocational Services in L.A., a non-profit that works with agencies and individuals to ensure access to employment and assistance, says finding jobs for refugees and immigrants in a normal labor market is difficult due to competition with the native-born population, but “competing with locals over the past two years has become especially challenging.”
“We now have to try to sell personality and a different set of work ethics in helping people find employment.”
Kodner, an immigrant to California from Russia, fled to the U.S. to escape anti-Semitism in her home country. “The Jewish community has always had to work 10 times harder to earn a place under the sun,” Kodner says. “The history of the Jews is that they have always had to prove themselves.”
A large majority of immigrants from the Middle East start businesses in the U.S., according to Kodner. “Many of these individuals were entrepreneurs at home, and they work to be entrepreneurs here as well.”
With 30 employees, including 10 friends the brothers have “imported” from Israel, California Construction Center maintained a steady stream of customers in 2010 despite the recession, but did close a branch office in San Diego. The Zilberbergs say the economic downturn taught them about resiliency, though they have never shied away from prospects for success.
“In the U.S., people grow up without bad shaping their lives; In Israel, with the threat of attacks and with everyone having to serve in the army, you must live each day like it’s your last,” Oz Zilberberg says. “But [in the U.S.], there’s no reason not to run forward and go as high as you can. For me, it is actually the land of opportunities.”
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Top Rabbis and Orthodox Voices
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
Earlier this week, I wrote about a photograph of a Lubavitch assembly. In response to a comment in our Flickr community, I was doing some research and happened upon a couple of lists about the top 50 most influential rabbis and the top 25 rabbis from the pulpit. Sharon Brous, the Conservative rabbi of IKAR in Los Angeles, from our Days of Awe program was included in both. Not only is she young and vibrant, she’s also one of the few women on these lists. She’s worth paying attention to in the years to come.
Also, Ari (the aforementioned commenter) encouraged us to speak with some Orthodox Jewish voices for future programs. Perhaps Rabbi Schneerson would be a good biographical portrait to pursue. Any other suggestions? (Note, these don’t have to be rabbis.)
“Got Faith? Your Life Has Meaning: Live It. Love It. Pass It On.”
Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer (from the road)
Great event yesterday afternoon at Maria Shriver’s 2008 Women’s Conference. Krista moderated a wide-ranging and lively conversation with Benedictine sister and author, Joan Chittister; Tim Shriver, chairman and CEO of Special Olympics; and spiritual teacher and author, Sylvia Boorstein. Ingrid Mattson, professor and president of the Islamic Society of North America was scheduled to participate but had to cancel due to a family emergency. Regrettably, the hour-long discussion among the four was so moving that there was no time to include questions from the audience.
A rough transcript of just one of the highlights:
Krista had just mentioned that often, some religious leaders appear to have all the answers to the large questions of meaning, not only for themselves, but for everyone. And that there is value in the questions, and we need to honor that mystery.
Sylvia Boorstein: Instead of saying, this is how it is, start with, “In my experience…”
Krista Tippett: I can disagree with your opinion, but I cannot disagree with your experience.
Tim Shriver: There are a lot of questions that have nothing to do with God […] I think God is a starting point, not a possession. “God is all powerful, all knowing, all loving, but he is mine.” What a ridiculous idea.
Joan Chittister: A period of questions is a period that takes us into the soul, where less and less is more and more, where we can let God be God. Without questions, you never move off of the place where you are.
Tim Shriver: We are always asking the questions. The questions are the journey. Get comfortable in that search.
The Women’s Conference concluded with a keynote speech by Bono, who described himself as a salesman who, at times, has new U2 albums to vend and now comes calling with his plea for ending global poverty and disease through the (RED) and ONE campaigns.
Being fully aware of our rational inclination to focus our attention inward at such a challenging time, Bono’s closing remarks included a plea to Americans, “We are not asking you to put another man or woman on the moon. We are asking you to put humanity back on earth.”
Bonnie Raitt followed up with a great concert, but I was so tired I could only stay for two songs. Man, did she sound good!
Hear Krista on KPCC’s Patt Morrison Show
Colleen Scheck, Producer
As part of her trip to Los Angeles to participate in the 2008 Women’s Conference and lead a conversation of L.A. faith leaders at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, Krista was a guest on Tuesday’s Patt Morrison program on KPCC (a regional public affairs program for Southern California Public Radio). Here Krista is the interviewee, responding to questions from Patt Morrison and her audience about such topics as the role of religion in government and society, the politics/religion dynamic in this year’s presidential election, atheists and humanists in the interfaith spectrum, how we think about fundamentalism today, and listening and hearing as important virtues in our religious dialogue. Listen to their 25-minute conversation.