My son’s Jewish and Guatemalan identity

janet2by Janet Alperstein, Ph.D

As I wrote about in a previous post for Raising Race Conscious Children, my son’s and my adoption story—and our racial and religious identities—are a daily part of our lives.

Celebrations are a big part of our family: the Jewish holidays, the anniversaries of the day we met and the day we became a family, Guatemalan Independence Day, and National Adoption Day. Each of these celebrations helps us reaffirm our multiple identities.

We also read the book, “I Love Jewish Faces” by Debra Darvick that affirms Judaism’s diversity and our family.

“Look at the Jewish faces here that look like us, and our family and friends,” I will tell my son.

This message has been reinforced in other books like “Beautiful Yetta: The Yiddish Chicken” by Daniel Pinkwater and “Do Unto Otters: A Book About Manners” by Laurie Keller both of which are Jewish themed stories with Spanish infused throughout. When I read Keller’s book to my son for the first time, he was giddy with excitement:

“Momma, it has the words in all three languages I’m studying!”

In a small library in Connecticut, a friend found a cookbook of challahs (Jewish bread eaten on Shabbat and holidays) from around the world and sent the recipe for the one from Guatemala. Now, every year for the Shabbats (sundown Friday night to sundown Saturday night) surrounding Guatemalan Independence Day, September 15, we eat this delicious sweet challah with cardamom made by my mom.

According to the Talmud (Kiddushin 29a), a parent is supposed to teach a child three things: Torah, a trade, and how to swim. In our family, we say there is a fourth thing: Spanish.

Two summers ago while walking from the bus to one of the last days of a three week Spanish camp, my then almost five-year-old son said:

“I don’t want to go to Spanish camp. Why are you forcing me to go?”

“What language do people speak in Guatemala?” I asked him.


“Yes—and that is why in our family it is important to learn the language of the place where you were born. That’s why I continue to learn Spanish, too. Just like your swim lessons and going to school to learn Torah and hopefully someday leading to a trade (a job or career), Spanish is important.”

He accepted my answer. The next day when I picked him up at Spanish camp, his Spanish teacher pulled me aside and relayed a comment my son had made to me:

“My mom is forcing me to come here but I like it.”

Our family’s stories about the intersection of our multiple identities are a continuous conversation that I look forward to continuing to have with my son as he grows.


Janet F. Alperstein is the proud mom of a seven-year-old boy born in Guatemala City and raised in New York City where their gender, racial, ethnic and religious identities are an important part of their everyday lives. Dr. Alperstein has worked in higher education for just over 20 years with a focus on international education and has taught a graduate sociology class on gender and the role of schools for 15 years.

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