(From my speech May 14, 2014 at The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey's Women's Philanthropy luncheon)
I’d like to talk about being Jewish in a Puerto Rican family by telling you the story of my Bar Mitzvah. First, some interesting background. Lily Friedman, my mom, now 94 and the pride of Siesta Key, Sarasota, Florida met my late dad Cruz Rivera of Bayamon, Puerto Rico in 1939 at Child’s Cafeteria on the corner of 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue [in New York City]. He had just emigrated from the island, literally arriving on the weekly banana boat; she was from Newark and was working as a waitress. He was in charge of the restaurant’s Latino dishwashers.
As someone who loves Israel, I beg you to see that organizations like “J-Street” in D.C. are more reflective of the view of a majority of progressive Jews than many of the more traditional organizations that claim to speak for us. The Palestinians need their homeland too.
It was love at first sight. They married in Manhattan. Her family sat Shiva (went into mourning) in Newark. We lived on the Lower East Side. My dad was a sergeant in the Army during WWII. When he got out, we moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where my sister Irene and I attended PS 19, the local public school. Then we moved to West Babylon, Long Island where mom and dad bought a house for $10,000 under the GI Bill.
In West Babylon, we were not just the only Puerto Rican family, but also the only Jewish family. There was no Temple in West Babylon, so our tiny congregation held its services and my Bar Mitzvah in the local Volunteer Fire Department hall in North Lindenhurst, right near the tracks of the Long Island Railroad.
For my Bar Mitzvah, we invited both dad’s family and mom’s. The thing is my Jewish mom’s family was far smaller than my dad’s Puerto Rican family. My dad was one of 17 children, all from the same parents Juan and Tomasa who both lived into their late 90s. A humble, hard-working man, Abuelo was majordomo at a sugar cane plantation, and the kids all cut cane as youngsters.
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At the time of my Bar Mitzvah, the Riveras were all devout Catholics. Nowadays, many are Evangelical; my favorite cousin Lily, named for mama, is a Pentecostal minister in the Bronx, but back in the day they were Catholic.
They were also absolutely non-judgmental. They were good with anyone as long as you were a person of faith. They followed the Bar Mitzvah service as closely as they could. Many still only spoke Spanish. And when they sensed the most sacred moment had come when the Ark was opened for the Torah reading, they took off their yarmulkes and put them over their hearts, which ritually speaking is exactly the wrong move.
There are many great things about being married to my smart, sexy, gorgeous wife seated right there, and one big one is Erica’s pride in her Jewishness. I’ll tell you about it in all its grandeur, but even before Erica blessed my life at the beginning of this Millennium, I was a poster-boy for flamboyant Jewishness.
Maybe it was overcompensation.
Being a mixed breed, I’ve often felt the need to remind people that I was Jewish, because it’s usually not the first thing that most think of when they hear my name. And that was especially true when I started at Eyewitness News four and a half decades ago. Geraldo Rivera and Jewish weren’t exactly synonymous.
But I always tell people that Jews are tough and you never know where we’ll turn up. I have a Star of David tattoo on my left hand. I got this in 1972 after the Maillot massacre, when terrorists infiltrating from Lebanon slaughtered a bunch of kids at a kibbutz nursery school in Northern Israel.
I got the tattoo because if the time ever came again when someone was asking for the Jews, I wanted to be the tough guy who brandished this clenched fist and said “here’s one.”
But the tattoo is a fairly sensible response to a particular outrage; far campier is the Chai, (a fake-gold pin in the shape of the spiritually significant Hebrew number 18, a symbol for ‘alive’). I used to wear it on the lapel of my favorite purple fake velvet sport jacket during those Eyewitness days in the early 1970s.
I swear I became a sailor because of Longfellow’s poem about the Jewish cemetery in Newport, Rhode Island.
How strange it seems! These Hebrews in their graves,
Close by the street of this fair seaport town,
Silent beside the never-silent waves,
At rest in all this moving up and down!
When Erica told her parents that she was marrying me, a man far older than she, her brother Josh who is now one of my best friends punched his fist through the wall in rage and frustration. Erica’s late father Howard, a longtime local leader of the Anti-Defamation League said, “at least he’s Jewish.”
This, as I mentioned, is very important to my wife. Even though we’ve been married for eleven years, Erica is still constantly reminding me that so and so is Jewish. Did you know that Drake the Canadian rapper is Jewish? Barbara Walters? Howard Stern? Lenny Kravitz? Simon Cowell? Sarah Jessica Parker? Gwyneth Paltrow? And my favorite, Harry Potter, aka, Daniel Radcliff?
For Erica, there is no brighter light than someone who’s converted, that’s really huge. Sammy Davis Jr. and Marilyn Monroe in my day. Ivanka Trump now. Lindsay Lohan was in the process of converting, when she bailed out, which may explain her current difficulties.
Erica and I are also great lovers of Israel, and Zionists to the core. I’ve covered every conflict there since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Indeed, for a time in 2002 I had the notion of our moving to Israel so I could run for the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament. The problem with my scheme for Erica’s parents was its timing, coming as it did in the midst of the Second Intifada, when bombs were exploding there daily.
But having established my family’s Jewish bona fides, I come now to the difficult part of the speech, what I have to say about the time bomb that’s ticking in Israel, especially now that the latest round of peace talks have ended so badly. And to me, the scariest thing about the failed peace talks is how little the news affected most Jews there in Israel or here at home.
Anyone who’s actually traveled around Israel in the last couple of years will tell you: things are great, so peaceful, relatively speaking. A couple of rockets here or there. Of course we’re all worried about Iran and the nukes and so forth, but generally speaking things are OK, the beaches and the clubs are filled, the economy is churning along; a condo in Herzliah (a Tel Aviv suburb) is more expensive than it’s ever been. And why upset the status quo by taking a chance on peace with an unreliable partner?
But what I wish every Jewish visitor to Israel could do is spend one night with a Palestinian family, as I have done many times over the years. You can’t imagine how devastating it is to them to be second-class citizens in the land they claim a part of as their own, and for them to watch helplessly as the Israeli settlements continue to expand into the Palestinian territories, as they yearn for a nation and a passport of their own.
I believe that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is right to demand that Israel be recognized as the Jewish State of Israel or as the Homeland of the Jewish people. That is what it is, and the name strips away the facade of secularity. Further, the characterization is as appropriate as Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan calling themselves “the Islamic State of...”
But as someone who loves Israel, I beg you to see that organizations like “J-Street” in D.C. are more reflective of the view of a majority of progressive Jews than many of the more traditional organizations that claim to speak for us.
The Palestinians need their homeland too.
Going back to Longfellow’s mournful poem at the Jewish Cemetery.
…But ah! What once has been shall be no more!
The groaning earth in travail and in pain
Brings forth its races, but does not restore,
And the dead nations never rise again.
Israel has risen from the dead. We exalt in that miracle. But let’s spread it around.