I didn’t know how much I missed my culture until my undergraduate professor Doctor Igel pronounced my last name in Portuguese, asking me to turn the lights off, so she could put on the projector – and I nearly cried. I literally got teary eyed.
Absurd, I know. But, after nearly two years in Maryland, I realized I had taken that thing for granted on soccer pitches and in Portuguese-Catholic schools that seemed a lifetime ago. From that day forward, she would have all of my respect.
Early in the course, the Brazilian-born professor told us she was Jewish and observed Jewish holidays. I phoned my brother later that day. “I saw a unicorn today,” I said, “A Portuguese Jew — and she’s awesome.”
At that time, my Facebook profile regarding religion was something like: “Portuguese, so obviously Catholic.” As a person who grew up in Portuguese enclaves, ethnic culture was still most visible in the context of religious feasts; I believed being Portuguese and Jewish was an anomaly.
In that Portuguese Culture class, sitting beside a yarmulke-wearing classmate, I learned that Jews lived in Portugal in the Roman Era and were later persecuted by the Visigoths and Christians. I learned that tens of thousands of Jews fled Spain during the Inquisition to make their lives in Portugal. And that later Portuguese Jews and Portuguese Muslims, who refused to be baptized, were expelled from Portugal.
Years following that Portuguese Culture class, after I graduated from law school (where even the most self-proclaimed liberal professors often failed to properly pronounce my last name in English), when I got my 23 and Me results back, I found out I was .3% Ashkenazi Jewish.
If you look hard enough, there are no unicorns.