‘Chutzpah and Salsa’ showcases storytelling from the crossroads of cultures

By Christina Campodonico

Jewish Women’s Theatre dives into stories about the Jewish Latino experience

For some, the idea that someone could be Jewish and Latino is kind of a head scratcher.

But there are actually around 200,000 Jewish Latinos living in the U.S. — “a small but thriving population,” according to one 2015 study.

For Jewish Women’s Theatre’s literary manager Suzanna Kaplan, the greatest misconception about Latino Jews is that they even exist.

“Not many people are aware of what large populations of Jewish people there are in Latin America,” she says.

And, it turns out, the U.S.

To shed light on this somewhat hidden group, Jewish Women’s Theatre is putting on a reprise of its popular salon-style show “Chutzpah & Salsa” this Thursday, Saturday and Sunday in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month.

Last presented in May 2016, the popular show features readings of 12 personal stories about the Latino Jewish experience — which is as diverse as Latin America itself and the regions connected to it, notes Kaplan, whose New York Jewish mother emigrated from the States to Mexico after falling in love with the country and later her husband. Kaplan herself was raised in Mexico and produces “Chutzpah & Salsa.”

“If you look at the Cuban experience of Latinos in Miami, you can’t say it’s similar to the experience of a person picking grapes [in California]. It’s different cultures, languages and expectations,” she says. “You can’t lump them together.”

Which is why JWT has curated a range of stories, including one about a Cuban Catholic woman who converts to Judaism and another about a Mexican author who lives in Oregon, but has to constantly explain why she doesn’t “look” Mexican. Others thoughtfully explore the show’s premise — “What does it mean to have a Latin heart and a Jewish soul?” — through unlikely angles, such as food.

“The convert story breaks my heart every time,” says Kaplan. “Some of them are so poignant. … We have a story about a lunch: the American father is playing Sinatra, while the Hungarian grandmother is playing Hungarian music. And there’s tortillas on the table. They are all joyously combined.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Sonia Nazario’s story about a close family member abducted by authorities during Argentina’s “Dirty War” is also among the highlights of the show. The story talks about Nazario’s passionate campaign to have her family member released.

Nazario — whose father, a Syrian Christian, and mother, an Ashkenazi Jew, both fled their respective homelands to build new lives in Argentina — chose to share that story because she wanted to show the incredible power of one to change even a dire situation and to shine a light on Latino Jews like herself.

“There’s not really an understanding that there are Jewish Latinos. I thought it was good to say, ‘We’re here, we have a distinct point of view,’” she says.

But on a boarder scale, as someone who’s written extensively on immigration between the U.S. and Latin America, through stories such as the national bestseller “Enrique’s Journey,” she also observes a special kinship between Jewish and Latino immigration experiences — especially refugees fleeing Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

“Jews have spent their entire experience running from being annihilated,” she says. “There are those shared experiences of running from harm, understanding the underdog. … There is a special sensitivity to protecting people from harm.”

“There’s always that expectation that we might have to leave at any moment,” adds Kaplan. “There was always in every Jewish home a metaphorical suitcase by the door.”

While immigration is a driving theme of “Chutzpah & Salsa,” Kaplan says it’s in no way meant to be a political statement on current U.S. relations with Central America and Mexico, but rather an invitation for everyone who sees the show to broaden their worldview and examine their own roots.

“I hope it makes them think and it
makes them understand there’s a greater world of people out there, who are just people,” she says, “who have stories that are moving, touching, something you can identify with. … We all long for some kind of anchor.”

“Chutzpah & Salsa” plays at 8 p.m. Thursday and Saturday (Oct. 11 and 13) at The Braid, 2912 Colorado Ave., Ste. 102, Santa Monica. A 2 p.m. Sunday (Oct. 14) show is already sold out. Tickets are $20 to $40 at jewishwomenstheatre.org. Email susie@jewishwomenstheatre.org to get on the waitlist for Sunday’s show.