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Communal Table at The Israel Levin Center: An Inside Look

At the Israel Levin Center on the Venice Boardwalk, young adult members of the Federation’s NuRoots initiative meet with senior citizens for intergenerational activities. Millennials flock to the Center to prepare meals for the seniors, teach them how to use their tech devices, and join them in weekly jam sessions and Shabbat lunches. Seniors hold court as they impart wisdom to their younger friends and crack up the visitors with classic Yiddish humor. Friendships that would otherwise never exist flourish, thanks to this brainchild of Jewish Federation Los Angeles.

A bimonthly series, Communal Table, is a fan favorite — together, seniors and young adults explore regional Jewish cuisine and culture from around the world. Bourgeoning chefs recreate family recipes and connect to their heritage through storytelling. The opportunity to reminisce about the past allows seniors and young adults to bond over rich and enduring Jewish traditions.

Most recently, NuRoots community member Julia Thompson, a Cuban Jew (or “Jewban,” as she calls herself), co-hosted a Communal Table. Check out what she has to say about it here:

An Interview with Julia Thompson

What inspired you to explore your Jewish roots?

I wasn’t raised Jewish, and neither of my parents were raised Jewish. I was brought to Hillel on my third day of college for services and something clicked — I felt like I found a piece of me I didn’t know was missing. I started seriously practicing when I moved to Los Angeles after graduating, and I was inspired to look into my past to see if I indeed had Jewish roots. What I found was that my mother’s mother’s family, who had come to Cuba from Spain had a converso last name (a Jew who converted to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition), “Vidal.” Like many conversos, they fled from Spain to the Canary Islands during the Inquisition, and then from the Canary Islands to Cuba.

What is the most surprising thing you have discovered about the Jewish-Cuban identity?

I suppose the most surprising thing was that there really wasn’t a coherent sense of Jewish-Cuban identity. Because you weren’t allowed to practice Judaism before Castro, those Jews who immigrated to Cuba remained isolated from one another. It’s really been in the aftermath of the exile, in places like Miami, that they’ve started to create that cohesive vision.


(Courtesy of the Global Library Initiative)


What advice do you have for someone on a quest to unravel their origin story?

I would say, talk to your family members now and record them! Both of my grandparents on my mother’s side have passed away, and I wish I could have asked them more about our family’s journey while they were alive.

Which Cuban dishes are your favorite?

My mother’s black beans and rice are the best. I’ve yet to try black beans that compare to them. I also love yucca frita con ajo, which is cassava root with a garlic sauce, and then, of course, empanadas.

How was it working with the seniors?

Jewish and Cuban cultures share a lot of similarities, but one of the biggest ones is the priority on family and the intergenerational experience. I felt really lucky to hear the seniors’ stories about their own personal travels in Cuba and their knowledge of the Jewish-Cuban identity. They had so many great questions and were excellent salsa students.

What was your favorite part of Communal Table?

My favorite part was being able to discuss history through food and bring people into conversation. Cubans live for big family feasts, and I loved being able to share some of those dishes with people.

What’s next?

Spain currently has a program open for the next year that grants citizenship to Sephardic Jews who were persecuted during the Inquisition. My mother and I are in the process of applying! Aside from that, I’m hoping to throw a Cuban-themed Shabbat dinner in the near future and continue to explore what it means to me to be a Jewish Cuban.

NuRoot’s intergenerational work and Communal Table at the Israel Levin Center is supported by a generous Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. To learn more, email BZiegler@JewishLA.org

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