By Helene Seifer (February 2013)
Who are we? Ebell women are a diverse lot – by age, religion, racial identity, profession, geographic origin. Most of us are multi-hyphenates, and in this age of increased DNA awareness, we’re often more hyphenated than previously thought. My husband and I are both of European Jewish descent, for example, but he has a genetic marker in his eye that’s associated with ancient Norsemen and my father had a blood disease only found in Asian populations. So our children are Caucasian-Jewish-Ukrainian-Austrian-Hungarian-Mongolian-Vikings! But what part of ourselves truly speaks to who we are? What makes each of us feel connected to our rich heritage stew?
Rebecca Lachter Menendez constantly celebrates diversity. Her father is a Belgian-born Jew; her mother (former Ebell President Kay Lachter) is a Lutheran Norwegian from the Midwest. Rebecca states she is a “Jewish-American from L.A., strongly identified with the city.” Growing up, her family embraced all their traditions, celebrating Passover, Easter, Yom Kippur and Christmas; cooking Jewish food and Norwegian treats, including those that connect her closest to her roots: her paternal grandmother’s chicken recipe and her mother’s Norwegian Christmas Dinner.
Now Rebecca is also immersed in the Hispanic culture of her husband’s family, with whom they live, and loves to explore the diversity afforded in the Southland. “We drive around a lot, go everywhere.” From the Mexican restaurants in Whittier, where she lives, to the excellent Chinese cuisine in nearby Monterey Park, from cutting-edge music at Disney Hall to cutting-edge art at galleries and museums, Rebecca and her husband Edwin immerse themselves in “L.A. culture and the L.A. experience, crossing a lot of borders,” enjoying both the variety of our shared cultural landscape and honoring their own.
“I am a beautiful African-American woman,” Yvonne Adams declares. “I’m family-oriented and in love with my two children and three grandchildren. I don’t have a large family, but we have lots of parties – swim parties, Thanksgiving, Christmas brunch.” She, too, partakes of the diversity of her environs – “We eat some African-American ethnic food” – but she’s proud of her Mexican cooking, as well.
“I live in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood,” Yvonne says, so she eats locally at the kosher Fish Grill. A favorite time for her, when she and her family combine a true American tradition with a celebration of her African heritage, is New Year’s Day. The whole family watches football while eating chitlins, greens, hot links, ribs, black-eyed peas, gumbo, neck bones, coconut cake, peach cobbler and sweet potato pie! Yvonne also connects with her roots through the work she does for African-American charities and involvement in her Baptist Church.
Kyoung Lee was born in North Korea, moved to South Korea and emigrated to the United States in 1962. Although far from home, the Korean community in Los Angeles is very close and huge. “There are 1,200 Korean Churches here!” she notes. Kyoung is widowed with grown children, so she especially looks forward to the holidays when she’s invited to join friends for Korean celebrations. Her favorite is ChooSuk, Korean Thanksgiving honoring dead ancestors, which usually occurs in September on the full moon. Celebrants wear traditional costumes and “there’s always Karaoke!” Best of all, the table is laden with 20 or more dishes, including Korean barbeque, rice, rice cakes, fish, fruit, and several types of kimchee. Kyoung is very proud of the strides her homeland has made in recent years, and encourages us all to visit Korea and sample the culture’s richness.
Portugal and Africa both tug at Isabel Martinez’s heart. Portuguese by ethnicity, she was born and raised on a plantation in Portuguese colonial Africa. She and her sister often got into little scrapes and her family’s local employees “always bailed us two girls out of trouble!” She quickly developed a deep affinity for the people of that land, which she carries to this day. “The ritual that connects me to my background is to go back to Africa” and work to increase employment opportunities and build infrastructure by “building power plants and railroads.” Although her life’s work skews to her childhood upbringing, her palate never forgets her genetics. “I go to Lisbon just for the food!” she exclaims. Isabel visits friends there and eats specialties including her beloved cod fish preparations.
Whether it’s through food or rituals or work, connecting through heritage we share helps bond us and make us whole.