Maya has an ease about her. She seems so…at home in herself, it has a kind of contagious effect—you find yourself relaxing and comfortable in almost no time at all. Not surprisingly, Maya has been adept at finding different homes for herself all across the broad galaxy of Jewish life. For a while now, she’s been helping others feel like they belong, too.
Over Zoom, we talked about the rabbi of Maya’s heart, making Judaism feel more inclusive, the power of permission, and the magic of blended identities. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jason: I’d love to hear about growing up in a multicultural house.
Maya: My dad is from India (and a Muslim background) and my mom is from New York (and a Jewish background, the child of a Holocaust survivor). They met in a Berkeley Whole Foods in the…honey section.
The ultimate meet cute!
It really is.
When I was born, they hadn’t had many conversations about how they wanted to bring culture and religion into our home. Neither was particularly religious, but I was raised next to Yemenite Muslim neighbors, and I became fast friends with their kids, and that was how I got to know Islam more intimately. My other best friend was from a Modern Orthodox Jewish background, and I grew up learning about Judaism from her family and going to her house for Shabbat.
There’s a famous story in my family. When the neighbor kids started going to Arabic school, their mom came over to our house and said to my mom, “Let’s bring Maya to Arabic school with my kids so she can learn.”
“That’s not really my background,” my mom said. “I don’t really know much of the culture.”
“Okay, then bring her to Jewish school but give her something!!”
So my mom sent me to Hebrew school. I ended up being the person to teach her Jewish prayers and rituals and she learned with me.
That sounds like such a rich exposure to different traditions and in such different contexts, too.
At one point, my parents went religious community “shopping” for our family and visited a mosque, a Buddhist temple, a Thai temple, and a Unitarian Church trying to find a place where our multicultural family might belong. Finally, they went to Temple Sinai in Oakland, and it happened to be Purim. Our rabbi—I still consider him my rabbi because he’s the rabbi of my heart—was in drag as Queen Esther. There were balloons and he was playing with all the kids, and my parents were like, “This is our place.”
My dad came with us to synagogue and actually loved learning the prayers and the rituals, and then 9/11 happened. My rabbi was the first person to call him and say, “How are you doing? If anybody makes you uncomfortable, I want you to know you have this whole synagogue at your back.”
Temple Sinai was family to us, and home.
Wow. I’m so moved by that story. Fast-forwarding a bit, you eventually left Oakland for school and then, of course, you came back. I’m curious what it’s been like to return.
After spending time in India, Israel, and outside of Boston, I came back to the Bay Area as a post-college student and was like, “What am I doing and where are my people?” I was working several odd jobs when I cold emailed Ilana Kaufman, not knowing she was a big shot! She’s this incredible, driven, talented person who started the Jews of Color Initiative (JoCI). We met for coffee, and I had told her that I identify as multicultural, with Jewish and Indian roots.
“Sounds like you’re a Jew of Color,” she said.
I was like, “What’s that mean?”
Ilana pulled me into that world, and I ended up going to a lot of Jews of Color Shabbats, which were hosted by OneTable. Then I was like, “What’s OneTable?!”
So, I kept falling down these lovely rabbit holes, and ended up working for OneTable for almost four years.
What was it like working there?
As the Bay Area Field Manager, I was given permission to support my community and host events to bring people together. I brought in an Indian-Jewish chef to talk about making pakoras on Hanukkah, and we had a sobremesa [Editor’s note: post-meal community time] to talk about Latin-Jewish traditions, and so many other infusions.
There hasn’t always been a space for different cultures and alternative ritual within Judaism, so it felt like I was helping pass on that spirit of permission for people to try and see what fits for their own identities and needs.
And now you’re starting a fellowship with JoCI! Tell me a little about their work and what you’ll be doing?
Ilana, who started JoCI, held a lot of different positions in the Jewish community and felt this huge gap in the work she was doing—there was not enough explicit support for Jewish folks of Color. She started JoCI to better understand this widespread community and help it flourish, support existing programs, growing new ones, and advancing community education. My fellowship is with the grant-making team, as a philanthropy fellow; I’m so happy to be part of this work!
You’ve collaborated with the LUNAR Collective, too, right? What drew you to them?
The idea of Pan-Asian identity was not something I’d taken into consideration deeply. When I had met folks that were of different Asian identities in the past, I didn’t usually focus on what we had in common because so much felt different.
Then I participated in LUNAR’s Jewish-Asian Film Project and all these light bulbs went off in my head where I was like, “That’s okay that we don’t have the exact same traditions and language backgrounds and that person doesn’t know anything about Indian culture.” I realized it’s not about that specifically—it’s more about being set apart and having this intercultural identity and finding ways to celebrate it.
LUNAR has done such a great job of uplifting all these different colors of experience, and as a result, the members feel at home with each other (even though this all started online during Covid). A few members who live here have become some of my closest friends.
Now, onto our in-house Proust Questionnaire. Tell me a book, movie, play, song, or piece of art or media that you love.
One of my favorite books is Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who’s an amazing writer. The book takes a step back from the racialized experience of America and gives a very international perspective.
What is the Bay’s best-kept secret?
The Oakland Museum Friday Nights. They have live music, a DJ, food trucks, and some exhibits are open. There are always so many kids there from different backgrounds and walks of life and speaking different languages and that scene feels like this incredible bridging of cultures and love and communication. My ideal world is one where other cultures are celebrated and spoken about and asked about, and of course, people fall in love.
What was the last time you felt some kind of spiritual connection?
I was at a friend’s wedding in Israel and at the very end, all 200 people circled around the bride and groom and held each other as we sang a love song to them. They were crying and we were crying and then we all went and hugged them. It was like 2:30 a.m.! I often feel spiritual during moments like that in a group during some kind of ritual, when it doesn’t really matter who’s next to you—you know you’re on the same page, and it feels holy.
GatherBay Profiles is our interview series spotlighting the vast array of community members doing rad things! Released twice per month, the series aspires to celebrate GatherBay’s greatest treasure—the people around us. Want to be profiled? Email email@example.com.