The Jew And The Carrot

Taking a Bite of Converso History Through Tacos

By Renee Ghert-Zand

  • Print
  • Share Share

Since 2005, Texas-born conceptual artist and former Heeb photo editor, Peter Svarzbein has been interviewing and photographing Latino families in the American Southwest who are returning to Judaism — believing their ancestors were Conversos, forced converts to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition.

Svarzbein, 33, was looking for a way for more people to feast their eyes on these portraits of Crypto Jews and to chew on the historic circumstances that connect Latinos and Jewish traditions. That’s when he came up with the idea for a food truck — a kosher taco truck, to be exact.

With the support of various organizations in his native El Paso, Svarzbein launched Conversos y Tacos Kosher Gourmet Trucks, an innovative and interactive art installation than ran for a week in the city in far West Texas in late July.

Over the week, the truck made six stops at various community and food events around El Paso (where Szarzbein grew up in a culturally Jewish family with a Hispanic-Ashkenazi background), serving fusion taco plates melding Jewish and Mexican cuisine. The food reflected the questions Svarzbein wants to challenge people with, like: How can a person be both Jewish and Latino? How can culture, religion and identity fuse together over, or through, the U.S.-Mexico border?

The artist teamed up with local chef Jose Cazares of Hello Day Café to come up with three unique tacos inspired by both Jewish and Latino food. The first was a pickle and brisket taco (“a deli experience on a corn tortilla”), the second was a chicken shawarma taco served with Israeli salad and tahini, and the third was a kosher carne asada taco with pico de gallo and cilantro. All three were served together, along with a latke and a jalapeno dipping sauce with a soy sauce base. Conversos y Tacos charged patrons a symbolic $6.13 for the whole plate.

Sourcing the kosher meat for these special tacos was not so simple. Svarzbein got some of it from fellow El Paso native Ari White, who has been wowing New York recently with his pop-up kosher Texas-style barbeque (his smoker is called HaKadosh BBQ). “We had to go to the Trader Joe’s in Albuquerque, New Mexico for the rest of the kosher chicken and brisket,” Svarzbein said.

The taco truck also had to have a mashgiach, or kosher supervisor, which for part of the time was Rabbi Juan Mejia, who was born in Bogota, Colombia to a Catholic family and made his way back to Judaism when he learned his family was descended from Conversos. Rabbi Levi Greenberg of Chabad in El Paso was also a mashgiach for the project.

As customers enjoyed the fusion tacos, they watched an audiovisual presentation of Szarzbein’s photographs of Conversos and perused special fold-out menus he prepared containing a timeline of the Spanish Inquisition and the history of the Conversos, a list of Sephardic surnames, and definitions for the terms “Conversos,” “Crypto-Jews” and “Anusim” — all referring to Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity on pain of death.

The tacos Svarzbein served up were intentionally neither authentically Jewish nor authentically Mexican. “That’s the whole point. It was about challenging assumptions,” he noted. “People who were looking for authentic Sephardic or authentic Mexican food would have been disappointed.”

Based on the attention the project has received, it would seem that few people were disappointed. Diners appeared to be hungry for Svarzbein’s artistically presented lesson on food as identity, and his attempt to ironically reclaim the identity of Jews once derogatively called Marranos (pigs) through kosher tacos.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: kosher texas, kosher tacos, hakadosh bbq, crypto jews, ari white

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • BREAKING: Was an Israeli soldier just kidnapped in Gaza? Hamas' military wing says yes.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.