THE BLOG
07/17/2013 05:48 pm ET Updated Sep 16, 2013

Cultural Combo: Bullfight and Bat Mitzvah

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by Hannah Kliot

Imagine James Holmes, the man responsible for the Aurora shooting, thrown into an Olympic-size stadium and stabbed by men on horses to the cheers of thousands of spectators. If that seems too brutal for someone who murdered twelve people, why is the massacre of an innocent bull worthy of a cheering crowd?

I could not escape this question in Portugal. I am a Portuguese-American - or, as some call me, the only Portuguese Jew that they have ever met. I was in for a shock when my cousin invited me to a bullfight while I was working in Lisbon for the summer on my own. While initially hesitant to witness the barbaric cheering of an innocent bull's death, my curiosity and endless fascination with different cultures overcame my hesitation.

I met my cousin at the front of Campo Pequeno, the bullfighting arena, with my 10 euro ticket in hand. The plain-looking door belied what was behind it: a huge stadium lined with food vendors and excited spectators roaming the endless halls in search of their seats. It was the NFL or NASCAR of Portugal - people argued over seats and tickets and cheered loudly for their favorite cavaleiro, or horseback rider, before the fight.

The excitement was infectious; I could not resist it. I tried to imagine my mom at my age. She grew up in Lisbon and went to bullfights most Thursdays. For her, this tradition was akin to my family's weekly ritual of exploring a restaurant in a different neighborhood. I probably inherited my innate distaste for bullfights from my dad's side of the family; his mother is Australian and his father was Latvian. Both sides have inspired my perpetual thirst to understand different cultural customs. So naturally, I sat in the stadium consumed with a question: How can people watch the maiming of an animal as casually as Americans watch Eli Manning throw a football?

I came close to finding an answer to my question during the intermission. A young man no older than 25 approached and hugged my cousin. I immediately recognized him as one of the cavaleiros who had been fighting in the arena just minutes before. My cousin then spoke with an older man who looked strong and proud as the young man ran back to prepare for his second round of the fight. Later, she explained that the older man was the boy's father who was a very successful cavaleiro when he was younger. Their families had an endless line of cavaleiros tracing back for centuries and it was a deep-rooted family tradition and a considerable honor in both their family and in their town to be brave enough to fight what was considered such a wild animal.

I looked at this alien young man in his gold embroidered costume and thought about how different we were. Then, with a wave of surprise, I realized that maybe we were not so different after all. I saw hints of myself in the young cavaleiro's commitment to family heritage. I expressed this same respect for the other side of my family with my decision to have a Bat Mitzvah in honor of my grandfather. A Holocaust survivor, his Jewish lineage was of great importance to him and therefore to me, even though my mother is not Jewish.

A few months before the big celebration, my grandfather passed away. I chose to continue to study for my Bat Mitzvah - I knew it was what he would have wanted. In both scenarios of the bullfight and the decision to continue studying for my Bat Mitzvah, I gained a newfound understanding and appreciation for the cultures that make up who I am. While I am not going to be the next cavaleiro or a devout Jew, my appetite to probe and understand both cultures and society beyond normal expectations will continue to shape my identity.

Hannah Kliot, a 2012 graduate of The Dalton School, will be a freshman at Northwestern University in the Fall.

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