TEANECK, N.J. — A Jewish star hangs around Hanna Mendez' neck as she tends to business in her Teaneck store.
But Mendez, who recently took over Cedar Lane's Pizzalicious — and added frozen yogurt section Berrylicious to it — is not Jewish: She was born and raised a Christian in Mexico.
Working at the kosher shop and several others like it, though, has become a way for Mendez to live in a community she's long wanted to be a part of.
"People will never understand when you're not Jewish but you feel that you are," said Mendez of White Plains, N.Y. "It's something that pulls so hard."
Mendez was 15 years old when she knew. She moved to the U.S., specifically seeking a Jewish community where she could learn more about Judaism.
She chose Borough Park, Brooklyn, which has the largest Hasidic population in the borough.
Mendez began integrating herself into the culture through learning Torah and abiding by many of the laws.
It wasn't until she attended a friend's wedding that Mendez dove a little bit deeper and began attending synagogue weekly and on high holidays. She dresses modestly in skirts and long-sleeved shirts to be tzniut .
The man she ended up marrying is not Jewish, but Mendez says he respects her desire to convert because it is for God.
Together they have a son, 6, who Mendez says tells his teachers and classmates that he is Jewish — he knows the Hebrew alphabet.
Some rabbis tell Mendez she could never be a "real Jew," she said, because her mother is not Jewish.
"I don't listen to what they say," she said. "I know what I feel. God is happy and accepts anyone who wants to be a part of it."
But Mendez knows what she wants, and her customers at Teaneck's Pizzalicious — along with the others she helped open in Long Island, Queens and White Plains, are just happy for her service.
A couple from New City, N.Y., a grandfather visiting his family and a grandmother hosting her grandchildren — all Orthodox Jews — approached Mendez before leaving to tell her how grateful they are that she took over.
It means more to Mendez than they could ever know.
"It's more than service — it's family," Mendez said. "I feel very connected to them. I'm very happy."
PIZZALICIOUS AND BERRYLICIOUS ARE LOCATED AT 439 CEDAR LANE, TEANECK (CHOLOV YISROEL).
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