Be’chol Lashon Newsletter: April 2008
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A Seder with a Syrian Flavor
By Bonny Wolf, April 16, 2008, NPR
When my mother was a child in the 1920s, her great aunts once held a formal Passover Seder. The women wore long gowns and the men tuxedos. Celebrating the Jews' liberation from slavery in Egypt, they felt, was worth getting dressed up for. Of all Jewish holidays, Passover includes the most formal, multi-course meal. Tables are set with the best linens, the china is taken out of quilted storage cases and the silver is polished. Fresh flowers make the table look like a spring garden. I've always loved the Seder table but found the food lackluster. Let's be honest, gefilte fish is homely, even with its dashing side of beet-enhanced horseradish. And cakes made with matzo meal never look or taste like the real thing.
Then I discovered the Jews of Aleppo. And in their exotic, fragrant and flavorful cuisine, I found enticing options for my traditional Seder menu.Like most American Jews, I come from an Ashkenazic background. That means my relatives came from Eastern Europe. Sephardic Jews are from countries, such as Syria, along the Mediterranean Sea. That means they have better food. Middle Eastern meals begin with chickpea hummus and eggplant baba ghanoush. Meat and vegetable dishes are accented by dried fruits, nuts and fragrant spices. Vegetables are stuffed with rice, and desserts are sprinkled with orange blossom water.
The first Jews settled in the northwestern Syrian town of Aleppo around 586 B.C. After years of conflict between Jews and their Arab neighbors, the last Jews left Aleppo in 1997. The Jews of Aleppo largely moved to Israel, South America and the United States. And they brought their food and culture with them.None of the recipes, however, were written down. They existed only in the minds and the hands of the older women.
About 30 years ago, Poopa Dweck got worried. A first-generation Jewish Syrian-American, she wanted to be sure the traditional foods were not lost with the cooks who knew how to prepare them. So she and other women in her community in Deal, N.J., began talking to older cooks and writing up their recipes.Last year, these community recipes were rewritten and compiled in a large, coffee-table cookbook full of color photographs and the history of the Jews of Aleppo, Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews, written by Dweck and Michael J. Cohen. Dweck says Syrian food differs in some ways from other Middle Eastern cuisines. The use of tamarind, for example, is uncommon in cooking of other countries in the region. Dweck says tamarind was introduced to Aleppo from India via Persia in the seventh or eighth century and has remained integral to the cuisine. Tamarind pods hold a sweet-sour pulp used to season food.Also unusual are the small bitter cherries, abundant near Aleppo, featured in a number of dishes.
One recipe is for a stew of meatballs with allspice and pine nuts smothered in a sauce of cherries, onions and tamarind. Dweck says the food of Aleppo also is known for its liberal use of spices. Allspice, cinnamon, saffron and cardamom are common ingredients. There are, however, some strict dietary laws for Passover that limit options. The rules prohibit anything made from wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt, reminding us that in their haste to leave Egypt, the Jews did not have time to let their bread rise.
One of the major Passover dietary differences between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews, however, is the question of rice. The Ashkenazi, making a different interpretation of Jewish law, do not eat rice on Passover. The Syrians do Ashkenazi Seders usually include chicken matzo ball soup, gefilte fish, a roast meat, green vegetable and cake made with matzo meal - or some variation thereof. Color and spice are rarely in attendance.
For her Seder, Dweck serves Aleppian rice with its crunchy, golden crust, roast veal stuffed with spiced ground meat, stuffed artichokes, meatballs stewed in cherry sauce and candied coconut with pistachios - a meal in full color.It's a Seder menu worthy of my great aunts' damask cloths
People of the Book
By Jonathan Yardley, January 2, 2008, WashintonPost.com
PEOPLE OF THE BOOK
Why is it, in this day of rampant technological change, that readers continue to be fascinated by stories of dusty manuscripts moldering on rickety shelves? Think of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, in which a monk investigates charges of heresy by prowling through documents in a medieval library. Or The Rule of Four, by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, in which four Princeton students find puzzles aplenty in a 15th-century manuscript. Or even those big blockbuster bestsellers -- Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (ancient arcana of numerous varieties) and James Redfield's The Celestine Prophecy (ancient Peruvian manuscript).
Now, in a similar vein, we have Geraldine Brooks's People of the Book. The good news is that this new novel by the author of March, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2006, is intelligent, thoughtful, gracefully written and original. Brooks has built upon her experience as a correspondent in Bosnia for the Wall Street Journal to construct a story around a book -- small, rare and very old -- and the people into whose hands it had fallen over five centuries, people who "had known unbearable stress: pogrom, Inquisition, exile, genocide, war."
The people are inventions, but the book itself is very real: "The Sarajevo Haggadah, created in medieval Spain, was a famous rarity, a lavishly illuminated Hebrew manuscript made at a time when Jewish belief was firmly against illustrations of any kind. It was thought that the commandment in Exodus 'Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or likeness of any thing' had suppressed figurative art by medieval Jews. When the book came to light in Sarajevo in 1894, its pages of painted miniatures had turned this idea on its head and caused art history texts to be rewritten." Now it is 1996. The book has survived the wartime violence in Bosnia because the head of the library at the National Museum in Sarajevo, a Muslim, saved it from almost certain destruction by hiding it "in a safe-deposit box in the vault of the central bank." Hanna Heath, a 30-year-old Australian book conservator, has been called in by the United Nations to inspect its conditions and repair it as necessary.
The novel alternates between chapters narrated by Hanna and flashbacks to various points in the book's history -- Sarajevo 1940, Vienna 1894, Venice 1609, Tarragona 1492, Seville 1480 -- at which crucial details about its making and subsequent long passage are revealed. Hanna, in whom it's not difficult to detect a hint of the author's own past as a determined, hard-digging reporter, is a quirky, no-nonsense woman whom I find exceptionally easy to like. Mostly she's totally honest with herself. She's "a complete pessimist. If there's a sniper somewhere in the country I'm visiting, I fully expect to be the one in his crosshairs," and a "world-class coward." She's "not ambitious in the traditional sense," but "I just love to move the ball forward, even if it's only a millimeter, in the great human quest to figure it all out." Her work is an obscure specialty practiced by only a few people around the world, but she loves it:
"My work has to do with objects, not people. I like matter, fiber, the nature of the varied stuffs that go to make a book. I know the flesh and fabrics of pages, the bright earths and lethal toxins of ancient pigments. Wheat paste -- I can bore the pants off anyone about wheat paste. . . . Of course, a book is more than the sum of its materials. It is an artifact of the human mind and hand. The gold beaters, the stone grinders, the scribes, the binders, those are the people I feel most comfortable with. Sometimes, in the quiet, these people speak to me. They let me see what their intentions were, and it helps me do my work."
The book on the table before her at the museum in Sarajevo may be small, but it contains many large mysteries, or "a series of miracles." It is small, "convenient for use at the Passover dinner table" in a Jewish family's residence, yet it is "gorgeously illustrated" in bright, vivid, startling colors. Such contents ordinarily would call for "an elaborate binding," but "this book had probably been rebound many times in its long life" and a century before, in Vienna, had been rebound "in simple cardboard covers with an inappropriate Turkish printed floral decoration, now faded and discolored."
Hanna works on the book for a week, at the end of which "there probably weren't ten people in the world who could have told for sure that I'd taken this book apart and put it back together." Her work does not involve "chemical cleanups or heavy restorations," as she tells Ozren Karaman, the librarian who had rescued the book: "I've written too many papers knocking that approach. To restore a book to the way it was when it was made is to lack respect for its history. I think you have to accept a book as you receive it from past generations, and to a certain extent damage and wear reflect that history. The way I see it, my job is to make it stable enough to allow safe handling and study, repairing only where absolutely necessary."
So she does her job and leaves, but she isn't finished. For one thing, this resolutely independent woman has taken something of a tumble for Karaman, who is "clearly a spectacular human being, brave and intelligent and all the rest of it," and handsome into the bargain. But of more immediate concern, the U.N. plans to put the restored book on public display in the library and wants her to write an essay for the accompanying catalogue. She has extracted a few minuscule samples from the book -- the wing of an insect, feathers and a rose, a wine-stained fragment, a grain of salt, a white hair -- and considers them sufficiently mysterious to warrant investigation.
Hanna herself doesn't travel backward in time to discover where these bits and pieces came from. She consults with other experts -- in her own field and others -- and travels to Vienna, Boston and London in hopes of tracking down the meaning of her tiny clues. But Brooks seizes on these fragments to create five brief narratives in which they are meticulously explained, allowing the people of the book to emerge from the past to tell their stories. In Boston, Hanna talks about all this with an old friend and former lover, an organic chemist, who listens and then says:
"Well, from what you've told me, the book has survived the same human disaster over and over again. Think about it. You've got a society where people tolerate difference, like Spain in the Convivencia, and everything's humming along: creative, prosperous. Then somehow this fear, this hate, this need to demonize 'the other' -- it just sort of rears up and smashes the whole society. Inquisition, Nazis, extremist Serb nationalists . . . same old, same old. It seems to me the book, at this point, bears witness to all that."
Exactly. People of the Book is about the appalling capacity we humans share for turning against people who aren't the same as we are -- or at least don't seem to be -- and doing them inexcusable, incomprehensible violence. The survival of the Haggadah, Karaman says in a speech to the Jewish community in Sarajevo, is "a symbol of the survival of Sarajevo's multiethnic ideal," but it goes without saying that the extreme violence in Bosnia and much of the rest of the Balkans in the 1990s was a mockery of that ideal and was far closer to the reality of human history than the hopes and dreams of those who had handled the book along the way to the library.
The stories of all those people as invented by Brooks are interesting and revealing, but the core of the book is Hanna's story. There's a lot more to it than fixing the book and getting involved with Karaman. She is the only child of a brilliant, driven and egotistical neurosurgeon who never married -- in the 1960s in Australia, to have a child out of wedlock simply was not done, but she did it -- and who was an inattentive mother who left the rearing to the housekeeper. She was infuriated that Hanna chose to become a book conservator rather than a high-powered medico like herself, and her scorn for Hanna's work is palpable: "How is your latest tatty little book, anyway? Fixed all the dog-eared pages?" Though a crisis temporarily brings the two women together, the era of good feelings doesn't last, and Brooks is too honest a student of human nature to portray it otherwise. After all, as Hanna remembers Karaman saying, "some stories just don't have happy endings."
The Right Fit: A Plethora of Haggadot
By Juliet Laidos, March 23, 2007, Forward.com
Arthur Miller once said that “Jews are very impatient with doing the same thing over and over again. It’s gotta be different!” The Jewish playwright’s observation seems particularly apt when applied to Passover — for, on the night that is different from all other nights, Jews fulfilling the vehigadeta mitzvah can choose from nearly 3,500 versions of the Haggadah.
Attempts to modernize the Haggadah and thereby enthuse younger generations of Jews started at the turn of the 20th century. Since then, nearly each year has seen the publication of a new Haggadah that reflects contemporary concerns. In 1907, the Central Conference of American Rabbis published “Union Haggadah,” which excised certain ritualistic practices from the Seder. During the 1970s and ’80s, there was an outpouring of political Haggadot with environmentalist, feminist and even vegetarian bents.
This year, at least in one respect, is no different from all other years: There’s a new crop of Passover publications. Four books in particular stand out by going beyond revitalization of the basic Seder. Whether aimed at children or at adults, these books manage to expand upon typical Passover-related discussion by examining the holiday as a socio-historical institution.
Tami Lehman-Wilzig, the author of several children’s books, including “Tasty Bible Stories” (Kar-Ben Publishing, 2003), has teamed up with cartographic designer Elizabeth Wolf to create an illustrated children’s guide to Passover that is ideally suited to the new global economy. “Passover Around the World” (Kar-Ben Publishing, 2006) takes a look at Seder traditions in America, Gibraltar, Turkey, Ethiopia, India, Israel, Iran and Morocco.
In Ethiopia, the village Kess (rabbi) sacrifices a lamb and then reads the Exodus story not in Hebrew but in Ge’ez, the ancient Ethiopians’ Semitic language. The Jews of Cochin, in southern India, place three thick matzos on silver boxes. The top matzo represents the Kohanim (the priestly class ancient Israel), the middle signifies the Levites and the bottom stands for the Israelites. In Iran, it’s tradition to take a scallion and lightly hit the shoulder of the person sitting on your right. The slap serves as a reminder that Egyptians whipped their Jewish slaves.
For the culinary minded, there’s an afterword of sorts, titled “Passover Recipes From Around the World,” with instructions for mashed potato kugel, matzo brei, cauliflower soup and cold egg soup. The book is probably best suited for young children, who will enjoy the colorful maps and illustrations of family gatherings.
The Sholem Community Organization of Los Angeles, a 55-year-old cultural institution, has issued an updated, full-color edition of its perennially popular “Sholem Family Hagada for a Secular Celebration of Peysakh.” Written by Hershl Hartman, the “Sholem Family Hagada” is aimed at humanistic Jews. That is, Jews who, unwilling to accept the Exodus saga as literal truth, nevertheless maintain traditions in a communal-family setting. Hartman and his illustrator, Kevin Bostwick, find great significance in the social justice aspect of Passover. They stress that the Exodus story has imbued generations with a commitment to freedom.
The “Sholem Family Hagada” is accessible to children, but it avoids a childish tone that might repel adults or simply bore them. It includes all the most popular Passover songs, with transliterated Yiddish and Hebrew texts.
Jews have been celebrating their release from ancient Egypt for more than 2,500 years, and have been asking the same four questions about that release since the dissemination of the first Haggadah. For those who find the tried-and-true four a little meager, Joe Bobker, publisher and editor in chief of the Los Angeles Jewish Times, has come up with 396 more.
In “And You Thought There Were Only Four: 400 Questions to Make Your Seder Enlightening, Educational and Enjoyable” (Gefen Publishing House, 2006), Bobker probes the ritualistic, historical and philosophical aspects of the Passover tradition. He begins with a section titled “The Exodus Story and Its Message,” which contains the more historically oriented and also the most interesting questions, such as “How many Jews originally went to Egypt?” “What happened to Moses’ two sons?” and “Are there any accounts written by Egyptians that describe the Exodus?” Bobker is always thorough in his answers, but at times he is somewhat condescending to other cultures — like when he mocks the ancient Egyptians for their “bizarre” beliefs.
The next two sections, “Pesach Preparations, Customs and Laws” and “The Seder Night,” contain mainly practical questions, such as “Do I really have to buy a gift for whoever finds the afikomen?” Bobker becomes a little repetitive, with several pages devoted to wine, chametz and ritualistic technicalities. Perhaps 300 questions would have done the trick. Nevertheless, families observing a strictly-by-the-book Passover Seder will find Bobker’s insights useful.
In 1997, Noam Zion and his son Mishael published “A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah” (Shalom Hartman Institute), an alternative Haggadah so popular that the Zions decided to team up once again, to write a sequel. The result is this year’s “A Night To Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices” (Zion Holiday Publications). It is an expansive Haggadah that makes Judaism’s oldest ritual feel relevant to the present day.
“A Night to Remember” contains a full traditional text interspersed with stories of contemporary social action from around the globe. Insights on slavery and liberation come from Jews of all denominations, as well as from non-Jews such as Martin Luther King Jr.
The Zions give particular attention to the phrase “All who are needy — come and join the Passover celebration.” To encourage a spirit of generosity, the Zions include statistics from a 2000 report on the global distribution of wealth, and a story about a Toronto synagogue that has opened its doors as a homeless shelter.
Add a Touch of Egypt to your Seder Table with Old Family Recipes
By Joseph Abdel Wahed , March 23, 2007, JewishSF.com
As an Egyptian Jewish refugee, I celebrate Passover with special meaning. Passover is a time to commemorate the Jews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt in 1300 B.C. and return to freedom in Israel. At my family’s seders in Cairo in the 1940s, we felt as if we represented the enduring memory of that exodus. Little did we know we would soon experience our own exodus from Egypt as a result of racism and oppression.
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Congressional Vote Seen as Victory for Jewish Refugees
By Elliot Resnick, April 9, 2008, The Jewish Press
“Congress has restored truth to the middle East narrative,” said Steve Urman, executive director of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC).
“Since 1948,” Urman said, “there have been 126 UN resolutions on the issue of Palestinian refugees, but not one on Jewish refugees from Arab countries.”
Finally, recognition of Jewish refugees “will level the playing field” and break the “exclusive monopoly that Palestinians have on the term ‘Middle East refugees.’ ”
Castro Quits, But His Policies Remain
By Larry Luxner, February 19, 2008, JTA
Fidel Castro's announcement this week that he'll step down after 49 years as president of Cuba may be cause for celebration in South Florida -- but Cuban exiles here say precious little will change for the few Jews remaining on the island
"This means absolutely nothing for the Cuban Jewish community," said Jaime Suchlicki, director of the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. "Why would they be affected? There will be no change in policy."
Castro's younger brother Raúl Castro, who has been directing the country’s day-to-day affairs since Fidel took ill about a year and a half ago, is widely expected to be named his brother’s official successor by Cuba’s 31-member Council of State when the council meets in Havana on Feb. 24.
While Cuba under Fidel Castro has been stridently anti-Israel, Cuba’s Jews have enjoyed relative religious freedom in the country. The country’s new leadership is not expected to make any immediate changes to the status quo on either of these two policies.
Stanley Cohen, international chairman of the B'nai B'rith Cuban Jewish Relief Project, said Castro's retirement will have no effect on Cuba's foreign relations. Cohen has taken more than 900 Americans to Cuba on 35 humanitarian missions through B'nai B'rith.He estimates that Cuba has some 1,300 Jews, many of them converts. "In Cuba, they've resigned themselves to the fact that Fidel is no longer there. It's the rest of the world that's concerned," he said.
On Tuesday morning, the ailing 81-year-old revolutionary leader of Cuba said in a letter published on the Web site of the official Communist Party newspaper Granma that he would quit, 19 months after being stricken by an undisclosed illness that has kept him out of public view. "I communicate to you that I will not aspire to nor accept the position of president of Council of State and commander-in-chief," Castro said.
Bernardo Benes, a 73-year-old banker who left Cuba in 1960 and played varsity soccer with Raúl, now 76, while both men were students at the University of Havana, said Fidel Castro was not an anti-Semite. He declined to speculate on Raúl’s attitudes toward Jews. "I can assure you that Fidel has great admiration for the Jewish people. I had some conversations with him about Judaism and Israel, and he showed a tremendous amount of interest," said Benes, who was the former legal counsel for Cuba's largest synagogue, the Patronato, until he left Cuba.
"In spite of that, his government's policy has been horrendous for Israel. Fidel is a difficult personality. Most people don't understand who he is."
Indeed, Castro has been no friend of Israel. In 1966, he opened guerrilla training camps for Palestinians, beginning a lifelong relationship with the Palestinians and their leader, Yasser Arafat. Speaking to the First Party Congress of the Cuban Communist Party in 1975, two years after breaking off diplomatic relations with Israel and assisting the Syrians in the 1973 Yom Kippur War against Israel, Castro declared, "Yasser Arafat is a man we deeply love and admire and to whom we have always shown our solidarity."
In 1975, Cuba co-sponsored a U.N. resolution equating Zionism with racism, and in 1991, it voted against the U.N. proposal to revoke that resolution. And at the first U.N. World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, Castro called on delegates to "put an end to the ongoing genocide against the Palestinian people" by Israel. Despite the lack of diplomatic ties between Jerusalem and Havana, private Israeli businessmen are among the top investors in Cuba's citrus-export industry and have poured tens of millions of dollars into a suburban Havana office complex.
Estimating the number of Jews in Cuba is virtually impossible, experts say, because while large numbers of Jews have left the island in recent years, there also have been numerous conversions to Judaism. Moisés Asís says the island has no more than 400 or so bona fide Jews left.
Asís, a former Hebrew teacher in Havana and general-secretary of Cuba's B'nai B'rith lodge, says the Jewish community in Cuba frequently exaggerates its size "in order to show that they need more assistance and more money."
He said approximately 800 Cuban Jews have left for Israel since 1992; about half stayed in Israel, with the rest emigrating to the United States.
Ascribing the large number of Cuban converts to Judaism to Cuba’s favorable treatment of Jews, Asís speculated that about 80 percent of the people who attend weekly synagogue services in Cuba "have nothing to do with Jewish life." Among other things, Jews are entitled to kosher meat rations three times a month and frequently receive generous "care packages" from wealthy Jewish communities in the United States and Canada.
"Actually, if you compare it with other former Communist countries, the situation for Jews in Cuba is better," said Asís, who now lives in the Miami suburb of Kendall, Fla.
"Fidel Castro was hostile to religion in general, but not to Jews in particular. He was more hostile to Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, Baptists and Seventh-Day Adventists, but because the Jews were so few -- and most of the people attending services were elderly -- they weren't a challenge to his power. For that reason, he was very tolerant of the Jewish community."
Asís said he doesn't expect any dramatic changes in Cuba's Middle East policy -- or in anything else -- as long as Castro remains alive. "He will be giving opinions under the table and behind the scenes about everything," he said. "Raúl Castro is very dependent on Fidel. If Fidel has an opinion, Raúl will not contradict him. It will be the same."
Cohen of the B'nai B'rith relief project, echoed that sentiment. "The people in Miami are as happy as can be, but people in Cuba today are just ho-hum," Cohen, who is based in Pittsburgh, said Tuesday. "He's already been gone for awhile, so they just made it official."
Certainly, Cohen said, there will be no change in the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba until after the U.S. elections in November.
Rabbi Mayer Abramowitz, spiritual leader at the 200-member Cuban Hebrew Congregation of Miami Beach, says his members are anxiously awaiting a change of government in their homeland.
As soon as the Castro regime is gone and the possibility for democracy exists, "there will be a tremendous influx of Jews to Cuba," Abramowitz told JTA. "But it's going to be tourism, not immigration. Nobody I know is even thinking of going back to live there."
Chief Rabbi Amar: We Have Done Ethiopian Jewry a Grievous Wrong
By Tani Goldstein, March 18, 2008, YNet
Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar said Monday during a joint meeting with the Knesset’s Internal Affairs and Environment Committee that “the State of Israel, the Chief Rabbinate included, has done Ethiopia’s Jews a grievous wrong.“We are all culpable, and we are all to blame for not bringing Ethiopia’s Jewry home with the rest of the Jewish people,” said Rabbi Amar, following a heated debate concerning governmental policy towards Ethiopian immigrants. “No amount of heartfelt words can change that fact.”
According to data presented to the committee, over 8,000 members of Ethiopia’s Falash Mura, the descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity to escape discrimination at the end of the 19th century, but later returned to Judaism, are still waiting in Gondar to make aliyah to Israel, because the Ministry of the Interior is continuing this process at a snail’s pace.
“There are many cases in which Ethiopian parents already in Israel wait years for their children to make aliyah,” said Avraham Nagosa, the Ethiopian community's representative.
Rabbi Amar urged the government to find practical solutions for the Falash Mura’s plight, and to allow for their rapid conversion to Judaism.“I call on the Internal Affairs Committee, the ministers of the interior and of religious affairs, and the prime minster, to send rabbis to Ethiopia in order to allow the Falash Mura to quickly convert and make aliyah, and to and rescue them from the truly horrible situation that they currently find themselves in,” said Rabbi Amar.
The committee further noted that the plight endured by Ethiopian Jews highlights just how cumbersome and difficult the current conversion process actually is. “We urge the religious establishment to ease the conversion process not only for Ethiopians, but for anyone who wishes to join the Jewish faith,” committee members told the chief rabbi.
The chief rabbi, in turn, agreed to establish a committee to examine the current conversion process and see how it can be amended an improved. “Converts still learn about Judaism just as they did 60 years ago, and we must find a way to make this process more ‘user friendly’ and not burden new converts with unnecessary study,” conceded the rabbi.
Ethiopians segregated in religious school system
Committee members also discussed the near segregation faced by many Ethiopian students in Israel’s religious school system. “Many religious schools do not accept Ethiopian students, “said Nagosa. “One Petach Tikva school, for instance, is 90% Ethiopian because other schools refuse to accept Ethiopian pupils, which is a real travesty.”
Internal Affairs and Environment Committee Chairman, MK Ophir Pines-Paz (Labor), stated that such schools’ policies are blatant, ugly racism. Rabbi Amar responded by noting that “Ethiopians love the Torah and are observant at heart. There are certain difficulties in integrating them into the Israeli education system, but I met with Petach Tikva educational officials and together we formulated a plan to fully integrate Ethiopian students with their fellow classmates.”
The rabbi concluded the committee meeting by stating that he was thrilled by Ethiopian immigration to Israel and “is very glad that these are the problems that we must now address and tackle.”
The Reform Movement responded by noting that “the rabbinic establishment does not really want to help new immigrants convert to Judaism, and such statements are merely smoke and mirrors."
Sparks of Holiness, Rekindled
By Chana Afik, April 2008, Aish.com
Descendants of forced converts of the Inquisition are rediscovering Judaism.
One bright spring day, the Inquisitors of Mexico caught Diego in the marketplace, hiding three matzos under his hat. In their torture chambers, he denied he was Jewish, insisting that unleavened bread placed under one's hat was a known cure for chronic headaches. Meanwhile, the local spies of the Inquisition, like their counterparts in Spain and Portugal, continued combing the marketplace, looking for anyone displaying a particular interest in purchasing bitter herbs or celery (used by many Spanish Jews as karpas) that day.
Behind locked doors and in hushed tones, the so-called "New Christians" fearfully passed on the Torah's commandments to their children. Obviously, under these conditions, the Jewish law was not understood, so that gradually, errors, omissions, and distortions became part of the tradition that was passed from generation to generation.
In Belmonte, Portugal, for example, matzos are baked only on the 16th or 17th of Nisan - a vestige of the days when they had to fool the Inquisitors, and Pesach songs are sung in an undertone. Meanwhile, the women take their daughters out to lakes or rivers and there they teach them songs of the Exodus and the Splitting of the Sea of Reeds.
Professor Shulamit HaLevi, a genealogical investigator specializing in the Marranos and their descendants, told us that once when she gave a lecture at Chicago University, a man introduced himself to her as a Christian from Brazil. "I have a feeling we are descended from Marranos," he told her, "because our family has always insisted that the children marry their cousins.
"I put him through a quiz I've developed," says Professor HaLevi, "designed to check for Jewish customs in the family, and I uncovered no sign of Jewishness. I told him I was sorry, but I had no way of verifying that he was descended from Jews. Still, he insisted he had Jewish origins, and as proof, he brought his elderly mother to see me, who proceeded to recite Psalm 91 from Psalms in Hebrew, in full. She told me that in her family, the deceased are brought to burial while the mourners recite this psalm in a whisper. Then, while I was questioning her, she started leafing through my copy of Nachum Slouschz's book, The Secret Jews of Portugal, published in 1932, and suddenly she looked up in shock. The book contains 'Pesach prayers' of the Marranos, which were recited instead of the Haggada.
"'Who wrote these down?!' she demanded. 'My mother and grandmother told me that these poems were never, absolutely never, to be written down! They said I was only to pass them on by word of mouth!' Then she stood in the middle of the room, closed her eyes, and, with appropriate hand movements, recited the poems from beginning to end."
Professor HaLevi asked the lady to get more information directly from her family. Her three older brothers all admitted to her that they had been told, in secret, that they were descended from Marranos. She herself had only been taught various customs, with no reason specified. "The interesting thing," says HaLevi, "is that I have heard these poems recited in precisely the same form by descendants of Marranos from Portugal to Brazil."
The Deep Secret
Sylvia, a Catholic from Madrid, had been told by her grandfather about a top-secret hiding place in his house. She had pictured some strange, gloomy attic, perhaps featuring an ancient, dusty bottle from which a genie would emerge. Why would her grandfather, whom she knew to be an upstanding citizen, be harboring mysteries in his house?
"At that time, I had been married to Jose for 15 years," says Sylvia in Spanish, while Rabbi Daniel Ginerman provides simultaneous translation. Rabbi Ginerman, of the Banayich Tzion Kollel, engages, among other things, in teaching Torah, especially to Jews who are distant from tradition, and including the descendants of Marranos.
"We had children," Sylvia goes on, "and our life was going smoothly. We never anticipated the upheaval that would come out of Grandfather's hiding place. Trembling, I opened the concealed door built into an inner wall of his house, and there I found a seven-branched menorah, a worn-out piece of fabric I couldn't identify, and a crumbling book in a language that was unrecognizable to me. 'What are these things?' I asked him. 'These are things I inherited from my grandfather,' he told me, 'and he inherited them from his grandfather. They belonged to our Jewish ancestors who were forced to become Christians. You must pass these objects down to the next generation,' he said. 'These were my grandfather's orders, and now I am telling you to do the same.'"
Astonished, Sylvia went home and told her husband what had happened. "Then he started telling me all sorts of evidence that his ancestors, too, had kept Jewish customs. He went and questioned his relatives further, and came back with proofs that his entire family was descended from Jews! We went through a long conversion process and finally became part of the Jewish people according to the requirements of Jewish law. In Sivan 5763, 25 years after our wedding in a famous church in Madrid, we stood together under a chupa in Jerusalem. We left our identities as Jose and Sylvia behind in Madrid, and we became Yosef and Tzvia."
Another Link in the Chain
Maria, soon to become Miriam, is still deeply impressed by her first visit to the Western Wall. "Rabbi Ginerman took me there," she says, still obviously moved by the experience. "I stood there, against that holy Wall of stone, and I cried. I looked at all the Jewish women around me and said to myself, after 700 years of Inquisition that tried to butcher us, to burn us alive, to make us forget we were Jews, to make us just like all the Christians, here I am, a descendant of Don Juan, Don Agular, and all those who hid in the cellars and risked their lives for the Shabbos candles, for the matzos on Pesach. I'm standing here by the remains of the Holy Temple, praying for the Redemption!"
"The first wholesale massacres carried out by the Inquisition began in 1391. These are also known as the pogroms of 5151." So Sylvia Bina informs us, with Rabbi Ginerman interpreting. "And the persecutions began several decades before that."
Like most of the others who returned to their origins, Maria came to Judaism through her grandfather. "I was born and raised in a Catholic family in Barcelona," she says. "We were a warm, close family. We children all loved Grandpa, but if I may boast a bit, I enjoyed an extra-special relationship with him. Sometimes I would sleep over at his house when I was little, and he would hold me on his lap very early in the morning and show me the morning star shining before dawn. I can still hear his words ringing in my ears: 'Maria, do you see that star? It is the brightest star of all, and it shines before the sun rises.' Then his voice would drop, and he would sound mysterious as he said, 'Some day you'll understand why you, too, should be called by that star's name and shine as it does.'"
Maria grew, and her grandfather grew old, too old to hold his grandchildren on his lap anymore. Still, his special affection for her remained. Eight years ago, he passed away. Knowing his time was coming, he asked Maria to come and see him. "Five hundred years ago," he told her, "our family was a Jewish family, living right here. Then Ferdinand and Isabella decided to expel every Jew who wouldn't convert to Christianity. Our ancestors chose not to pack their bags and go to Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa, but rather to keep the Jewish commandments in secret. From generation to generation they have passed on the word that we are Jews, and now I want to make another link in the chain. You, too, are descended from the Jewish people, Maria, and perhaps one day you will light up the darkness like the morning star. Now I can die in peace." Those were his last words on this earth.
Without delay, Maria began investigating the meaning of Jewishness. She soon learned that Judaism was fascinating and beautiful, and she, too, is scheduled for an Orthodox conversion in the near future. She says she is sure her grandfather and all her ancestors in the upper world are overjoyed.
It is no simple matter for a young Catholic woman from Barcelona to get up one morning, cast off her whole former life, and go into the desert like Abraham, our Forefather.
Most of the countless descendants of Marranos found all over the globe have to undergo formal Orthodox conversion if they wish to be reunited with the Jewish people. Stories of their grandmothers who apparently came from Marrano families, even maternal grandmothers, cannot guarantee that over a period of 500 years or more the family never assimilated. Marrano descendants in Majorca, Belmonte, and elsewhere, have a greater likelihood of being authentic Jews, since they have historically been very particular to marry only within the extended family. They have also been rejected, over hundreds of years, by their Catholic neighbors, who called them names like chuetos that discriminated between them and the rest of the population. Some families among them have distinctively Jewish names which were kept over the centuries. Nevertheless, anyone from these localities who wants to return to the Jewish fold has to go through an Orthodox Rabbi.
The Allure of Tehillim
It might have been difficult to believe some of the stories we heard from Rabbi Ginerman and Professor HaLevi if not for the fact that they included full names, addresses, pictures, and even living voices willing to come and tell us their tales in person.
The story of a girl named Chere, for example, contains all the elements of a rather sensational novel. Chere was born in S. Klaus, Bolivia, about 20 years ago. Her father had emigrated from Germany, and her mother was a native Bolivian. Both parents were university graduates, and Chere grew up in a comfortable environment. She first heard of the existence of Jews at the age of 15,, and she took an immediate interest in them, even though she personally knew no Jews, and knew of none living within a radius of a hundred miles from her home. It was as if she'd been infected by some inexplicable fever.
She kept asking her father and mother if they were sure they had no connection to Judaism, and they repeatedly assured here they had none. Chere herself couldn't say why she felt so interested in Judaism, of all religions in the world. She found a Spanish translation of Psalms, and read them hungrily. "I felt this tremendous sweetness every time I read that book," she would say afterwards. "I was drawn to the words as if under a spell."
For three years she continued her vague, confused search after she-knew-not-what. On graduating from high school, she decided, as the daughter of a German citizen, to study medicine in her father's native land. Her parents willingly made all the arrangements for her. The night before her flight to Frankfurt, she brought up that nagging question again: "Is our family connected in any way to the Jews?"
Her parents sat facing her, perplexed, until her father broke the silence and said, "I am a Jew. My whole family perished in the Holocaust. I survived. I was a little refugee boy. When I grew up, I decided I would run away as far as I could, tell no one I was Jewish, forget I ever was Jewish, and assimilate. I wanted to escape from everything that had happened to my family."
Chere was stunned. She could hardly take in the revelation. Then she noticed that her mother had turned pale and was lying back in her chair. For her, too, this was news. They had spent over 20 years together, and he'd never told her he was a Jew. Taking a sip of water to keep from fainting, choked with emotion, she announced, "It looks like this is a night for revealing family secrets! I have a secret to tell you, too. I am probably Jewish myself! My grandmother on my mother's side told me before she died that we are descended from Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity. I never told this to anyone, not even to you," she said, turning to her husband. Then she began telling all the stories she had heard from her grandmother, who had cautioned her that this was a family secret, which must be passed on secretly to every generation to come.
So now the mystery was solved. Now Chere knew why she was so drawn to Judaism. Two powerful magnets had been pulling her in that direction all along. All that night, she sat up, crying over the fate of her ancestors and over her own unknown fate. After a sleepless night for the whole family, her parents drove her to the airport and said goodbye. She had a flight to Sao Paulo, Brazil, to connect with her plane to Frankfurt. Feeling lost and confused, she wandered around the huge airport. Suddenly she noticed a strange sight. A bearded man, dressed in black, with a large velvet yarmulke on his head, was standing in line waiting to check in. This was none other than Rabbi Daniel Ginerman, on his way to teach Torah in Frankfurt as part of the program of his Kollel in Givat Ze'ev.
"Suddenly a girl came running up to me," he says. "She was almost overcome with emotion. She burst right out and asked me, 'Are you a Jew?' I said I was, and she almost shouted for joy, 'What a story I have to tell you! I just found out a few hours ago that my parents are Jewish, and you are the first real Jew I've ever met in my life!' For the next ten hours she asked me questions about Jews and Judaism. I have never seen such eagerness, coupled with such a thirst for knowledge and wisdom. She never rested for a moment, and never seemed tired. She wanted to hear more and more. The essence of being Jewish, the mitzvot, the history of the Jewish people, their destiny, where are all the Jews today, and what did she have to do to become a proper, observant Jew according to Jewish Law. I glanced out the plane window at the cloudy sky and thought to myself that somewhere out there in Heaven, Chere's ancestors must be cheering her on."
Rabbi Ginerman had to hurry straight to his work in Frankfurt, so he put Chere in touch with one of the leading rabbis in the Jewish community there, and with another rabbi in Berlin. Today, Chere is studying Judaism in preparation for an Orthodox conversion (due to her mother's uncertain status), and she can hardly wait to return to the nation of her forbears. She talks all the time about her Heavenly-ordained meeting with Rabbi Ginerman, who was sent to the airport that day not only by his kollel, but by a guiding Hand from above.
Lighting Candles in the Closet
Many other people, living in South American countries or in Spain, have similar stories to tell of grandparents who revealed to them, on their deathbeds, that they were descended from forcibly converted Jews. Some of these people even perform mitzvot, without knowing what their actions signify. Fernando's family knows, without knowing why, that before they eat lettuce they must hold each leaf up to the light and look at it. Any observant Jew can tell you that this is how lettuce is examined for infestation. But to Fernando's family it is some inexplicable mystic rite that they could never consider abandoning.
Fernando's grandmother, who was well-known for her excellent baking, had another odd custom, too: she would cut a piece off of every dough she made and burn it. The reason she did so was unclear, even to her. But she knew that her own grandmother had followed this custom and that it wasn't to be questioned.
Alfonso's grandmother used to light candles every Friday afternoon in a large closet, which she closed tightly immediately afterwards. The whole family took care that the flames should not leave scorch marks on the closet walls. Sylvia, who became Tzvia, tells us that at family meals, her grandfather would cut the bread, dip each slice in salt, and hand the pieces out to everyone at the table, never knowing the source of this custom.
"Yes, That's Us"
Why don't the Crypto-Jewish families just come out and say that the Inquisition is a thing of the past, no one is being burned at the stake, and it's time to take the menorahs out of the closet and use them openly again?
"This is a psychological issue," Rabbi Ginerman explains. "Many of these people see secrecy as an inseparable element of the tradition they've received. Many are ashamed to admit their Jewish ancestry, because the foreign culture in which they grew up has drilled into their heads that the Jews are a loathsome people who killed their messiah. Some still believe that Jews are guilty of using Christian children's blood in matzos. It is hard for them to face a world that stereotypes them like this, and openly declare that they belong to the Jewish People and converted only 'for show.' About a year and a half ago I organized an online forum of several dozen Crypto-Jews. One of the participants stipulated that I must not publicize her email address. She wouldn't even let me give it to other Crypto-Jews participating in the forum - some of whom were her own relatives. She didn't want them to know she was getting interested in Judaism."
Why didn't the early Marranos return to practicing Judaism openly as soon as the Inquisition ended?
Professor HaLevi points out, in answer to this question, that the Inquisition was officially ended in Mexico only in 1821. The last auto-da-fe, or public burning, took place in 1826, and only in 1834 was the Inquisition formally rescinded in Spain, 550 years after it was officially begun, in the year 1280. This was rather a long time in the eyes of the Inquisition's victims, the forced converts, and their descendants.
"Since the end of the Inquisition, the Crypto-Jews have disappeared from public awareness," says Proessor HaLevi, "and at that point, even if a grandparent whispered to them, 'You are descended from the Jews!' this had little meaning for them. They didn't know any Jews, except perhaps from sermons they heard in Church. They may have been told they were 'Judeos' or 'Sefaradites,' but these were just words; they didn't know where to go from there. To this day, politicians and magnates from Brazil, Spain, and elsewhere come to me wanting to talk over in strict secrecy the fact that they are Crypto-Jews. They won't take any drastic steps, because they don't want to disrupt their lives. One well-known politician who represents the Latino community in America told me that he knows for sure that he is a Crypto-Jew, but it's hard for him to make the decision to convert. He prefers not even to mention the fact, because it would mean losing the next election. But when his mother passed away, he called me and asked me to send him Jewish prayers, in Hebrew, that he could say for her.
"Another Crypto-Jew in northern Mexico, who was the youngest child in his family, told me of a childhood memory. When he was about six, a great-aunt of his passed away. The men sat shiva for her in one room, the women in another. He was hanging around in the women's room and he heard them saying that the whole family was Jewish. He ran to his grandfather and asked him if this was true. His grandfather said it was, and the boy then demanded to know, 'So why do we say we're Catholic?'
"'Because we can't say we're Jewish,' was the answer. Six years later, the boy was viewing a news program that showed the death camps in Europe. He asked his grandfather: 'Those Jews - are they what we are?' 'Yes,' his grandfather said sadly. 'That's us.'"
Family Matters: Such Good Thieves
By Ruth Behar, February 2008, Moment Magazine
A unique inheritance bequeaths a sense of strength and belonging to a scholarly descendant of Cuban Jews who came to America.
When I was coming of age in New York in the early 1970s, my Cuban Jewish immigrant family was still struggling to make ends meet. Practical people who sold fabric, envelopes and shoes, they were very concerned about my dreamy-eyed ways.
The only activity I enjoyed was reading novels and books on philosophy and history. This seemed a total waste of time to them. After I told the family I hoped to become a scholar and writer, they truly started to worry. For my gregarious, joke-telling, salsa-dancing family, my desire to read books day and night, in total silence, seemed a lonely, sad and gloomy pursuit.
“That’s silly. If you’re so smart, you should be a lawyer or a doctor,” they said. Or even, “Why work so hard? Stay home, a man will come and marry you.”
There was only one dissenting voice, that of my Baba, my maternal grandmother, Esther Glinsky. “Let her be a scholar and a writer if she wants to be,” Baba said. “I think she takes after my father, her great-grandfather.”
Baba had arrived in Cuba from Poland in 1927. Like many other Jews who settled on the island in that era, she married and raised her children in Cuba with no intention of ever leaving. She had found her promised land. But after Fidel Castro came to power, she had to immigrate again, to the United States, with the rest of my extended family. As an immigrant twice over, Baba worked hard. In Cuba she sold lace with my Zayde, Máximo Glinsky, in their tiny shop on Calle Aguacate in Old Havana. In New York, she sold fabric as an employee at a rundown store located under the rattling elevated train in Jamaica, Queens. She labored six days a week and went home each afternoon with a piercing headache. But Baba loved to read and to learn. Come evening, she took English courses at the local high school. She was an insomniac, and at night she read the Yiddish newspaper, the Forverts, and kept books by Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer and other great Yiddish writers at her bedside.
On retiring, Baba and Zayde moved to Miami Beach. After Zayde died, I visited Baba frequently, when I would see her sitting up in bed, in the middle of the night, reading from a handwritten Yiddish text. She laughed out loud as she read, but sometimes tears came to her eyes.
“Qué estás leyendo?” I asked in Spanish, my mother tongue. “What are you reading?”
She replied, in English, “The Book.” She turned away mysteriously and hid the text under the sheets. She had borrowed “The Book,” she told me; it was not hers to keep.
It took a lot of insistence on my part, but I finally learned that “The Book” was an unpublished memoir penned by her father, my great-grandfather, Abraham Levin. He had been the first in my mother’s family to arrive in Cuba, in 1925. He had worked as a kosher butcher, a cantor and a street peddler to save enough money to bring over the one child who would help him get the rest of the family out of Poland: Baba. The eldest of seven, Baba had begged to follow him to Cuba. She married my grandfather two years after arriving; they then pooled their resources to bring my great-grandmother and my great-aunts and great-uncles to safety in Cuba on the eve of the Holocaust.
Perhaps seeing his wife and younger children again after being separated for nine years, my great-grandfather was so overwhelmed with emotion that the story he wanted to tell poured out of him. In 1934, the same year everyone was reunited, he recorded the family saga in two empty account ledgers.
“The days of my youth were filled with sadness” are the words that open his tale. In Poland, the family lived off two pounds of butter that his mother obtained from their cow each week. His father used juniper for heating and cooking, filling their house with a thick smoke. He had no patience for children who couldn’t manage on their own. In my great-grandfather’s words: “My father believed that a child who could already walk and talk should be making his own way and satisfying his own needs.”
My great-grandfather wrote his story while the family was living in a sugar mill town famous for its reverence of Saint Lazarus, known in the Afro-Cuban pantheon as Babalu-Ayé. But it was as if he never arrived in Cuba.
He did not write about the long sea journey or what it felt like to arrive in the tropics in woolen clothing or how a mango tasted or how the drums sounded as they played late into the night calling forth the spirit of Babalu-Ayé. He clung to a lost world in Yiddish, writing about his impoverished youth, his refusal of an arranged marriage, his love for my great-grandmother and the hardships of their early married years during World War I.
Three decades later, our family left Cuba. “The Book” fell into the hands of my great-uncle Moisés. This was not surprising; he had done well for himself, both in Cuba and Miami, and reigned over the family as a godfather.
My grandmother was the eldest, but she looked up to her brother because he was wealthy. She and my grandfather never figured out the mystery of making money.
“Moisés, please lend me Papá’s book,” I heard her say during a family gathering. She spoke, I thought, in a much too timid and beseeching voice. I noticed that Moisés lent her “The Book” very reluctantly and told her he wanted it back right away.
Several years later, in 1996, I was in Miami for five months on a research grant. Every afternoon, I would visit my grandmother, and we would read “The Book” in her kitchen.
I do not know Yiddish, and Baba and I almost never spoke English to each other. Baba did what was natural for us—she patiently read my great-grandfather’s story aloud, word by word, in Yiddish, then translated into Spanish, while I wrote it down.
We sat across from each other on yellow wooden chairs that matched the yellow Formica table that matched the orange-and-yellow marigold wallpaper. During those afternoons, the sunshine seemed to have been invented just to illuminate my great-grandfather’s words.
One afternoon, the spell was broken by Moisés knocking on the door.
I took my grandmother aside. “Don’t give ‘The Book’ to Moisés,” I whispered.
By some miracle, Moisés had allowed Baba to hold on to the two volumes of “The Book,” and I did not want her to lose them.
“How can I not return ‘The Book’?” Baba asked.
“Hide ‘The Book’ and tell him you can’t find it.”
My grandmother was stunned, but did as I asked.
When Moisés entered, the first thing he said was, “Give me ‘The Book,’ Esther.”
She replied, “I’m not sure where I put it. I’ll look for it later. Sit down, I made cookies.”
Then she used the Spanish pun that all the old Yiddish folks from Cuba adored. “Te quiere?” she asked, which literally means “Does she or he love you?” but the word “té” with an accent on the “e” means “tea” rather than “you.” So the question, a double-entendre, can also be interpreted as, “You want tea?”
Moisés said “Yes” to cookies and tea that day and for many days afterward.
In this way, my grandmother held on to “The Book” for the last four years of her life. I was proud of our conspiracy. Mine was a skewed calculation, to be sure, but I justified the plot as a fair distribution of the things of the world. Moisés had money and unwavering self-confidence. We would have “The Book.”
Not long after my grandmother died, I retrieved “The Book” from its secret hiding place under the nightstand. As soon as it was in my hands, I rushed it home like looted treasure. I buried it in my fireproof file cabinet, where I also keep old family pictures and other memorabilia from Cuba.
Moisés lived another two years after my Baba’s death. A cousin learned I had “The Book” before he died. She became furious and demanded I return it. “What do you want it for?” she hissed. “You don’t even know Yiddish.”
That cousin no longer speaks to me, but I do not care. I had to be the one to keep “The Book.”
I am discovering that I am as guarded as Moisés about “The Book.” No, I am worse than Moisés. I have made copies of the memoir for everyone in my family who requested it, but I won’t let anyone touch or see the original.
Just as Jacob stole Esau’s birthright with the complicity of his mother, my Baba stole “The Book” from her brother to pass it on to me. I am glad we were such good thieves. To want to be a scholar and a writer was not easy in my family. The lack of encouragement left within me a deep well of insecurity. Baba understood the challenges I faced.
In my darkest hour, when I can’t be sure if the years of reading and learning have taught me anything, when I can’t be sure if my writing is going well, I take strength from my great-grandfather and marvel at how he found the presence of mind to sit down in a sugar mill town in Cuba and write about a Polish Jewish world that had disappeared. Knowing I’m in possession of “The Book,” I realize I am not alone. My desire to study and to write did not come out of thin air. I am the bearer of an herencia, an inheritance; despair is a sin.
A day may come yet when I will learn Yiddish and be able to read “The Book” in the original. But even if that day never comes, I won’t let go of those two account ledgers. “The Book” is my shield. My talisman. My most precious ruby. I jealously guard over it and keep it stored away, under lock and key. Hidden from others and even from myself.
By Francesca Biller-Safran, April 2008, InterfaithFamily.org
I had a joyous childhood, and an incredibly inspiring one as well, as a Japanese-Russian-Jewish girl growing up in Southern California during the 1970s. My life as a child was a colorful adventure filled with curious fascination and optimism, with everything intriguing and nothing mundane. I had my share of Omega-3s for decades before it became a health trend, with a bounty of fresh lox and bagels one day and whole salmons prepared Japanese-style the next.
Both my parents knew who they were and freely raised us as a sweet cocktail of two equally respected cultural worlds; and this is what made growing up magical rather than maddening. That we were descended from Japanese-Hawaiians and Russian-Jews with some Welsh and Scotch thrown in for an extra dose of levity did not overshadow our existence, but rather propelled us to be that much stronger as we rejoiced rather than rebelled in our differences.
Francesca Biller-Safran with her daughter Jade
The unique mixture of my parents played out in my siblings and me like a wild yet contained jazz orchestra, continually surprising us with adventures and then calming with both sureness and bonding to our parents' vast differences and similarities. Just think Dave Brubeck mixed in with Jerry Lewis and any ballad sung by Ella Fitzgerald with Louie Armstrong and you have a pretty good picture.
A usual week was filled with cooking and learning how to be elegant with my mother, while my father introduced us to the works of great artists of our time. At the age of eight, I knew how to sew dresses by hand, draw from anatomical renderings by Michelangelo and often read T.S. Elliot's poetry until dawn.
On the lighter side, I learned how to cook a whole rainbow trout Hawaiian-style and adored going to my Jewish grandfather's house when he would make us the most delicious sweet and sour cabbage stew and homemade fudge you have ever tasted on the West Coast.
I fondly remember evenings when my father painted colorful still lifes in our living room using antique Japanese silk kimonos my mother had given him which were passed down from her mother, and Saturdays when my sisters and I learned to sing the songs of Gershwin and Cole Porter. Life was never boring, and whether we were eating sukiyaki out of bowls on tatami mats (Japanese straw) or visiting my father's favorite deli, we were engaged and educated through variety.
This was not the confusing multi-religious home one might expect. My parents chose not to brings us to any temples at all and we had no religious upbringing from either our Jewish or Buddhist roots. This led me often to visit my friends' homes for Friday Shabbat dinners and continually ask my mother about her practice of Buddhism as a child. I longed for more of a clear identity from either side and found myself reading the Old Testament on my own at the age of 9. My loving parents raised us to fend for ourselves in the way of finding our own spiritual paths.
There were times when I longed for the Buddhist tradition, as I have a need for lone spans of quiet when life has felt doomed and too filled with noise. Still, there were others when I only felt meaning and kinship with everything that seemed culturally Jewish, right down to my father's philosophical nature that always made me look at life from fresh perspectives.
I didn't think I was strange; on the contrary, other homes seemed bland in comparison as only one cultural theme was celebrated. It wasn't until my teens when I began to feel neurotic, to put it mildly. At a time when all you want is to fit in, I learned my background was not considered exotic, but just downright alien. The slogan for my adolescence can be aptly echoed through Woody Allen when he said, "My only regret in life is that I am not somebody else."
When asked questions such as "What are you?" I felt self-conscious and different, something no teen aspires to. Once a boy told me there was no such thing as a Japanese and Jewish person. And you think you have an identity crisis! For a time, I would have taken any identity at all, as long as I belonged to just one.
I had my share of friends during this turbulent time, but mostly they seemed to be other children who also felt lost as to who they were and where they fit in. For the most part I found solace in the arts and in any book by James Baldwin and the music of Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin.
Life continued to be hard through college. When I finally married the Jewish mensch of the earth with all the best qualities I could find, when I was 26, I knew I had found my center of the universe. Meeting him on the newspaper staff in journalism school was only the beginning of a friendship that happily became more. I was genuinely somewhat relieved to find this nice Jewish man who helped make me feel more a part of the culture I had always felt I missed out on as a child, who at the same time had a deep respect for my Japanese heritage, as well.
My mother and father were elated that I had found somebody who was good, honest and strong. And although my father has never said it out loud, I know he is happy I married a nice Jewish guy. As for my mother, she never speaks about his background, but definitely approves of him so much so that I sometimes get the feeling she even likes him more than she likes me! Suddenly I was no longer struggling with the fact that I felt Jewish and looked Japanese. All I knew was that we were to begin a family of our own.
I do admit that I worried about what my dear fiancé's East Coast relatives might say when they learned about me. I thought about what actress Anne Bancroft said about her engagement to filmmaker Mel Brooks, "When Mel told his Jewish mother he was marrying an Italian girl, she said: 'Bring her over. I'll be in the kitchen--with my head in the oven.'"
After our dear Reform rabbi married us, I finally felt like the nice Jewish girl with the Japanese mother I always knew I was. I was not asked to convert although someday I may. "Mazel tov!" our family and friends exclaimed as we rejoiced during the chair dance to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. As you might guess, the D.J. was not Jewish.
My daughters, who are being raised in the Jewish tradition in Northern California, where we live, often ask reflective questions about their Japanese heritage. Without hesitation, I tell them about Japanese-American uncles who fought against Japan during World War II and about a grandfather who grew up in the farm fields in Hawaii. I describe the aroma of my grandmother's kitchen, which always presented a fish my grandfather had caught off the shores of the Kona coast, and I explain to my youngest that even with the large bright blue eyes of her Jewish grandmother, somewhere in her soul also rests some Japanese.
It is still a shock when I am asked questions and given "the look" in public. It is true I still find the need to display anything I think might be Jewish--like when visiting a favorite deli, or making sure a Japanese waitress knows that I am "one of them" … whatever that really even means.
We have made sure that our daughters know who they are, and with great curiosity, fascination and wonderment they explore both their Jewish and Japanese heritages--hopefully without feelings of confusion or alienation I sometimes felt growing up split between two cultures.
With naming ceremonies, lighting the candles on my husbands' childhood menorah, incredible seders, and stories and lessons told from a large loving family, our daughters see themselves as Jewish with a sprinkle of Japanese for good measure.
It still surprises me when I am asked by strangers about who I am and where I come from. After all, isn't that really the eternal, infinite and ultimate wonder that we as all humans struggle with?
Just the other night I joked I would be making matzah sushi for dinner. I'm still trying to invent this perfectly exotic dish while my family asks why I haven't yet delivered on the promise. If anyone out there has a great recipe, let me know.
Wandering Jews No More? Indian Jews In U.S. Struggle For Unity, Acceptance
By Ita Yankovich, February 15, 2008, Jewish Press
India, a predominantly Hindu country of more than a billion people, is home to approximately 5,000 Jews. While the country historically has been friendly to Jews, the lure of Israel, coupled with economic factors, has prompted many Jews to emigrate.
In contrast, the right-handed Nazi swastika was misused – to inflame rather than instruct.
Bound by Family Ties
By Rabindranath Maharaj, March 13, 2008, WashingtonPost.com
Writers like Bharati Mukherjee and Jamaica Kincaid have long been exploring the fragmented identities of immigrants who move toward their versions of the American dream but gaze back longingly at their homelands. In the books written by second-generation Americans, there are subtle shifts to this dichotomy, most noticeably an acknowledgment of the benefits of multiple identities in an increasingly globalized environment. Although these authors express a wistful curiosity about the lives of parents and grandparents, their writing is frequently less melancholic, a benefit, perhaps, of lighter baggage.
"The Konkans," a new novel by Tony D'Souza, follows this pattern. D'Souza, whose first novel, "Whiteman," was published last year to much acclaim, examines here the divergent reactions to cultural dislocation. Characters who find themselves by exploring their ancestry are hardly new (think Wallace Stegner's "Angle of Repose" or Alex Haley's "Roots"), but D'Souza injects this common story line with a gentle humor that displaces romanticization or cliche.
As is his previous book, "The Konkans" is constructed of several interlocking narratives, some elaborate and others little more than anecdotes. The story unfolds through the eyes of Francisco D'Sai, who witnesses the growing separation of his parents. His father is desperately trying to shed his Indian heritage, while his American mother still cherishes the romance of her time in India. Soon after her return to America, his mother finds a kindred spirit in Sam, her husband's brother. Young Francisco takes us though their affair and the dwindling of that relationship as Sam moves on to an African American woman and finally into an arranged marriage with a bride from India.
D'Souza treats this little menage with an admirable evenhandedness. In a typical argument the father mocks the mother for her modest upbringing ("You are a poor girl from a Detroit slum, who got an education by some odd luck"), and she points out that he is nothing more than a brown plaything in America. But we learn that, at better moments, they extend courtesies to each other. And as the mother's affair with her brother-in-law progresses, D'Souza, as if unwilling to draw too much sympathy to the father, mentions that of the three, he was the happiest.
But this is not entirely true, and the young narrator is increasingly attracted to his uncle's stories of India and of his grandfather, whose status had swiftly unraveled following the departure of the British from the subcontinent. Sam's stories balance the more fanciful versions told by the narrator's father, and as the novel progresses, the reader has to establish the truth from several countervailing disclosures. This is a risky strategy for a writer, but D'Souza handles his subjects with such easy familiarity that the air of authenticity never really diminishes.
Large sections of the book are devoted to the Konkans of India, a community both isolated and privileged because of its Catholic faith and its closeness to the Portuguese colonizers of India's western coast. The book explores the mutual suspicion the Konkans -- often called the "Jews of India" -- felt toward other groups on the subcontinent. Francisco is constantly reminded of his community's history and of his special status and obligations as "the firstborn of a firstborn." And this history, we are led to believe, is quite glorious, beginning with Vasco da Gama's providential journey to India. At the book's end though, we discover that da Gama's expedition was not quite as providential as portrayed in the earlier sections and that the Portuguese were far from benevolent overlords.
Although these are all charming -- and to some extent, necessary -- tales, the constant shifts in time and place give the novel a slightly episodic and disjointed feel that distances us from the characters. But when the narrator returns to the stories of his parents and his uncle, the book comes alive once more. Francisco's father, trying futilely to assimilate, is a particularly poignant figure. Even when he is finally promoted at work, he soon realizes that his new job is to be an ax man, to fire other minorities.
There are no heroes in "The Konkans" -- not the Portuguese, not Francisco's parents or grandfather, not even his uncle. As we follow the unraveling of these characters' lives, we sense there can be no conventionally happy endings here.
This is an ambitious second novel. It acknowledges the gaps in our histories, the personal and cultural falsehoods with which we have grown comfortable. As with his previous book, some readers might wonder at the similarities between writer and narrator. But that's beside the point. D'Souza treats his subjects with compassion even as he recognizes their weaknesses. There is a kind of freshness and bubbling wonder in this book, the sense of a writer genuinely searching for answers, sidetracked occasionally but determined to complete his journey.
Singing the Songs of Ancient Indian Jews
By Sam Taute, April 7, 2008, Diamondbackonline.com
The lyrics were sung in an ancient language, unintelligible to the crowd, but those on hand to witness the performance by the Nirit Singers of Israel found themselves clapping in unison to the beat of the music.
The Nirit Singers were part of a panel of experts that convened in the Stamp Student Union on Sunday to present and discuss the folk songs of the Cochini Jews, a small, ancient community that lived in India for 2,000 years before migrating to Israel in the 1950s.
The panel of experts shed light on a subject that has seen an unexpected surge in interest in recent years due to a level of collaboration between scholars and performers that is not often seen in the world of academia.
"What made it so interesting was that there was such wide range of experiences displayed, from anthropologists to folklorists to the actual singers," said Katherine Morehouse, a student who is seeking her doctorate in ethnomusicology.
The presentation was one of three in the Washington area and was brought to the campus by Saul Sosnowski, the associate provost in the university's Office of International Programs, who helped coordinate the event.
"The songs come from a group within the Jewish community that we usually don't hear about," Sosnowski said.
During the event, two members of the Nirit Singers performed ancient Jewish women's folksongs. These songs had been passed down from generation to generation in notebooks that, for decades, anthropologists have been working to track down and translate.
One of these anthropologists, Barbara Johnson, first began trying to locate the precious notebooks over 30 years ago. Along the way, there was no shortage of roadblocks.
"One of the problems was that people didn't start collecting the songs until after Jews started moving to Israel," said Johnson. "Some people took their notebooks with them, some didn't."
Further complicating the task was the fact that only the lyrics, never any melodies, were recorded in the notebooks. With no written records of the melodies, the researchers had to rely on generations of oral tradition to complete their knowledge of the songs.
The malleability of the songs in the hands of the performers made it even more difficult for researchers to pin down a definite composition for the music.
"I have seen humorous songs turn into weapons in the hands of improvisational singers," said Smita Jassal, an anthropologist who was on the panel.
One thing that Johnson did not expect when she began collecting these notebooks of songs was the revival of interest that would come for the music of this small ethnic group. According to Johnson, the Nirit Singers can be thanked for this surprise.
"They're the ones leading the revival," said Johnson, who explained that the singers, by performing the folk songs, are giving a distinct voice to the ancient Jewish tradition in a way that would not be possible through strictly academic means.
"One thing I am pretty sure of is that our ancestors, the ones that took the time to write all these songs down, are looking down on us with big smiles on their faces," said Zipporah "Venus" Lane, one of the Nirit singers who performed Sunday.
Jew Town's Disappearing Community
By Ines Ehrlich, March 16, 2008, Israel Jewish Scene
Our tour of Kerala, in the southern part of India, brought us to Fort Cochin. Since ancient times Kerala has been the center of the Indian spice trade where Greeks, Romans, Jews, Arabs and Chinese vied for its trade. According to legend, the first Jews arrived here in 70CE, just after the destruction of the second Temple.
The Maharaja of Travancore and Cochin gave shelter to the Jewish community here after the Moorish Arabs attacked them in 1524 due to their trade monopoly. They were given an area right opposite the Maharajah’s palace, which subsequently became known as Jew Town. It was here, at the end of a narrow cobbled road that they built the Pardesi synagogue in 1568.
It is one of the oldest synagogues in the world and has functioned undisturbed throughout the ages. According to the seven Jews left in Jew Town today, no other society in the world has embraced Jews with such hospitality, allowing them to live in peace and mutual respect for so long.
The Cochin Jews were comprised of two groups: The largest were known as the “Meyuhassim” or Malabari Jews, whose forefathers are believed to have arrived in India as merchants during the time of King Solomon. The second group is known as the Pardesi Jews, who primarily came from Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Spain and Germany.
The two groups lived in the towns of Cochin, Aluva, North Paravur and Ernakulum where they built eight beautiful and thriving synagogues which functioned throughout the ages until mass emigration to Israel in the 1950s.
Cochin Jews, who spoke a dialect called Judeo-Malayalam, a mix of Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam and Hebrew, adapted themselves so well to the Hindu way of life that they even adopted caste behavior by dividing themselves into sub-castes. Hence, these groups were often referred to by their color: The “Meyuhassim” Jews were known as the “black” Jews, some 50 of whom still live in Ernakulum today, and the “Pardesi” Jews, who were more influential and known as the “white” Jews, only seven of whom remain in Fort Cochin’s Jew Town today.
The two groups did not mix, and those who were not part of the “white” sub-caste were not allowed to marry into the community. Within the last few decades, however, all religious divisions have disappeared, but so has most of the community.
Emigration to Israel, which began in 1950 and peaked during the 1970’s has almost decimated this once thriving community. Large groups have settled in Moshav Nevatim in the Negev and Moshav Yuval in the North, in the Katamon neighborhood in Jerusalem, in Beersheba, Dimona and Yeruham, where they have set up their own synagogues.
Inside the synagogue
Until recently the synagogue held regular services (Sephardi Orthodox) using the small but steady stream of tourists to make a minyan for prayer, this is no longer the case and services are held only during the high holidays and when a minyan is randomly gathered from among Jewish tourists.
As Anil our guide locked up the synagogue gates with great care, we strolled down the narrow road, whose shop windows all displayed Jewish artifacts and names. Further down the road we met Anas, lugging his pushcart full of postcards depicting the synagogue, which we were not allowed to photograph from the inside.
We caught the first glimpse of 80-year-old Sarah Cohen through the colorfully designed ironwork of her windows, which unabashedly displayed blue Stars of David. Wearing a flower printed housedress, flip-flops and a scarf covering her grey curls, she was sitting serenely by the window reading from her bible; it seemed nothing could disturb her calm.
Sarah Cohen. Looks like a 'typical Jewish European grandmother'
She was unperturbed by the flow of our group’s eight women who followed Anil in through the doorway; she was used to being interviewed and has had her photos taken on many occasions. She bemoaned the fact that the community has dwindled to such an extent that there are no longer enough people for a minyan at the synagogue. Sarah said it's only a matter of time before the Jews of Cochin completely disappear, and with them the unique mix of Indian and Jewish culture.
"This will become a museum, not a functioning synagogue," she said sadly. When that happens, she said, history can record that this Jewish community’s emigration was not motivated by intolerance or discrimination by India, we have always been welcomed here. We asked Sarah why she has decided to stay behind when the majority of the community had made aliyah to Israel:
"How could we leave? We are Indians, too. Why should we leave the only place we have known as home?" she said as she rhythmically swayed her head sideways in the typical Indian manner.
To keep herself busy during weekdays and to make a small income, Sarah Cohen embroiders kippahs and sells them to the Jewish tourists who frequent this “dying community.”
Keeping kosher the Indian way
We asked Yossef and his wife about the difficulties of maintaining a kosher home, and he replied that indeed they do keep kosher, but that they are also Indian, adding that they use an Indian flatbread rather than the braided challah bread for Shabbat. Yossef also said that the Jewish community here does not eat beef out of respect for the Hindu prohibition.
In its heyday there were two synagogues in Fort Cochin, but the only functioning one today is the Pardesi Synagogue, which is a state protected heritage site. The religious artifacts of this second synagogue were brought to Israel in their entirety during the 50s and are currently housed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem while the Holy Ark is being preserved for future generations at the religious kibbutz of Nehalim.
The average age of the community in Jew Town is close to 90, and as per Sarah Cohen’s words “the Pardesi synagogue will inevitably turn into a museum within the next few years”, one that will display a rare case of Jewish coexistence.
Music, Religion Create Cultural Crossroads for Joshua Nelson
By Geoff Gehman, April 13, 2008, Morningcall.com
It's late Friday afternoon, and Joshua Nelson is juggling a telephone interview with preparations for the Shabbat. The black Jew and singing pianist is playing short gospel versions of Hebrew hymns and klezmer versions of Negro spirituals.
A half-dozen times he stops to take calls from relatives reminding him to bring the right wine and challah to that night's Shabbos dinner.
Nelson handles the interruptions with graceful good humor. After all, he's been the family mensch for most of his 30 years on Earth. Besides, he's used to living at the cultural crossroads. He teaches Hebrew school and directs music at a Baptist church in a former synagogue. He performs ''Elijah Rock'' with the Klezmatics. His fans range from Israeli cabinet officials to Oprah Winfrey, who works out to his version of Mahalia Jackson's ''How I Got Over.''
Nelson will bring his brand of kosher gospel to ''Freedom Sings,'' tonight's concert blending the Exodus with the civil rights movement at Temple Beth El in Allentown. Six days before the start of Passover, he and his band will perform ''Walk in Jerusalem,'' ''Lord Don't Move the Mountain'' and other songs written by his idol, Jackson, whose soaring, lassoing contralto he imitates uncannily.
''Civil rights and Passover -- that's a double whammy right there,'' says Nelson from his home in East Orange, N.J. ''Freedom from bondage: That's what it's all about. I've always thought that being spiritual superceded religion, that spirituality has no category -- it is in everything. Egypt can be anything: It can be anyone who stops your progress. Yes, sir, Exodus and civil rights: That's like my whole life story.''
Nelson's story is remarkable enough for a documentary about his life (''Keep on Walking,'' 2000). He grew up in East Orange, the child of a truck driver and a registered nurse, both Orthodox Jews. One of his early heroes was his maternal grandmother, a classical pianist who quietly accepted the double prejudice directed at a black Hebrew. Today, he takes care of Louise Nelson, 90, at his home, a reward for her lesson that ''being truly black is being truly American.''
Nelson was in his grandmother's house when he had his first musical epiphany. He was 8 when he fell hook, line and sinker for an album of greatest hits by Mahalia Jackson, a minister's daughter and a regal gospelite. He loved the record so much, he even played it to cry himself to sleep after a spanking.
''I had never heard a voice like Mahalia's,'' says Nelson. ''She had that distinctive New Orleans diction.'' Take 'Walk in Jerusalem,' where she sings [plays New Orleans stride piano while blasting] 'Je-ru-sa-lam-BAH!' She could be colorful and deeply, deeply spiritual without losing control. She was never too wild to scare an audience. She reminded me of my grandmother, who is quite contained, too.''
Nelson adopted ''Walk in Jerusalem'' as a spiritual bridge between blackness and Jewishness. He adopted its author as his musical rabbi. He was 13 when he recorded Jackson's ''How I Got Over.'' He was 14 when he began performing with her pianist, Eddie Robinson. He was 20 when he sang ''Move On Up a Little Higher'' during a ceremony unveiling her U.S. Postal Service stamp. At 30 he channels her so well, he's been hired to mimic her voice in a film being produced about her friendship with actress-singer Della Reese, who at 13 joined Jackson's gospel group.
Nelson's other childhood idol was Jackson's friend, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King's invocation of Judaism and Buddhism to promote civil rights and peace empowered Nelson to respect other religions. King and Jackson, he says, made ''a little Jewish boy'' feel larger in spirit, more universal.
Since then Nelson has studied in many villages. A Hebrew school in South Orange, N.J., run by a rabbi who marched with King to demand integration. Arts High School in Newark, alma mater of jazz singer Sarah Vaughan and Nelson's grandmother. A college/kibbutz program in Israel. The Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, where Nelson discovered a gospel-music kinship with the Commandment Keepers, the Harlem synagogue founded in 1919 by a rabbi born in Nigeria.
Nelson is one hip missionary. He praises kosher gospel as zealously as Wynton Marsalis praises jazz. ''Anyone who thinks Jewish music sounds like this'' -- he plays a wedding oom-pah on piano -- ''is limiting Judaism; you're limiting God as your example,'' he says. ''Our whole music is about freedom. What we try to do with music is challenge you with that freedom, to walk through that door and allow your Judaism to breathe.''
A black Jew, Nelson likes to joke, is ''the KKK's worst nightmare.'' He turns serious as stone while discussing the racial-religious divide. There are blacks, he says, who dismiss Jews as greedy landlords. There are white Jews who dismiss black Jews as incomplete Jews. When a concertgoer asked him if he was Jewish by blood, he hit her with bull's-eye logic: ''Well, I've heard of Type A and Type O, but I've never heard of Jewish blood.''
Nelson's current projects are, naturally, ecumenical. His new CD, his first for a major label (Universal), will contain healing songs for Jewish services and healing songs for humanity in general. He plans to continue lobbying for a Grammy Award for Jewish music; Jewish musicians, he points out, dominate the world-music category. He may pop into pop, which ''is just a way of getting a message out quicker.''
Nelson has a host of non-musical goals as well. Marry a practicing Jew. Avoid the carbohydrates that helped cause the obesity, acid reflux and Type 2 diabetes he began eliminating four years ago. Add to his collection of 10 Corvairs, one of which he mischievously drove to a presidential rally for Ralph Nader, who crucified the Chevy in his book ''Unsafe at Any Speed.''
A disciple of kosher gospel, Nelson promises to break the Shabbat rule that forbids traveling by car and working from sunset on Friday to an hour after sunset on Saturday. He chose cause over law last month when he drove to perform on a Friday night for a former neighbor, a Christian on life support.
Nelson sang because the woman's daughter cared for her invalid mother for 20 years, because he cares for his grandmother, because he is a sucker for blood caretakers. ''I went because it was a matter of the heart,'' he says. ''I went because music can heal sometimes when medicine can't.''
Indeed, the comatose woman grabbed Nelson's hand while he played. He performed a second good deed, or mitzvah, by performing at her funeral.
Nelson's mitzvahs have given the woman's children more Jewish soul, or nefesh. ''Now they're trying to do anything they can to do good in the name of their momma,'' he says with a laugh. ''You know, 'I'm not Jewish, but I'd like to give $3,000 to a synagogue. Hey, Jesus was Jewish, wasn't he? Maybe I should give them $5,000.'''
Picturing Today's Conversos
By Fabiola Santiago, January 6, 2008, MiamiHerlad.com
In northern New Mexico’s Sandoval County, there is a tombstone of a World War II veteran in a cemetery nestled in the desert brush. The name of the man, who was born in 1921 and died in 1980, is Adonay P. Gutierrez, and it is engraved on the stone below a cross. Nine different Native American communities reside in the surrounding counties, and even if cemetery visitors see his cross before his name, this lone Jew lies among them.
For Cary Herz, New Mexico photography correspondent for The New York Times, Gutierrez’s memory is one way to begin exploring New Mexico’s anusim, Hebrew for “forced ones” or Jews forced into hiding during the Spanish Inquisition. Her new book, “New Mexico’s Crypto-Jews: Image and Memory” (University of New Mexico Press, 2007), gathers photographs spanning the experience of the descendants of Jews who settled in New Mexico during its conquest by Spanish explorers.
“I kept hearing about these people, who had come over with the conquistadors — Jews,” she said in a recent interview with the Forward, “and I asked, ‘How could they be here?’”
Herz’s photography book is the first visual exploration of the descendants of Jews who fled the Iberian Peninsula during the Inquisition and traveled with Spanish colonial settlers to what is today New Mexico. Crypto-Jews, as they are called in English, are largely defined by the historical suppression of their ancestral faith and, in turn, their extraordinary integration of Catholic and Sephardic Jewish belief. Unlike Sephardic Jews, who also descend from Spanish exiles, anusim adopted a Christian identity centuries ago to secure their lives and livelihood, and they often practiced Judaism in secret. Herz also traveled to Portugal with a group of Crypto-Jews and photographed her subjects in their ancestors’ birthplace.
According to Herz, even today New Mexico’s Crypto-Jews are ambivalent about their integration into the largely Ashkenazic New Mexican Jewish community.
Ashkenazic Jews, who arrived in the Southwest from Central and Eastern Europe around the turn of the century, took to the frontier around the turn of the century. “Some anusim attend synagogues in Santa Fe, but many also still attend churches,” Herz remarked. “I think there are people who don’t feel welcome all the time, but Nahalat Shalom, a Jewish-Renewal congregation in Albuquerque, has held Shabbat services in Spanish as a way to reach out.”
In a time when the messianism is a pertinent topic among Jewish communities in Israel and America, Herz’s book introduces a unique community whose Jewish identity is grounded in the Catholicism that characterizes the traditions of the American Southwest, sometimes so much so that Jewish heritage animates rather than characterizes the community members’ faith. The book is full of images that illuminate a type of Jewish-Christian identity that may seem more at home in late antiquity than in today’s world.
One photograph depicts the Rev. William E. Sanchez of St. Edwin’s Church in Albuquerque resting his hands on a lectern with a Star of David flanked by two crosses; a shofar lies in the foreground. A descendant of the Carjavals, a family burned at the stake in Mexico City in 1598, Sanchez confirmed his Jewish ancestry by DNA testing. “Several times a year, I will blow the shofar at my church, and I continue celebrating the Passover each year with those who wish to participate,” Sanchez remarks in the book. “Being Sephardic and Catholic began as a means of survival centuries ago; today they have both survived and coexist.”
Other anusim see things differently. In photographs of Kehilah Ba’Midbar, or Congregation of the Wilderness, a group of New Mexican anusim and a few Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews are depicted in what to the naked eye looks to be a typical Jewish prayer service. The group’s leader is a Sephardic Jew from Boston identified by only his first name, Joe. Along with Perry Peña, a New Mexican Crypto-Jew, Joe makes his view clear in the book. “Neither Joe or myself believe in the Jesus put forth through Christianity,” Peña explains. “We believe that the Messiah of the Tanakh coming twice is missed in normative Judaism, and distorted by Christianity and Messianic Judaism.”
He adds: “Our views may be seen as a product of the Inquisition. We are uniquely anusim.”
Herz, who is about 60 years old and the daughter of Central European Jews, sees her interest in New Mexico’s Crypto-Jews as related to her own upbringing in upper Manhattan, where furtive Jewishness was most embraced. “As I grew up, my parents decided to move uptown to leave that immigrant world,” she said. “I knew that only a few blocks down, such a world still existed.” Herz works as an editorial, commercial and documentary photographer, covering the Southwest since she moved to New Mexico in 1984. “I envisioned a book like this a long time ago,” she noted. “My goal was not to photograph cemeteries. I wanted to show the world their faces.”
Ethiopia to Broadway, via Jerusalem
By Justin Rudzki, April 10, 2008, Israel21C
In, 1985, 10-year-old Yossi Vasser and his family set out on foot from the Ethiopian village of Uzava. The perilous 700-kilometer journey that ensued took them through the harsh Sudanese desert and eventually on to their spiritual home - Jerusalem.
Fast forward some 23 years and Vasser - now an articulate, seasoned actor in his early 30s - is again preparing for departure: this time he and an ensemble of Ethiopian Israeli actors are traveling to North America to bring a moving account of that courageous journey, One of a Kind - AndArgay, to the stage in both the US and Canada.
The play is a thought provoking and entertaining tale of a young boy (AndArgay) and his family who are swept up in the Ethiopian-Jewish immigration to Israel. The audience gets a glimpse into a unique way of life and bears witness to a family as it deals with a gut-wrenching quandary: whether to remain in the only home it has ever known, or to leave for a country, which for generations, has lived only in its folklore.
The journey that follows evidences a family's struggle for identity, its dreams and the high price paid to realize those dreams.
One of a Kind - And Argay is a richly textured production, employing song, dance and drama. In a unique use of animation, Ethiopian drawings are projected onto a screen and act as an extension to both the cast and set. The human actors interact with their animated counterparts to create a vibrant and larger than life performance that entertains as much as it tells a story.
On the eve of the play's North American tour, producer Howard Rypp and actor/writer Yossi Vasser talk to Israel 21C.
According to Rypp, founder of Nephesh Theater, the production company behind the play, One of a Kind - AndArgay is typical of the type of production that the group stages. "We set out to explore both Jewish themes and social issues, examining different groups within our society - Jews, Arabs, religious, secular, immigrants - the multicultural milieu that exists here, and the conflict and complexities that are born out of it."
For Vasser, the play has personal significance - the inspiration for the story comes from his own family's journey. "I realized how important it was for Ethiopian Jews to see the stories that people don't talk about because of the painful memories that they invoke," he says.
Over 4,000 people died during the journey: Vasser himself lost two brothers as well as his grandmother.
In Israel, the play has been a runaway success and has won several awards, including Best Play at the prestigious Haifa International Children's Theater Festival. The production has been staged over 100 times in the past year alone, engaging audiences nationwide: an achievement in a country that roughly equates in size to the US state of New Jersey and with a population about the same as the state of Washington.
For both Vasser and Rypp, the appeal of the play is universal: both have no doubt that audiences in North America will find much to identify with.
"It's a play for the entire family," says Rypp. "Not only is there someone there for everyone to relate to - a grandmother, a parent, a child - but it's also about family unity. Witnessing how this Ethiopian family travel and face extreme hardships together, the strength and the love that they give to one another is an inspiring, moving experience."
For Vasser, it's a universal tale about moving from place to place. "It's a story for our times. So much of this century and the one before have been about people moving. Immigrants all face the same questions, the same issues," says the actor. Vasser continues "It's also unique in the way it's told - there's innocence to it - even though it's a choreographed show - it's very spiritual because it talks about person, place and God. Because of that, people feel a connection to the story."
Vasser is unable to mask his enthusiasm for the upcoming tour: and one can't quite blame him. It is indeed remarkable to think that a boy who set out by foot across an African desert is about to end up on a Broadway stage. But this time, thank goodness, he is traveling by plane.Top of Page