by Saraya Ziv (Jerusalem, Israel)
I’m in this new building in Jerusalem to observe a Torah class for Crypto-Jews (wrongly referred to as marranos) and to see how I can help two of them with the odds and ends of daily life.
With only five minutes before class Rabbanit Raquel, who is both teacher and guidance counselor, gives me a quick lowdown on Miriam, a young Colombian woman, and her mother, Señora Lopez.
Miriam is doing brilliantly. Her mother (Raquel turns a palm up then down), not so well. Before I can find out more, Miriam flies into the Rabbanit’s office. I hold my arm out stiffly for a good Anglo handshake. Miriam laughs, hugs me, and leads me by my hand to the classroom. Miriam has long loose hair and bracelets of yellow beads on her chubby wrists. The bracelets click as we rush inside.
In the back of the room at a three-seat table Miriam presents me to her mother. Señora Lopez wears her hair in a noose of grey braid. Arms marshaled across her chest, she hears my name, says acidly, “Ud. viene de Nueva York” (“You come from New York”), sighs, and turns away to the desk up front where a pile of books waits with Raquel.
The Rabbanit swaps to reading glasses, bookmarks with her index finger a large tome, and looks up.
“I said last week I want questions, challenging questions. If I don’t get them, I’ll sit down in this chair and stop teaching.”
She points to a void where her chair should be. The class laughs. The class is twenty adults from Latin America, two from Spain, one kid erecting a Lego monster on the Rabbanit’s stolen chair, and me.
I have to concentrate hard as the Rabbanit teaches, in Spanish, the Purim story. Her accent is castellano, same as the professoras who taught us the language in our public high school. Each professora, and most of our class, was Jewish. One teacher, Señora Wislitzsky, took us on a class trip to a fancy Spanish restaurant on Park Avenue, where we ate the rice, shellfish, and pork sausage dish called paella. In our Jewish archdiocese of Flatbush Brooklyn, not a single kid had been taught to abstain from chowing down on that perfectly treif stuff.
Miriam passes me a candy. She takes such fervid, galloping notes our desk shakes, and her mother booms out question after question. She interacts passionately, as though the Rabbanit were discussing today’s news rather than news of nearly 2400 years ago.
“Exactly how much time is there from one part of the story to another?” asks Miriam’s mother. The Rabbanit turns to the white board behind her and bullets and dates the events.
Here’s Esther, unhappy winner of a macabre Miss World contest appalled at her prize – she’s booked to marry the boorish king of Persia. Here’s Queen Esther spilling the beans to her husband and Haman, his prime minister: she is in fact, a Jew. If Haman’s plan to destroy every last Jew goes down, so does she.
Dates are written in red, events in black. I see that Esther hid her Jewishness for five years and think “got it, let’s move on,” but this class of Crypto-Jews, in hiding for five centuries, is stunned. Miriam’s hands fall limply over her pen. Her eyes are fixed on the timeline.
Her mother smacks our desk, then like pistols, fires both index fingers at Rabbanit Raquel. “Why did Esther tell? That king,” she yells, “will bury her on fire.”
I expect the Rabbanit to laugh, to explain that Esther lives, that Purim is joyous, a real holiday. Instead, Rabbanit Raquel picks up her book, marks it with a post-it, closes it, and looks up at Miriam’s mother, “Sí.”
When Miriam whispers to her mother, “It ends well for the Jews” her mother shoots back, “but not for us.”
We break. From a tray onto the snack room table where her mother and I have been waiting, Miriam unloads three lemon sodas and three tall glasses of ice. Her mother holds an icy glass to her forehead.
“How easy it must have been to grow up Jewish in New York” she says. There is jealousy in her voice, and menace.
“No,” I reply.
I ask Señora Lopez how she knew her family was Jewish. Her reply is animated.
“My grandmother lived with us. She spent all day Friday cleaning the house and making sure we bathed and changed into clean clothes. By the afternoon she had a pot of beans and potatoes on our hearth. I wasn’t allowed to touch it. No one was allowed to touch it. On Saturday all my aunts and cousins came for lunch. Only then did my grandmother take this special stew off the hearth and serve us.
“She never ate pork, and she never let us eat it either. In fact we ate no meat. One of my friends from school asked her if we were so poor we could only afford vegetables. My grandmother lied, ‘My belly has never been able to tolerate rich foods, so I never cook it and I never serve it.’ That way no one was suspicious when we didn’t eat pork.
“And our names.” Señora Lopez looks at her daughter. “Outside she was Maria, inside, when the family was alone, we called her Miriam.” She pauses, “A name in our family forever.”
Miriam picks up her mother’s thread. “But we didn’t know what it all meant. I started looking on the internet, and found a rabbi in Colombia. When we told him about the Shabbat stew, he grinned.”
I look around. There’s the Lego kid in his yarmulke. On the streets of Jerusalem every day I see thousands of Jews who wear fun masks on Purim, few who wear the disguises of half a millennium.
Miriam must think I’m bored; she shifts the conversation. “Tell us about New York. To go to sinagoga on Shabbat, to fast on Yom Kippur in the open, to buy matzos in a shop – it’s true, right? In New York you buy your matzos in a shop?”
I don’t know what a volcano I’m leaping into. Stupidly, I tell the women the truth.
“My family never went to sinagoga, not once; we watched TV on Yom Kippur same as every other day. But yes, you could buy matzos in the supermarket, which my mother did. We had matzos and we had bread on Passover – both.”
I tell them more. I confess honestly that I was well educated in the civil rights movement but learned about the holocaust accidentally from a TV show, which made me vomit. I tell them my beloved cousin wonders if she was given a Jewish name. Was her mother? Her father?
This all sounds ponderous to me. I want to entertain the two women with funny stories.
I tell them I had the lead part as the Easter bunny in our elementary school play. In Spanish, I sing for them Here Comes Peter Cottontail. I recall my aunt’s yummy meat and cheese lasagna and confess I still miss that forbidden mix. I tell them that at age twenty-one I made embarrassing mistakes at a renowned rabbi’s Passover Seder, the first Seder of my life.
I am about to tell them the dumb things I did at that Seder when I see that Miriam’s mother has turned the color of lava. And now it’s too late.
It’s too late to explain that’s it’s not our fault. It’s been five generations since anyone in my family knew Purim or Passover; we’re not unusual. We’re programmed to throw away what Miriam’s family has struggled to preserve.
Señora Lopez shakes her ice violently, then bangs her glass on the table and opens her mouth to speak. I brace myself. Now I know, when she does speak, hell will break loose.
Saraya Ziv attended SUNY Buffalo, worked as a Business Analyst on Wall Street, and left the United States one April morning in 2015 on a one way ticket to Tel Aviv. She was born and lived in New York City all her life, but now lives a short drive to Jerusalem. You can find more of her work at her website, Jerusalem Never Lies (https://www.jerusalemneverlies.com) where this piece first appeared.