“Ashkenazi.” “Sephardic.” As a kid, wandering around the kiddish reception at our shul collecting cellophane ruffle-topped toothpicks in a plastic cup, I heard these terms bandied far above my head by adults and had no idea what they meant. Were these languages? Politicians? Street gangs, like in West Side Story? As a first-generation American and the daughter of German-Jewish refugees, I was pretty sure these mysterious terms didn’t have anything to do with me. We were Jews who kept kosher and went to shul, but we didn’t eat or do the things that seemed officially Jewy, like, Fiddler on the Roof-Jewy. My single mother didn’t bake kugel, or encircle the flames of the Shabbat candles with her hands when she made her brachot, or bobby pin a white nylon doily to the back of her head for services (nor would she have dreamed of wearing a kippah like some of her friends from her Consciousness Raising group). My mother used no Yiddishims in her speech, other than “shul” and “schlep” and, while cursing other drivers, “schmuck.” I wasn’t sent to Jewish sleepaway camp to meet my future spouse or bridesmaids or employers. And on Christmas Day, we did not go to the movies or eat Chinese food.
What I did know, always, was that we were German, from old families. We ate our pizza with a knife and fork. We liked marzipan, in whimsical shapes like fried eggs and, yes, piglets. We wore pinky rings stamped with a family crest based on the corporate logo of my industrialist ancestors’ metals business. We kept glass bottles of 4711 eau de cologne in the bathroom. Phrases like “yeah” and “okay”were frowned upon. Continue reading
Perhaps after I was born, someone sneaked into the hospital nursery and instead of snatching me, stood above me and whispered, “May You Have an Interesting Life.” The motives of this person would not have been clear, nor their intention – blessing or curse. But “interesting” is pretty much a guarantee for anyone who understands early in their life that they have been born into a world that is not their world; that they will need to exit and go forth from what they have known into the babel of many other tongues, satchel on their back, at any given moment looking both forward and back. We who have done so will forever have the understanding, the language of the insider while willingly – no desperately – at all costs – wanting to be outside.
I have not yet read Jeanette Winterson’s recent memoir but when I first read her novel, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, certainly inspired by her strange and interesting life of having been adopted into a family of evangelical Christians, I felt that I had found my sister. The extraordinary writer, Kate Wheeler, whose past includes a stint as a Buddhist nun in Burma, has a magnificent short story collection entitled Not Where I Started From. That would be an apt title for a memoir, should I ever decide to write one.
Like Shalom Auslander and Nathan Englander, I emerged from an Orthodox upbringing and am, in fact, the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi. Emerging and carving my own path was certainly fraught and difficult and cost a villa in the south of France worth of therapy, but it has also provided me a certain literacy in multiple points of view and in worlds that don’t typically meet and if they do, they are not always friendly.
For starters, we were Ashkenazic and my father was rabbi of a Sephardic shul. And so I grew up with a foot in each world and the very different values and priorities of those two worlds played out in my life in various ways. As a child, I knew Meir Kahana personally (he was married to my mother’s first cousin) but only a few years into adulthood, in Israel, ended up working for a left wing member of Knesset. I found myself coming to feel strongly about territorial compromise and a two-state solution while being intimate with the world of settlers. Three years ago, when my son was sixteen, I took him to Israel for his first time. I didn’t relish a trip to the West Bank, where my relatives lived, and so my sister-in-law, whom I love and respect very much despite our divergent views, concocted a five-day trip through the north of Israel. I should stop here and let you know that my brother was killed in the first week of the second Intifada and that my sister-in-law has spent the years since single-handedly raising seven kids. She told me that all of the kids, including my two married nieces’ husbands, would be coming. I assured her that I had brought my most modest bathing suit.
“Bathing suit?” she said and laughed.
The first day of our trip, my relatives made a point of finding banks of the Kinneret that were deserted, and hidden pools and parts of the Jordan river where we could pretty much be on our own. In blazing heat by the Kinneret I watched as she and all the girls meandered into the water in their clothes. (There was apparently no such restriction on the men!!!) There was no choice. I could remain outside and bake or cool off in my skirt and top. After three days of swimming in my clothes (I will state what some of you are thinking – yes there is an absurdity as clinging wet clothes are not exactly modest), I got used to it. One day a secular couple wandered into the area where we were swimming. The woman was pale and in a bikini and it stopped me. All that skin suddenly seemed superfluous. Distracting.
While I glibly tossed around story titles in my head like “My Vacation with Extremists,” on another level, what I was coming to understand was the embarrassment of riches I’ve been given in terms of a passport to cross the borders of such radically divergent worlds.
The moment the cardboard box from New York arrived, I felt a strange mixture of elation and melancholy. The package was stacked with copies of my first book, a memoir, The Forgetting River.
I examined the hardcover like checking a new baby, counting the pages, smoothing the cover, reading the tribute and rereading my first sentences that I think I must have rewritten more than 100 times since I started my quest. It’s a universal story of personal discovery, my journey to reclaim the secret Sephardic Jewish identity of my Catholic Carvajal family in a white pueblo on a high ridge in the southern frontier of Spain.
Everyone has a mystery in the family tree and this was mine. Now I feel wistful as a I look over the last chapter because I long to keep adding new information. Unbeknownst to me, my older cousin, Rosie, revealed a few days ago that she had questioned my great aunt Luz in San Jose, Costa Rica at a family gathering before she died in 1998. Aunt Luz, which literally means the light, was the careful historian of family lore, typical of Anusim – Hebrew for forced Christian converts dating back to the Spanish Inquisition. The Anusim or Marranos – which in Spanish literally means pigs – typically relied on elder women to pass on their secrets.
“Luz told me that our family came from Spain,” Rosie wrote to me. “She asked me: ‘Has your mother ever told you that we are Sefarditos?’ Of course when I brought it up to my mother, she refused to talk. Come to think of it, I actually took a small tape recorder and without their knowledge recorded our conversation.”
When I read those words, I felt chills. One of my biggest regrets about trying to recover my family’s secret identity is that for years I missed numerous opportunities to gather information from older generations because I was simply not curious about our past. To bring life to a chart of a family tree, I realized belatedly that conversations have to happen to tell a vivid story to pass on to new generations. Indirect approaches need to be pursued to tackle delicate subjects. I discovered all this by making many mistakes.
Rosie’s late mother – my aunt and godmother – had always been interested in my book research. I had asked her several times about our family history and secret Jewish background, but she told me politely that she knew nothing. “My mother knew, but was too diplomatic with you to say she didn’t want to talk,” Rosie said. “When I brought it up, she absolutely refused to comment. I knew that she knew something.”
Today I’m preparing to mail copies of my new book to relatives in California and Costa Rica – too late to write another chapter with tape recorded quotes of a voice from the grave.
When I walked down the airplane gangplank for the first time in Ben Gurion airport, I immediately noticed the baggage handlers unloading our plane. I was told they were “gruzinim”, or Georgian Jews. I had thought Israel would be filled with people who looked like my neighbors, my temple congregation, or even me. But they were totally different. I didn’t realize what an amazing variety of Jews and cultures had come from every corner of the world to make up the population of Israel.
I lived in Jerusalem and worked for the Israeli Broadcasting Authority doing illustrating and drawing animation for children’s programming. If I needed models for my work, all I had to do was to step out into the street and walk in any direction.
In the alley in Nachalot, where I lived, in a 17th century Turkish domed apartment, I befriended a Yemenite scribe, Ovadia, who had a tiny one room studio, just off the local well. There he copied the torah on vellum with quill pen and India ink. At times he would be dressed in black pants and white shirt and at other times in a flowing robe and pants. He had different hats, headdresses and turbans that he would change several times a day. It seemed to depend on who was visiting him. He made the best coffee in a small finjan on an electric grill next to his drawing table.
There were others who lived in the neighborhood from Morocco, Bukhara, India, Persia, Turkey and every European country. I’m always trying to fit them into my work. Here is a good example of the Jewish cultural types from my book, The Joyous Haggadah. Ovadia is first on the left.
This is a composite from kibbutz families I’ve known.