Wednesday, September 23, 2015

New Homes, Old Hearts

Yom Kippur is the Jewish Day of Atonement, a time set aside in the Jewish calendar for reflection of one's sins in the past year and thoughts to the year ahead. It is a time of fasting, reflection, and repentance.
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“Are you Jewish?” It was the 7th grade and I was walking home with Lisa Seraphim. Our grade school was in the middle of a heavily populated Jewish area of Milwaukee. “Because you act Jewish," she said looking at me. "And you seem Jewish." We were on our way to Lisa's house to work on a social studies project. This wasn't the first time someone from class had asked me this question. I answered her the same way I did all the other times, “I feel Jewish. Maybe.”

It was true.

Lisa's house was one of my favorite places to spend my weekends. Everything in her home and about her family felt instantly familiar, especially her mother. We would help Mrs. Seraphim cook and then we'd clean up the kitchen together. She had a large family, seven children, and we would be in the kitchen for close to an hour after dinner.

As Mrs. Seraphim swept the kitchen floor--corners first, and then gathering the dust into the center of the room, I would get chills at how this was the exact way my grandmother swept the kitchen. But my grandmother wasn't Jewish, she was a Catholic from Spain.

Lisa's mother would start dinner, the first step was to rinse the meat, being sure to remove all the nerves before soaking it in salt water. Just like home, I would shake my head at how alike she was to my grandmother. If I spent the night at Lisa's, we would have eggs for breakfast. Her mother would tell us to throw out any eggs that had blood spots in them. “My grandmother tells me the same thing, Mrs. Seraphim,” I’d answer in astonishment. In a world where I felt so different and alone, Lisa's house was one place where I felt I belonged. 

Mrs. Seraphim would cook with garlic, cumin, olive oil, and tomatoes. Always tomatoes, like my Spanish grandmother’s dishes. The meals at Lisa’s house were identical to the meals at my house; I never had to worry about whether or not I would like what they'd serve.

Lisa had younger brothers, the same as I did, with long, curly hair. They had to wait until the boys were at least three years old before they could cut their hair. My family lived by the same rule with my brother's hair.
I wasn't Jewish, but everything about Lisa's house felt like I once lived there. It always baffled me how much Lisa's family and mine had in common. It was years later, while in a World Religions Class in college, that I found bone-chilling possibilities for why I felt that way.

My professor had begun a unit on The Spanish Inquisition, he illustrated on a map how Jews who had escaped from Spain to avoid persecution found a new home and safety in The Canary Islands. I felt hot as I remembered that my mother told me that my grandmother's family first came from The Canary Islands.

I thought of Mrs. Seraphim and my grandmother, how they both rinsed any meat from the butcher. "To free it of any blood," my grandmother would tell me. My grandmother lit candles in a closed off room on Friday nights, my grandmother would not buy fish without scales. All things I had seen Lisa's mother do so many years ago.

As soon as the class let out, I headed straight to the library and spent the night poring over anything written on Jews during the Spanish Inquisition. There was a group of Jews that had gone to live in secret to the Canary Islands--they were known as Crypto-Jews. In one of the books, there was a list of questions, “Fifteenth Century Spain and Crypto-Jewish Customs.”

One by one I raced through the items, ticking off my yes answers to more than half.

Does your family fast during la semana santa? Yes.

Does your family celebrate El Dia Puro? Yes.

Does your family clean the house on Fridays during the day? Yes.

Are biblical names common in your family? Yes. Every other uncle in my family was named Moises. (Moses)

Then, I read something that made my scalp tingle. There was a list of eight family surnames that had left Spain for freedom in The Canary Islands. ONLY eight Crypto-Judaic family surnames from The Canary Islands. I read through it holding my breath. Would my grandmother's family name be there?

My heart pounded when I looked over the names. Fifth from the bottom, was my grandmother's maiden name. Her surname of Franco was one of the eight surnames of Jewish families that had made a new home in The Canary Islands.

Though I can never know for sure, my grandmother had already passed by then (we clipped locks of her curls, and wrapped them in tissue paper). But I made my own silent decision that day. I knew the reason why I was drawn to the Seraphim family. They were my heart. From so many generations ago.

Wishing all of my friends forgiveness, peace, and blessings this Yom Kippur.
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  1. There is so much that connects us when we stop to think, feel, connect with each other. Beautiful words here. As always.

    1. It's really fascinating, isn't it, Julie? Thank you.

  2. This is beautiful Alexandra. I never knew that is why you feel such a kinship. I'm glad you feel part of the tribe.

    1. Thank you, Estelle. Yes, I have felt this way for so long: a kinship.



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