The summer after my first year in college, I went to Switzerland to visit my relatives. When I got there, I recognized my great aunt Rebecca. She was visiting from Bolivia. This was a wonderful surprise. She possessed an aura of warmth and love for all of us, and that is something I take with me to this day.
I had flown in from New York just in time for Friday night dinner, as I promised the host, my cousin Marcia and her family. The dinner setting was typical: two loaves of bread covered with linen and two candles sitting on the table. Before dinner, we read Psalms. After dinner, my cousin and I decided to question my great aunt, “the keeper of the family secrets,” on her knowledge of the ins and outs of the strange bag of Addams Family type mysteries which had been our childhood. For example, not being allowed to eat pork or shellfish under any circumstance. We also had questions about reading Psalms before having a meal, never mixing dairy and meat, and the most bizarre of them all, how they used to take it upon themselves to eat a ram’s head once a year. After a moment of silence, she took a deep breath and said with solemnity, “somos Judios. We’re Jews.” The second I heard that, I felt as if I were struck by lightning.
She told us about our Jewish history – how they used to call us Marrano Jews (pig Jews), how our family was originally from Barcelona Spain, how they escaped to the Americas to hide and avoid “la hoguera” which translates to the bonfire. Also, she shared about the humiliation and hatred faced for being Jewish.
As soon as I got back to New York, I decided I needed to find out all I could about Judaism and what it meant to be a Jew. I needed to put the pieces of my childhood together. I did academic research, and most sources do mention the expulsion of Sephardic Jews and their exile to Greece and Turkey, but none mention any forays to the Americas. One source even insinuated that groups of Sephardic Jews that tried to escape to the Americas had disappeared or gone extinct. So basically, according to what I just read, I don’t exist. I took a moment to look at my hands, my fingers, my nails and wiggled away…. they don’t look extinct to me. I was frustrated and angry that people assumed we were exterminated.
The next day, I visited the Chabad office at my university and spoke with the rabbi. I told him about my dilemma.
“How am I supposed to be a real Jew if, to begin, I’m supposed to be extinct? How am I expected to undo everything I’ve known about my background and be accepted by the rest of the Jewish world? My family thinks I am out of my mind for telling everybody that I am a Jew.”
The rabbi listened with patience and waited until I was done. Then he answered, “you were born a Jew, you are a Jew, and you will die a Jew, you’re one of us, you don’t get to choose.”
My name is Zev ben Yehuda, I am not extinct, and I am a Jew.