June 22, 2004
Not A Joke
There’s a well-known joke that you’ve most probably heard about the Jewish tourist from New York, who, when in China, found a synagogue to pray in. Imagine his surprise when he looked around, and noticed that it was filled with Chinese men. Just before he was about to ask if he was in the right place one of the Chinese came up to him and asked:
“What are you doing here?”
“I need to pray in a synagogue,” the tourist answered.
“Why a synagogue?” the local man asked.
“I’m Jewish,” he answered.
The Chinese men all stared at him in surprise, and one finally said: “Funny, you don’t look Jewish.”
I thought of that joke when I was at a wedding last week. It was a regular religious wedding in Jerusalem. The men wore kippot, mostly crocheted; the women were in dresses with sleeves, and the married ones wore hats. The difference was that the chattan, kallah (bride, groom) and most of the guests looked like Peruvian Indians.
Half a millenium after their ancestors fled the Spanish Inquisition, their “pinteleh yid,” the spark of Judaism is burning brightly in Peru. Clans of Peruvians are discovering the source of “secret family customs.” They are no longer afraid to be Jewish. Hundreds of years after fleeing Spain and hiding their true religion, entire families of three and even four generations are rejoining the Jewish religion and then making aliya to Israel.
Over ten years ago, when the chattan’s family made Shiloh its home, I asked his father, in a combination of Hebrew and my remnant of high school Spanish, why they wanted to live in Shiloh. Binyamin explained that for many years he had taught his community Bible and felt that in Shiloh he needed to live. They bought a home and added rooms. Binyamin’s wife’s parents moved in with them, and then four generations lived here in Shiloh until the eldest couple passed away were buried in our cemetery. Binyamin and Ruth’s eldest child, a daughter, met a young moshavnik, the younger brother of a neighbor, married him and now have children. They also bought a home in Shiloh. The youngest generation has their mother’s coloring and features with their fair-skinned and light-eyed father’s curly hair.
The wedding music was Jewish-Israeli with a Latin beat, as only our neighbor, Yehuda Glantz, can play. As we all danced, celebrating with the young couple, I looked around and saw such wonderful people. There was the warm-hearted, welcoming family from Alon Shvut that had adopted the kallah, whose family is still in Peru. A dvar Torah (Torah lesson/speech) was given in Spanish by my Bible teacher, who is from Majorca and discovered his Jewish roots when still a child.
I can only admire all of those who have the courage to publicly embrace the religion their ancestors hid. And to think that despite their fears, they had passed on just enough knowledge that they were “different” for their descendents to be able to discover their secret five centuries later. This is so different from the voluntary assimilation in recent centuries.
At the wedding, I felt that I was dancing as part of a miraculous performance in praise of G-d. Our hands of different colors symbolized the chain of Judaism that connects us all to those exiled after the destruction of the Holy Temple, that connects us to Bnei Yisrael that entered the Holy Land with Joshua, that connects us to those who fled Egypt with Moshe and those who entered Egypt with Yaakov and those who were born from Yitzchak, Avraham and Sarah's only child.
We are one People, and we will not be destroyed. We survived the nazi holocaust, the pogroms, the Inquisition, Haman, the Greeks, the Philistines, Amalek. And with the Help of G-d, we will survive our new enemies, even those among us.
Batya Medad, Shiloh