My Jewish Story
By Victoria Roza
I finish my reminiscences on the tenth anniversary of my conversion ceremony on the eve of Selichot. Remember the “Peace Weekend,” ten years ago with its famous handshake between Rabin and Arafat on the White House lawn? My ceremony was that weekend.
Recently I saw the controversial film The Holy Land, which was made in Israel in 2001. With the sometimes disturbing nature of this film it just seems appropriate, in a bittersweet way, to relay my search for personal peace and belonging in the Jewish community. I have proceeded on two major fronts: philosophical/religious and genealogical. Though I have not physically left the US, I have contacted many people around the world.
Back in 1990 I had just done one of my periodic life reality checks to see just who had been good influences in my life. I am remembering that probably I had just been lied to by a supposed friend (not Jewish). In this reassessment I came to the conclusion that Jews had been overwhelmingly a positive force in my life. Prophetically within a week I met a man in my grocery store’s parking lot who had just noticed my alumni UCSD bumper sticker, and indicated that he was also a graduate. Because of him I was invited to my first seder.
The first time that I realized Pereira was part of our family name was when I found a copy of my grandmother’s baptismal record. Later, in preparing for my first crypto-Jewish conference in 1993, held in San Antonio, I began research at the Mormon Library. I had hired a fellow Azorean descendant to do some initial research. My maternal grandmother’s family all came from Faial in the Azores Islands. I asked him to provide identification numbers of the records so that I could check for accuracy as well as see how it was done. I was then able to search back and find, thus far, the most distant relative in the Azores Islands around 1800, Antonio da Terra de Vargas. I also attended several Portuguese research seminars by the amazing Cherie Mello, of Los Angeles. She has done extensive research, and deservedly got lucky landing information from someone who had gone back many centuries in a joint family tree.
Even when I had the time, it wasn’t fun going through microfiches of records where Manuel is abbreviated “Mel,” Pereira is “Per”, etc. and the copies were from pages that tended to bleed through Slanting
messy script bleeding through at the opposite angle, made things really hard to read. This is also when I found copies where the image was oval due to square book records having been singed by lava flows! Once in a while, one would see very neat and well-rounded script and truly appreciate an organized hand. They say you can change yourself by changing your handwriting; please remember this for posterity!
In life it was wonderful to be finding Pereiras, one even in my own backyard. Alfredo (Shlomo) Pereira was an economics professor at UCSD earlier in the 1990s. I had been referred to Alfredo by a convert lecturer at Chabad. Alfredo gave, back then, many lectures around San Diego on the topic of Sephardic history, which was heady stuff in 1992-93. Sadly, these Pereiras moved to the east coast. Alfredo’s family, unlike mine, always knew they were Jewish, and were from Lisbon.
I remember having an hours-long talk with my grandmother when I was just turning 13. As mentioned, her family came from the Azores, the island of Faial. Always aiming to prove “good breeding,” Minnie never missed a chance to voice her low opinion of those from the adjoining island of Pico. This woman, my grandmother, was born in Watsonville, CA. I learned later from an expatriate Azorean, that the reason she dissed them might be because Faial men were, more often times than not, marrying Pico women! I wish I could remember the gist of what she said in that long talk of 1961.
Of all my family I was closest to my “Granny.” She died in 1989, and I was beside myself, exasperated by missing her death by 20 minutes. When I was seven or eight years, I have a memory when we were both in St. Johns Catholic Church in Lemon Grove,San Diego East County. I remember her saying that the statues were made out of wood, and that our family used to go to church on Saturdays. Every time she saw us she would grab the sides of our head so darn firmly, pull our heads down and kiss the top of our heads (hers was like a vise-grip) and say, “bless you precious.” This is something my brothers and I especially remember to this day. My mother reports my grandmother saying “the Portuguese were the best looking Jews in the world.” Some have called this just Portuguese chauvinism — whatever.
Since Grandma Minnie had said at one time our family practiced religion on Saturdays, I wish I could have her to answer my questions, but she was known never to answer a direct question anyway. Along these lines, she was quite reluctant to name her “extraction” when asked, according to my mother, Dorothy. If questioned, she would say she was “Latin,” if pressed she would say she was French, though I was told, as early as my primary grades, that our name had originally been Van der Rose, and that we had come from Holland, before our ancestors were in the Azores. She said we were also descended from royalty, which my mother sniffed at since she always thought Minnie was always putting on “airs.” Curiously, for a practicing Catholic all her life, Minnie only wanted a Protestant minister to visit her in the nursing home during the last year of life. Minnie of fond memory lived to 98 years; her father, Manuel, 96.
I believe it was when I was reading Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell’s novel of plantation-era Atlanta, that I came across the word Sephardic (though it could have been another novel I read in my early teens). I asked my mother what that meant. She said it meant a wandering Jew. Since I thought it had to do with the person looking that way, I asked what that meant. She said a person with close-set eyes and a pronounced bridge of the nose. I definitely remember that I looked at my mother and thought, hmmm? Of course in my travels throughout the Jewish community I realize that a Jew can look just about any old way. In the early 1990s I was “steered” toward a local Jewish educator who was quite generous with her time. She had not “come out” yet about her family having come from New Mexico; she was an accepted part of the Jewish community and had been mostly presumed to be Jewish from birth. It was nearly a decade after we first met that she wrote an article about her family for the local Jewish press, and finally “came out,” so to speak.
The torah tells that in ancient times, the third generation of those living with the people Israel were accepted fully. If this were the case today, then my grandkids wouldn’t have to go through any period of not belonging. Whenever we are doing something Jewish, it is really cute what my granddaughter does, and my grandson follows along They hum the tune of Havee Nigelia—NaNa, NaNaNa,NaNa, etc.
After reading Penguin Island by Anatole France when I was 16 years, I came to the conclusion that God was created in man’s image, not the other way around. Consequently I didn’t raise my daughter Catholic, I just didn’t believe it and furthermore it seemed to me unkind to raise a child with the fear of hell fire, having been raised that way myself. Also according to my catechism class, my Protestant father was apparently not going to heaven. I eventually was kicked out of Tuesday night catechism class for asking questions like “if you didn’t have a personal connection with God you would have to take a ‘fallible’ person’s word for it.” They said, “if you are going to ask questions like that don’t come back.” So I didn’t. Since my parents were quite strict, I could never discuss the real reason I was feigning illness and not going back to catechism class. It didn’t help that the San Diego Diocese Bishop was seemingly more interested in ogling my sixteen-year-old female sponsor when I was confirmed at the local Cathedral at the University of San Diego. Later in college, I took a religion classes which introduced me to eastern religions; the Judaism presented seemed far too male-dominated and wrath-oriented. Later, of course, I would learn there was something called Liberal Judaism and it had my name on it.
In 1991, I was dating a Polish-American Jew and it seemed appropriate for me to take an introduction to Judaism class, since I really didn’t know much about it though I had had many Jewish friends. I had often wondered if my Portuguese antecedents had perhaps been victims of the Inquisition. Very symbolic of me, I called synagogues on Christmas Eve to inquire about classes. I knew I was of l;iberal persuasion and took the class at Reform Temple Beth Israel the next month. Lucky for me it was lead by a half-Sephardic female rabbi (of Rhodesian-American extraction as it were). When I walked into the dimly-lit, vaulted hall to register I was sure I would be struck down. Curiously my mother had the same worry, though I was able to bring her to a talk by a popular food writer at Beth Israel. But my mother wore her crucifix, apparently just to be sure. When my mother would attend my mini-seders or Hanukah celebrations, she would sometimes say, “you’re not going to make me Jewish!” Frankly, I think she was just sick of hearing my endless examples like “Elvis Aaron Presley is one-sixteenth Jewish.” I do remember my grandmother and my dad tapping the doorpost especially when leaving on vacations. My dad’s mother’s birth name was Kershner and wonder if there could be something Ashkenasi there. Ada May Kershner’s family originally came from Bonn, Germany. Unfortunately, I just don’t have enough free time to do all the research I would love to! Perhaps when I’m retired, whenever that might be.
In the Introduction to Judaism class, I was hooked when,. in our discussion of Shabbat, it was revealed that it was required for a man to make love to his wife on Friday night. Much different from the Roman Catholic view “it was better to marry than to burn;” an attitude I find not very enthusiastic for sex. Granted, as many know, it doesn’t quite equate in practice, perhaps for both camps.
Exploring, I went to the Sephardi Synagogue in the Bonita section of San Diego County, looking for the obvious. Mostly there were Ashkenasi Jews from south of the border in Mexico. Much of the service was in Spanish, or Ladino, apparently. The mehitza, or wall of separation between men and women, didn’t sit well with me on principle. What did impress me were the haunting davening (praying) songs of the wonderful inner-circle of Sephardic men.
For a time, searching the Pereira name became an obsession. I remember coming across the Mme. Isaac Perere rose when researching the flower I was named after, the Victoria Harrington rose, after an Irish grandmother on mother’s father’s side, Mary Harrington. It was a rose my mother had seen at a flower show while pregnant with me in the late 1940s. (My birth name is Mary Victoria Barnes.) By this time you might be wondering about the name changes. Divorced from a Kelly, and not having fond memories of the union, my rabbi agreed that Kelly wouldn’t be too helpful when I finally made it to Israel. I was influenced by the Pereira connections, particularly Victor Perera, our cherished discussions and his book The Cross and the Pear Tree. I took my Grandmother Minnie’s birth surname of Pereira Roza and dropped the Mary (I had always been called Vicki, though I had not wanted the Angel of Death to visit, so it seemed appropriate to go back to my original Victoria during some especially troubling times). My had died the over a year before and it seemed okay to let go of a birth name–I had also been wanting to change my married name for some time. For all the troubles I’ve had in the last decade, I sometimes wonder if I should have insisted on a follow-up offered me of a numerlogic examination for my new (and now) name: Victoria Pereira Roza.
Early on in my genealogical research, I met a fellow Silveira (we have Silveira-Cardoso in Great-Grandpa Roza’s line) who was a retired librarian from the UCSD Special Collections Library. Curiously, the architect also of what is now named Gisel (Dr. Suess) Library was William Perera. He told me that the Terra (of the family name da Terra de Vargas) line (Gloria Gomes side) of my family was from one of the first families; that means over 550 years in the Azores. According to a book on Azorean surnames, the Pereira name is connected with Palmeira; could that be from the Balearic Islands? Unfortunately I have not done much in the six years since I have been on the Internet. Grandma Minnie called the tail of the turkey at our Thanksgiving dinner the Pope’s nose. I also heard a similar reference from someone who said that it was a Protestant practice; another called it the priest’s nose (this woman was from Bulgarian Christian heritage.) Minnie’s father (my maternal, maternal great-grandfather) looked forward to the coming to America with his future wife Rosa Gloria Gomes. Minnie said he said he had heard that she was “clean and educated.” After marrying Manuel Pereira da Rosa, later changed to Manuel Perry (M.P.) Roza, she went by Gloria, otherwise it would have been Rosa da Rosa! On both sides I have a connection to roses. For my Hebrew name I chose Ilana Vered, pear tree for Pereira, and the color of rose for Roza. Grandma Minnie was kind of being ostracized by her father for marrying an Irish-American, but since he proved to be a good man he was eventually accepted.
My mom and grandmother got really angry when about age eight or so, I swept the dirt out the kitchen door, over the threshold. I asked why? No particular answer was given except that it just isn’t done.
High point was when I received my first aliot at the historic Beth Israel Synagogue in Old Town section of San Diego. I felt like I was giving voice to my Great-grandmother Gloria (unfortunately dead before even my mother was born, who only knew one grandparent, Great-grandpa Roza). According to family accounts Grandma Gloria sung sad Portuguese songs which she accompanied with the zither..
Why did I go through the conversation process, and not the return process? For one, at the time of the peace weekend in September 1993, there wasn’t an accepted return process for the anusim that I knew about. Since a Jewish wedding was not eminent, it was just that I knew where I belonged and wanted to be able to do aliot, and hopefully shrug second-class status. Someday I will need to find a schedule where I will have time to do a bnai mitzvah class. I’m promising myself a tallit (prayer shawl) only then when I complete it.
VICTORIA ROZA, SCJS member from San Diego, wrote an article on Sephardic cooking for the Summer 02 issue.