Some Youthful Memories

I have been asked over and over again “When did you find out you were Jewish?’ It’s as though being Jewish is something that can be acquired at some precise time and place How does one qualify to being Jewish? At what time in life does one acquire all of the attributes that define a Jew? Who would tackle the agesold question of trying to define a Jew when even in Israel the total definition of who is a Jew has not been resolved? The real question should be “What makes you think you are a Jew?” Is being a Jew limited to the offspring of a Jewish woman? In Israel even the off spring of a Jewish father qualifies for aliya

In his book To Be A Jew Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin defines the Jews as family He calls the Jews an expanded family for sure and ofttimes a farflung family but a family nonetheless The child of any Jewish woman is thus considered to be a member of the family But membership in the family has never been limited by birth It has always been open to all and those who share the faith of this family may be absorbed into it This holds not only for converts but for returning Jews regardless of how much time has lapsed since they were practicing Jews

Now returning back to our previous question “What makes you think that you are Jewish?” The answer has many facets It has been only through much comparative study that I have reached my own conclusions That old saying if it looks like a duck walks like a duck and quacks like a duck then it must be a duck might be applicable in this case I do not mean to make light of such an important part of my life but my conclusions were reached when I saw how much of my life had been lived day in and day out in a Judaic way of life

My introduction to cryptoJudaic study began after I listened to a tape recording of an NPR radio program “The Hidden Jews of New Mexico” The tapes were given to me by my work buddy Andre de Toledo Andre and I became friends while working together in US Immigration at LAX Andre and I would occasionally meet for lunch and a movie After the movie we would stop by for a cup of coffee Andre was a Sephardic Jew born in Istanbul and wound up in France after the war This was where be met his wife Gigi and they had two offspring They all immigrated to the states in the 1960’s Andre was constantly asking me question about my family Being friends outside of work our conversations included past and present life He told me of his childhood in Turkey and I told him of mine in Albuquerque He told me about his parents and I told him about mine It was all very pleasant conversation and we got to know each other pretty well One day he gave me the three tapes and told me I should listen to them It was at this point that I decided to do some serious study into the subject The questions were all there Why did we always gravitate to the Jewish community? Why were all of our close family friends Jews? Most important of all why did I feel so safe and at home with a group of Jews? During our conversations on occasion he would say”You know Flavio that’s a Jewish custom or tradition”

The same questions came up And I discussed them with my brother He said he felt the same way that Judaism was like a safety net Whenever you had a problem you ran to a Jewish friend for help Some of his close friends were Jewish but not to the extent that mine were It seemed that mine were exclusively Jewish And I must say that this all took place in the Ashkenazi community

I then started to make notes of my earliest recollections and what I knew of some Jewish customs and traditions and made comparisons The most important and significant one was with my maternal grandfather When I was about twelve or thirteen he and I were walking home from my aunt’s house We went by a church and he held my shoulder as he said to me “I know that you go to those churches once in while but when you do go you must never pray or worship any of those pictures or statues that they have There is but one God and it is only that one God that we worship and pray to” Every Tuesday his duties were to help a shochet slaughter for the community and it was his duty to guard the slaughtered beef till it was picked up to be taken to the kosher markets For this he received a chunk of meat which he took home to my grandmother who salted and washed it before she cut it up and gave some of it to her sons and daughters I asked my grandmother why we did not eat pork and her explanation was quite simple She said that pigs were at one time people who had disobeyed ” las leyes de Moises ” the laws of Moses and God had turned them into pigs Therefore it was forbidden for us to eat pork Nice story except that I distinctly remember her saying ” las leyes de Moises ”

Another incident concerns the death and burial of my paternal grandmother since this includes several customs and traditions which are heavily Sephardic Now these are old customs which I do not think exist any more At least I do not hear of anybody observing them any more When my grandmother died all the preparations were done at home We were not allowed to see all but children being children we peeked mainly staying out of the way All of the mirrors in the house were covered Then the room for the dolientes or mourners was prepared First a room was emptied out and a bed was brought in The bed was set up but without a mattress In those days the bed consisted of the frame and a spring of metal coils This was set up in one corner and chairs were placed around the room against the wall The body had been taken away for preparation at the funeral home When the casket was returned to the house my grandmothers’ three daughters were led into the room and helped onto the bed so that their backs rested against the wall and their feet were on top of the bed The explanation my mother gave me was that the mourners were forbidden from sitting on cushions or having any comforts She said that in many homes people sat on the floor during mourning Also the men did not shave My cousin Miriam who was much older and married was not allowed to attend the burial because she was pregnant It is an old Sephardic tradition that pregnant women not be allowed to go to the cemetery At the burial all present took turns shoveling a spade full of dirt into the grave

It is important to remember that these customs and traditions are only vestigial remnants of a Jewish identity in a distant past At times I have felt like an archeologist working away through layers of accumulated dust to try and determine how strong this identity has remained through the years There is much more to be told I remember a little story of a conversation with my mother when we were discussing birds and animals which are edible Suddenly she said ” La gente de antes the people of old used to say that we should only eat meat from animals with a cleft hoof” My mother was certainly not a biblical scholar I did not ask her where she heard this or how she learned this but it was enough to take me by surprise

In my opinion all of these studies certainly do point to a Jewish past and help to answer so many questions I have today I hope that I will have the privilege in the future of sharing more of my stories with you as there are many

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