10 May Shavei volunteer teaches Hebrew in Central America
by Gabriel Cavaglion
In recent years, Israel has recorded migratory flows coming from remote regions, such as Bnei Menashe immigration from North-East India that become possible for part of the community after a rigorous conversion process (about 3000 people up to the moment). They position themselves as descendants of tribe Menashe, one of ten tribes exiled by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.
In Central and South America there are several communities that would like to join Jewish people, claiming to be descendants of Anousim or Crypto-Jews, also known as Marranos, that were forced to convert to Christianity in Spain, 1492, and later in Portugal. They claim that their ancestors after having taken refuge in Central and South America, have moved away from the coastal areas to make easier leading Jewish style of life. These groups of people that cannot always be called full-fledged communities attract the attention of Jewish organizations all over the world. Among them Satmar Chasidic movement that is involved in supporting Jewish life in this area and is represented by a conversion institution called Toiras Chesed. On the other hand, the Kulanu organization supports the activity of non-mainstream rabbis (conservative, progressive etc.)
I was honored to be hosted by one of these communities supported by Shavei Israel, a religious and Zionist organization that works with various groups of people, helping them to return to Judaism: from China to Poland, from Russia to Portugal, not to forget the communities of Southern Italy led by Rabbi Pinchas Punturello for years.
I spent a month in Central America, volunteering as a Hebrew teacher for the benefit of one of the local communities. I would prefer not to indicate its exact location to avoid possible risks of any repercussions of a political nature. In simple words, that is a small enclave of a few hundred people living in conditions of extreme economic need and suffering from the typical problems of third world countries: corruption and crime, poverty and the lack of basic social and medical services.
The community is divided into two groups: one of middle class representatives living in the capital city, and another of the lower class living in a countryside. On the one hand academic professionals, on the other hand small traders and unskilled workers. The latter are named “los chalones” by the locals, that takes its roots from the word “shalom”. A criminal background of the village controlled by two rival gangs and living on extortion, drug and arms trafficking, with profits of millions of dollars per month, makes even more surprising the fact that los chalones enjoy full immunity. It is said that the locals remember their grandparents hinting at the descent from the Jewish people. I was told a story of a gang member fleeing from the police and seeking shelter in the synagogue, covering himself with a tallit that he knew to use since he was a child.
The initial intention of our volunteer agreement was to provide the basics for a conversation in Hebrew, but I had no choice but to take a step back after I realized that their pronunciation required a radical correction. The Mem, מ, is confused with the Nun, נ, the Bet with the Vet, transforming the early morning prayer from Vatikin to Batikim. And then, Hey, ה, had become Khet, ח, creating even fun situations. “Go to Akharon (last)” they tell me, and I ask myself “last in what?”. They meant Aharon, Aronne. By “Berod haShen” they meant “Barukh haShem”, “Blessed is G-d”. During the prayer I have not always been able to distinguish the words. All the sibilant consonants are confused. “Al Tashlikhenu”, or “do not send us away”, becomes “Al Tatzlikhenu”, which would sound like “do not make us succeed”. It is also interesting to note that some blessings, for example for the health of sick people, are said in Spanish and each prayer ends with the reading of the 13 divine attributes in Spanish. I think that what really matters is a good intention of the heart, kavanà, even if the content could be misunderstood. I also reflect on how the various dialects are formed, which are also due to a malformation or audio and phonetic selectivity. And like when Primo Levi in his Argon fails “to reconstruct the origin” of the word “tònevà” to define the Catholic Church, a term used in the Hebrew of Piedmont. The writer does not discover that it would be nothing more than an erroneous pronunciation of the Hebrew word to’eva, תועבה, or abomination.
Both communities have their own courtyard with a synagogue, kitchen, dining room, and on Saturday they host all the members. In the capital, given the distances, everyone sleeps in community on mattresses, in three separate rooms for women, men and children. All bring their food prepared from home, crossing the capital with inadequate public transport and voluminous packages, baskets and children carried on their shoulders.
At the village, after the total participation in the Saturday prayer, the short distances allow you to walk home for meals. Here almost everyone has a certain kinship relationship between them. Here as in the capital I have felt a lot of warmth and solidarity, and I try to imagine the day when they can finally return to Israel as a single organic body.
Men usually wear a black or brown kippah and a white shirt. On Saturday everyone is in a suit and tie. Married women wear their hair covered with various types of hats or colored fabrics. Little girls like mothers wear skirts and shirts with long sleeves. The children all have black kippah, even when they go to public school.
What has surprised me is the behavior of children. They address me only with the title of Morè, teacher, and they are amazed that despite my position, I participate with them in the games. Parental orders are given in a low voice, awe and obedience are total. It is also interesting to note that no one is left-handed, allergic to something, or wearing glasses and no one demonstrates deficit of attention or behavior, that is so widespread in schools in Israel. Everybody are very organized with their pencils and special notebooks, write the date in Hebrew at the beginning of the lesson. If the children raise their hands to ask a question the parents seem even more intimidated. They ask me to approach them and whisper the question under my breath.
Despite living not far from the sea, my departure, through a holiday resort, was an opportunity for many children to see it for the first time. They took turns, first the women, then the men who, out of modesty, did not take off their shirt even in the water. Some small children were terrified of the infinite space and the continuous roar of the Pacific Ocean. It is no coincidence that one of them asked me if the giants still exist. “The last”, I answer him, “it was Goliat, but after King David we are calm”.
Nobody told me about negative attitude from the local population. The black kippah is also worn in the performance of daily activities without the need to conceal it under a hat. The gates of the courtyards are always open without the need for security. Members come and go, even just to enjoy a good company during the day or to take advantage of a Kasher meal or free wifi.
Walking around the country I realize that Hebrew terms are present everywhere. The Hebron pharmacy, the Bet El car park, the Jerusalen boulevard, the Eben Ezer company and the El Shaddai lane … and endless David’s stars on the buses. The strong influence of the evangelical church should explain this factor, even if local Jews claim that, like them, many others returned to the true origins.
All have adopted Jewish names, even those that in fact are not yet converted. Some of these, like Kaleb or Gamliel, Sarai or Yokebet (Yokheved), are really rare and antiquated, while others are commonly used in Israel, such as Assaf, Sapir, Libi or Keren, which claimed to be called Kerem (vineyard), really rare name.
The liturgical rite is essentially Levantine and North African, which is flanked by Ashkenazi songs in the style of rav Karlebach and melodies of more recent Israeli songs, such as Yerushalaim Shel Zahav by Naomi Shemer, which accompany the Tehilim on Shabbat.
The notion of Israel is for some of them rather vague, wavers from a naive and idealized vision (“I heard that there are no swear words in Israel”) unfounded fears (“how they will welcome us if we have dark complexion? “,” but if we do not hurry will there still be room for us? “). More educated people ask more complicated questions about political coalitions and even which party supports the LGBT community.
The reasons for choosing Judaism and Zionism are varied. For Menachem (for them Menachen) the reason was a sense of spiritual emptiness and the difficulty of living in a violent and corrupt society. He moved from a neighboring country, totally devastated, wouldn’t have benefited from a community, converted for almost a year, and then bought a flight to Israel for the whole family. Not belonging to a recognized community, not having acquaintances in Israel and not even a place to stay, he was blocked at the Israeli customs and sent home, always at his expense (equal to a few years of salary). The only memory of this bitterness is an Israeli newspaper, kept as a relic (I did not say it was just commercial ads). For others, the approach to Judaism is due to the desire to better investigate statements and recommendations constantly made by the grandmother on the fact of being different, not to eat the pig, to get married only with people with certain surnames, to use a shroud white for burial or not to light the Saturday fire. From the stories it seems that the grandmothers were devoid of cognition or reluctant to use the term Jews. I was told by a young woman that she had received the keys to a house in Spain, transmitted on the maternal line, of ancient texts with Jewish characters seen during childhood and then stolen, of dreams of children crammed on cattle cars with a floor wooden and killed by tormentors in a snowy field. Do not miss mystical dreams with appearances of angelic figures and legends about the origins of surnames. Reality and myth are mixed. The Franco are certainly Jews of French origin, such as the Troche, certainly from Treier in the Moselle valley, and the Guevara claim that this surname is purely Jewish. The famous Che Guevara becomes a Jew based on a legend about his mother with Russian Jewish ancestry … it remains to be explained that Guevara was only the surname of his father, and that his mother probably had Irish origins.
For others the conversion is derived from the questioning of constituting a separate and respected group within the Evangelical church. They wondered why they had to keep a different ritual for generations, with a private corner where they could light two lights on Friday nights and more recently sing the anthem of Israel in front of its flag, hanging in the church itself. A more in-depth research on the Bible, the encouragement to go further and to get more information from the church also led them on this path. The digital era has opened the breach. We sum up many researches and after the first contacts with various Rabbis, slowly we begin to gather.
Finally, Esther, a beautiful 11-year-old girl who is everybody’s mascot. White skin, blonde hair and red eyes. For them she is a clear genetic demonstration of Ashkenazic Jewish roots. For me it was hard not to mention that Esther is albino.