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Are You Crypto? Returning to Jewish practice after 500 years in religious exile

Watch: Song of Isabel Medina on returning to Jewish practice after 500 years in religious exile ; Music composed by Judy Frankel to a text of Isabel Medina Sandoval which describes the pain of returning to public Jewish practice after 500 years of forced conversions and hiding Jewish family history fearfully. Performed at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe in the Spring of 2011.

On Wikipedia if you put in Cryto-Jews you will find the link that says:

The term crypto-Jew is also used to describe descendants who maintain some Jewish traditions of their ancestors, often secretly, while publicly adhering to other faiths, most commonly Catholicism. The phenomenon arose in the Middle Ages following the expulsion of the Jews in 1492 from Spain.[6]  

In my family, both parents were raised Catholic. My father’s family was from Spain. Black hair, brown eyes, as Moroccan looking as they come. When I came to Morocco the shock of seeing his face on many men everywhere around me was unnerving. My brother, the first son of the family, was named Israel and we have always followed Judaic food law. I know all the stories of the prophets and my religious education was based in a strange confusing mix of Judaism and Christianity. There was even despite all of this a strong brand of anti-semitism…Myself and my aunt had very strong sentiment of support for Jewish culture and she converted or rather reverted to Judaism when she married my uncle Rosenfeld. I started my love for Judaism in Morocco when I was pregnant and when Moroccans believe that pregnant women crave what their babies need and must get what they want.

My father, as he was dying said he thought our family might be Jewish. I laughed at him because he was always the first one talking badly about Jewish identity which must have been passed on to him and so on. And now, as he was dying and I was 14 years old standing in his living room in West Covina, I tried my best to jokingly laugh off both the revelation that struck me that I didn’t know how to react to, as well as his looming death that was standing in front of my face as his skin yellowed and he lost his ability to cook and think and joke with us but had a strong desire to give us our history before he died.

I had seen our name on a map in Saudi Arabia when I was 7. The adult woman watching us and giving us an hour of schooling that day asked me if that was where our family was from…I said, I don’t know. And frankly, I don’t think I wanted to be from Saudi Arabia but my name was there on the map. I didn’t pay much mind until I was 21 and the day after my birthday, as I was still hung over from the bar scene of New York, I woke up in a haze in Rabat. Shocked, I was completely shocked. I was standing 1000 years in the past looking at the brown dirt walls and the robes that the men wore right out of a scene of a Jesus film.

I was walking into the Medina with the others and got to realizing that the cross walks were purely for decoration purposes, I heard my name all over Morocco. I felt my father’s history. I didn’t think it was a mistake that he died while I was there. Even though my mother and family refused to tell me at the time for fear I would leave Morocco and come home…I think somewhere inside myself I knew it was coming.

I dreamt over and over again for months even before going to Morocco and over again while I was there that someone would come to me as I sat on the stairs on a street in Morocco, and say: Your father is dead. When it never happened I thought perhaps I was just wrong and my dreams were purely a figment of my imagination. My father had cheated death and I would come home and perhaps speak with him, perhaps not, but he would surely be proud and I would tell him more about his name.

When I went to the desert near the Algerian border and drove alone out of the dunes with Abdelilah, I spoke about my father. I smelled the grass and it overwhelmed me. I hadn’t smelt green in days while in the desert and on exiting the desert all I could smell was the color green. I started to breathe and cry as I spoke about my dad, speaking in a tone of closure, in a language as if he had died.  I told Abdelilah the family secrets I told no one. I spoke as if all the wrong and hate and love between us was just that…in the end it was just love, even the hate was love, it was love with so many misunderstandings. He died within 24 hours of me speaking of him. I didn’t know until I came back home months later but that moment will never leave me.

I touched something that I didn’t know before I came to Morocco. I accidently discovered in coming to Morocco that this was my fathers’ family’s home, despite hundreds of years of exile both from the land and from his religion when they moved to Spain.

Years later I asked a Jewish scholar about my name as well as other Jewish Moroccans with my name. It is one of the oldest Hebrew names and the people with it have always lived closely with Arabs and later Muslims too whether in Saudi Arabia or the north of Africa or Morocco and later Spain. Medina, has been living in the south and the middle east until they reached Spain and were thrown out, killed for their religion or forced to convert and hide. I think for survival reasons, Jews who were crypto Jews had to be the loudest anti-Semites for their own survival until the generations that followed actually believed it. Like my parents both practicing aspects of Judaism as they railed against it sometimes and both have Jewish blood in the family. My mother’s Jewish relatives come from Europe, Sarah Zimmerman, who settled in the south of the States and my father’s family an unassuming big Catholic family but who are called “Medina”…a Hebrew word.

Everything that I have come to discover in life that has taken me so far away from everyone I’ve known, has seemingly come into my life by accident, and returned me to my self. My coming to Morocco, my interest in cinema my discovery and love for Judaism. It all seems random and  by accident but life is wise especially if you don’t listen to logic or the tropes of success. Call it intuition or sensitivity or illogical thinking…but listening to that voice that has nothing to do with Western capitalism or logic or reasoning led me here to Morocco when I was 21 and Morocco led me back to my father and to my Jewish roots and life today.

To feel a connection to something and care about it, to seek out more of what sparks your head and heart especially if it’s not chasing fame or wealth, is so uncool.  I am happily very uncool then.

Here they call it Maktoub…but it’s not just destiny. It’s your life to write it as you see fit but there is also a tune in the background I listen to it and it takes me to choices and places that make my heart full beyond anything.

People think and tell me they think I am crazy to stay here when I could have stayed in New York at a successful job on Wall Street and been so unhappy but so wealthy. Here in dirty Casablanca, in my spacious but modest apartment filled with light and my little girl near me, my film work in front of me and enough questioning and struggle to challenge me, with shabbat and hilloulas and friends who are like family, I am happy. Life was not meant to be defined by how much we get paid and how easy it is to be unaffected by discomfort.  That is not the point of my life or I would have stayed in America. It was meant to be rich and challenging and a discovery everyday and that is what it has become.

Perhaps one day I will leave here but never fully or for too long.

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