The day I was invited to be a lifetime member of Hadassah was an incredible day for me. The idea of being a member of Hadassah was so exciting for me that I called my daughter up ASAP.
"Ah, great mom." "What?" I retorted "This is a dream come true! Me, your mother, a California Spanish Latina of a long forgotten Jewish ancestry is being recognized as a Jew! This was my take on the invitation. Ignorance can be bliss. I realize now that I was unaware, and that it was an open invitation to all, and I was lucky (and am grateful) to have been invited for the centennial life time membership drive. I could not get "memberized" soon enough! Sign me up!
I had grown up as a "memberless" Jew alongside my mother. My childhood was anything but a typical Jewish upbringing, no bat mitzvah for me, or anyone around me for that matter. I was once invited to participate in a quicienera by a school mate. It was forbidden. We were misfits. Outsiders. We did not keep up, or match up with the neighbors.
We had strange habits and odd ways. Even though my parents spoke Spanish, we were not Catholic. My mother was forever shopping churches with us kids in tow. What was she searching for? Did we lose something? She needed to know why her mother baptized all 10 of her children and yet never had the need to set foot inside a Catholic church. Why did her father forbid Catholic Church attendance and refused to attend Catholic weddings among his own children in a very harsh way?
Growing up my Mother's cooking pots were stirred with love in memory of her mother, and it was here that I benefited most from her stories. As she seasoned her different but delicious dishes, I was both inspired and challenged. She always mourned her mother's babyhood. My grandmother whom I never had the privilege of meeting, was raised by a wicked stepmother, (my mother's own words) the loss of a parent at such a young age and all the traditions entombed with her and out of my mother's reach saddened my mother-loss of traditions. My soul longed for those traditions and that lost identity with her.
My mother loved to tell her family stories. She loved to tell of her father's barber shop, his tailor shop clients and the family grocery stores. My mother, G-d rest her soul, felt a great genealogy void growing up without grandparents and passed it on to me. She believed that we were disconnected somehow from our ancestors. Woven into her many kitchen stories was always my mother's disclaimer, "My English is faulty and my Spanish is even worse. What language did I learn? But I know my food is good because I cook just like my mother and she cooked like her grandmother on her father's side." And so, my prayers were joined to hers as we prayed to the G-d of Abraham together before our meals. Someday we will know why our ancestors had such nombres estranos" she would say, "I think they were Jews".
My father on the other hand did not seem to value tradition, religion or anything ancestral. He truly grew up an orphan on the streets of Los Angeles. Dad did not want to talk about it. "There is no story" he would proclaim solemnly, don't ask.
Once in college, I finally had access to real history. I can always remember looking forward to fourth grade California history, and being so disappointed to discover that my family did not match up with any one there. On a university level, it was the caged archives under lock and key that were my main attractions. I wanted to know who we were. It wasn't until my mother formally asked me to look for our ancestors so that we can know that we are Jews; did I finally focus my research. Thank G-D, by then the internet was becoming the search engine that it is today. I lost my mother a few years ago to Parkinson's, but not before we discovered the crypto Jews of all the Americas, our story. I can remember the day we had gathered to celebrate the September birthdays at my brother's house, just a few days before Sukkot, when my mother and I announced to my siblings that we truly were Sephardic descendants, her joy that evening was warm, glowing and contagious.
That was years ago. And now my own joy is complete for my mother and myself. I am a lifetime member of Hadassah. To be a member of such a great movement is beyond words for me. I am currently privileged to be a student of Hebrew from a wonderful Hadassah teacher, and this Shabbat service at our reform synagogue, I have been invited by our Hadassah chapter president to read a portion in Ladino! For me Hadassah invited me, embraced me, and now nurtures me.