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Distinguished Book Award, Society for the Scientific Study of Religion
In my growing up as a Protestant, we read what I now know to be the Torah. And with such love for Israel, you know, it sounded like there's this love for the community and God's special relationship to Israel. . . . the fundamentalist element in Mexico and Latin America is what I've now come to understand as the survival of the essence of the Torah.Because the descendants come to Judaism from widely different backgrounds and spiritual paths, their varied encounters both with the religion and with the conversion process illuminates the multifaceted nature of Jewish conversion in contemporary society. The narratives therefore reveal the intersecting and dynamic relationship among law, history, and theology in the modern construction of Jewish religious identity. Accordingly, a discussion of the legal issues affecting conversion provides a good starting point from which to consider the religious response to ancestral Judaism among modern crypto-Jewish descendants.
2. and when the Lord thy God shall deliver them [the Hittites, Girgashites, and Cannanites] up before thee, and thou shall smite them: then thou shalt utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor show mercy unto them; 3. neither shalt thou make marriages with them: thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son. 4. For he will turn away thy son from following Me."4The prohibition on intermarriage reflects anxiety about Jewish constancy, since it is feared that the child born of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father will reject the Jewish faith and, more significantly, the God of Israel. Talmudic interpretation of this passage concluded that a child born of a union between a gentile father and Jewish mother is, by law, a Jew, because the child in the Deuteronomy passage is considered the child of the mother's father, the Jewish patriarch to whom this commandment is directed.5 Through this reasoning, it is the maternal grandfather through whom Jewish lineage is actually inherited. Modern Jewish commentary on the Talmud's view of the Deuteronomy passage thus explains matrilineal descent in the following manner:
Since the Torah, on this interpretation, calls the child of an Israelite mother and gentile father the "son" of an Israelite grandfather, it was deduced therefrom that the child is to be regarded as being of the same race and faith as the mother. Consequently, the child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother follows in Jewish Law the religious status of the mother.6While the religious rationale for matrilineal descent offered by Talmudic scholars reinforced the primacy of the Jewish patriarch and his legal authority over his daughter's child,7 other explanations maintain that matrilineal descent developed in response to concerns over paternity.8 Within this interpretive framework, the importance of the mother's Jewishness in religious law can be explained in terms of the effects of rape and foreign acculturation on Jewish survival. According to this perspective, historically the survival of Jewish culture was at risk because of both intermarriage and sexual violation among a people who were constantly at war and under foreign domination. Religious inheritance through the mother therefore sustained the Jewishness of the child, regardless of the religion or nationality of the father.
When Jewish spokesmen tell the people in New Mexico that they are accepted as Jews because they have gone through a lot, because they love Judaism, because they have ancestors who were Jews several hundred years ago—they are misleading these individuals . . . a compassionate and wise guide would tell them that he is glad of their interest in embracing Judaism, and that to be accepted as Jews they should follow the necessary procedure: halakhic conversion.9 In this way these individuals can achieve a genuine and universal acceptance among the Jewish people.10Within the boundaries set by Angel and other Orthodox religious authorities, only one descendant in this study was recognized as Jewish through blood ties to the mother. In this case, the descendant's mother suffered from Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, a degenerative disease of the central nervous system that has been linked specifically to Sephardic ancestry.11 When the descendant approached a rabbi in Colorado, she was told that because of her mother's illness, she would not have to go through a formal conversion before beginning the practice of Judaism:
The rabbi said, "You're Jewish. It doesn't make any difference if you are an atheist, you are Jewish. You don't have to convert. You can just start practicing the laws if that's what you want to do."In recalling this aspect of her search for Jewish roots, she spoke of both the relief and sadness that accompanied her mother's diagnosis and the rabbi's affirmation of her Jewish lineage:
It was great to find out positively that I was Jewish. I had already been researching it, so I was pretty sure that we were Jewish. So I was relieved that I didn't have to research my mother's side anymore. We knew my mother was ill. We knew she had a condition that wasn't getting any better. You know, it was hard knowing that my mother was ill in the first place. That was pretty tough. So the emotions were kind of mixed, because I was relieved that we were Jewish, but, you know, it's heartbreaking to see your mother go through that.For the vast majority of descendants whose "birthright" remains a more complicated and disputed area of religious identity, decisions to convert invited a wide array of responses from others. For some descendants, external recognition of Sephardic ancestry lies at the heart of their conversion dilemma. A woman of Mexican descent recounted a trip to Israel in which she brought along her genealogical documents with the hope that the rabbinic authority would recognize her blood ties to Judaism:
I went to the chief rabbi, and I brought him a write-up of my whole story. I demanded to be heard, to be accepted, and I never even saw him. They would not even allow me to present my case to him. The deep pain, the deep rejection, that I felt when I left there. But then I recovered. I remembered that Hashem [God] knows all that counts. I did not need this rabbi to make me a Jew.Other descendants voiced similar feelings of disappointment and anger when their Jewishness was called into question:
When I was twelve or thirteen, my dad took me to see a rabbi, and he was a Conservative rabbi, and he starts asking me about my mother and her family. I wanted a bar mitzvah. I wanted to read Hebrew, but that's not what happened. To me, I made the commitment when I was thirteen. I've lived it as much as I can every day. I've done everything to educate myself in my own way. When rabbis would talk to me I would listen. . . . When I lived in Venezuela, I went to a synagogue. I went to the rabbi's office and told them that I would be there for a year and that I wanted to join the synagogue. So I went to see the rabbi, and the first thing he says is, "You don't have a Jewish name." He wanted me to get a letter from my rabbi here and send it to him verifying who and what I was. The entire year I was down there, I never once went to that temple. I didn't bother. . . . I walked by there every day. It really upset me. It was a beautiful temple. I was miserable.In response to his rejection by mainstream Judaism, this descendant started attending a Lubavitcher synagogue in the United States, where he is permitted to read from the Torah and where his Jewish authenticity has not been challenged.12 Other descendants have found similar affirmation in synagogues in Europe. A descendant who was raised in South America took her family genealogy to a rabbi in Portugal who without question accepted her as a Jew:
I went to the rabbi and I explained to him about my history. I took all the papers and pictures of my family, and they believed me! The synagogue and the people over there—it was like being in your own land, and you come to them and tell them you are here, and they accept you.As exemplified by these diverse accounts, the indeterminate status of crypto-Jewish descendants has raised difficult and troubling issues within Jewish legal circles, since rabbis from different sectors of the Jewish community have taken various approaches to the question of conversion. Within the liberal sector of Reform Judaism, a small number of rabbis in the United States have created special ceremonies welcoming the descendants into Judaism. One such ceremony at a Reform synagogue in the Southwest brought a number of descendants together in a rite of return. In this special service, participants held the Torah as they recited prayers, publicly declaring their commitment to Judaism. Although a portion of the descendants have embraced rites of return such as these, the majority of participants who identify as Jewish have chosen to undergo a more traditional conversion. As one male descendant explained:
The fact that I was Jewish once upon a time, I mean by ancestry and blood, is not enough, because I never practiced Judaism. I never studied Judaism. So how could I say that I was a Jew?. . . My personal opinion, in my case, was that, yes, my ancestors were Jews, but I was not. And maybe I wasn't a Christian, either, so I was nothing. But in order to become a Jew, I thought the first thing I had to do was to study Judaism and then I have to be circumcised, which is what I did.Once an individual decides to convert, she or he must then decide which denomination of Judaism to pursue. Depending on whether a descendant seeks membership in an Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform synagogue and whether the congregation is Sephardic or Ashkenazic, the conversion experience will vary greatly. Although all forms of Jewish conversion require the convert to make a commitment to follow the commandments of the Torah, the extent to which the commandments are studied and observed will differ according to the orthodoxy of the congregation and the prerogatives of the supervising rabbi. Differences also exist in conversion policies over the requirements of circumcision (for the uncircumcised) and ritual immersion.
When a man or woman comes to be converted, one makes enquiries lest it be for the sake of money they will come to possess, power they will gain or out of fear, that they have come to seek entry into the religion. If it is a man one makes enquiries lest he has set his eye upon a Jewish woman. If it is a woman one makes enquiries lest she has set her eye upon a young man of the young men of Israel. If no such cause is found, one informs them of the weight of the yoke of the Torah and the difficulty involved in observing it for those who come from other nations, in order that they may depart. If they accept and do not depart and one can observe that they are returning out of love, then one accepts them.15Maimonides's cautious stance on conversion remains part of Jewish rabbinic attitudes today, and it is not uncommon for some test of faith to be given someone requesting conversion. One woman from Mexico described her struggle to find a rabbi who would agree to convert her after she had emigrated to the United States:
When I came to this country, there were so many things I experienced. I mean, I went to one rabbi, and he threw me out of his office, literally. I went to another rabbi, and this rabbi would not hear of it. He heard my story and then he said, "I'm sorry, I don't even want to talk to you about it." And then I went to another place, I called another synagogue and I asked if I could convert, and the rabbi said he would talk to me. He gave me about two weeks before I could talk to him. And then he said, "What do you want to talk to me about?" Of course he had written down that I wanted to convert and that I would be seeking somebody to convert me. He said, "We don't do that. Just forget it, we have enough problems, you have enough problems without being Jewish." But I said, "I already go to temple." And he said, "You have to be certain. You have to be willing to learn all these rituals and laws." I said I was willing and that I knew some of it already. Finally, he agreed. I find out at the end that they are supposed to do that, discourage you, to see if you come back.The case cited above was among the more extreme instances of faith testing. While other respondents also reported that they had been treated with skepticism in their initial enquiries, many explained that, within time, the rabbi with whom they first spoke became increasingly open to the possibility of conversion.
Even before I converted, I always felt that there was one God and I would pray to him and talk to him. And I always felt that but this experience of conversion has opened up other things, becoming part of this intellectual Jewish community. Through the study of Torah, it's like experiencing life in a different way. I have become more meditative. I understand why we act the way we act. And we're really blessed with this rabbi. He is very intellectual, a man of learning. He interacts with the congregation and he is very helpful. Learning from him and being part of this congregation, you understand that Judaism is a way of life and that you have to keep studying.As described above, community, prayer, and Torah are also at the center of religious life in another small congregation that, like the Reform synagogue, exists on the margins of Dallas's mainstream Jewish community. The members of this congregation, however, are Orthodox, having recently immigrated to the United States from countries such as Iraq, Yemen, Tunisia, and Morroco. This largely Middle Eastern community holds services in a house that has been transformed into a Sephardic synagogue. The living room serves as a sanctuary and is divided by a mechitzah (a latticed wooden partition) so that men and women can worship separately. Although the ark holding the Torah is on the men's side, the women are able to view the scrolls at designated times during the service when the Torahs are lifted above the partition by the male congregants.16
I remember the first day I walked into this little congregation. I wept as the Torah was being read. Oh, the Torahs are so gorgeous. They have this gold, this beautiful crown; the velvet is red, and the cover has royal blue velvet and gold. And the men were such an inspiration, reading the Torah, and I thought, how come I have not found a place like this in all these years? The men and the women really come to pray. I mean they close their eyes when they pray, and I love it because that's what I do. For the first time, I truly felt at home. I have been to Israel and I went to Israeli congregations, and I thought this place is just like a neighborhood Sephardic synagogue in the middle of Jerusalem. But it's right in the middle of Dallas! It's a very special place.This narrative speaks to the affinity for Sephardic Judaism that the respondents frequently express, and yet this descendant was among the very few who were attracted to the Orthodox movement. The vast majority of respondents joined Ashkenazic Conservative and Reform congregations, which along with being more liberal in their approach also exist in far greater numbers in the United States. In becoming members of Reform synagogues, however, some of the descendants reported that, unlike in the Dallas Ashkenazic congregation described above, they did not always feel welcomed by the religious community. In recalling the difficulties one descendant encountered in attending services, he provided this account of his experience in a Reform synagogue in the Southwest:
When I came out as a Jew, I began to go to synagogue. I put on the tefillin and the talit [prayer shawl] and would pray and chant in Spanish. So we would come in and there would be three or four rows vacant where the Marranos would always sit. We were segregated within the synagogue, and the more we held to tradition, the more we were rejected. Finally, when we would begin to pray, they would turn their faces away from us. I stopped going. It was a very painful experience. We were not accepted by these Ashekanzic Jews. We had been in hiding hundreds of years, and when we finally came out, we were not accepted.The rejection that this descendant experienced in part reflects the marginalization of Spanish Jewish culture within Judaism more generally, since the relationship between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews has historically been fraught with tensions. Up until the eighteenth century, Sephardic Jews outnumbered those of Ashkenazi origin, and the first Jewish immigrants to the Americas were Spanish Portuguese Sephardim whose religious and social culture predominated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in North America. By the early nineteenth century, however, mass emigration of German Jews created a demographic shift, giving prominence to the German Jewish community in North America. During this time, the descendants of the colonial Spanish Portuguese populations retained a certain status and respect because of their historical link to the Spanish Golden Age, when Jewish culture flourished on the Iberian peninsula. Ashkenazic attitudes toward the Sephardic immigrants who emigrated from Turkey in the early 1900s, however, were quite different.17 As discussed in chapter 1, early-twentieth-century concerns about Jewish assimilation among Ashkenazic populations in the United States led to the rejection and devaluation of the Turkish Sephardic refugees, whose dress, custom, language and general appearance presented a less European image of the Jewish immigrant.18
I grew up with the best of both Jewish worlds: half Sephardic/half Ashkenazic, yet most of what I felt as a Jew was influenced by Sephardic culture, food, tradition, memory. Growing up, my family exclusively attended Sephardic services during the High Holy Days. . . . Trying to meld that knowledge of Sephardic culture within an Ashkenazic-based Jewish community was often confusing, painful and alienating . . . There were big gaps; I truly felt like a minority within a minority.19Despite or perhaps because of the tensions that have surfaced over the treatment of the Sephardim generally and descendants of crypto-Jews more specifically, the descendants in this study speak of a desire to return to an imagined Jewish community where ethnic and racial boundaries dissolve in the re-creation of a universal Jewish religious identity.20 Accordingly, they seek out welcoming congregations where participating in Jewish ritual and prayer provides the spiritual context for the realization of the idealized Jewish community. A descendant thus explained:
Going to synagogue is such a treat. I mean, you are hearing the chants. They echo the prayers to each other. It feels so ancient. I don't read Hebrew or speak Hebrew, but in that congregation, it's always right. My soul hears the Hebrew, feels the Hebrew, and then my brain and my mouth utter the prayers in Spanish. The prayers in English don't mean the same thing. This place is really special.For creating a spiritual resonance with Jewish ritual and prayer, the Hebrew language is especially significant in fostering a universal sense of Jewishness that is experienced through the sounds and chants of Hebraic songs and prayers. The cadence and rhythm of the religious language establishes a milieu in which the convert experiences a connection to Jewish spiritual traditions, as another descendant stated:
When I go to services, I feel a very spiritual connection to the whole process. I don't understand a thing that is being said. I hear the Hebrew chanting and the prayers, and then I read it in English and I get a very emotional connection. So although I'm not reading the prayers in Hebrew, I still have this really deep connection with what's going on. I see the eternal light there and the Star of David behind the rabbi, and I feel like I've come home and it is really spiritual.In seeking to reclaim a Jewish spiritual self, the descendants voice a longing to return to God and to Torah, since both these aspects of Judaism are understood through a deep and lasting bond to the descendants' Spanish Jewish ancestors. As such, conversion, whether in Sephardic or Ashkenazic communities, incorporates a theology of return that has become part of the contemporary discourse on Jewish religious experience.
Teshuvah occupies a central place in Judaism and has many facets. As individuals differ from one another, so too do their modes of teshuvah, in both motive and form of expression. Broadly defined, teshuvah is more than just repentance from sin: it is a spiritual reawakening, a desire to strengthen the connection between oneself and the sacred. . . . For at the root of the notion of teshuvah lies the concept of return (shivah)—return, not only to the past (one's own, or one's ancestors), but to the Divine source of all being: "You shall return (shavta) to the Lord your God."22Steinsaltz's perspective illuminates the varied layers of meaning that the notion of return may have for ancestral Jews who feel that they have been separated both from their Jewish roots and from God. This understanding of teshuvah therefore provides a useful context for exploring the spiritual meaning of conversion and return for crypto-Jewish descendants, who describe their initial experience of Jewish spirituality as an emotional return to the religion of their Jewish ancestors. This return is frequently signified by a public rendering of the Shema, the prayer that gives testimony to the belief in a unitary notion of the divine.23 Here a male descendant conveys the feelings he experienced when, as a newly converted Jew, he recited the Shema for the first time:
When I uttered the Shema in front of the Torah and witnesses—"Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One"—that was enough. I mean, it's a powerful experience. The Shema means something to me. It's my vow, my return.Within the history of crypto-Judaism, the acknowledgment of a unitary God posed certain dangers for the forced converts. During the Inquisition, the belief in a unitary God was often used as evidence of blasphemy for those accused of Judaizing, especially among converts who referred to God in the Spanish singular, El Dio, rather that the Christianized term, Dios, since the latter nomenclature carried with it the implication of a tripartite divinity.24 The survival of the concept of El Dio has been found among contemporary descendants; a number of respondents reported that their mothers and grandmothers refer to God only as El Dio, in contrast to what they had been taught in church.
I believe God is the hope. And it is like there is one God, and he did these things. . . . I find that as I take the veil off of my eyes and look at the symbolism here, I find there are so many opportunities out there. And that to me is the exciting part. ÖAnd I remember the first time even thinking that I was Jewish, I guess deep down knowing that I came from a crypto-Jewish family. I had always been proud of my Hispanic tradition, but when I realized what a Sabbath meant on a Friday night, it was like, how many thousands of years have my people done this? . . . It's about returning, it's a return to everything. It's a return to Judaism, to my roots and to who I am.In keeping with Steinsaltz's view on teshuvah, the concept of return as expressed by this descendant embraces a notion of one God that is given meaning through her connection to her Jewish ancestors. The reclamation of a Jewish spiritual perspective is deeply rooted in ancestral attachments that frame the emotional context through which contemporary conversion takes place. The significance of ancestral ties for descendants represents a deepening of the spiritual self-in-relation, since the descendants' affective ties to Judaism extend beyond the boundaries of childhood familial attachments to the historical community of Jews in ancient Israel and in medieval Spain. This affective link to Jewish ancestry thus represents a tie to the Jewish people and to God, through which the spirit of Judaism becomes manifest in the rituals of return that signify the descendant's reentry into an ancestral faith. This phenomenon is evident in rituals such as the bar and bat mitzvah that serve as adult rites of passage among crypto-Jewish converts. In one case, a male descendant shared his bar mitzvah with his wife and thirteen other adults, some of whom had also recently converted to Reform Judaism. In describing his feelings as he read from the Torah for the first time, he emphasized the suffering of his ancestors in Spain:
When I had my bar mitzvah, I felt like I was a bridge between the old generations and the new ones. I really feel that way. My part in the service was the Shema, and I told the rabbi when I read it out loud that these words were the last words of Jews that were killed and burned by the Inquisition. And so, I said that I felt that some of my ancestors or relatives had been subject to that and then here I have an opportunity to proclaim my faith openly, and I was hoping that I was going to be a bridge between my ancestors and the new generations. I hope I live to one hundred, but if I die tomorrow, I'll be happy. I'll be in peace.As a descendant who returned to Judaism, this respondent identified with the interconnection between family lineage and cultural survival. His bar mitzvah therefore symbolized a ritualized reentry into Judaism that was done both for him and on behalf of his Sephardic ancestors. This relational aspect of teshuvah was especially apparent among women who chose ritual immersion as their rite of return. In entering the mikveh for the first time, female descendants reported that they performed this ritual both for themselves and for their Spanish Jewish foremothers who secretly retained the traditions of Judaism in the face of danger and religious persecution.
The rabbi asked me, "Why do you want to do this?" And I say, "I want to do this for the old people, for the ones who had to hide, for the last person who could be cleansed and say Shema Yisrael in public. After that, they had to go underground. Let me do this wonderful thing for them." I don't think I even knew what I was doing exactly. But I wanted to do it, to make it official in some way, for the old people. And then I went to the mikveh, and they gave me a lady to be with me and when I was getting undressed, I told the lady, "I have waited five hundred years, I cannot wait one more minute. Let's do it". . . . The feeling was indescribable. It was like putting a puzzle of five hundred years together, like pieces of all the souls came together. I was looking up at Hashem [God] and I said, "This is not for me. I am doing this for that day that you came to the desert and talked with Moses. You were the burning tree. I am Jewish, and I want to be part of that story. For me and for all of the Marranos, I want to come back." And that is what I did.In this poignant narrative of ritual immersion, the descendant speaks of her longing to be part of the Jewish people. The imagery she invokes is that of her soul coming together with other Jewish souls to end their spiritual separation and exile. As a ritual of return, the mikveh provides the connection between past and present lives, between the fate of the persecuted Spanish Jews of medieval Europe and the survival of the hidden Jews of modern Western culture. As such, the mikveh offers a ritualized context for the "birth" of the Jewish self.
represents a symbolic return to the primal state—of the individual, of life, and of the world as a whole. One who immerses himself sinks back into the primordial reality and emerges as a new creature. His previous life is then of no consequence. It is both renewal and rebirth.29The themes of renewal and rebirth are especially evident in the narrative of a Mexican descendant who offered this perspective on her mikveh experience during her conversion to Judaism in the United States:
What I found was that conversion was a very, very deep experience for me. It was that I was finding my identity totally. I did all the reading and I knew, to be Jewish and to convert, you have to do it all the way or not go through it at all. So when I had the mikveh, they cut my hair very, very short. And having a mikveh really strengthens you; it strengthens your self. It's water from the rain. They explain to you that it is natural water that they store and fill up with this huge pan, and thank God I knew how to swim. . . . You have to immerse yourself and say these prayers under the water, you know. Open your toes, your eyes, your hands, and everything. They gave me dental floss, toothbrush, a clean towel, and this lady was there. She was an Orthodox Polish lady, and she didn't speak English. After all the cleaning, then I was ready. The rabbis were there, Orthodox rabbis with beards all the way to their knees. They stood behind these sheets so they couldn't see me. They said prayers and chanted. I memorized the prayers, and it was very spiritual at the end. . . . For my identity, for my own spiritual being, I wanted to do it.As a rite of spiritual reclamation, the mikveh ceremony creates feeling states in which connection to both the past (forced conversion) and to the group (Jewish community) become possible.
Ritual is a bridge by which those of us who have almost forgotten and those of us who know can cross over into remembering who we were, whose we are, and who we are intended to become. Ritual can assist us by naming and validating the essential worth of our experience. In our collective search for meaning, relatedness, worth, and assurance, we are anchored by ritual. . . . We choose those rituals that come out of the past and our common life together in another place and time.33The practice of traditional ritual, as described by Hyman, is especially significant to those individuals, such as the descendants of the crypto-Jews, for whom almost all traces of ancestral culture have disappeared.
We see a reorientation of spirituality toward the primacy of the body. We see that, for these groups [healing movements], religion is not so much about creed and philosophy as it is about emotion and performance, an immediacy between bodily experience and religious emotion. We see, therefore, that the movement toward centering religion in the space of the body becomes linked to a movement toward "spirituality"or rather a movement toward James's redefinition of "religion."Religion, in the body-centered context, draws the focus away from ecclesiastic institutions and theology and toward a more autonomous, more personal, more immediate "spirituality."35James's redefinition of religion, as elaborated by Roof and Taylor, provides a conceptual framework for the emotional conversion experiences described by the crypto-Jewish descendants. For many of the respondents, the relationship between body and spirit is of particular significance, since descendants believe that their bodies hold the memory of their Jewish heritage.36 This sensory connection to Judaism was frequently articulated by David Kazzaz, an Iraqi-born Jewish psychiatrist and founder of the Hispano Crypto-Jewish Resource Center in Denver. Speaking to the notion that Jewishness is a feeling that runs deep in the physical as well as spiritual being of the descendant, Kazzaz maintains that knowledge of Jewish ancestry is in the "bones" and thus cannot be denied. As feeling states become an affirmation of Jewish heritage, the body becomes the medium through which spiritual awareness and connection to Judaism converge. Within this sensory understanding of Jewish spirituality, the mikveh provides a religious milieu where cultural memory is engendered and emotional ties to Jewish ancestors are given meaning and expression.
Most people ask me, "What did you really feel when you got to the Wailing Wall?"39 I said there was no doubt in my mind that the power still exists in there, that Abraham and my ancestors did not imagine anything. As I got closer to the wall and I put my hands out, there was this feeling like gravity or electricity, energy pure energy. In Spanish there is a word for what I felt, like a person crying in pain when you are so deep in sadness because you have lost someone and you are very emotional. I felt that definitely. I could not say anything; not one word came from my mouth. There were no words, but tears, all tears. I just wept for what I felt now and for what had been lost. I asked a rabbi who was standing close by why I felt so overwhelmed, and he said it was because this is where the spirit of God has spread itself so we can feel it.As a sacred site of return, the Western Wall engenders feelings both of overwhelming sadness and of awe among descendants for whom a return to Judaism simultaneously creates feeling states associated with loss and godliness. The emotional pilgrimage to the Temple site captures many threads of teshuvah as the descendants mourn a lost tradition, while, at the same time, they celebrate the power of God to bring them back to the spiritual home of their religious ancestors. In this regard, the Western Wall is an especially powerful symbol of return and cultural survival, a sacred place that engaged the descendant in an act of spiritual reunification, as the following account suggests:
I went to the Wall, and the first time I was there, I just stood there. I mean, you can't describe it. For me it was like I found it, I made my full journey, because it was for ancient Jewry—my family who thousands of years ago were in Israel. And that was very spiritual and mystical. And no matter how many times I went and for how long—I think one time I just stood there for three hours—it was just this cleansing weeping. That's a special place.Like the hidden rituals in the descendant's life, the Western Wall holds the spiritual memory of Jewish lineage. A respondent of Cuban Jewish ancestry spoke of the Western Wall as a holy monument where he could actually touch God and where the pride of his Jewish heritage resides:
The Wall is a connection to Judaism. Growing up you learned to say the Hail Mary and Our Father and all that. Now, it has just become words. I learned those prayers for protection. It was my family's plan for these hundreds of years to have papers saying you are Christian or Catholic, untouchable by the Inquisition or any other faction like the Nazis. But going to Israel is like breaking away and actually going somewhere, to touch the stone of the Wailing Wall is like touching God. It is a connection to who you are, what we fought for, and where we are going. . . . The Temple is the only thing left of our grandeur, of who we were as a people.Like the mikveh, the Western Wall provides a sacred venue for the descendant's emotional reconnection to Jewish ancestry and to the Jewish religion. The accounts of the descendants, in fact, suggest that these two forms of emotional attachment are inseparable from each other in that the descendant understands him- or herself as a Jew who has returned both to a faith tradition and to an ancestral history. As such, the experience of teshuvah among crypto-Jewish descendants is characterized by an embodied spirituality. As the mystical and the familial merge, the historical frame through which the converting Jew approaches her or his new newfound religion is elaborated through a theology of suffering that comes to define the Jewish worldview of the descendants.
Another side of the attachment to history is embodied in the commandment to remember on Passover. This is a celebration of freedom that every Jew is enjoined to reenact personally. "I left Egypt," the phrase that is the center of the Seder ritual and of the Haggadah, the story we tell, is oriented toward the present. Then, as we raise the matzah, we recite, "Ha lachma anya. This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt." Both the words and the gesture are meant to awaken memory. . . . This bond of memory is also at the heart of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy—a holy day known in Hebrew as Yom Hazikaron (Day of Remembrance). On this occasion, which marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year and recalls the birth of the world at the same time, we sound the shofar in order to inspire the full range of emotions associated with memory41. Schwarcz concludes that Judaism is a religion founded on memory, since Jewish prayers connect the worshiper to the past through the practice of emotion-filled rituals that recall the lives and deeds of the matriarchs and patriarchs of Jewish culture.
These bitter herbs which we eat, what is their meaning? They are eaten to recall that the Egyptians embittered the lives of our forefathers in Egypt; as it is written: "And they embittered their lives with hard labor: with mortar and bricks, with every kind of work in the fields; all the work which they made them do was rigorous. In every generation one must look upon himself as if he personally had come out from Egypt, as the Bible says: And thou shalt tell thy son on that day, saying, it is because of that which the Eternal did to me when I went from Egypt."42In this ritual of consumption, the body is once again the medium through which a connection to Judaism is maintained. During the Passover seder, the boundaries between the modern Jew and the enslaved ancestor become merged, since the liturgy requires the seder participant to identify with the slaves who God brought out of Egypt. This ritualized ceremony reinforces the notion that the twentieth-century Jew must never forget the suffering of the biblical Jew or God's role in the salvation of the Jewish people. Such sentiments give rise to a spiritual sufferance that underlies the celebration of the Passover liberation story. In some modern and less traditional Haggadic texts, this theme of suffering is given a wider emphasis as references to the Inquisition are included in the narrative of remembrance that accompanies the storytelling of the liberation of the Jews from Egypt. In a revised version of the Haggadah created by Aviva Cantor, the Inquisition is recalled with a poem by the Yiddish poet Avrom Reisen:
Tell me, Marrano, my brother, where have you prepared your seder? —In a room in a deep cellar, there my seder is ready.P>While Cantor's Passover service contains one of the few references to the Inquisition found in modern Jewish observance, the Holocaust is more frequently remembered through a variety of liturgy and practice. Since World War II, the memorial service for the Jewish Day of Atonement, traditionally recited in memory of deceased family members, has been expanded to include a communal prayer for the six million Jews who died in the concentration camps. Typical of the Holocaust prayers is the memorial liturgy (mourner's kaddish) of the Conservative Movement:
Tell me, Marrano, my [sister], where will you get white matzot?
—In the cellar, under God's protection, [I] kneaded the dough.
Tell me, Marrano, how will you manage to get a hagada?
—In the cellar, in a deep crevice, I hid a hagada long ago.
Tell me, Marrano, if your voice is heard, what will you do then?
—When the enemy captures me, I will die singing.43
Extolled, compassionate God, grant perfect peace in Your sheltering Presence, among the holy and pure, to the souls of all our brethren, men women and children of the House of Israel who were slaughtered and burned. May their memory endure, inspiring truth and loyalty to our lives. May their souls thus be bound up in the bond of life. May they rest in peace. And let us say: Amen.\1With the inclusion of the mourner's kaddish for the victims of the Holocaust, contemporary Jewish practice has continued the tradition of linking religious ritual with Jewish history and Jewish cultural identity. Because the death and suffering of the historical Jew is remembered alongside the death of a parent, sibling, or child, cultural suffering and personal loss become merged within the theology of atonement and forgiveness that pervades the prayers and supplications of the Yom Kippur service.