Alicia Perrero was born and raised in the Jewish community of Paraguay, a small intimate community of 1,000 people that Alicia was very much a part of yet very far from Judaism and mitzvah observance. “Judaism was the lineage of the chosen nation but was expressed only as something cultural for us,” Alicia explains. “There was a Jewish school where we learned all about the holidays, we sang songs, learned Torah and Hebrew and facts about Israel, but our lives were totally secular.”
The Paraguay Jewish community was established by Jews that escaped Russia and the claws of the Nazis in Europe before and during WWII. Alicia’s grandfather was one of these Jews. He was a religious Jew who worked hard to gather penny by penny in order to bring over family members still left behind. He saved 2 sisters in this manner. The rest of the family perished in the Holocaust. Incidentally, Alicia’s grandmothers from both sides lived in Safed and Jerusalem and moved to Europe to escape the plagues and poverty rampant in Israel at the time that made life extremely difficult.
“My grandfather and 2 other refugees were very religious but the rest weren’t. The highest priority for most of them was financial stability,” Alicia recounts.
The next generation-Alicia’s parents already were not religious but amassed major resources and efforts to establish a Jewish primary school which they understood was a barrier against intermarriage. But when Alicia got older she realized that this barrier was only an illusion. The community was no longer insulated against other communities. At this point Alicia decided to move to Israel, simply to insure she wouldn’t intermarry. “It was at the last moment” says Alicia. “The class after mine in Jewish school almost all those who didn’t leave the school still intermarried. When I was in school 118 out of 120 students had 2 Jewish parents. Today 95% of the students are from mixed marriages.”
Alicia was 19 when she came to Israel in 1983. She learned Hebrew at an Ulpan, went to a prep class for new ‘olim’ (immigrants to Israel) and signed up for the Tel Aviv University Academy of Music specializing in singing opera. “Even during my studies I already was performing all around Israel getting parts in many different symphonies. I performed in hundreds of educational performances which blended music with learning, I strengthened choirs and this was my livelihood.”
Alicia admits she was totally dedicated to her musical career as such that she continued the same way after getting married and giving birth to a daughter. She would have continued along the same route if not for the dream she dreamt one night.
“I never took dreams seriously and I still don’t. But this dream clearly showed me that our life choices have consequences and the only thing that can bring someone to the correct way to live is keeping mitzvoth. When I awoke in the morning I felt that I was being told something and I found no other solution to the dream but to come back to Judaism,” Alicia says.
Alicia as we said was already married with a daughter but miraculously her husband respected her sudden need. “He told me that if I need to do this, do it. I just shouldn’t ask him to join me in this change. In the end I think that this is what made me come back more than anything else; seeing how much my husband made the effort to give my needs a place and how much he respected something he didn’t understand or know anything about. His conduct showed me how much I need to work on my character traits, which is actually the foundation of coming back to Judaism.”
This path wasn’t simple. “I wanted to send my children to a religious school but had no idea how. Spiritual growth has its own pace and you can’t jump many steps at once. I already understood from the outset that if I expect those around me to come back to Judaism it be from a place of weakness. When you want it totally for them it’s positive and proper there will be no pressure as there will be respect which is the basis for loving and giving. Many times when a person doesn’t have the strength to do something alone he wants someone else to accompany him along the way. Coming back to Judaism involves an internal test every moment of what my true motivations really are. Is it the power of good which G-d wants or is it a weakness that makes me run away from myself?” Alicia says. Happily, her husband, on his own, started coming back to Judaism without any pressure from Alicia.
Alicia also has a message for couples where one spouse comes back to Judaism. “It’s a terrible mistake to believe that your spouse that didn’t come back to Judaism is any less than you, he understands less, is less spiritual or is less on the right path. Someone coming back to Judaism should know there are unwritten contracts with each other and the one who comes back is the one who is breaching those contracts. It’s true we found the truth, but peace comes first.”
Perrero’s musical career change was sudden and decisive. When I first came back to Judaism I had no idea how it would impact my music. I thought I’d continue to sing as always. But it comes out that when you come back to Judaism the heart and the mind very slowly unite and the result was that I suddenly found my mouth refusing to sing! I couldn’t sing anything with words or text that didn’t fit in with who I am. My mouth refused to sing things that weren’t the absolute truth.”
“I left a career that I invested my whole life in and it didn’t hurt at all! I closed the door on it as if it was nothing, as if it was a routine thing to change direction. It’s true that in classical music world in which I worked, it was a clean and serious environment which is why I originally chose this path professionally and not pop music. But still the fact is that in music you’re playing up to your ego and are subservient to it. I just wanted to totally disconnect from all that.”
But after many years, Alicia found a totally new path to make music. “I came back to Jewish music and performances for women as part of serving G-d. Understandably I don’t sing in the opera style any longer. Before my first performance, my mother who was also an opera singer for many years asked me if they are providing me with a place to warm my voice up. I then suddenly understood that if I’m coming to pray before G-d and sing songs from deep inside my soul then I don’t need a warm up or a practice. I beg G-d before each performance to merit giving over my message and that the energy that served me in coming back to Judaism should transfer to the listeners in the audience. When your song is in essence a prayer and you are repairing yourself at the time, then you can bring the listeners closer to G-d.”
The feedback she receives spurs her on to continue. Women become emotional, feel happy, sing, cry, pray and dance and go through a process that touches her in the depths of her soul. “A woman met me at a Bnei Brak event and told me “I was at your performance and since then I’ve started covering my hair”. Many women come after a performance asking for a disc and I tell them I have no discs so a man won’t listen to it. And once a woman exclaimed; ‘what, do you think your music is yours? You have no right to deprive women what G-d passes through you!’ I then sought the ruling of a rabbi who said indeed I could make discs. The women’s desire to hear another woman sing is very encouraging.”
“The relationship I create with my audience has a lot of meaning to me. It’s not just expressed merely in feedback and women who approach me and not even the emotions of the performance. There’s a great unity between the artist and the audience when they both share the same goal of coming closer to G-d. This way I also come out strengthened from my performances.”
“I also want to point out something else. Strange as it sounds, I love my performances today so much more and find them so much more satisfying than my performances as an opera singer before coming back to Judaism! Coming back to Judaism in essence allows me to enjoy music and singing so much more than previously possible. Today I understand that every art isn’t an end onto itself rather it is a tool through which a person can come close to G-d.”