The handwriting on the wall

I grew up feeling like the queen of square pegs. My two older sisters were the pictures of success, being promoted with honors year after year, ultimately graduating and earning their coveted degrees. One became a doctor and the other an architect. As the third in line, I was expected to follow suit, but somehow I did not fit the mold. For starters, I did not like to study. As much as I tried to concentrate at school I found myself tuning out almost as soon as the teachers opened their mouths, retreating into my own little world of imagination. As can well be expected, this did not earn me any Brownie points, not at home or at school. And then there was the parish thing. My parents were devout Christians who attended services, each and every week without fail. As expected, my sisters joined them, but not I. I hated everything about the parish and refused to go. My refusal was seen as infantile obstinacy and only exacerbated my feelings of inadequacy. As such, the great outdoors beckoned with increasing frequency. It was not surprising, considering the fact that we lived in a beautiful village in the Costa del Sol region in southern Spain. It was a coastal town along the shore of the Province of Malaga, where the views of the Mediterranean Sea were simply exquisite. My mother was somewhat of an anomaly to me.

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On one hand, our higher education was of paramount importance to her and on the other hand she herself was the prototypical housewife. She would make her own cheese and bake heavenly Spanish pastries, but she had little education to speak of and her values seemed somewhat confused. Often during the summer months I would go and stay with my grandmother. This way the seemingly never-ending arguments with my parents were somewhat limited and it was there in her home that I felt safe. She verbalized her love for me, and I felt accepted “as is.” At the same time, however, she held my parents in the highest regard, and tried to explain their position to me. “Your mother,” she said, “despite being an ambitious woman, did not receive a higher education and found her choices in life limited. She wants you to get ahead in life and not be held back by an incomplete education. When she was growing up we were too poor to send her to university; we lived from hand to mouth, growing spices in the back yard. We gave your mother plenty of love, but very little money. She’s only trying to give you what was denied to her.” Still, the two of us never saw eye to eye, and no explanations could help me fit the mold.

One summer, I was with my grandmother as usual, when I decided that her cottage needed painting. I had never attempted painting before but I figured how hard could it be? I bought some paintbrushes, a pot of paint, plastic sheeting for the floor and furniture, and I got to work. The end result was quite impressive, even if I must say so myself. So much so, that I went from room to room choosing a different color or combination of colors, until I had painted the entire cottage. My grandmother was delighted. And you know how it is with little old ladies; they sit around and boast about their children and grandchildren. Well, soon, all my grandmother’s friends were coming to see her new paint job. That’s how I got my first job offer. Then came another and another. I started off painting just a small room or two but then I received a serious offer asking me to paint the community center. The rest is history. Even without my intention, I became a painter. Not an artist, but a painter.

As for my parents, their reaction was as expected—something akin to anaphylactic shock! My mother ranted and raved while my father gunned me down with his gaze every time I passed by. There was zero understanding between us. I was so pleased that I had finally found my calling in life, while they were simply horrified. I was good at painting; I was a neat worker and a perfectionist by nature. I loved the solitude the work offered and loved the smell of fresh paint. And most of all I loved the feeling and satisfaction of a job well done. They, on the other hand, equated success with prestige and money, not personal happiness, and as such did not mince their words. They were disgusted at the thought of their daughter becoming a housepainter. Had I been a boy it would have been bad enough, but a girl! For shame… One night, after a particularly stormy argument, I left my mother crying on the couch while I stormed off to my room. After the house had gone quiet and everyone had gone to sleep I tiptoed downstairs once more and, choosing a small alcove, I began to paint. I painted through the night, completing the job when the first rays of dawn began to show. Quickly I packed away my things and went to bed. When my mother got up in the morning, she was pleasantly surprised. Grudgingly she agreed that I had an eye for color and had done a superb job. This was my first breakthrough, leading to an unofficial “ceasefire” between us.

Soon after, I dropped out of college, bought myself a work diary, and started accepting orders from customers. At the same time, I entered a competition advertised in the local newspaper involving a large paint manufacturing firm. They were looking for new color combinations and painting techniques. I sent in my samples and was gratified to receive a prize soon after. The prize money came in the form of a gift certificate to be spent on painting supplies. This enabled me to buy top-quality equipment, which in turn launched my career off to a good start. Thankfully, my diary started filling up and I managed to make a decent living. My favorite jobs were painting old or historic homes. The potential in these often ornate structures was enormous. I loved the multi-colored woodwork, shutters, ornate fireplaces, turrets, and the sense of mystery surrounding them. Most often these homes are empty of inhabitants, while being in the process of changing ownership. I was allowed to come and go as I pleased and was frequently allowed to use my own imagination and creativity. That is why I jumped at the chance to paint an historic home that was soon to go on the market. Its exterior was exquisite although its interior was decrepit and neglected.

I started by cleaning, sandpapering, and smoothing out the walls—all part of the groundwork towards the perfect finish to a paint job. Brick after brick, I removed protrusions and filled in nicks, preparing the walls for painting. One morning, as I rubbed away at the old paint in the living room, an inscription on the wall began to appear. At first I thought it might be a diagram of sorts but the symmetry showed me that it was letters, words, in fact whole sentences in a script that was totally unfamiliar to me. I felt an electric current run through me, excitement filling my being. I rubbed faster and harder, my imagination working overtime. Had I stumbled across the clues to a buried treasure or was this a cry for help from a slave or prisoner who had been incarcerated in this very room? This was not the work of an errant child, that much was clear. The letters were written with a steady hand and immediately covered over with a coating of paint. The question was, why? And by whom? I stopped working for the day and went home thoroughly excited, hugging the secret to my heart. The next day I returned with a camera, and photographed the wall bit by bit. These were the days before digital photography and I had to wait patiently for the photographs to be developed. In the meanwhile, I didn’t dare touch the wall; the job would have to wait.

Finally, the pictures were ready. I reasoned that since the script was unfamiliar to me, maybe it was ancient Hebrew or Aramaic —something a rabbi would know. I was directed to a rabbi by the name of Rabbi Yaakov Nor, whom I now know was the Chabad shaliach in the vicinity. Calling him up on the phone, he welcomed me over. Truth be told, I found his appearance somewhat bizarre but his pleasant, welcoming demeanor put me at ease. I showed him the pictures and asked him if he knew what the words meant. He looked at the pictures for a long moment, and I watched his eyes water. Then slowly and clearly in an ancient tongue he began to read the words. Apparently, this was the Shema portion of the Jewish prayers,  which I learned was the most important statement of allegiance in Judaism. The Shema had been preceded by a few words of introduction: “We are Jews, remember kriat Shema…” The prayer ended with a number of verses relating to the final redemption. I was baffled. Why would someone write the inscription and then hide it? It was then that Rabbi Nor introduced me to the concept of secret—or hidden—Jews. He believed this to be the work of a Jew who was practicing his religion in secret. I was fascinated, and could have listened to him for hours. Instead I started reading up about the topic. I soon learned that after having lived freely as Jews for approximately 500 years, the Jews in 11th-century Spain and Portugal suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of the law.

Torture became commonplace, while many were forcibly converted, others were burned to death in full public view, and even more were expelled on unseaworthy boats. Those who were forcibly converted held on to their religiosity in secret. Sadly, over the generations these “anusim” or “cryptoJews” forgot their Jewish origins but held onto a hodgepodge of practices, keeping them all in secret, of course! In fact a recent study of genetics discovered that 20% of the population living in the Iberian Peninsula today have Jewish roots. So this was it. The owner of the house had been a secret Jew, trying to hide his identity, yet trying his best to instill his children with knowledge of who they were. Strangely enough, I felt a deep affinity with the person behind those lines. Now I knew for certain, that I was not a real Christian. Beyond a shadow of doubt, I was one of the anusim… and I found myself moved beyond words. I knew that nobody would understand me, nobody, that is, except for my grandmother. And she did. “I don’t believe it” she said incredulously. “You know, you might be right. For years I watched my own grandmother light candles inside a closet. Sometimes, when I feel a need to connect to something spiritual, I do the same. Maybe…?” “Not maybe,” I said emphatically, “definitely!” I contacted Rabbi Nor once more and he put me in touch with a well-known genealogist who ascertained that indeed our family did have Jewish roots.

Instantly I knew that I wanted to go back home, to the Jewish people, to where I belonged. I was forewarned that it was a process that would take years; nevertheless I was determined, making contact with rabbis, attending classes and studying on my own. And if my first decision, the one to become a housepainter upset my parents, this decision nearly killed them. My mother actually asked me outright if I was trying to give her a heart attack. The day of my halachic conversion was a day of mourning for her even though she had years of advance warning. She also cried bitter tears when I left Spain for Israel, and never attended my wedding. I am now the mother of five fully integrated Jewish children, and have dozens of grandchildren too. My grandmother is no longer alive; neither are my parents, and I miss them all terribly.

In some ways I am able to identify with my mother now more than ever, since becoming a mother and grandmother. After all, don’t we all wish only the best for our offspring? As for my siblings, we have a great relationship and talk often. And one day, just one day, I’d like to return to Spain and take a peek at the wall that first beckoned to me. I’d whisper to the unknown writer, and admit that although indeed the Shema was forgotten for many a generation, I was making up for it now. As it says in the Haggadah of Pesach, “Shebechol dor vador…” For in every generation they arise and seek to destroy us; “V’Hakadosh Baruch Hu matzileinu miyadam,” and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hands.” I was living proof, for I had come back home, bringing my generations with me.

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