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The long road from Cabezon de la Sal

Miriam Cherrick, head nurse at Northwick Park Hospital in London, briskly walks down the hall to investigate the call coming from Room 132. In her crisp white cap and immaculate uniform she seems to fit in perfectly with her surroundings. Yet for the past few months, heads have been turning, eyebrows were raised and colleagues have been whispering behind her back. “What’s going on with Nurse Cherrick?” people who have worked with her for years are asking. “And what’s with the long skirts and wig?” *** It’s 6:00 a.m., and the morning shift at Northwick Park has already arrived. It’s been a busy night for Miriam Cherrick, and after tending to her last patient, she slips out of her white coat and hangs it neatly on the hook. Taking a deep breath, she exhales and smiles. “I thought I’d daven Shacharis in the nurses’ room but quickly scrapped the idea,” she says as we head out towards the elevator. “As it is, my non-Jewish coworkers are talking about why I’m dressed differently all of a sudden. I don’t need to add fuel to the fire and give them something else to wonder about.” But I was also curious. Here was someone who appeared to be the quintessential Englishwoman, but where had she gotten her unusual accent? I couldn’t place it. Even in the antiseptic halls of that London hospital, my nose could smell an intriguing story…MIRIAM’S SAGA “Next week we’re going to visit my parents for the first time in years,” Miriam tells me excitedly. “They live in Cabezón de la Sal, the village in northern Spain where I was born and raised. “Imagine growing up in a pastoral paradise with wide expanses of lush green grass, trees whose branches shade you from the sun and cozy little cottages with red-tiled roofs.

It was like living inside a picture postcard, with flocks of sheep grazing peacefully in the fenced-off meadows, azure skies and a riotous palette of flowers in season.” Miriam Cherrick spent her formative years breathing in the fresh country air and eating homemade cheeses and wholesome bread hot out of her mother’s oven. Every morning she would kiss her father goodbye as he left for work in the nearby fields and greenhouses, where he supervised the distribution of produce to other regions throughout the country. “No sooner did Father leave than Mother would busy herself gathering eggs from the henhouse and picking vegetables from our garden. Every day she would put up a huge pot of soup using our homegrown produce,” Miriam reminisces. “Even passers-by would comment on how good it smelled!” When she was old enough, Miriam was enrolled in the local school, where girls were required to take home economics in addition to the regular academic curriculum. “Growing up in a sheltered environment, we had no idea what was going on in the outside world,” she explains. “It was like living in a protective bubble.” She shows me a black-and-white photo of her as a child, an innocent little girl in pigtails wearing a simple, old-fashioned dress. I smile, nod and encourage her to go on. “In the past few years the region has been built up into a popular tourist attraction, but back then the roads were unpaved and the transportation was somewhat primitive.

The whole area was underdeveloped, and the beauty of its natural habitat was something that only the locals appreciated and enjoyed. “All of our friends and neighbors were non-Jews,” she continues. “Growing up, I had no idea that there was even such a religion as Judaism,” she confesses. “Every Sunday there was a prayer service and sermon in the village church, which the religious folks never failed to attend. Life was peaceful. Family relationships were close and neighbors got along with each other. Whenever someone had a family celebration, everyone in the village took part in it. Baskets piled high with homemade goodies were constantly being exchanged. “That’s how life was in our village,” she says, “until it wasn’t anymore.” THE DISPUTE Miriam can’t pinpoint the exact day the dispute erupted, but it split the village in half. “As a young girl, I didn’t really understand what was happening but I knew that the village was divided into two camps. The bone of contention was a vast area of land that belonged to my father’s family. “Over the years, my father had allowed several farmers in the community to plant their crops in these fields. But when my father decided that he wanted to sell the property, that’s when the squabble began. The farmers suddenly forgot that the parcels of land had only been given to them on loan, not as a gift. Others claimed that after all these years they had a right to ownership. Still others claimed that there never was a question of ownership to begin with and it belonged to them! “At first the involved parties tried to come to an agreement, but the issue quickly became too emotional. Soon it was the number one topic of discussion in town.

Come evening, people would congregate in small clusters and the great debate would begin. The atmosphere became polluted and ugly, and at home you could cut the tension with a knife. After several weeks of getting nowhere, it was decided to take the dispute to Móra d’Ebre, where a court of law would rule on the matter. “The trial lasted several weeks. Those whom we had previously considered our good friends now turned away from us in anger. Inside the courtroom, my father staunchly defended his position, bringing evidence that the land had belonged to his family for generations. Our family was ultimately vindicated and the court recognized my father as the undisputed owner. “Unfortunately,” she sighs, “instead of establishing peace, it only opened up a kettle of worms. That’s when everyone started calling us ‘you Jews.’ “‘Papa, what are Jews?’ I asked my father, realizing that it was far from a complimentary epithet.  “‘Jews?’ he replied, waving his hand dismissively. “They’re a nation that no longer exists.’ “The controversy was very distressing to my dear parents. They were good, simple people who worked the land and were happy and content with their lot. Now all of that had changed, and their lives had acquired a bitter aftertaste. “In the meantime, all of this was weighing heavily upon me personally. I began to contemplate what kind of a future I might have in this poisoned atmosphere.

One evening towards the end of high school I approached my parents and announced that I’d come to a decision: After graduation, I wanted to go to England and enroll in nursing school. I’d always wanted to be a nurse since childhood. “My parents looked at me in shock but quickly recovered. ‘If that’s what you want,’ said my father, putting aside his feelings, ‘you can count on us to help.’” A SURPRISING REVELATION “Before leaving, I decided to pay a visit to our neighbors, the Rodriguez family. Over the past year they’d been harassing us incessantly, taunting us with the same malicious refrain: ‘You’re Jewish! You’re Jewish! Check it out and see!’ “I knocked on their door and when they opened it they were very surprised to see me standing in their doorway. They stared at me, dumbfounded. “I’m leaving Cabezón de la Sal,” I said, breaking the awkward silence.“‘Do come inside,” Rita Rodriguez invited me in, perhaps remembering the good old days? “‘Please,’ I begged her, ‘can’t we bring this fighting to an end? And why do you call us Jews?’ “In answer, Rita pointed to a small cabinet in the corner of the room. ‘I want to show you something,’ she said, going over and opening the glass doors to remove two objects: a Magen David and a silver candelabra. ‘These items belong to the Jews,’ she explained. ‘My family was Jewish but they abandoned their religion because the Jews were oppressed in Spain and people said bad things about them. My mother left these to me as mementos.’ “I gazed at the objects in silence. They didn’t mean anything to me. They were just pretty objects worthy of admiration. “I turned to leave. ‘Please make peace with my parents,’ I implored her. “‘Okay, we’ll try,’ she conceded.

Then, in a surprise move, she held out the Magen David. ‘Here,’ she said. ‘Take this. I have no use for it.’” A WINDOW OPENS “I traveled to England and enrolled in nursing school. Needing a job to support myself as well as a place to live, I became an au pair in the home of an Orthodox Jewish family named Weitzberg. “I was completely confounded by what I observed in the home of my employers. These are Jews? I thought. I had so many questions but was too embarrassed to ask. A whole new world had opened up in front of my eyes! It was all so unfamiliar and strange: the customs, the mode of dress, the entire way of life. “I really loved the Weitzbergs and lived with them for over a year, absorbing more and more of their culture and trying to understand it. Right before graduation I met my husband to be, and we were married a short while later. “I soon found employment as a full-time nurse. Even after our two children were born I continued working, quickly advancing until I became head nurse at the hospital.” GHOST FROM THE PAST “One morning I returned home after an exhausting night shift, bone-weary and half asleep. “‘Mommy, what’s this?’ my daughter asked, running over to greet me. “‘Where did you find that?’ I questioned, suddenly fully awake. There in the palm of her hand was the long-lost Star of David I’d been given by Rita Rodriguez. “I know what that is,” my husband Miguel interjected. “It’s a Jewish symbol. I know that because my grandmother was Jewish, which makes my mother Jewish. And that makes me Jewish too.” “I’d heard my husband say that before, but this was the first time I was really paying attention. “‘Miguel,” I asked. ‘What does it mean to you to be a Jew?’” “He shrugged his shoulders. ‘I don’t really know.’ “‘But you should!’ I scolded him. “From that day on I didn’t stop pestering him. ‘You have to find out what it means,’ I would remind him. Eventually my nagging bore fruit. Miguel began to look into the Jewish religion and was blown away.

He began attending classes for beginners and was totally captivated. “You wouldn’t believe how quickly our lives changed,” Miriam recalls. ON THE ROAD TO YIDDISHKEIT “One evening my husband came home and said, ‘Miriam, you’ll have to become Jewish if we’re going to stay together.’ It was as if I’d been waiting to hear those words all along. ‘Tomorrow we’re going to the rav,’ my husband announced resolutely. “I felt a wave of excitement. We heard the children playing in the next room and looked at each other. ‘We’re in this together,’ I whispered. It was all uncharted territory, but we would somehow manage.” “How do you do a complete about-face and radically change your lifestyle?” I want to know. “What did you tell your parents? And your children?” “It doesn’t happen in a day,” Miriam admits. “It’s a process that begins with tiny steps and continues incrementally. It includes attending shiurim and lengthy talks with one’s rav and rebbetzin, making small but significant changes that lead to bigger and even more significant ones. “The day we kashered our kitchen our children watched us in astonishment. ‘What’s going on?’ they asked. We were thrilled by their questions and began to include them in the process while being careful not to overwhelm them. They’re eight and nine years old. Miguel began putting on tefillin, and after spending a number of Shabbosim with the rav and his family we learned how to keep Shabbos at home.” “How did your husband’s family react?” I wonder aloud. days “My mother-in-law was shocked at first. It also underscored how alienated she was from her own religion. “And your parents?”

“Actually, my parents surprised me! Do you know what the first thing my father said to me was when I told him I had converted to Judaism? ‘You owe us a visit this summer,’ he exclaimed. ‘I’m going to ask the 80-yearold priest if there’s a place where Miguel can pray in Móra d’Ebre.’ My father seemed to recall that there was a minyan there!” “And your mother?” “My mother only expressed her desire to see her two grandchildren. She didn’t seem to care to which nation they belonged.” “And to which nation do they belong?” I inquire. Miriam’s eyes momentarily cloud over. “I think about this issue a dozen times a day,” she confides. “As you know, halachically our children aren’t Jewish. When they reach the age of mitzvos it will be up to them to decide. It’s not our decision to make. “But Hashem has guided my life until now, and He will surely continue to do so. Just look at my past! From an ugly legal dispute, I discovered that my family has Jewish connections. When I left home to become a nurse, I found employment in a Jewish home. I married my husband who was raised as a non-Jew but is really Jewish. Just imagine: I was the catalyst for his return to Judaism, and in the process I myself became a member of the Jewish people! “Will our children join us?” Miriam takes a deep breath. “That will be the next chapter in my life story.”

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