By Maya Siminowitz | 29/10/2009
I confess, with no small amount of embarrassment, that "The calvary of my people gave my life a prestige and a beauty that I would have been unable to discover in its own unfolding […] I inherited a suffering to which I had not been subjected […] To be Jewish was enough to escape the anonymity of an identity indistinguishable from others and the dullness of an uneventful life."
Maya Siminowitz describes her adolesnce as a Jewish teenager in post-Franco Spain.
To be a Jewish woman in Spain today – a fascinating topic for an autobiographical article, or so it seems, now that I have the tools to consider my life story from a certain distance. I left the Israel of my childhood behind, and returned as a mature person.
In 1978, my mother, born in Panama, decided to leave Israel for Spain. My father, born in Brazil, was forced to accept the verdict. My parents, children of a Romanian and a Brazilian on one side, and from Galicia and Panama on the other, came to Israel in the late 1960s, met each other, and got married. An Israeli friend, who had in her possession a giant key from her family's ancestral home in Toledo, asked them: "Why Spain of all places? After all, we were expelled from there…" But that claim was not enough to change my mother's mind. As a lecturer in linguistics and a left-wing activist, she had at least two solid reasons to choose this move: language and politics. I, her daughter, spoke in a strange language, a graft between Hebrew and Spanish – woe unto us – and Begin had just joined the government – another woe. The combination of these two factors might lead to a state of affairs where, heaven forbid, the daughter may oppose the mother's views and become a real Israeli. Mother was overcome by a fear that the process had already begun, when I returned one day from preschool with a tank constructed from an egg carton. Her complaints, however, fell on deaf ears. The preschool teacher did not understand what all the fuss was about, and what that redhead with her overdeveloped political awareness wanted from her. She thought that reality comprised many things: houses, trees, dogs and tanks. That same evening, rumors began flying in our neighborhood in Motza Eilit, outside of Jerusalem, and a few mothers took up positions outside our house, shouting: "Jew-hater!"
My father, in contrast, actually loved Israel, and developed strong friendships in Jerusalem. He and his Jerusalem friends played music, sang, and smoked together. It was the 1970s. The idea of leaving Israel after 12 years and immigrating to an unknown place did not appeal to him, most certainly; but he joined us despite everything.
A Foreign Implant
Spain wasn't exactly what we anticipated. I couldn't have imagined it clearly – I was only six – but I expected to at least understand the language, and to idenfity letters and the meaning of words that my methodical mother had begun teaching me already back in Motza, at age three.
We landed in Barcelona, just at the time that the Spanish and Latin-Armican literary movement was in its flowering. Authors such as Mario Vargas Llosa and Jose and Gabriel García Márquez, were publishing their works in Spanish publishing houses, and the city was becoming a symbol of cultural and political change in the lively Spain of those days, which had only recently come under democratic rule. And yet, we did not always succeed in reading the names of the streets or in understanding what the signs were saying. With the death of the despot Franco, a forty-year period during which Spanish had been forced upon citizens of the state as the sole national langue, came to an end, and the Catalonians were enjoying a sweet revenge: everything was in Catalan.
Some of the classes at school were taught in Catalan, and others, in Spanish. I assume that during those days I had a strange accent in both languages. When one of my girlfriends asked me where I was from and I said that I was from Israel, she gave me an quizzical look. The next day she asked me if I was Jewish. I said yes. The next day she asked me if I'd been baptized. Since I didn't understand what that meant, I asked my mother – on my friend's advice – and the next day, I was able to answer her: "I wasn't baptized." She decided that this meant I did not have a real name, and therefore she could call me any name she wanted, which she in fact did. Ironically, I remember her name well to this day.
It rapidly became known to my other classmates that I was from Israel, and a few people asked me how people there look. When I told my mother about this, she suggested that if they asked me again, I should answer, "Some of them are green, and some have an electric lightbult in their rear ends." That didn't help much. Children tend to understand things literally.
I learned Catalan, and I may have even decided to adopt the social behavior accepted in the national-borgeois culture in which my limited social life took place (the school and its environs). I learned how to dance in the manner characteristic of the region, I knew how to enjoy the taste of the local sausage… and then we left for Madrid.
I was ten, and again, a foreign implant in a new class. On my first day of school, the teacher asked me to write my first and last names on the blackboard. She asked where I came from, since I had such an interesting name. "I'm from Barcelona," I answered. I was also a child and I, too, understood things literally. During recess, it seemed to me that I had already achieved a certain measure of understanding, or something like it, but then I heard one of the girls call me "the Pole," I corrected her: "My last name is Russian, not Polish, but it's ok." She answered me in a somewhat cryptic manner: "You said you came from Catalonia, and all the Catalonians are Polish." "But I was born in Israel, not Barcelona," I told her, embarrassed and attempting to save myself from something that I myself could not identify. "So you're a Polish Jew!" the girl determined.
This definitive statement left my parents without a retort. But they looked into the matter and found that during Franco's rule, it was accepted to smear the Catalonians with the insult that they "barked" in an indecipherable language – probably Polish.
Wonderful. Not only did I come from a faraway country, not only was I not Catholic and also the only student in the entire school who was exempt from religious instruction – now I had been made into the representative of a regional minority; not to mention my style of dress, which, due to my feminist mother, did not include snazzy children's outfits, making me stand out terribly in the private, elitist school, where girls were girls and boys were boys.
Did I consciously choose these memories in order to emphasize the Jewish aspect? And perhaps the perspective of the "other"? I don't think so. Preserved in my memory are also precious moments of friendship and understanding, but the unique marks of distinction that characterized me as a girl and as a teenager fixed my image as distinct from my peers. Somebody – my classmates, my teachers, my professional peers – decided on the source of the difference: my Judaism. These anecdotes, and the grand questions: "What does it mean, in essence, to be Jewish?" echoed in the empty space created by my Jewish family's avoidance of the question, shaping my Jewish idenity which would not have existed otherwise.
The only Jews whom I met early on in Spain were my optometrist and our family dentist, both originally from Argentina. They spoke with me only about near-sightedness and cavities, and despite my questions, revealed no tendency to share their life stories with me. I remember only one Jewish anecdote told to me by the dentist: Once she went with her hsband to Munich, and she understood that something was happening in her subconscious when she heard herself saying: "Let's go back to the hotel; hail a tank," when in fact she had meant a taxi. Aside from that, I met very few Jews in my early teens. As an older teenager, I became inebriated by the sense of my historical preeminence, in the words of French-Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut. In the overwhelmingly homogeneous Spanish culture, of all places, I cherished the rare markers that were tied to my racial or national origin. I welcomingly adopted the Jewish past with its so very rich history, wearyingly overloaded with culture, tragedy and light, a past that belonged not to me but to my ancestors. I learned about this past from stories told by my parents and grandparents, and I joined it. Although I could not share it with anyone, it protected me and explained things. I read Isaac Bashevis Singer and I loved his sagas; I also read articles on the wars of Israel, which bored me to death, Eli Wiesel, Philip Roth and Henry Roth, David Grossman, Amos Oz, and of course, the news in the daily papers.
The media aroused in me a new feeling: "The entire world is against us," and my story split into two: the Jew embracing memory, and the encounter with the anti-Israeli, and sometimes even simply anti-Jewish attitude, which, in his book "The Imaginary Jew" (le Juif imaginaire), Finkelkraut describes as an anti-Semitism bolstered and vitalized by hatred of Israel.
I confess, with no small amount of embarrassment, that the way in which Finkielkraut describes himself as a teenager captures with great precision how I felt at this time in my life: "The calvary of my people gave my life a prestige and a beauty that I would have been unable to discover in its own unfolding […] I inherited a suffering to which I had not been subjected […] To be Jewish was enough to escape the anonymity of an identity indistinguishable from others and the dullness of an uneventful life." (p. 8)
Perhaps it was my intention of dealing with that very foggy existence that spurred me to become politically active, and at age 19, during my second year of journalism studies in university, I joined the socialist party. In the political world I found a new type of Spaniard, one that I hadn't chanced to meet before among my friends, teachers and lecturers at the university: Jew-admirers, and perhaps even more than that, people who aspired to become Jews: super-kosher Catholic Spaniards with a grandmother in La Rioja and a summer house in Cuenca, who were amazed by the longevity of the People of the Book and its fortune – or, in Finkielkraut's words, people who are "jealous of the Jews […] for their collective memory, their intense sense of belonging and the immutable bonds that bind them to a unique history and living community; […who] envy the inherent transcendence that makes them more than mere individuals […who envy the ability] to be Jewish: or the chance to escape yourself." (p. 92)
The Jew-loving Catholics have apparently reached the same conclusion as the empty Jews of the Diapsora. Empty – since if we're Jews, why don't we attend synagogue? "What, essentially, makes you Jewish if you're not religious," I was incessantly asked? Where are our religious ceremonies? Do we simply breathe Judaism into our beings through books, documentary films and the family narrative? Is the fact that our family perished in the Holocaust sufficient for us to appropriate the right to be Jewish?
And then I began thinking that I should learn Hebrew – a language I hadn't spoken since I left Israel – and maybe even visit a syangogue, but I failed to muster the necessary spiritual enthusiasm. Neither of the missions had excited me from the start. My first Hebrew teacher was a young and short-tempered Israeli, lacking any patience, and already after the first lesson I began looking for another teacher. The second teacher was a beautiful and sullen woman who wanted to barter with me: she would teach me Hebrew, and in exchange I would write her papers for a course she was taking in Spanish literature. I didn't want to work that hard to aquire the Hebrew language. The third teacher I found was a strict young woman who grilled me regarding my origins. She wanted to know whether Latin American Jews were original Jews, or converts. My Hebrew studies were seeming increasingly like a mission impossible.
Since the location of the synagogue was kept secret by the Jewish community, finding it was no easier than finding a Hebrew teacher. Ultimately, I succeeded in locating it – with the help of my dentist – in a neighborhood known, paradoxically, as "The Church." Upon entering, I had no idea what to do. After being questioned and going through a security check, I was invited to join the Sabbath prayers, conducted by 'pure Sefardim' [הכוונה לס'ט או לספרדים רגילים?] wearing LaCoste shirts and moccasins, and who spoke with a Madrid acccent. They looked exactly like my classmates from the conservative, elitist school I had attended, except that they were Jewish.
Looking backwards, the two missions I had taken upon myself were frustrating. I was not able to suddenly become religious all at once, and I therefore began asking myself whether Judaism was perhaps a romantic idea destined to depart from the world.
And then, already as a young journalist, I was given a tough assignment: to conduct an interview with local neo-Nazis. We contacted them – another journalist and myself – and conducted a slightly timid discussion with five or six young people, most of them extremist fans of a soccer team, who had shouted the familiar antisemitic slurs. During the course of interview, one of them began to take an interest in me. He cast bashful glances at me and asked for my phone number. Since I had heard what they had to say and had already passed judgement on them, and because I felt fairly self-confident and certain of their ideological weakness, I decided to boldly state that I was Jewish – not such a bright move on my part. The stab of his hateful glare was quite impressive, particularly in light of his prior gaze of longing.
During my long years in Spain, where I examined through an academic lens the way in which the local media portrayed "Israel" and "Judaism," I thoroughly enjoyed visiting the remnants of Jewish life in Toledo, Hervas, Cordoba, Tudela, Girona… I attuned my ear to the echo remaining from the life that once teemed there, six-hundred years ago, during a period when the shared existence of the three cultures in Spain was not as placid as commonly described.
I thought that I would be able to sense the connection between a few of the places in Hervas, and, say, certain streetcorners in Jerusalem that I barely remembered since I had visited there only twice, as a tourist; a tourist who didn't know how to speak Hebrew, and didn't even know (again!) how to read the street signs.
But as a Jew in Spain, an imaginary Jew, perhaps, I again found solace in Finkielkraut: "as a Jew without substance […] to console myself, I always rehash the same subject: my profundity. I avenge myself in psychological complexity for the diaphonous slice of Jewishness I actually possess. If I can't be a member of a living Jewish community, I can devote myself at a moment's notice to the pleasures of self-interrogation: he who is deprived of Jewish ethnicity finds in the Jewish question endless food for thought."
The language, for example: even the very simple word, "Jew," had always been problematic in my view – it sounded bad. And perhaps not just to my ears, since in Spain Jews are usually called "Israelitas" or "Hebrews," and the tendency towards political correctness is not strong among the Spanish. However, despite the grating quality of the word, I used it, perhaps even recklessly, apparently in order to make it palatable to my tainted sub-concious. With the end of the facist regimes, the word "Jew" became almost anathema. Franco used it repeatedly when warning of the gravest danger facing the country: "The conspiracies of the Jews and the Free Masons." Therefore, the "cultured" citizens of the world following World War II feared that using the word would make them suspect of being on the same side as the Nazis or their collaborators. The word "Israelitas" was free of associations, and to this day is considered as such in certain circles. However, the tendency to use "clean language" also relates to the fact that the word "Jew" in Spain also refers to beans (judios). In a restaurant one can order green Jews, black Jews, and white Jews… and please don't confuse these with Israelites. Go figure.
Now that I have been an Israeli citizen for one year, I still feel like a stranger and newcomer to a exclusive group – a close-knit and colorful group. While I continue to devote myself to the pleasures of lone inquiries, today I also speak with real Jews: with the bank clerk who tells me that she voted for Lieberman; with a lawyer friend who invited me to a Hasah (Jewish/Arab) Party demonstration; with the religious owner of the nuts and snacks store who is encouraging me to observe the laws of kashrut; with the yoga teacher who tells me about her younger brother, "a good kid," she claims, who refuses to get drafted into the army; with the taxi driver who informs me that I'm making a terrible mistake by not hurrying to get married and have children – lots of them; with the young singer who announces that despite the thousands of missiles that the Hizbollah fired on Israel during the last war, few Israelis were killed, because God is protecting us; and with those Israelis who are happy to speak with me after I tell them that I'm from Spain, since in their opinion, it's an exotic place; perhaps they've forgotten that we were once expelled from there.
So what is it like to be a Jew in Israel, I wonder sometimes. Well, I answer myself, it has at least one advantage: last night I was walking with a friend down a Tel Aviv street, and suddenly a group of skin-heads approached us. I hastened to cross the street to the opposing sidewalk in order to avoid them. When my friend asked me what I was doing, I whispered: "Neo-Nazis." And he said: "What Nazis? Don't you get it? Now you're in the Jewish state."