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Hacktreks Travel

Hacktreks 2

First Chapters


Most Reverend Eryk-Antonio Hernández, O.M.D., U.B. Founding monk of the Uniphysite Buddhist Order

It is a phenomenon known the world over, but best recognized and publicized in the West: someone discovers they are Jewish, after a lifetime of not knowing. Elie Wiesel, who to my knowledge has not touched upon this subject, would probably say we need the Maharal, Rabbi Yehuda Löwe (Judah Leow) of Prague to make a golem for us. Somehow I donıt think even that would suffice. Many great Jewish masters often made points about the coming of Meshiach... the Messiah... and of the resulting reunification of all the Jewish people. The 6th Lubavitcher Hassid Rebbe Menachem Schneersohn, up until his death in 1993, often wrote and spoke about the Messiah and the reuniting of all the Jewish people. It would seem this is happening now. Many Sefardic Jews are rediscovering themselves, and they in turn are out in force, rediscovering lost siblings.

A prominent Canadian scholar and an Ashkenazic rabbi recently finished scouring the world for the Lost Tribes, believing they had positively found all but one. Not long after this finding of the tribes, geneticists found a gene marker that separates and distinguishes the Kohanim... the Jewish priestly caste... from all other people. This was of vital importance to modern Jewish belief: that the priestly caste, of the Tribe of Levi, still exists, in waiting for the return of the Messiah and the reestablishment of the Temple in Jerusalem. Of course, the Canadian scholar had already found "ritually pure" Kohanim all over the world, living in isolation... some in secrecy. The Kohanim genetic marker, called the Kohen (Hebrew, "priest"; it is the singular of Kohanim) Modal Haplotite, is a DNA chromosomal sequence marker found on the Y chromosome. This marker was used to identify one very important "Lost Tribe", the Bene Lemba ("Sons of Lemba", or Lemba Tribe) of Africa. In an astonishing twist of fate, Catholic Cardinal Arinze is of this tribe... validating his longstanding claims to be of Jewish descent. He joins ranks with Cardinal Lustiger, Archbishop of Paris, the converted son of Polish Jews.

As the Canadian scholar has said, the tribes "may have been lost to us... they were never lost to themselves." What a journey of self discovery. (Incidentally, both cardinals are frontrunners in the next papal election.) Often I wonder about the truly lost Jews... those lost to themselves. Embarking on a journey of self discovery is fraught with all sorts of emotions and events... it is not in the least miserable. I have read that it is, but I canıt believe it. Many Jews, having recently discovered their roots, become retiring and even paranoid about their newfound identities. The Inquisition still hurts. It also became plain to me just how wrong the Canadian is about lost Jews not being "lost to themselves". My family was lost to itself; how many more lost Jews are out there? In finding my true heritage, I was blessed. What I share with these "new Jews" is everything that is positive. We feel relief, because we finally know why we never fit in, even at home. We feel pride, excitement, at having learned the truth about ourselves... itıs heritage and history in a bottle, set afloat centuries ago with the hopes of someone finding it.

Our Sefardic Jewish heritage had to be bottled. I always knew we were different; my family and the friends of the family all seemed to belong to an aristocracy long vanished. My brothers, sisters and I always took for granted that this was merely "Spanish pride". Why we fit in so well with all kinds of Jews, why we were always so at home with the varying Jewish customs and cultures, why we were so like them, never seemed to really pique our curiosity. Never did we question our avoidance of church itself on Sundays... though, like most Sefardim including the CryptoJews, we seemed more Catholic than the Catholics. As a lady from New Mexico described her family, we were "obsessively Catholic". Today I know that this was all a show, an act, not a deception but a thing of survival. If my ancestors knew they were Jews (I think some did, but not most of them) then they knew all too well that Jews have always been outcastes. Forming ghettos, mocked and mistreated, Sefardic Jews knew that Jewishness itself was a thing to be shunned. It is my belief that my ancestors, not very long ago, realized that peril still existed for them. So I believe my ancestors were CryptoJews up until my great-grandfatherıs generation. Not until that point in my family history, I think, did they "become" Conversos. Survival of the fittest. It was at this time that they emigrated from the 'Spanish' Netherlands, around Belgium, to Mexico.

They must have continued to live in mortal fear of being accused of Judaizing. Judaizing... such an ugly term which means nothing more than practicing Judaism. This was the hated verb that was used to accuse so many Sefardim and send them to their deaths. Marrano... a truly horrid insult, which is used even today, by some Jewish writers no less. This is not a term that just means "Spanish Jew", or even "swine" or "pig", as some Jewish authors erroneously believe. It is a word that means "filthy-pig-person", and aimed at the Jews, it means "filthy Jew pig". It is a word that must never be used as a noun, adjective, or anything else. For example, my mother and her brother used to jokingly call the kids puerco marrano... "pig-filthy-pig", a unique Spanish hyperbole... whenever we did something they considered dirty but not especially offensive. This they felt they could do lightheartedly, because somewhere in their hearts they knew what it really meant. When matters were serious, they carefully scolded us by calling us cochino or cochina... in this context meaning a piglike person, or slob. Note its resemblance to the Italian cucina, "kitchen". It is never used in conjunction with marrano. Cochino and the diminutive cochinito has been used in Spanish since Medieval times, to denote a suckling pig. In other words, cochino means "pork", "pig", "suckling pig" and "slob"; puerco means "pig" and "piglike" in general as well as "pork"; but marrano means "filthy-pig-person". Marrano is never used in any other context by polite, decent society... because it is an unvarnished, absolutely context-positive insult. I simply cannot believe my ears when I hear that Marrano is now being proudly used by Sefardim, as if it were just another version of the name Chicano. A Chicano is a far cry from a filthy pig!

At home on Friday evenings, special things seemed to be in the air. We never knew why; even my grandmother and mother didnıt seem to know. We were dressed up, very clean, the shades were always drawn, and my mother lit candles. It was exactly like New Yearıs Eve on Fridays. We had a good meal and a festive spirit, but of course as the teen years arrived and then passed for us, fewer and fewer of us were at home. My mother did not mind. The tradition just seemed to die a natural death as we kids left home. She, however, never stopped looking forward to Friday nights... always relishing that cup of Manischewitz kosher grape wine. For her, and for my grandmother, it was just the way it had always been done. I recall the preparations for Friday night supper: there was much bustling, as though disaster might rain down on the kitchen after dark. Everything was completed very early, and the whole day was needed. Even at this depth of ignorance, my family kept kosher as much as possible. Meat had to be drained of blood (preferably out of doors), washed, salted and so forth. It is a pitiable condition: the spirit and some traditions remain, but the knowledge, the consciousness, is gone. It is the ultimate in thievery. It is in this sense that the term "wandering Jew" takes on special meaning, and it is in this sense that the "Lost Tribes" takes on its most important, true meaning.

For me it took on a meaning of epic proportions. After my mother died, may her memory be blessed, I discovered the truth about our family. It wasnıt long after her death... perhaps a few months... as if a gift had come from the Eternal One, via her. "Suddenly Jewish" certainly describes me at that moment. What came to my memory after I had discovered the truth was the scene at my motherıs deathbed, after she had passed. Exactly as I had read about traditional Jewish vigils and deaths. I personally covered or removed and turned over the mirrors, everyone sat and looked miserable, certain items were placed on the deathbed. I knew I had at least a 30 day mourning period ahead of me, during which I could not shave at all, could not have a haircut or take a bath. I knew I would not be able to go out for entertainment, get dressed up, or cease to wear black. I seem to recall a tradition we once had of giving charity in the name of the deceased. Why the Jewish connection did not occur to me at the time was very simple: as a Buddhist priest, I had obligations to the dead. As a son of a "devout" Catholic, and former seminarian, I had the duty to administer emergency Last Rites. As her son, in spite of being over-the-hill as you can get, I was torn into pieces by grief. Somehow, in my grief I was tempted to rend my garments. Now I know why. There were no elder female relatives left to tend my motherıs body in the traditional way... my father was in no condition to do anything. As Jews, well, no one was conscious of it at that time. Not yet. That is the ugliest tragedy of all. A CryptoJewish lady once commented that she has never called herself Jewish, because she was not raised as a Jew. I say the Torah is clear: once a Jew, always a Jew. The children of converted or CryptoJews are Jews, whether anyone likes it or not. The Torah is clear. It is also clear that being a Jew is a state of mind; as worded by one very important Jewish scholar, being truly Jewish is more a choice than anything else.

These sentiments helped me to take heart. I sought refuge in a new, highly moneyed Ashkenazic synagogue that called itself a "center". It was full of old, well-off folks who had lost relatives in haShoah, the Holocaust. When I looked at them I could see and feel their loss. They also felt like instant kindred folk, like relatives previously unknown. They even looked and acted like all my relatives. What I wonder to this day is whether they saw the same in me. I had no doubt that my rabbi was aware of my sense of pain and loss. He was keenly attuned to my grief over the loss of my dear mother, but at the same time I found him oddly disinterested in my Jewish heritage. He essentially ignored me. A bad memory. The memory I cherish the most is the time I chatted in Hebrew with him; he remarked that I "should be teaching the congregants Hebrew". If anything reaffirmed me, made me feel whole again, it was that remark. Nonetheless, he was unmoved by my "Jewish plight", seemed very nervous about the whole thing, and didnıt want to encourage me. We discussed conversion in his office one day. What hurt me the most- and I know, he didnıt mean it - was his insistence upon the conversion ritual in the first place. I told him I already was a Jew; I was looking forward to fully joining the community. His reasoning was sound: a conversion has to be seen to be believed. The bath, the mikveh, must be performed. I then repeated, I had something of a problem with the very idea that I had to "convert". He was telling me I was not Jewish until they said otherwise.

Finally I accepted the terms, and pledged I would "convert with all the faith and zeal that had been used to rob my ancestors of their Jewish heritage." My exact words. It must have been at that moment that the rabbi was really wary of me. It is Jewish custom, as it is the Buddhist, to torture (they call it "testing") a candidate... a proselyte... three times, prior to commencing the actual conversion process. The rabbi promised solemnly that he would not do that to me, due to my sincerity, spiritual background, and preexisting training in Jewish theology and tradition. Today I wonder if that promise in itself was a sort of trap, to see if I would get proud and arrogant. I didnıt; I was too busy feeling happy and fulfilled. Somehow I feel that the rabbi laid the trap, was frustrated, and became a bit resentful. Then again, as I have always said, I harbor no ill will... just a vague, bad memory of a suspicion. Sadly, there was nothing else to be done. The community, well established in my hometown for over a century and a half, simply did not know how to take me, or what to do with me. That was perhaps the worst part of discovering who I am. I returned to my Buddhist ministry with my rabbiıs blessing, he no doubt elated at the prospect of ridding himself of my bothersome presence.

Perhaps that is the other sad thing: Jews are against Jews very much these days, and no one feels it like newly self-discovered Sefardim. The ugliest thing I notice is a Jew accusing another Jew of not being a Jew. Almost sounds like a joke. Until I remember that this very thing happened to me, and it was the rabbi who had said it. Since that time, three other rabbis have said that to me. Donıt they know how that hurts, or do they simply not care? In spite of this Semitic anti-Semitism, innumerable gifts have been imparted to me that cannot be taken away. Today I know that no matter what happens, I am a Jew. I know I have a Jewish soul: it made me respond to the call back to my people. The privilege to study the deepest Jewish teachings, to live and practice openly as a Jew, to retain certain Jewish vows, is privilege indeed. No, I am not "a false Jew", "of Jewish descent", "of Jewish ancestry", or an "apostate Jew". I am a Jew. Couldnıt be simpler. On the street, old Jewish people who do not know me somehow recognize me immediately as kindred, and it is this recognition I most relish. All the people who come from far and wide, who lost everything in the Holocaust, some who even remember the pogroms... they recognize me! World War II veterans are always easy for me to spot, because they are the first to ask me if I am Jewish. I used to be perplexed by the question; today I immediately respond, "Why, yes I am!" They tell me with pride that they know LOTS of Jewish people; they can always tell. Other types of singling out comes with the territory. I have suffered various communications accusing me of being "a traitor to my people", "worse than Hitler", and so forth. These messages always come from people who call themselves Jewish. Often when I am alone thinking, I ask myself why Jews flee their community and heritage. Why so many Jews leaving the faith, not practicing? Is it a message about modern Orthodoxy, stringent Jewish expectations, shattered Jewish hopes? Or is it my people stretching forth their hands, groping and finding each other? Isnıt that what is supposed to herald the Messianic Age? Is the conversion of a Jew to Buddhism- or some other non-Christian religion- such a bad thing? Isnıt the Torah clear? Doesnıt that clarity of the Torah mean anything? Once a Jew, always a Jew. How many meanings that phrase has! So long as a Jew does not join an outright enemy of the Jews, how can he cease being what he is? He can cease practice, he can even be robbed of his heritage... but does that change what he is, or whence he came? The answer is "NO". Dr. Isaac Asimov, a Russian Jew, was once cornered by a friendly but persistent Orthodox rabbi. Asimov said that he was an atheist, but the rabbi kept pressing him. "Yes, yes," the rabbi insisted, "but what kind of atheist?" Asimov finally caught on, and said, "A Jewish atheist." The rabbi was joyful. Recalling this story, I wrote to a rabbi and said that I think even atheism is ordained by the Eternal One. He wrote back, delighted, saying that it was undoubtedly true. What is it in all these things that is so deep, so meaningful? Itıs simply being Jewish. Even more, it is being Jewish together. We must live, together as Jews. The Torah is clear. Many scholars postulate that we all have some Jewish ancestry. Whatever the truth may be, one thing shines forth in my view: being Jewish has brought me closer to people, to the world, to the Eternal One. At the end of the day, I believe thatıs all the Eternal One wants of any of us. I am a Jew. It just feels so good to say that, to know that, to live it as best I can, and to write it.

© Most Reverend Eryk-Antonio Hernández, O.M.D., U.B. July 27th 2003

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