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Hanging By a Wick

Vanessa Paloma

My foremothers Ana, Rebeca and Ita never knew what effect the light of their candles would have on their descendants. They sailed the ocean from the land of spices and olive oil to the new world of promises, the new world where they hoped they would not be ridden anymore by fear. The candles came with them, and eventually - after generations - their light lit an entirely new flame.

After the expulsion from Spain in 1492, my ancestors moved from country to country through the Netherlands, Italy and Morocco. Behind them they left almost all their possessions, and friends and family who were still partly hiding their souls and their love for their dear tradition. But in the new and mysterious world across the great sea, in the green and daunting jungles of el Nuevo Mundo, Ana, Rebeca and Ita would be free - or would they?

Ana Machado was the first to arrive, traveling as a child with her parents to Panama. From Panama they gradually made their way to the Andes of Colombia and finally, in the 1930s, to Colombia's capital, Bogotá. Ana's daughter Rebeca had three children, Inés, José and Joaquín. At 16, Inés, known as Ita, married a world-traveled engineer and devout atheist. They had four children, the youngest of whom is my mother.

During this time, the family's Jewish traditions became more and more whittled down. Was it because the Inquisition had been active in Colombia until only few years before they arrived? Or was it the well-known lure of freedom that drew this artistically inclined family to cultural and intellectual pursuits rather than religious ones? Either way, by the time I was born my family was one in which religion played no part.

I attended Catholic school, and I was instructed by my parents not to believe anything they taught me but to follow along. To say the least, I was a spiritually confused child. I prayed at nights to a G-d who was not invited into the life of our home. I knew I did not agree with the teachings I received at school, so I read some books on Jewish mysticism. For some reason, these were the books that jumped out at me at the International Book Fair in Bogotá when I was 15.

There was an unspoken reality that Judaism was part of our ancestry, and there were a few mementos that evoked Judaism in my grandmother Ita's apartment. Under her 1940s radio was a shofar, and in her garden was a healthy rue plant. The smells of buñuelos rolled around during Januká, and her cakes recalled the North African cooking our family had picked up along the way.

And there were candles. Sometimes on Friday nights, my grandmother would light two candles and say a blessing in Spanish. She and I were close, and I treasure my memories of staying over at her house. On the table in her kitchen, the candles were lit - not discussed in any way, but lit - and they burned throughout the evening until the wax was all consumed.

Eventually, my parents and I moved to the United States, fleeing the drug-related violence that has plagued Colombia for 20 years. Soon afterwards, Ita died. Our Judaism was again submerged as we adapted to life in another new land.

My grandmother's candles had flickered in me and went into a smolder, but they never went out. Then four years ago I moved to Los Angeles, and the shimmering embers slowly began to grow into a raging flame. I started by lighting candles of my own - Chanukah candles - and the fire burned more and more until the next Passover, when I found a synagogue that moved me, and I began to grow into Shabbat. I've learned Hebrew and have been to Israel three times, most recently with my mother who now has joined this journey with me. I've studied with many wonderful teachers, and sometimes I have the strange experience of feeling I can finish their sentences for them. My Judaism feels to me like it was always there, as though I'm not learning something new as much as opening a door that had been closed. Or perhaps just left ajar.

And it isn't only me. Over the last 10 years - coincidentally, it seemed - dispersed throughout the United States and South America, my whole family has begun to incorporate Jewish practice into their lives. On the last Sukkoth before she died, my aunt Nina built her first sukkah on the family farm outside Bogotá. My cousin Greta in Minneapolis now celebrates every Shabbat with her two boys, and my mother in Oklahoma teaches art in a synagogue school. My aunt in Washington, D.C., has changed her name from Teresa to Tirzah. And in New York, my cousin Nancy has just married a descendant of the revered Vilna Gaon.

Surely those small wicks I remember from my childhood, and which have rekindled Torah in us now, are connected to the candles burned on Friday evenings for three generations before. And they in turn are linked to candles that burned in our family for many centuries before that.

I salute the strength and persistence that Ana, Rebeca and Ita found in the face of a growing disconnection to Judaism. It took their connection to maintain the flame alive. They held on to the candles, and those candles held on to us.


Reprinted with permission from http://www.olam.org.

Vanessa Paloma is the Artistic Director of the SYNERGY ensemble in Los Angeles, and is a singer and performing artist.

 
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