How My Mexican-American Wife Became Jewish

by Sam Bluefarb (August 2014)


W]hither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God:
Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the LORD do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.

--Ruth I: 16-17

December 7th is a two-fold memorial day for me--my wife’s jahrzeit1--she passed away, December 7, 1997--and the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. When we met in 1953, World War II was still fresh in memory, but it had begun to take on the blurred focus of myth and legend.

It began as a lark. At the time, I was a long-term patient at the Long Beach (California) Veterans Hospital. One day, one of the men on our ward received a bulky envelope containing letters and some photographs. The covering letter was from a female patient at Olive View Hospital over in the San Fernando Valley. It bore a list of names that matched the photographs, all of them attractive young women. Would any of us care to write to them, since these patients, like ourselves, were long-term too? Some of the men saw in it something more than an innocuous exchange of pen-pal letters. Others, myself included, didn’t overly-concern ourselves with calculated scenarios, frivolous or meaningful; it would just be a temporary diversion. And it could be innocent fun. I wasn’t so naive as not to believe that something more than an exchange of letters was possible; or, if we met, a brief fling; but nothing more.                   

Thus began a correspondence with a dark-eyed beauty with a flirtatious sparkle in her eyes. I learned that she had graduated from James A. Garfield High School in East Los Angeles (or “Garfield High”), that same school where, decades later, the storied Jaime Escalante of the film “Stand and Deliver” (1988) would inspire under-achieving students to succeed in passing a challenging course in calculus. The celebrated event would eventually bring fame to both teacher and students, and redound to the greater glory of the school.

By the time we were discharged from hospital, we had exchanged a fair number of letters, enough to suggest that things had gone beyond a pleasant diversion, and that we shared a love of “deeper” things—books, music, the arts. Thus, it seemed natural, if not inevitable, that we would eventually meet.          

Her parents having died some years earlier, she had gone to live with an older married brother in Montebello, an incorporated township some fifteen miles east of downtown Los Angeles. Its population was—and still is--largely Mexican. By now I had acquired a used 1946 Oldsmobile and would drive across town from the West Side to visit her. She turned out to be even more attractive than the photograph!

Soon, our friendship grew into something more, and we began to “bond”—that much-overused word that seems to say so much but says so little. But doubts had begun to trouble me: I was Jewish and she was Catholic: that added up to the recognition of a problem that would need to be faced—marriage. I also asked myself: was this a rebound from an earlier failed romance? By now I was given to understand by hints and by innuendoes that this could not go on indefinitely, that sooner or later I would be expected to “commit.” In recent times that word has come to take on a different meaning, when traditional marriage has been seriously threatened and more children are born out of wedlock. Anything short of eventual commitment would not only be unfair; it would be cruel.  

*     *     *

Eva was born in Los Angeles and baptized in the Church of Our Lady Queen of the Angels—or its original Spanish rendition, Nuestra Señora La Reina de Los Angeles--after which the city itself is named. The church has a third, more popular, identity, “the Old Plaza Church.” It sits on a tract of land across Main Street from the Plaza (or La Placita Olvera), the oldest Catholic church in the city. Construction, begun in 1814, was completed in 1822. In spite of cosmetic changes over its long history, the church still retains its Alamo-like structure and ambiance. The plaza itself is slightly south of colorful Olvera Street with its Mexican restaurants, leather goods, serapes, jewelry, piñatas, and pottery — fare for tourists. According to legend, the original pueblo of Los Angeles — then a village of some forty-four settlers — had its beginnings at the Placita Olvera over 225 years ago; and over the decades it expanded south and west to grow into the 470-square mile city it is today. Against that backdrop, Eva’s early years were not much different from that of any other young woman growing up in the Los Angeles of her time — a Mexican-American Catholic girlhood, high school, parents who fled north to Texas during the revolution (1910-1917); and from there, eventually to California.

After graduation from high school she went to work as a saleslady at the Broadway Department Store in downtown Los Angeles. Even then, there was a need for bilingual personnel to serve the needs of the largely Spanish-speaking community. And although she didn’t overdo her ethnicity as does today’s compulsive diversity crowd in government, in academia — particularly in academia, its spawning ground (She was turned off by the newer self-conscious “Chicana”), her feelings about her dual heritage ran deep. Two of her brothers had been in the service during World War II and one soon after. Sal, the eldest, who had enlisted with the Army Air Corps (later the US Air Force), was killed during a training mission before he had the chance to go overseas. Once, after we’d been married many years and were driving through a residential neighborhood of a small Arizona town, she turned to me. “This is the Mexican part of town.” “How do you know?” “Because of the flowers.” She smiled a pensive little smile. Moments later something more solemn came over her, and both her words and tone reflected an altered mood. “I love my people, Sammy. I feel so sorry for the ones who don’t have decent jobs and are so mistreated.”  This was no ersatz politically driven “compassion.” Whatever the trend toward the hyphenated American, or the more trendy “Chicana/Chicano,” she was always treasured her ethnic and cultural heritage, but she was equally proud of her (unhyphenated) American birthright. As for job opportunities for Mexican-Americans in those far-off days, her brother Joe (Joseph Vincent) had had an instructive experience of his own.

After discharge from the navy, he had gone back to college and earned a Bachelor’s and, later, a Master’s degree and a teaching credential. But that didn’t translate into a job right away. A principal had discouraged him with the lame excuse: “You may not feel comfortable in this community.” Not so subtly omitted was the qualifying “Anglo.” He was eventually hired by a fair-minded administrator in the predominantly Mexican-American school district of Alhambra. Since those days, the situation has dramatically improved, of course.

*          *          *

Other than the illusion of a marriage born of romance and a never-ending honeymoon, most marriages, when it comes down to it, are entered into with a skein of conscious and unconscious reasons — the “bonding” already alluded to, a need for roots and stability, a preference for one person over another, and the recognition of a growing need (in me) for all of those. (Due to that earlier star-crossed experience, I had already been inoculated against the romantic agony called ‘falling in love.” A deeper love for my wife would grow over the years.) That led to a decision to “commit.” Some months later, we were married — once by a justice of the peace, the second time (by her choice) by a rabbi.

Why did this Catholic wish to re-affirm the civil ceremony with a religious one — and a Jewish one at that? Children. Neither of us was very observant, but she felt that raising our kids in dual Christian and Jewish traditions could only lead to confusion and inner tensions, a burden no growing child should be expected to bear. That decision — actually it was her decision —could not have been easy for her! But the concern was for naught, for she lost the baby, and we learned that due to gynecological problems, there could never be another. Long after, in moments of introspection, I would ask myself: was that G-d’s due — “punishment” is too strong a word — for our dual transgressions — a “conversion” that was not Halachically2 “pure,” and a marriage ceremony that may have been a sop to guilt? Ironically, afterthoughts are a luxury that can only be indulged in after the fact, when they can no longer make any difference.

The civil ceremony took place in the Santa Barbara County Court House, its Moorish-Spanish architecture, a simulation of the nearby, historic (1786) Santa Barbara Mission. Six months later, a Reform rabbi married us, with the assurance that the marriage would serve to unite us, not only as husband and wife but as Jews. That would come back to haunt us when I applied for an exchange teaching year in Israel. In any event, the rabbi congratulated us, along with Mazeltovs! (Congratulations!) from two temple members who acted as witnesses and co-signed the beautifully illuminated ketubah,3 with its carefully wrought Aramaic lettering.

*          *          *

After I retired from teaching, we moved out to the desert north of Palm Springs. One morning, I strolled down to mail a letter at the post office; there, I ran into a black-hatted, bearded Satmar Hassid and his large family — the “modestly”-clad wife, the kids. I greeted him with a “Shalom!” But he responded only with a curt nod and a surly grunt. In my innocence (actually ignorance), I asked whether he attended the local “shul” — a meeting hall rented by the Jewish community of the town for meetings and services. This time, a brusque shake of the head. I wasn’t then aware just how insulated and self-separated the Satmars were. Of course, I had some idea that Hassidim were extremely sectarian and formed their own “clans”; but I was not to learn how insular they were until much later. The encounter at the post office was the first inkling I had how great the chasm was between the Satmars and the greater Jewish community. (Lubovitcher Hassidim — or Chabad — are of course the less clannish, more moderate exception.)  I was also to learn that the Satmars, like other “snow birds” who came west each year to escape the cold New York winters, regularly booked a large motel where they held their own services.

When I ran into the Hassid and his family, I had an irresistible urge to make a glowing impression on him; perhaps it was my need for his approval, if not blessing, and I proudly announced that my wife was a gentile who had “converted.” Big mistake! At that moment, he stared me full in the face, eyes ablaze; then he raised an admonitory finger pointing heavenward and shouted, “You should divorce her! You should repent!” I was stunned by the man’s off-the-rails chutzpah and hit back. ”Divorce her? After twenty-five years? [at that time, 1980?] You’re nuts!” But by then he had turned and walked off with his wife and kids.   

When I got back to the house and told my wife about the encounter, all she could do was to shake her head and mumble, “There you go again! You always have to tell everyone the story of your life!” It wouldn’t be the only time that she would berate me with those words. Something within me has always felt this ineluctable need — a Freudian compulsion? — to confess, even to minor misdemeanors. I am a poor liar, whereas those with lesser insecurities and greater caution know when to talk and when to shut up; they have no such compulsions.

*          *          *

In the early years of our marriage we attended services at Reform temples, Conservative synagogues, and Chabad (Lubovicher) shuls. One that was none of those was the Hebrew Sephardic Center, in Los Angeles. For Eva, that would turn out to be a mild — and pleasant — surprise: she was fascinated by the 15th century Spanish dialect — Ladino -- of the Sephardim,4 some of which she could understand. Most of the Center’s congregation had originally come from the Greek Island of Rhodes, a community that had shared with their Ashkenazic brethren the terrors and atrocities of the Nazi occupation.* On July 20th, 1944, over 1500 Rhodes Jews were sent to Auschwitz where most were murdered. A sampling of names on a website commemorating the Shoah (the Holocaust) and the Jews of Rhodes who died in it, testifies to the Hispanic origins of many of them. Their names resonate with a haunting intimacy that no stark list of numbers can ever do justice to:

Ezra Hanán de Moreno, Rosa Franco de Joseph, Benjamín Cordoval de Isaac, Vittoria Perez du feu Baruch, Estrella Benveniste de David,  Renata  Notrica de Judá, Rosa Notrica de Samuel,  Linda Benveniste de Isaac, Rubén Codrón de Santos. . .       

On one occasion, an affable middle-aged Sephardi, after having become further acquainted with us, teased her. “I don’t believe you are Sephardi, madam. . .” A skeptical smile flickered in his eyes. She was too shy to own up to the reality, but instead allowed him to assume what he would. She would not be guilty of a calculated lie; but neither would she volunteer information — unlike her blundering husband! To his teasing probe, she only responded with a demure smile, as if to say, Think as you please.

A footnote on the Chabad shul. On the couple of occasions when we attended Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) services there, she chafed at the restrictive Mekhitzah, the curtained-off area which, in Orthodox congregations, physically separates men from women. In no uncertain terms, she expressed her dim view of the practice. I consoled her that many of the women who were not strictly of the Hassidic community, but attended their services because their husbands chose to, likely agreed with her. And, indeed, she learned she was not alone in her feelings; that they, too, felt “segregated.” Even after I explained the commonsense reason behind the traditional practice — i.e. close proximity between men and women being a distraction from the concentration on prayer — she still chafed at the arrangement. Thereafter we attended Reform, less restrictive temples.

Something comparable to the encounter with the Hassid, but with less zealotry, took place when I applied for a one-year teaching assignment in Israel. I made an appointment with an Israeli consular representative who had an office in the old Los Angeles Jewish Federation Building, now long removed from its East Hollywood location to the West Side.

After some initial small talk, the official came to the point. Was my wife Jewish? What did that have to do with my qualifications for the position? (This was several years before my encounter with the Hassid, so that I wasn’t quite ready for the nature of the question or what had prompted it.) My response was that, yes, she was.” He shot a quick glance at my wife, then back at me. “Parents Jewish?”  

“She’s a convert.”  

“How was she converted?”

That stumped me. I must have looked the idiot he was convinced I was. And so he helped me. “Was it an Orthodox conversion?”

I began to see where he was going — and wondered why he didn’t address my wife; it was as if she wasn’t there. But there was nothing for it but to ‘fess up to the half-truth — that her “conversion” was a Reform conversion — and under my breath, I muttered, “such as it was!”  

“In that case,” my inquisitor came back, “your marriage will not be recognized as ‘kosher’ in Israel,” he smiled. “In other words, you will be living in sin. . . . but if your wife would consider an Orthodox conversion. . .” I said we’d think about it and we left shortly thereafter.    

Down at the parking lot on the way to our car, I received the full fury of her ordinary placid nature. “There you go again, telling everyone you meet your life story; why do you have to tell them everything—you shlemiel!”5 Suddenly, she burst out into uncontrolled laughter. In those years, she had absorbed some choice Yiddish words and phrases, and I some Spanish. Acculturation by matrimony.     

Sheepish, I offered, “Maybe you could undergo an Orthodox conversion. It certainly wouldn’t be as traumatic as for a male.”

The levity suddenly vanished and, again, indignation switched into high gear. “I’ve heard about those Orthodox conversions for women… They baptize you and make you take a bath in those. . . those. . . ?”  

“Mikvas,” I supplied.  

“Mikvas—Shmikvas! I’m not going to undress in front of a bunch of old goats.”    

“Rabbis. But they won’t see you. They hang up a sheet to cover your modesty. Women from the sisterhood do the honors.  And the rabbi says the prayers on the other side of the sheet.”                  

“Nothing doing, Buster. If you can’t take me as I am, then get yourself a nice Jewish girl — the real article.”

“You’re my nice Jewish girl.”  And the following summer, we went to Israel—as pilgrim tourists.

*          *          *

Although she was not Halachically Jewish, she was Jewish in a way that no rote ritual could ever match. Many years earlier, she needed to go into hospital for a breast biopsy. Such procedures are anything but routine. In a pre-op letter to her sister, she reminded her that “As you know, I embraced the Jewish religion, and if things don’t turn out right for me, please help Sam carry out the arrangements according to the Jewish faith.” Results of the biopsy were negative and she went on to live for another twenty-two years. When she died and was buried at the non-denominational Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, just a few miles east of the White Memorial Hospital where she was born, I made sure all Jewish honors were tendered, and I conducted the graveside service with my recital of the Kaddish.

*          *          *

Once, in the last years of our long marriage, we got into a fight, over what is now a faded memory. It was a nasty one, for we didn’t talk for a couple of days. That had never happened before, or since. No pleas for forgiveness could ever erase the angry words I flung at her. But then, one day, she came up to where I was seated in an armchair reading; quietly, her eyes brimming tears, she dropped a large folder into my lap. I opened it up, and there in all of its illuminated splendor was the Ketubah, taken from where it had long rested, in a drawer for many years. It was at that moment that I pledged to myself that I would never again say anything hurtful to her.

*          *          *

Her plaque up at Rose Hills Memorial Park bears the requisite birth and death dates. An engraved Magen David (Star of David), set between them, complements the inadequate sentiments of the text:

SHE GAVE SO MUCH BUT EXPECTED SO LITTLE

Two weeks after she was laid to rest, I drove up to visit her. There, rising from the fresh earth at the edge of the plaque, a solitary rose reached for the skies.

 

[1] In the Jewish faith, the anniversary of a loved one’s death

[2] “The Halacha—is the collective body of religious laws for Jews, including biblical law (the 613 mitzvot) and later talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions. The Torah. . .is silent on many important subjects. We take it for granted that the large majority of couples want their wedding ceremony to be religious, but the Torah itself has nothing to say concerning a marriage ceremony. To be sure, the Torah presumes that people will get married — "Therefore shall a man leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife and they shall be one flesh" (Genesis 2:24) — but nowhere in the Torah is a marriage ceremony recorded. Only in the Oral Law do we find details on how to perform a Jewish wedding.”--- The Jewish Virtual Library: A Division of the American-Israel Cooperative Enterprise. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org /jsource/Judaism/Oral_Law.html/”

[3] A prenuptial agreement, considered an integral part of a Jewish marriage,

[4] Spanish Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 after dwelling there for hundreds of years.

* “The Shoah is not an Ashkenazi monopoly. Thousands of Sephardic Jews perished in the Shoah…. Over one hundred thousand Greek [Sephardic] Jews, many from Salonica [and Rhodes] perished.” Heskel M. Haddad, M.D., Letters to the Editor, Midstream, 47, Jan/Feb 2008. The letter was a response to an article about the Shoah that appeared in Midstream, March/April 2007.

[5] Another choice epithet of hers was “tonto”—fool, stupid, and other unflattering names… Not to be confused with Tonto, the lone ranger’s very dignified Indian sidekick. Why Tonto in that context is a question, but then the lone ranger was anything but politically correct!

 

________________________________________________


Sam Bluefarb is Prof. Emeritus, Los Angeles Harbor College.



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