In Memory of CPL Morris “Moe” Meshulam, A”H, a Sephardic Jew from Indianapolis who served in the Korean War with distinction before his capture and death in a North Korean Prisoner of War Camp (see the Feature of this Sephardi World Weekly for details).
Sephardi Ideas Monthly is a continuing series of essays from the rich, multi-dimensional world of Sephardi thought that is delivered to your inbox on the second Monday of every month.
The July issue of Sephardi Ideas Monthly continues our exploration of Crypto-Judaism and Crypto-Jewish identity with a story of self-discovery that extends from a Catholic youth in Northern California to an awakening in Andalusian Spain to frustrating discussions in Costa Rica to the discovery of a menorah in the cupboard of a deceased great aunt.
The story is the life of Doreen Carvajal, a Paris-based journalist for the New York Times and The International Herald Tribune. Carvajal’s memoir, The Forgetting River: A Modern Tale of Survival, Identity, and the Inquisition (2012), explores her remarkable journey in detail, and in this month’s feature, a brief but fascinating 17-minute podcast, she also shares her story with Tablet’s Sara Ivry.
Doreen Carvajal, a Paris-based journalist and former culture reporter at The New York Times
(Photo courtesy of Amazon)
Despite her classically Sephardi name, Carvajal grew up in a devout Catholic family in Northern California, even dreaming at one point of becoming a nun. Carvajal attests that she felt like an outsider during her childhood, describing herself as a “searcher” who was also decidedly uncurious about her family history. Today she looks back with a bittersweet smile, “I did not apply the same standards of a reporter to my own name.”
Finding themselves in an especially reflective mood after 9/11, Carvajal and her French husband temporarily relocated to Europe, where she soon found herself in Andalusian Spain. There, “I felt… a call of the blood… That’s when I started asking questions about our family.”
Intrigued why her family hid its identity deep into tolerant 20th century America, Carvajal’s questions ultimately led her back to her father’s family in Costa Rica. According to the family’s account, the Carvajals have lived in Central America for generations after emigrating from Spain. However, she didn’t get any straight answers when the topic of Sephardi ancestry was raised. No one, it seemed, wanted to go there. There were clues sprinkled all around, however, including a menorah that was discovered in the cupboard of the keeper of the family lore, her Great Aunt Luce, after she passed away.
And today? Originally Carvajal “still felt ties” to her Catholic identity, if only out of gratitude to kindness she received in the past, but over time she began to feel that, “the church has left me.” As a consequence, she “started in a new direction,” exploring Judaism and Jewish identity. Carvajal compares the change to learning a new language: “At first you feel awkward… you don’t understand things people are talking about.” The process, at the time of the podcast, continued with her being tutored in Judaism one-on-one “by a dear friend.”
Doreen Carvajal’s captivating journey is another dimension in the amazing story, still being played out, of Crypto-Jewish identity in the Americas. There are many others like Carvajal, who sense that they carry, deep down, some trace of Sephardic Jewish identity. Usually, however, the stories remain intensely private. Lucky for us, Carvajal is both a thoughtful person and an accomplished journalist, who decided to write and speak about her journey. Sephardi Ideas Monthly is very happy to share her story with our readers, as well.
The monthly sage for July, 2018, is Hacham Abdallah Somech
Born in Baghdad, R’Somech was a child prodigy whose father financially supported him, leaving young Abdallah free to devote himself to Torah study. Stirred into action by what he perceived to be the lax observance of his contemporaries, R’Somech chose ten students and taught them Torah for free. In time this informal group grew into the great Midrash Beit Zilka, and R’ Somech’s students included the legendary Hacham Yoseph Haim, better known as the Ben Ish Hai.
R’Somech was the author of numerous Halakhic writing and responsa, and also authored innovative Talmudic commentaries. Some of his writings still remain in manuscript form. The passage, below, treats this question of whether a son who is supported by his father is obligated to light the Hanukah menorah. R’ Somech’s response beautifully captures a moment in which the Babylonian tradition is performed and, as such, passed down to the next generation:
This is common custom here in Baghdad, may G-d protect it; those who have not yet married do not light at all and depend on their father's Hanukah menorah. Once they have married they do light on their own, but without reciting the blessing, and depend on their father's recitation.
This is how I act. When we light, I and my sons, may their Rock protect them and their lives, each go to his room and stands next to his Hanukah menorah and prepares to light. Then, when I light, I raise my voice so that they may hear me recite the blessing and thus fulfill their obligation to the commandment. The moment they hear the blessing, each lights his own Hanukah menorah, and then recites HaNeroth Hallalu
Family History Today: Genealogy Lecture for Sephardi and Mizrahi Families
Thursday, 12 July, 6:30 PM - 8 PM
Center for Jewish History
15 West 16th Street
New York City
Curious about family history outside of the Pale of Settlement?
The Center for Jewish History and American Sephardi Federation welcome you to a lecture on genealogy tools for those interested in researching Jewish community records and Jewish life in the Sephardi or Mizrahi Diaspora.
Open to all. No previous experience or preparation is necessary.
Presented by J.D. Arden, Genealogy and Reference Librarian at The Center for Jewish History and adjunct faculty member at the LIU-Palmer School of Library & Information Science.
An ASL interpreter may be made available if requested in advance.
Passes to all three sessions are available
Space is limited
Join the Diarna researchers for a three-part passport series each exploring Jewish historical sites and stories:
Over a million Jews once lived in the Middle East and North Africa, spanning from synagogues on the edge of the Sahara Desert in Morocco to abandoned Jewish fortresses in Saudi Arabia and the traditional shrines of Biblical personalities in the Kurdish regions of Iraq and Iran. The profound Jewish imprint on the region could be experienced in major cities and diffuse villages.
Now, decades since communities have disbanded, synagogues, schools, cemeteries, and other structures left behind are suffering from natural decay or being deliberately targeted for destruction, while political strife has stymied visiting, no less preserving, thousands of sites. In recent years the Iranian regime has threatened to destroy the purported shrine of Esther and Mordechai at Hamadan; the storied Eliyahu HaNabi Synagogue in the Jobar neighborhood of Damascus was reduced to rubble (a consequence of being caught in the crossfire of the Syrian Civil War); and ISIS exploded the traditional tomb of Jonah, which had been located within one of Mosul’s oldest mosques.
Diarna: The Geo-Museum of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Life—an independent initiative of Digital Heritage Mapping, a spatial humanities non-profit organization—is working to digitally preserve the physical remnants of Jewish history throughout the region. We are in a race against time to capture site data and record place-based oral histories. Diarna pioneers the synthesis of digital mapping technology, traditional scholarship, and field research, as well as a trove of multimedia documentation. All of these combine to lend a virtual presence and guarantee untrammeled access to Jewish historical sites lest they be forgotten or erased.
We look forward to seeing you!
Yemenite Faces and Scenes & Episodes in Yemenite History
The Teimani Experience, which closed on 5 June, continues in part with a photographic exhibit in our Leon Levy Gallery and an art exhibit in the Myron Habib, A"H, Memorial Display.
On view until September
Center for Jewish History
15 West 16th Street
New York City
Yemenite Faces and Scenes: Photographs by Naftali Hilger
Intrepid photographer and photo-journalist Naftali Hilger traveled extensively in Yemen in the late 1980s and early 1990s photographing structures, street scenes, and the last remnants of Jewish life. These images—including of Yemenite children learning to read Torah upside-down in their father’s shop and a family relaxing in their diwan (salon)—depict an existence that has faded into history as the ever-shrinking community has found refuge in a government compound at Sana’a.
Episodes in Yemenite History: Paintings by Tiya Nachum
A series of eight paintings by the artist and sculptor Tiya Nachum of Encino, CA. The paintings reflect the tragedies and triumphs of Yemenite Jewish history, from the Mawza exile to the founding of the Inbal Dance Troupe by Sara Levy. Each painting tells a story and each story is a history onto itself.
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