To Saudades-Sefarad-Kulanu Portuguese Jewish Heritage Tour Participants
What a special joy it has been for me to share with each of you the recovery of my Jewish neshama. For years, I have felt incomplete and puzzled by something missing in my life. Now that I have converted to Judaism and made this pilgrimage back to Portugal, the home of my ancestors, it has all become clear. This trip has erased all doubts. For the first time I can really say that I am at home. My journey of reclaiming my Jewish heritage, my real identity, is finished. That journey has taken more than 500 years. I can see now that I have completed this journey not just for me, but for all those nameless ancestors whose Jewish life was so cruelly uprooted and so heinously taken from them, never to return again. But tonight I want to also celebrate the start of my new life, my new journey by saying that I am proud to say that I am a Portuguese Jew. And I will let Hashem guide me along the path of enlightenment and joy.
Rufina, you have asked us to say a few words that express the feelings, emotions and experiences we have had on this wonderful tour that you, Mariana and others have so generously created for all of us to share. I feel that my words are too inadequate to capture all that I want to say. So I have prepared a reinterpretation of an essay by Teres Alvares, that describes more beautifully and eloquently than I ever could what this visit has meant to me.
Trodding the very same granite steps, walking the same narrow pathways, viewing the same precious hills as my ancestors — long lost — in the faceless mists of time — has stirred up in me long repressed yearnings — unbidden yet strangely comfortable. As if for the first time, I see our precious Sabbath, with new eyes. I feel again the splendid miracle of each and every morning; with renewed affection, I feel the sanctity of meeting the bride of Shabbat, this most joyful night.
I raise my goblet full of wine while inwardly honoring the strength and suffering of my people who for generations walked these steps and lived our traditions and kept them alive so that we might keep our Covenant. People, my people, whose distant cries keep coming to me. I hear screams and moans of muffled hymns echoing against the walls of time. I spring awake to the soulful sound of the Shofar. A new age is here for me; a new refrain gently echoes through the temple of my being. I can hear it telling me in a soft voice, listen, you are home.
Come Time! Bring into my memory those who stayed behind, marking points of light all over the planet, reawakening old verses to be kept alive in memory — generation to generation.
Come Time! Help me find my very first roots. My ancient mother. My first house. My first food. My identity. My soul.
Where is my first Shema, my first kipa? Like a bird perched on the branches of the Tree of Time, I cannot fly. Lost forever, are the links to my ancestors, stolen and defiled, with no stories from old grandfathers to give me cherished memories and warm assurance. All stolen — all gone. Wiped out by the cruel greedy Inquisitor. We do not even know any longer, how to give a name to this illusive chimera that we feel. Is it some ancient echo from the distant past, a lost genetic memory struggling to burst into the physical world or simply the tug of our Jewish souls striving to be free — calling us home? Will we ever truly know?
And so home to Portugal, to the land of our unknown Jewish ancestors we go, we pray, we hope, we yearn. And it is there in that land, that Time can no longer totally repress the hints of what was. The memories flood in and demand to be free.
And on the seventh day, when the first stars begin twinkling, some sheltered in melancholy, others wrapped in their white mystery of Time, an old ritual is reenacted. Quick. Lock the door latch, close the curtains, don the kipa, light the candles and depart from the House of the Dead. For every outcry over Jerusalem, for every mothers heart — broken —, for every smile stranded on a sand bank of fear, for every lonely shiver in the night, for every Egypt, for each and every wandering sandal on the sands of Time, for every desert, for every useless errand, we have an unpayable debt to our forefathers and mothers.
And now, without realizing how, as if someone was calling each of us from afar, we are drawn back to Portugal, our home. We come back willingly, joyfully to a place in motherly time, a place of our birth, of every infancy, of every Red Sea, of every family history and of every Egypt in chains.
On our shoulders we bear two stones: the stone of unbearable loss and heartache and the stone of impenetrable sorrow. We accept our calling: to speak for those whose voices were suddenly torn out — mid sentence in the prime of their time, to go meet the very first root. Some walk from the East, others from the West, others from the North and the South, crossing all times and all spaces, always searching for the first child's crying, for the first expression of the heart, the first twinkling of the eye.
And it is then, on arrival in our land, we understand, we are home. We are complete. It is as if we never left. We find ourselves sheltered in a soft cocoon — comforted by ancient memories that have burst forth from the prison of Time, caressed by soft whispers from long ago. So here, filled with profound emotion, we hear with new ears the ancient words, Shalom Alechem and we ask ourselves:
Why is this night different from all other nights?