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Legacy of Secrets

Devorah Esther Ivel

The Abarbanel predicted that the Anusim will would return to Hashem in two phases: first, in their hearts, and then entirely. My story began 500 years later

Thursday, October 13, 2016

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“One dark night, I had an honest conversation with Hashem. “I love You, and I’m ready to return to You. But if there’s a way to save me, save me”

H ow long does it take for circles to close?

A year? A decade? Maybe 100 years.
Maybe 500 years.

Five hundred years of secrets and shame, confusion and questions. So many questions. Who are we? Why are we like this? How do we live with decisions made by generations before?

I hadn’t seen or spoken to my grandmother for ten years when she came for a visit. Her town in Puerto Rico always seemed far, far away from Brooklyn. And not just geographically — — while my grandmother was Catholic, my mother had raised me as an evangelical Christian. But the reunion was a success and before she left, my grandmother invited my family to visit her. I reached out for the possibility, cupped it in my hands, and held it up to the light.

Family had always been complicated. After a deeply unhappy childhood, I’d left home at 15, following a final rift with my mother. I didn’t realize I was following in her footsteps: My mother had also left home at a young age. I later learned that our family wasn’t known for its close mother-daughter relationships, but the ties between grandmothers and granddaughters had always been strong.

Now, I had children of my own, and my husband encouraged me to revisit my roots and connect with the family I’d never known.

I had never been to Puerto Rico, though it was where all my extended family lived: my grandmother and her three siblings and their families, and a web of relatives, each related to me in a tangled skein of blood and history, due to their strong tradition of only marrying within the family.

The only relative I did know was my great-uncle in Brooklyn. He came to us each year in the late spring, bringing along a succulent cheesecake, which, as a child, I gorged upon until I felt sick. To meet my grandmother, my great-uncles, aunts, cousins… excitement tickled my chest. And then there was the location: the Caribbean Islands, oasis of white sands and turquoise sea.

Though I had an extreme phobia of flying, I agreed. In 2005, my husband, two children, and I boarded a flight to San Juan. I was white-knuckled the entire ride, but as the landscape of Puerto Rico appeared, my fear receded, replaced by excitement.

I kept my nose pressed against the window of the airplane like a little child. Below, the island loomed, surrounded by green ocean. My sons — — aged fifteen and ten at the time — — bombarded us with questions.

My grandmother picked us up from the airport, and I was immediately struck by how different she looked from the average dark-eyed, olive-skinned Puerto Rican. My grandmother has green eyes and pale skin. But it wasn’t just her appearance that singled her out from the crush of people in the airport. All around, friends and family greeted each other ebulliently, arms flung out as loved ones were reunited. I knew that my grandmother was happy to see me, but she maintained a dignified reserve.

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