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Francisco Caravayo

“My Journey Back to Judaism

My grandparents’ home was the focal point of my father’s family. We would gather there for holidays, special occasions, births, deaths, and most weekends. It was a place alive with voices of family members, both living and dead. With six uncles, four aunts and twenty-five cousins, this was not a place of quiet reserve, and my grandmother was the queen bee. I remember her most in her kitchen. And it was there, in that kitchen, that one afternoon she gathered all the grandchildren, and in a hushed voice told us, “Listen carefully. I have something to tell you, but it is a secret. Never forget that you are of G!d’s chosen people.” Having been raised from my earliest memories in the Lutheran church, I knew what that meant. My brother and I later asked each other: Why is our Portuguese grandmother from Puerto Rico telling us that we’re Jews? And why, if she was telling us that we’re Jews, did she not use the word “Jew”? Those questions would not be answered for many years. So we went about our lives, and it never struck me as anything but normal that my grandmother would light candles—for good luck—on Friday nights; that she never prepared, nor did we ever eat shellfish; that we ate pork rarely, but apologetically; that mixing meat and dairy in a meal was seen as unhealthy. But there was something about my family, a culture of secrets that seemed quite abnormal. The ubiquitous but undefined uneasiness/secretiveness of our family extended to holidays. For us, there was little joy in Christmas. It was a chore that we had to do. Easter was not an occasion for happiness or celebration. We went along with it all, but finally, when I was 15, my father gathered our family to announce that we were through with Christmas. I remember him explaining that we’d done the Christmas mornings of gifts, but now that my brother and I were old enough, we didn’t need to do that anymore: no more Christmas gifts, no more decorations, and no more Easter celebration either. The portrait of Jesus went into the attic. And amazingly, it was not bad news. It was a relief. We didn’t have to put on the sham anymore. But what sham? Why did celebrating Christmas and Easter feel like it was for the sake of appearances? I hadn’t yet realized the connection. When I entered my senior year of high school, we finally asked to be removed from the church’s roster of members. In my third year of college, a serendipitous thing happened. I was paired with a Portuguese professor in a mentoring program. In our first meeting, as we were becoming acquainted, she asked, “Do you know what your last name means?” “Yes,” I answered. “Caravayo comes from Carvalho which is the name of an oak tree of the Iberian Peninsula.” She looked at me and said, “Yes, but do you know what it means to have that last name?” That question puzzled me. She continued, “Carvalho is a surname known to have been taken by Portuguese Jews. Many were forced to convert to Catholicism by the Inquisition.” Suddenly I couldn’t breathe. Tears came to my eyes and I said, “You won’t believe it. When I was a child, my grandmother told us that we were of G!d’s chosen people, but it never made any sense.” The professor said, “You’re not alone. There are Jews all over Latin America who are Crypto-Jews: Catholic to the world, but Jews in secret.” She suggested I research the topic. I did, but in the days before the internet, I didn’t find much. In graduate school the topic remained in the back of my mind, but due to a deep curiosity about Judaism, I sought out Jewish friends and colleagues, and my attraction to Jewish men intensified. I would gently ask about their traditions, beliefs, and I’d share my story. Often, I’d get curious looks and the response, “Your name doesn’t sound very Jewish.” Years came and went, and I had no spiritual home, just a nagging feeling that I was alone spiritually and that there were no Jews like me. After graduate school, I moved to San Francisco and sought out a spiritual community. I didn’t consider a synagogue because I was entirely unfamiliar with what that entailed. I was afraid to enter a synagogue because I thought that Jews who had grown up Jewish would not accept a Jew who’d been raised Christian, whose ancestors were secretly Jewish, and who was mostly ignorant of Jewish traditions and spirituality. I also felt a primal fear, the fear of my ancestors, that by entering a synagogue, I would be admitting I was Jewish, and according to my grandmother, it was supposed to remain a secret. So I found a gay church, the Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco. The first time I attended, I was impressed. There was a menorah in a stained glass window in the church, and every time I sat there, my eyes would fixate on that symbol of Judaism. I’d ponder on my family history and my feelings of not quite fitting in. The senior pastor often made reference to Jewish wisdom and liturgy in her sermons. I loved those Jewish-themed sermons. Her sermon on Yom Kippur about reconciliation, forgiveness, and atonement touched me deeply. She touched on concepts like tikkun olam and the meaning of Kol Nidre, and afterward, I’d go home and do internet research, in secret, about them. My Jewishness had been questioned so often in the past, I wasn’t yet ready to come out. The culture of secrecy about being a Jew was still deeply ingrained in me, yet the need to express my Jewishness was calling. Finally I stopped attending that church. I no longer fit in. I felt adrift spiritually again. And then three life-altering events shifted my path and sent me in the direction of my ancestral spiritual home. The first event was the death of my father, which transformed my soul. I sat at his bed and held his hand as he took his last breath. In accordance with my father’s wishes, I was in charge of all the arrangements. Following our family tradition, there were no Christian songs at his memorial service, nor are there any Christian motifs on his final resting place. He is interred near many family members. Not one gravestone makes reference to Christianity. But the plainness of these memorials also represents half a millennium of repression and fear, and as a result, their Jewishness is not represented either. The need to break the silence, to live the truth of who we are, could no longer be ignored. The death of my father broke open my soul and made it necessary for me to seek out the spiritual traditions of my ancestors. I needed to learn what it meant to live openly as a Jew. The second event was actually a series of presentations at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco and at the Bureau of Jewish Education Library. Each presentation was about secret Jews, those who had learned as adults that their families, for some reason or another, had hidden their Jewish identity. I attended each presentation, yearning to find out more. I listened to one Jew after the next tell the story of how they had been denied their Jewish heritage due to the Holocaust or the Inquisition. I sat in the audience, often in tears, hearing my story over and over. I was no longer alone. Here were Jews coming out, telling the truth, giving me courage to seek Jewish community, wisdom, history, and knowledge. One particularly moving presentation by Rabbi Juan Mejía set my soul on fire. He had entered the seminary to become a Catholic priest, and upon rediscovering his Jewish roots—his family’s history very similar to my own—he left the seminary to become a rabbi. The next morning I contacted Congregation Sha’ar Zahav asking for information on how to convert to Judaism. The third event was a true simcha. I met a man who would become the love of my life. And he had a daughter. And they are Jews. In addition to the love that cemented us together as a family, I found fertile ground in which to root my rediscovered and budding Jewish
practices. My first foray into the Jewish life cycle was Pesach. I asked Jonathan, “What are we doing for Passover?” His reply was, “I don’t even know when it is.” I soon realized that if any Passover celebration was going to happen, I would need to plan and carry it out, which I did with a mix of trepidation and joy. I was giddy with excitement but afraid I’d do something wrong. By this time, I’d enrolled in my first Introduction to Judaism class at the Jewish Community Center, and I had good resources to help me pull off a Passover Seder dinner. It felt wonderful to celebrate Pesach in a Jewish home, the theme of freedom taking on deep personal meaning. I felt, at last, free to openly celebrate a Jewish holiday that my ancestors had been denied. My heart could hardly bear the beauty of the tradition of opening the front door to welcome Elijah and to show the whole world we were openly celebrating Passover. My internal dialogue shifted at that moment. The term “Jew” was no longer in the mental category of “them.” It shifted to the heart category of “us.” I finally allowed myself to be included in Klal Ysrael. I released myself, and by extension, my ancestors from the bondage of secrecy. My outside actions could now come into alignment with what my heart already knew. And I repeated to myself, “I am a Jew. I am a Jew. I am a Jew.” I’ve heard of a belief that Anusim ancestors push their descendants back to Judaism. I believe this is true in my case. I want to honor my father and my grandmother, who like those before them, had kept the secret alive, many risking their lives to do so. I wish I could share this joy with my grandmother, but she died long ago. I’d love to share this rediscovery with my aunts, uncles and cousins, but they rejected me long ago for being gay. My brother is supportive but uninterested in religion. My mother has mixed feelings. She also has rumors of Judaism in her background, and while supportive of my journey, she’s expressed concerns, reflecting her own fears of intolerance in society. Her family history may be lost, however, since all of her immediate family has died. As for my father’s side of the family, I fear that if I were to approach them about our Jewishness, I would be further ostracized. I remember that as a child, any mention of the word “Jew” or questions about Judaism were met with shock and apprehension; it was clear that the secret was known, but never to be discussed. Someday, I hope the power of Yamim Noraim will push me to attempt reconciliation again, but my father’s family is still so fully entrenched in the secrecy of five centuries that I believe I’d cause more pain. I will follow G!d’s lead on that front. I will pray and meditate for guidance. My own personal journey, however, has lead me to return to the country where the secrets began. In October of 2011, my life partner and I traveled to Portugal, the place where Judaism was torn from my ancestors. Our main goal was to visit sites of Jewish historical importance. My ancestors witnessed and somehow survived the horrors that befell Jews in Portugal. My life partner and I found a tour of Jewish historical sites in Lisbon, the capital. When our guide, a scholar of Portuguese Jewish art and history, said to me, “Your name is an old Jewish Portuguese name,” it’s hard to describe my feelings. To hear this—in Portugal, from a Jew whose family also survived by keeping its Jewish identity under wraps—is the validation that I’ve sought for many years. As mentioned before, both Jews and non-Jews have often said to me, “Your name doesn’t sound very Jewish.” To have a Jewish scholar from Portugal recognize my name as Jewish helps heal the wounds of centuries of denial. This validation has created ripples of peace in my world, and I can feel the peace washing over my ancestors. When I took the seven steps into the mikveh, I was not alone. They were with me. I felt great joy. I believe they did too. The most meaningful part of the tour in Portugal was entering the church were Jews were forced to renounce Judaism and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah. Paolo, our tour guide, lead us up the aisle of pink marble. You can still see the divots and scratches from the shackles that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Jews wore as they were lead to the “Eye of G!d,” a design set in the floor before the altar. The church was nearly destroyed by fire in 1950, so the walls and pillars are charred and gray with soot. It is the most horrific church I have ever seen, as much for its physical appearance as for its history. As I stood facing the altar, at the “Eye of G!d,” my feet were in the same place where my people knelt before an unrelenting Church. The altar was one of the last sights they saw before they were lead out to the square to be burned at the stake. What horror they must have felt as they were set ablaze to the cheers of the crowds. I too trembled in that place. And I wept for them. I wondered how my ancestors escaped. I viscerally understood why the secret remained so deeply ingrained in our family culture. My surviving ancestors were not burned at the stake, but they were shackled in terror. And despite the risks, they found a way to keep the secret alive. Their Jewish identity was strong enough to survive over 500 years, and that is their gift to me; it is now my responsibility to honor their courage and live a Jewish life. So what does that mean to me? How will I live my life as a Jew? First of all, my life now follows the Jewish life cycle. I adhere to ritual mitzvot, the most obvious of which is Shabbat observance. I have taken on the responsibility of preparing Shabbat for my family. I have bought beautiful ritual items. I clean the house and prepare the festive meals. We light the candles and sing the blessings. I do this not only for me, but for my family as well. My partner, although Jewish, did not grow up with Shabbat observance in his home. And now, together we celebrate Shabbat with our daughter. I want her to grow up embraced by the beauty of Jewish traditions. My grandmother’s observance was secretive. Mine (and my family’s) will remain open, free, and full of joy. I freely and joyfully accept the Covenant that was made with G!d at Mt. Sinai. I hold firm the belief that G!d gave us the responsibility to be “a light to the nations.” This means that my decisions and actions in life are taken with reflection based on the Jewish values I hold in my heart. And as a Jew, I will strive to be a light to those around me: my partner, my daughter, my friends, and my Jewish community. Furthermore, I have a deep abiding love for the Nation of Israel. Whether or not I agree with its politics, I feel it must exist as a refuge for Jews, and hopefully someday, as “a light to the nations.” I honor the many paths, inside and outside Judaism, that lead to G!d. However, my path will always be rooted in my Sephardic Jewish ancestry. My first steps into the study of Torah, of Jewish history, and of Jewish wisdom have struck a chord so deeply within me that I know I’ve finally found my spiritual home. So out of great sorrow has come great joy. There are so many occasions for joy in returning to Judaism that it’s impossible to list them all, but I’ve been given a multitude of opportunities to sing the prayer that is now the song of my life: ברוך אתה ה’ א לוהינו מלך העולם, שהחינו וקימנו והגענו לזמן הזה Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha olam, she hechiyanu v’kiy’manu v’higi’anu la z’man ha ze. Blessed are You, G!d, Creator of time and space, who has supported us, protected us and brought us to this moment. I have chosen a Hebrew name that embodies the joy and strength I find in Judaism. It also reflects my Sephardic ancestry. My family’s original surname—Carvalho—means oak tree. Choosing a name with a connection to nature was obviously important to my Jewish ancestors. As such, I’ve chosen Alon, a masculine given name, which means oak tree in Hebrew. Rabbi Juan Mejía assisted me in finding a way to honor my Sephardic roots that also conforms to Halakhah. My Hebrew name follows the Sephardic tradition of including family surnames. The name I’ve chosen is: ברוך אלון בן אברהם ושרה לבית קרבליו Baruch Alon ben Avraham v’Sarah l’beit Carvalho Blessed Oak son of Abraham and Sarah of the house of Carvalho.”

Francisco Caravayo
sfocisco@gmail.com