For Brazilian-born Aleksandra Lavor Serbim, lighting the Shabbat candles, abstaining from eating pork, and marking the new Jewish month was part and parcel of being raised in a Christian home. That was until her discovery as a young anthropology student that her family customs weren’t Christian at all, but rooted in Judaism.
Last week, during a visit to Israel, surrounded by 18 other Brazilians with similar backgrounds, Lavor Serbim shared her story with The Jerusalem Post at the Brazilian Cultural Center in Tel Aviv.
The group is in Israel for a fortnight at the initiative of the Netanya Academic College’s Institute for Sefardi Anousim Studies, sponsored by the Diaspora Affairs Ministry and the Foreign Affairs Ministry. The term Anousim refers to Jews who were forcibly converted to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition.
Lavor Serbim’s maternal female ancestor, some 15 generations back, was burned at the stake during the Inquisition. Eighteen relatives from her maternal grandfather’s side perished during the Holocaust. However, she discovered this family history long after her connection with Judaism began.
Like many anousim, Lavor Serbim felt an emotional attachment to Judaism years prior to uncovering her roots. “It’s like finding out something you knew inside belonged to you already,” she explains.
She recalls how she used to cry when she heard stories about Israel or when she listened to Jewish songs, but there was no clear explanation for her emotions. “I had a very strong attraction to these Jewish issues,” she told the Post.
The topic she chose to concentrate on for her graduate thesis was Shabbat, and this week she launched her book on the subject at the Brazilian Cultural Center.
“Shabbat was the main accusation against New Christians during the time of the inquisitions – the first reason for people to be burned,” she says, emphasizing the links between the Jewish day of rest and her family’s history. “Shabbat was the strongest sign that neighbors could see, to denounce their neighbors.”
Lavor Serbim proudly refers to herself as a Marrano, a term reserved for those Jews who were forced to convert, yet continued to practice Judaism in secret. Though the Spanish word also means “pig,” those who self-identify as Marranos see the term as a symbol of resistance.
Lavor Serbim has continued to study and has sought out other people who were doing the same. “The more I studied, the more I felt I was part of this Marrano family,” she says.
Fabio Fonseca e Emerson Pessoa Ferreira found more than a sense of family through the reconnection with their Jewish heritage – they found themselves to be cousins. Both had reached out to Prof. Avraham Gross of Ben-Gurion University, who also works at the Netanya institute. They told him about their Jewish roots and asked what they could do to strengthen that part of their identity.
“[Gross] told me I was not alone and that he knew people in Brazil who had the same trajectory,” Pessoa Ferreira says. The professor introduced the pair, who became friends; but only years later following DNA tests, did they discover that they were related. Upon seeing Fonseca’s name on his DNA test, Pessoa Ferreira didn’t believe it was the same person, but this week in Israel, Fonseca revealed to him that it was. The pair sat together at the Brazilian Cultural Center, relating their stories to the Post, both wearing kippot.
Pessoa Ferreira’s reconnection with his Jewish heritage began as early as the age of eight. “The great majority of us first feel the love... we feel Jewish first,” he said, echoing Lavor Serbim’s previous comments. “I developed very strong, good feelings about everything Jewish and Israel-related. I looked at pictures of Jerusalem and desired one day to be at the Western Wall.”
At 18, he said, he wanted to serve in the IDF. “I was a Jew in my mind,” he says, though he had not yet learned the reason why.
“One day I read an article about Jews that were converted centuries ago and went to live in the region where I’m from, so I saw that’s probably the reason why I love the Jewish people.”
Researching his family’s history, he discovered Jewish practices among his ancestors. He notes that in Florenia, a city near his home, until the 1980s people stopped working from sundown on Friday and Saturday was considered holier than Sunday. “Lots of families have the same roots – it’s something awakening in many people... first you feel something and then you go to look for it,” he says.
Pessoa Ferreira hopes to move to Israel in a few years, noting that his daughter spent a year here and already acts like a native Israeli. He acknowledges that he must convert first, in order to qualify for the Right of Return.
But some, like Fonseca, find the idea that they need to convert insulting to their history. “I cannot forget the history of my family... you cannot make me more Jewish than I am,” he says.
A solution to this problem is to complete a process called teshuva, to undergo the same process as conversion but under the heading of “returning” to Judaism, in recognition of the family’s history of endangering their lives and martyrdom for their Jewish faith. This option requires further cooperation with Israel and the Chief Rabbinate in order to gain more widespread recognition.
“It’s not the process itself but the word ‘convert’ which bothers some of them [the anousim],” Gross explains.
“They also rely on a longstanding halachic lenient, welcoming attitude, accepting anousim back to Judaism as “returnees” and not as converts,” adds Gross.
Recognition as a group and building stronger connections with Israel was one of the chief purposes of this visit, during which participants have met with politicians, MKs, rabbis and academics.
“The message of this trip is unity,” Gross tells the Post.
He explains that although the anousim communities in Brazil have become more organized over the years, they are not yet entirely stable, “because there is not clear leadership for every group.”
He hopes the bonds built among the 19 participants of this trip will advance this issue, with the vision that they might establish a federation back home in Brazil.
The Institute for Sefardi and Anousim Studies is set to launch a website aimed at furthering that goal.
“AnousimComLine” seeks to help anousim find others like them and to build bridges between them. The Hispanic population is important to Israel, Gross adds, alluding to the contribution of pro-Israel Latin American groups in the fight against efforts to delegitimize the country. •