From Nicaragua to Israel: My mother's journey

It had been dad’s lifelong dream to make aliyah. Mom was with him like the female dove, who forever follows her mate.

 BIG DRAMA: Her coffin arrived on a night of terrific rain and hail. (photo credit: Courtesy Miriam Kresh)
BIG DRAMA: Her coffin arrived on a night of terrific rain and hail.
(photo credit: Courtesy Miriam Kresh)

Mom and dad arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport in their mid-fifties. It was 1975.

Mom had a fashionable pink streak in her gray hair, and was smiling as she looked around. Dad looked tired but joyful. It had been dad’s lifelong dream to make aliyah. Mom was with him like the female dove, who forever follows her mate.

Fresh from a large house in Caracas, Venezuela, they set their suitcases down in an absorption center in Ashdod. They lived in the tiny apartment allotted them for a year, while dad attended a specialized ulpan for business Hebrew, and mom studied the new language. She never did master Hebrew.

IT WASN’T the first time mom had followed dad’s dreams, or moved to a new country, or learned a new language, for his sake. She was the daughter of a wealthy Nicaraguan family, but gave up her religion and society when she met the young and handsome American man she married.

It was the spring of 1943. Mom had arrived by boat in the US, intending to learn English while living with her grandmother, Chepita, in Miami. Mom was a ravishing brunette, athletic and confident. She also had the colorful Latin temperament, doubtless made stronger by asserting herself among seven other siblings. My uncles invited dad along to meet her boat and escort her home. He fell violently in love at first sight.

 ABITA AND Papi: The writer’s parents’ wedding photo. (credit: Courtesy Miriam Kresh) ABITA AND Papi: The writer’s parents’ wedding photo. (credit: Courtesy Miriam Kresh)

No matter that mom spoke no English and that dad’s Spanish was only rudimentary. He would come around Chepita’s house, ostensibly to tutor mom, but really to play his guitar and court her. It didn’t take long until mom returned his feeling, but there was a problem: America was at war in Europe, and he was about to be drafted into the army.

Mom’s parents and brothers were fiercely against the match, worried that they would have a war bride on their hands, and possibly a war widow later. They didn’t know what prospects he had for the future – assuming he came back from the war. They thought the romance would blow over when dad was sent to his base in Macon, Georgia.

But they were wrong. Mom’s brothers had forbidden him contact with mom, but he would telephone mom at every chance, and she’d cry. This annoyed Chepita, who eventually got fed up with her lovelorn granddaughter weeping into the phone and moping around the house all day.

“So Chepita and I eloped,” my mother told me. “We got on the train to Macon. Chepita located the army chaplain, saw us married, and promptly returned home. She had a lot of explaining to do later.”

Dad’s mother’s family were Jewish immigrants from Ukraine. His father was of Irish stock. It’s said that Grandma Esther’s parents sat shiva when she married Grandpa Walter, but they reconciled in the end.

Fellow Jewish soldiers showed dad that he was Jewish himself, through his mother. They taught him the alef-bet and gave him his first lessons in Judaism. Working in the OSS, he came to know the fate of European Jewry. He determined to learn more. On finishing his service, he committed himself to a Jewish life.

But what about his young wife? His parents, who lived in Woodstock, New York, had taken her in to wait for his return. They loved her as a real daughter, teaching her English and helping her get accustomed to American ways. Being a mixed couple, they made nothing of religion, although perfectly aware of mom’s Catholic background. They were as startled as mom was when dad came home with a firm desire to live as a Jew.

For dad, mom gave up the religion she knew and agreed to become Jewish. Better said, she agreed to return to Judaism. Her ancestors, Jews named Pereira, were expelled from Spain and Portugal in the late 1400s when they refused conversion to Christianity. They made the perilous voyage to the New World and fled first to Mexico, then to Nicaragua. The Inquisition left them alone; it couldn’t be bothered with the few Jews in that small country. Over the centuries, the Pereiras assimilated, but acknowledged their Jewish roots and considered themselves Sephardim. Today they would be called Anusim.

So my mother again left familiar ways for dad’s sake. While dad earned his first degree at Bard College, New York, they lived in veteran’s barracks. The girl brought up in wealth and ease picked strawberries on neighboring farms to make a little extra money. When my brother, the firstborn, was born, she learned to boil diapers and peg them up outside. She never complained, nor dropped her cheerful optimism.

As dad’s career in advertising and public relations advanced, they moved to Puerto Rico, then to Caracas, by this time with two kids. Life became easier for mom. She had servants to help the run the house, as all middle-class women did. She and dad had three more kids while in Venezuela, I among them. My earliest memories of mom are of her bathing me in an iron tub set by the sunny kitchen window.

Mom had a deep sense of connection with nature. She was an intuitive gardener with a tender feeling for plants. She had a lively sense of humor, a habit of going barefoot, and a passion for the color red. She was a fine cook, too. I remember her easily roused temper and physical courage; her flirtatious charm and way of dramatically recounting everyday events; and always, her untiring devotion to us.

When dad’s work demanded that we move back to the US, she packed up and moved us to Connecticut, New York, and then to Michigan. Her English became fluent. She adapted to cold weather and to being snowed in at least once every winter.

I remember her weeping in the living room because my older brother, a Marine serving in Vietnam, hadn’t been heard from for months. (He came home and is a musician.) Yet she was first up in the morning and last to bed at night; she was the force that drove us through the days and years. Dad often said his successes were due to mom’s support through all the upheavals and changes.

We lived in Brazil several years and learned to speak Portuguese, then returned to Venezuela briefly.

I WAS settled in Israel when my parents arrived. My kids called my parents “Abita” and “Papi.” Mom took the name Tsiporah and was active in fundraising for a local orphanage through the Emunah organization. And here my dad died, at age 80. They had been married 62 years.

Mom spent her widowhood in Texas, where my older sister lives. But that move wasn’t to be her last. When she died a few weeks ago, we brought her home to rest next to dad, in Petah Tikva. Her coffin arrived on a night of terrific rain and hail, with thunder and lightning, and the cemetery paths flooded. My daughter held my arm, as we waded to the gravesite, and said, “Isn’t it just like Abita to make a big drama out of everything?”

I laughed. Mom would have laughed, too.

This is for her, Tsiporah Rafaela Cecilia Esperanza O’Meara de Pereira. ■