From the backwoods to Israel’s Torah

With the joy that is the theme of this holiday, Bracha's children have found their way home.

ALLYSON GAIL SPENCER at age 7 with Aaron in the cotton fields of North Carolina.  (photo credit: BRACHA CRAMER)
ALLYSON GAIL SPENCER at age 7 with Aaron in the cotton fields of North Carolina.
(photo credit: BRACHA CRAMER)
If you met this young mom in her sukkah in the city of Modi’in, her blond hair chastely covered, singing holiday songs with her husband and children, it would be hard to guess that Bracha Simcha Cramer grew up in the backwoods of America: in Virginia, North Carolina and Idaho. The slight slanting of her blue eyes might intrigue you, especially if she told you her maternal grandfather was part Native American. When she was seven, she and her twin brother Aaron moved into a trailer with their parents in North Carolina woodlands, where bears, bobcats and oversized raccoons emerged from the pines and red maples. Her homeschooling included using a drill, a stone chisel and a roofing tacker as they built their house from the ground up. Their father was a nuclear engineer.
The job of sukkah building fell to her this year. She and her husband Meiron, an air conditioning consultant, were in coronavirus isolation. The minute they got out, he had to return to his job.
“With my building experience, putting up the sukkah was easy for me. My husband usually does it because I’m only 5 foot 2 inches (157 cm) and he’s 6 foot 3 inches, (191 cm). Sometimes my stepfather who is 6 foot 6, (2 meters) helps.”
THE JOURNEY of Allyson Gail Spencer to become Bracha Simcha Cramer begins with Sukkot.
The twins’ homeschooling included a daily Bible lesson. Her parents tried to inculcate evangelical Christianity in their children. When they were around age nine, they read the command in Leviticus to live in booths for a week. Their mother told them that there are people who still kept that custom. The children were fascinated. Why couldn’t they do it?
So their mother, an honors-graduate occupational therapist who was always top of her class even though her own dirt-poor father never finished high school, believed in experiential education.
“That was before the Internet,” says Cramer. “Our mother took the initiative to look up Judaism in the local library, consulted reform rabbis and called friends from college whom she remembered were Jewish.”
The Sukkah descriptions inspired them to try some of the Jewish customs at home.
“We made challah, chicken soup and crab salad for our first Shabbat,” said Cramer. “We lit candles and said the blessing in English. As we started to say the blessing, my father’s mother who was visiting chimed in. She knew the blessing. We were stunned. How did she know it? Was she Jewish?” As it turns out, sort of. Grandma Spencer’s mother, Cramer’s paternal great grandmother, had run away from home and converted to Christianity, marrying a Jewish man who had done the same. Both sets of German-speaking great-great grandparents sat shiva, mourning their lost children. Using their German, the young couple set out to missionize among the Pennsylvania Dutch. Sometimes they sent their children to spend time at the homes of their Jewish uncles’ families, where, reputedly, the men wore fur hats and had long sideburns. Cramer’s grandmother said that she used to like wearing a treasured Jewish star necklace the uncles gave her, but when she came home one day her mother crushed it with her foot, a symbol of wiping Judaism out of their family.
“Not that our sudden interest in Shabbat touched my grandmother,” said Cramer. “Until her dying day, she told me that I was damned if I didn’t embrace Jesus.”
But it was too late. Grandma Spencer had inadvertently lit a spark with her story.
The family moved from evangelical Christianity to so-called messianic Judaism. At 12, Cramer went on a sort of bar/bat mitzvah youth trip to Israel and fell in love with the country, deciding that she wanted to live here.
“‘Come on, you’re 12 years old,’” my friends said to me. “‘You can’t decide on anything.’”
WHEN THE family moved to Idaho, they left church life behind. This time they joined a Jewish Reform congregation that accepted patrilineal descent. Her mother’s homeschooling curriculum proved so advanced that Cramer and her brother began university at 16. At 18, she converted to Judaism with a Conservative rabbi, and at 19, she fulfilled her plan to move to Israel. “I applied right away for an Orthodox conversion. I was clear that I wanted to be an observant Orthodox Jew. I never connected with Christianity. I know people say that conversion in Israel is hard, but for me it was the easiest part of my life. I loved it and knew I had finally come home.” She became a regular guest at the home of a religious family, partly immigrants from Cochin, and added Indian cooking to her basket of life skills, which includes sewing, fishing and shooting.
Living on religious kibbutz Yavne and attending the conversion course there, she met a lone soldier from South Africa. He grew up in a non-observant Jewish home, but decided at 16 that he wanted to be Orthodox. Now he was living on the kibbutz and serving in the Givati infantry brigade.
“It was Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat – a three-day holiday. We talked for three days and nights without stopping,” said Cramer. “When he was leaving, I walked him to the bus stop. He turned around and said, “We’re dating, right?’’” Cramer passed her conversion examinations and immersed in the mikve. Less than a month later she was back at the ritual bath the night before her wedding.
Sukkot remains her favorite holiday.
“I like it that you can do a mitzvah with your entire being – building and praying and living in the sukkah, like a small tabernacle. My stepfather is a kabbalist and says that the sukkah is a connection to Hashem that helps us set our goals and develop our spiritual side for the coming year.” Stepfather? Her parents divorced. Her mother followed her to Israel, underwent an Orthodox conversion and married a tall kabbalist. They live nearby in Modi’in, as does her mother-in-law, who also made aliyah. Her father stayed in Idaho, where he’s the president of his synagogue. Her brother, who uses the Hebrew name Barak, lives in Alaska.
Until the coronavirus pandemic, Cramer ran an after-school program. Now she’s developed Aloo Aloo, a catering business, using her cooking expertise to make strictly kosher take-out Indian food, dairy, meat and vegan for her fellow residents of Modi’in.
So if you stop by their sukkah, you might smell the aroma of curry and coriander. Like all of us this year, the Cramers won’t be having a lot of guests. Still, Bracha Simcha Cramer is sure that among the ushpizin, the guests of old, who will drop by are her great grandparents who sat shiva for their lost children. With the joy that is the theme of this holiday, they will see that their children have found their way home.
Shabbat shalom and hag sameach! 
The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.