by Ruth MillerMARIA AND I were taking our usual tea break at my kitchen table. The year was 1995. Maria had been coming to me for 10 years, to help me keep my house clean and livable.
She and her husband came to Canada in the ‘50s from Portugal, by way of France. They, like many Portuguese people, were fleeing Antonio Salazar’s dictatorship.
Over tea, the conversation turned to her life in France. Maria’s English was not good. Haltingly, she described her apartment and the town she lived in. And then she said, “My landlord in France was very mean. He was a Jewish man.”
Did she really say that? It took me a moment to find my voice.
“Maria,” I said. “Do you know that we are Jewish?” She looked embarrassed and confused.
“Being mean and being Jewish don’t necessarily go together,” I said. “Some Jews are mean. Some Christians are mean. It has nothing to do with your religion.”
As I rose from the table to clear our tea things, I said, “Maria, did you know that there are Portuguese and Spanish people today who are descended from Jews, who light candles every Friday night and have no idea why they do it. Only that it’s part of their family’s tradition.”
“I light candles Friday nights,” Maria said.
I stopped. “You do?” “Yes,” she said. “And I say a prayer.”
“You do?” I said again.
“Yes,” she said, and holding her arms out at eye level, she made a gathering motion with her hands as she said, “I ask God to bring peace into my heart.”
I was stunned. Here in my kitchen was a sixty-four year old Catholic woman from Portugal, making the same motions an observant Jewish woman makes over her Shabbat candles as she says the blessing. I realized that Maria must have come from a Converso family that had been performing a Jewish ritual for 500 years, generation after generation, not really understanding why, but faithfully doing it every Friday night.
“Maria,” I said, “You know that you are descended from Jews and your lighting candles on Friday night tells me that.”
I’m not sure Maria was as excited about this as I was, or that she appreciated the irony of the situation, that her remark about her landlord led us to this revelation.
I knew it would be difficult to explain the history of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and that, in order to avoid expulsion, many Jews converted to Catholicism.
So I didn’t try to explain but asked, “Did other people in your village light candles on Friday night?”
“I don’t know,” she replied. “It was something we did in the family. We didn’t talk about it with anyone else.”
A GOOD FRIEND of mine had written a book on the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. I had gone with her to Spain in 1992 while she researched her book. When I told her about my conversation with Maria, she was as amazed as I was. She put me in touch with a filmmaker, who, as it happened, was making a film about Conversos around the world.
He asked me if Maria would be willing to let him film her lighting the candles and then film her worshiping in her Catholic church.
Maria said she was willing, and a date was set for the filming.
It was a bright autumn day. The film crew, Maria’s daughter, a friend of mine who spoke Portuguese, and I, gathered at Maria’s modest house in Toronto.
Maria’s candles were oil, like those from ancient times. She took her place at the dining room table. When she said her prayer over the candles, she did not make the traditional motion of arms and hands that I had seen her do at my kitchen table. Perhaps the presence of a film crew inhibited her. I was disappointed, and I could see that the filmmaker was disappointed too.
The next stop was the Catholic church down the street, where Maria prayed in front of the Virgin Mary and lit some votive candles: Lighting candles in church, lighting candles at home on Friday night, both meaningful acts of devotion to this faithful Catholic woman descended from Jews.
As we waited in the darkened church, I asked Maria’s daughter, recently married to a “Canadian” as she put it, if she lit candles on Friday night. “The first Friday we were married, I did,” she said. “My husband came home after work, saw the candles and asked, ‘Who died?’ I never lit them again.”
Just like that, five hundred years of tradition ended. I am not a religious Jew, but I felt a deep sadness at hearing this casual statement signifying the end of something wondrous. In the darkened church, I was glad Maria’s daughter couldn’t see that sadness on my face.
Ruth Miller was for many years a board member of CARAL, the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League (formerly the Canadian Association for the Repeal of the Abortion Law) and of The Childbirth by Choice Trust, where she co-edited No Choice: Canadian Women Tell Their Stories of Illegal Abortion. She was a sexual health educator and counsellor for twenty years with Toronto Public Health and a part-time counsellor at the Morgentaler Clinic in Toronto for ten years. She has written articles for newspapers and is the author of three picture books for children. She was the recipient in 1998 of The Marion Powell Award for leadership, commitment and dedication to the advocacy of women’s health.