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A FILIPINO CONVERSIO’S JEWISH SCHOOL YEAR
by Regine Guevara
A year into my Master’s program in Coexistence and Conflict Resolution at Brandeis University outside Boston, I found my peace of mind. I began to figure out why I have been doing the things I do, why I have been drawn to this field, to my interest in the Middle East, whilst coming all the way from Southeast Asia.
My first encounter with a Jew was my first boss for a post-college internship in Singapore. Who would have thought that five years later, I would be doing my post-Master’s internship with an even bigger Jewish community – in Israel! In between, I began my deep relationship with the Muslim community, and my study of Islam and Sufism, while working with refugees and IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) in Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey, Qatar and Morocco. It was through the “Religion of Peace” that I was drawn into interfaith work, which eventually led me back home to the centuries-old Sephardi Synagogue in Manila.
Back in college, I had had a strange feeling that I wanted to be a Jew, but was discouraged on many occasions. When I finally had a reason to visit the Sephardi Synagogue for an interfaith dialogue, the rabbi there told me about the history of Filipino Jews and that my mom’s surname, Borja, was possibly Sephardi. I started to build our family tree and took a DNA test, which revealed that, besides my Filipino and Chinese heritage, some of my ancestors, five generations back, were Majorcan Jews who had practiced crypto-Judaism.
To the surprise of many, the Philippines have a rich Jewish history, some of it dark. During the Inquisition, Spanish Jews fled to colonies like the Philippines; some of those Jews – like my ancestors – had converted to Christianity. Later on, the country opened its doors to Holocaust refugees, and in 1947 it cast the deciding vote at the United Nations in favor of the creation of the State of Israel.
When people ask me where I am from, it takes a couple of sentences to explain what it means to be a Filipino citizen of mixed heritage, having been raised Christian, now studying the mystical Sufi path, and having recently discovered my Jewish heritage. It was in America where I started to put all the little pieces together, while living in a country that is neither Catholic, nor Islamic nor Jewish.
At the same time, Boston gave me a space to reconnect, when I wanted to, with that aspect of my identity which I had never gotten the chance to know. I had the privilege of learning Hebrew through the progressive lens of David Ellenson to whom I refer as my very first rabbi, or teacher. For an entire year, Baruch Hashem, I just kept on bumping into Jews from different fields, people who have since inspired me to learn more about what it means to be a part of this tradition: I learned about the secular Jewish arts scene, and about Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol; about rabbi activists like Uri Regev of the Hiddush movement for religious freedom and equality. I learned from the hospitable families of Chaikin and Simnegar, my best Jewish friends who spoke Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish, Ethiopian, Russian, French and Persian; from J Street U at Brandeis; from the Chabad houses around the Greater Boston Area; and from the Sephardi community in Brookline that welcomed me even if I was not officially a member.
ONE THING that stood out about this community is the ability of its members to disagree with each other, with such intellectual rigor, without the need to feel right every single time. “Two Jews, three opinions,” they say – but maybe all three opinions are correct? In the spirit of conflict resolution, with the self, and the other, Rebbe Nachman once said:
“If all the sages agreed with each other, there would be no room for creation. Only through conflict, in which they disagree with each other and each goes to a different side, do they create, so to speak, an empty space.” (Likutei Moharan 64:4)
When I brought my family to Israel this summer, this was what I most wanted us to learn from our long-lost heritage.
I recently came across an interesting book for beginners at the Olam Qatan (“Small World”) bookstore in Jerusalem entitled “Judaism’s 10 best ideas.” The book talks about Joy as a religious obligation. This is something I definitely saw during a year in which I celebrated all the many holidays in Brandeis’ Jewish calendar! (Look below for “My Top 5 Favorite Jewish Holidays.”) I know that becoming a Jew is a rather complex discussion. But through my first Jewish school year, I have started to find my own joyful ways of being at least Jew-ish.
To my Spanish Sephardic ancestors who converted during the Inquisition; to my Chinese great-grandmother who was disowned for marrying the Filipino love of her life; to my relatives and friends who converted to other religions or changed their nationalities; to those who stayed with whatever they were born into; and to the many people who taught me and my family how to find joy in every single thing: Thank you. Thank you for teaching us the value of freedom, and that identity is a choice. May we all find our own personal ways of becoming whoever we want to be.
My Top 5 Favorite Jewish Holidays
There are times when we need to celebrate the blessing of nobler things like forgiveness. I found here an interesting intersection between Jewish and Muslim traditions – Eid Adha, the feast of sacrifice, and Rosh Hashanah, the month of repentance. We did a social justice tashlich at the Charles River, where we cast stones into the water to symbolize social inaction. It was a very special experience to have Oudaye, my best friend from Gaza, and me sharing the poem “Water from the Well of the Soul” by the 13th-Century Persian Sufi mystic, Rumi.
To quote the Brandeis Chabad rabbi’s lecture: “Judaism emphasizes joy, because being happy is a religious obligation. Joy is a reflection of appreciation. Our very consciousness is a gift, and you cannot take it for granted.” After fasting and reading Torah for a whole month, it felt blissful to see how merriment can become a form of worship.
AKA the Jewish Halloween, Purim is a fun holiday. Many Jews dress in costume, and are commanded to drink, blurring reality at the remembrance of the first explicit instance of anti-Semitism in history. I enjoyed the Boston Young Professionals’ party, where I came as Pocahontas. I was also able to co-organize an interfaith event, ProjectPurim, with NETWORK: The American Union of Jewish Students and FITNA - Feminist Islamic Troublemakers of North America; I came in a kimono to represent my Japanese relatives.
My personal favorite! I was blessed to get a seat at the Central Synagogue in Manhattan – my first Reform service, and one led by another Eurasian (Korean-Russian), not to mention female, rabbi. I also co-hosted my own “Seder around the world,” where we offered a variety of Sephardi, Ashkenazi and African Jewish cuisines so that our classmates could experience the diversity of Jewish cultures. We got to know a little bit about each other’s heritage, and what freedom means to all of us. The Jews were blessed with freedom from slavery in Egypt: May we all commit to the freedom of every single human being.
Mimouna is a special Moroccan Jewish celebration at the end of Passover. I had the pleasure of attending two – one hosted by Moroccan Israelis, and another by an Amazigh Jew. I had studied Arabic in Morocco, so I had much fun writing nametags for the dishes, which were all familiar to me. My shakshuka, or egg tagine as they call it, was the first dish wiped clean, gone after five minutes! Simple things like this reminded me of the many Jewish-Muslim coexistence stories, with people easily exchanging their cultures with one another!
There is joy in rest too. To quote Maya Angelou, “Every person needs to take one day away. A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future.“ I love everything about Shabbat – lighting candles, hearing prayers, parents blessing their children, singing and eating together, and literally just dropping everything to rest your mind, body and soul. In order to be a light unto the world, and repair it, we must repair ourselves.
Regine Guevara is a peace activist specializing in youth and women empowerment, and inter-faith dialogue. She is currently a fellow for the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, focusing on peace building in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. She graduated with an MA in Conflict Resolution from Brandeis University, and the Program on Negotiation of Harvard Law School. Raised Christian in the Philippines, with a Jewish conversio ancestry, and a student of Sufi Islam and yoga, Regine embraces her multi-cultural heritage as she travels the world, learns different religions and cultures, cooks global cuisines, and catwalks fashion trends.