A philosopher once said that big changes enter our lives as pigeons walk into a cathedral. It all began with an innocent football game on a sunny afternoon. Every Tuesday and Thursday the British School took us to train on an official eleven-a-side field in Botafogo. Like the mess that was about to happen, everything in those games was disproportionate: the field was way too large for ten-year-old players and the goal posts were too far away and too huge for the goalkeeper. When we dribbled a ball past an adversary and looked ahead, there still seemed to be miles to go, which made passing complicated and running exhausting. On top of this, the coach took our performance seriously and whistled to mark every petty mistake.
It was a relief to hear the final whistle and I was looking forward to take the shuttle bus to the Paissandú club to play a much more pleasurable game of five-a-side football. However, when I got on the bus the driver told me to get off because my name was not on the list. Someone in the school’s office had cocked up and I was on the list of children going home. I told the teacher, and he said there was nothing he could do. Not wanting to take no for an answer, I asked for a lift from a friend who would be heading to the club with his mum following his after-school judo class. The teacher agreed. We got back to school where I spent a tedious hour and a half watching the judo instructor throwing my friend around the mat. When his mum arrived, it turned out that they were going straight home – she was in a rush and could not take me to the club. However, she acknowledged the confusion and gave me a reluctant ride home, as Copacabana was handier for her.
Meanwhile, when I did not arrive at the club with the school bus, Mum phoned the school to ask what had happened to me and received the unbelievable answer that they did not know. This was a time when urban guerrillas were kidnapping foreigners to exchange them for their imprisoned comrades. Of course, our family did not belong to the target group – mainly diplomats and high ranking executives– but the paranoia made panic set in. When I arrived at home, the maid was hysterical and did not know what to do. Someone came up with the idea of putting me in a taxi to go to the club. As far as I was concerned, this was a thrilling adventure: here I was, ten years old, riding all alone with an unknown driver and ducking whenever we passed a police officer because, in my head, this was illegal.
When Mum found out exactly what had happened, she was furious with the school. Things got worse after she learned that the new headmaster, a disciplinarian, ex-Royal Navy officer, had blamed me for the incident. Notices started to appear saying that everyone could do this and that, except for me because I was not to be trusted and was irresponsible. My parents decided that the headmaster’s targeting of me was completely unacceptable and this was how I left the protective cocoon of the British School for an immersion in the Brazilian World.
In reality, the beginning was not a one hundred percent Brazilian experience. I was plunged into the Eliezer Steinberg, a Jewish school, and a safe bet, at least until my parents could figure out what to do with me. The change was exciting but there were hurdles. The classes had many more students, the lessons were all in Portuguese and there were new subjects to get my head around: Hebrew, Yiddish and Jewish history. As I started to get to grips with what was happening, I found myself being very different from my classmates and with new enemies happy to prey on my fragile position.
My parents – like most other ones in our circles – considered religion an antiquated superstition, but they valued their Jewish heritage and felt that they should use it to give Sarah and I a sense of identity. As time progressed – and the more it looked that the family would stay permanently in Brazil – religious rituals started playing an increased role in our lives. We started lighting Shabbat candles on Friday evenings and regularly going to synagogue.
On the high holidays, we would go to the A.R.I. – the Israelite Religious Association – a nonorthodox congregation for the Zona Sul’s Ashkenazi – or European descended Jews – in Botafogo. I had to dress up in my best clothes and it was embarassing to leave home and make my way through Copacabana’s streets looking like a little gay prince while everybody carried on with their normal lives. The most solemn day of the Jewish calendar was Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – when the community would fast for twenty-four hours and life would orbit around divine forgiveness. While the grownups stayed inside the synagogue feeling increasingly hungry, undergoing a marathon-session of prayers and wrestling with their guilt, my friends and I stayed outside, the whole day long, trying to chase away the boredom.
The A.R.I. Synagogue
Yom Kippur was not the only the holiday that we observed. Earlier in the year, there was the much more fun Passover dinner. We would receive guests in our home, or would be invited to spend the evening with friends. In that ceremonial evening, among prayers, we shared the table eating ritual food, drinking wine, and reminding ourselves of all the miracles that God had performed when he helped Moses to take us out of evil “Pharaoh-land”. For the next ten days, we could not eat leavened bread, but only matzos – slightly annoying perhaps, but we saw it as a heavenly chore and felt guilty if we did not follow it.
In reality, the only miracle that observing those holidays ever achieved was the one of making us feel Jewish. Religious rituals, however, were not the only aspect linking us to the rest of the nation – there was also our proximity to the State of Israel, and of course our support to the people who had settled there. The world had taught Dad’s generation that whatever you personally believed in, or whatever you were like as an individual, was irrelevant when people hated you for the mark of your heritage and then, with the blessing of the state, threw you and your family into a gas chamber. For that generation, a Jewish homeland was the only way to guarantee the nation’s survival and the fact the Jews had returned to the Biblical lands was nothing short of a miracle.
After the horrors of the Holocaust and the initial anguished possibility that Israel’s neighbours would throw the Jewish population into the sea in the war that followed the United Nations acceptance of Israel as an independent state came the military triumphs. The transformation from victims to victors swept across the entire Jewish world like a fever. Our home was no exception. Our circles considered even the very mention of the Palestinians as a form of treason. Although most people in our closest circles encouraged me to take part in that Jewish nationalist carnival, there was a part of me which did not buy that enthusiasm. Throughout the Holy Land’s history, there were few people involved in its numerous conflicts who understood that stability and security required mutual understanding and that the impossible idea of complete possession of that land implied often-monstrous solutions. As the situation became unbearable for the Palestinians, they resorted to desperate actions that only confirmed the prejudices against them. There was something missing in the way both sides approached the Middle East conflict: no one spoke of peace and reconciliation, but only about survival and revenge, and with this kind of mind-set, those animosities would surely never end.
Because of one my best friends, Uri, I had a clear view of what Israel was about. He had moved there from Rio de Janeiro at the age of ten. We were like family. Uri’s dad, Ossi, was Paulo’s brother-in-law and worked with my dad. He had served the Israeli army in the war of independence and had a charismatic Humphrey Bogart-like character, with a French edge to him, as France was the place where he grew up. His relaxed airs, his strong build and his dry sense of humour made him a great success with women. He had split up with his Israeli wife, a beautiful former actress, and she returned to Israel with the kids.
Uri and his younger brother did not want to go. I also did not want them to leave but at least our friendship survived, as they would spend every summer in Rio to stay with their Dad. They opened my eyes to how stifling and tough life was in the “Promised Land” and to how lucky I was for growing up in Copacabana. The interesting thing about the way these two – now Israeli – friends saw the ever-present conflict was that they actually viewed the Palestinians as human beings. In contrast, Dad’s friends – who would never need to face an armed enemy in a battlefield – held much more prejudiced and hawkish opinions. I saw in Uri and his brother a healthier way of being Jewish, free from the worries about what the claustrophobic and neurotic Jewish community of Rio de Janeiro expected of me, and not allowing anti-Semitism to mold my character.
As is the case with any Jewish boy, when I reached thirteen the time for Bar Mitzvah arrived and with this the necessity to find me a teacher. The first choice was our synagogue’s main singer, the chasan Aaronson, an imposing man with a powerful voice. When he flowed out loud the prayers in his strong Yiddish accent, Aaronson was feverish, swaying his body and contorting his mouth. Somehow, the spit that sprayed out of him managed to wet his thick glasses and to make his act seem even more impressive. The problem was that Aaronson’s classes were too expensive so we opted for our second choice: a short and plump cantor in his sixties who also wore thick glasses but who had less dramatic garments, a meeker style and who brought disapproval upon himself for his habit of dozing-off in front of the congregation at major events.
In the beginning, I was fascinated. The part of the Torah I was going to recite was about the sabbatical year, something I have always regarded as a brilliant utopic idea which, if adopted, would reset the world on a correct course. It stated that every seventh year, all Israelites – as well as their land and their servants – were to rest for an entire year. At the end of 49 years (that is following seven sabbaticals), whoever had bought land in that period should return the property to the original holders so that, in the end, no one got disproportionately rich or poor.
My teacher’s mission was to show me how to sing in Hebrew the part destiny had assigned me in front of the congregation. He gave classes in a stuffy, old-smelling room in his far-away flat. During the lessons, we went over and over the chosen text, sitting on uncomfortable chairs while leaning on an old wooden table that supported piles of religious books. After one month, the classes started to get boring and I struggled to stay awake every time those pages in Hebrew were in front of me. One day, completely out of the blue, I felt, – and then saw – my mentor’s fat hand creeping up my thigh and landing on my thirteen year old “shlong”. He continued reading the book and acting as if nothing was happening. Although it was only a squeeze, I was shocked beyond words.
When I told my parents what had happened at the rabbi’s house and asked not to have classes with him anymore, they took my “story” as being just another excuse. Anyway as we were close to completing my preparation, according to the way the synagogue had designed the course, the lessons at the rabbi’s home ceased and the next stage were the final rehearsals at the shul. With this, in one go, I was rid of the excruciatingly boring classes and of the fiddling. Nevertheless, my respect for organized religion had been shattered.
Something else helped to lead my heart astray. On the day before my Bar Mitzvah, I received a surprise call. Ruth, a girl who I had met in a Machaneh in São Paulo phoned to say that she was in Rio especially for the occasion. Overwhelmed by the news, I invited her out to play mini-golf by the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon and then to see a movie – the Day of the Jackal – in a nearby cinema. She was pretty and we fancied each other but there was too much shyness in the air for anything to happen. Nevertheless, I was over the moon for coming so close to having a girlfriend.
When I got back home, instead of Mum congratulating me for my first romantic exploit, she fired a hysterical battery of screams at me for being late and for not taking the Bar Mitzvah seriously. Furious, I replied that I did not give a damn about that circus. Nonetheless, as tradition demands, we went to the synagogue for the Friday night service and the next morning I was there for the big day. The synagogue was full of familiar faces, and I was so nervous that I developed an eye twitch that lasted for weeks. When the big moment came, the young rabbi from New York, with red hair, a moustache and round glasses – very similar to Ned Flanders in The Simpsons – called me to read the Holy Book and to hear a sermon in which, among other superfluous things, he said that I liked rock ‘n’ roll and surfing.
Had I been an orthodox Jew, from that moment on I would be responsible for my acts in terms of divine punishments and rewards, and my Bar Mitzvah would have been a rite of passage. Instead, the whole event ended up being about performing an irrational duty and an excuse to receive expensive presents. After everything was over, I had passed into a new stage in life but not as expected: my hair was growing long, my body and my voice were changing and my hormones were kicking in.
My initiation into manhood had happened at the beach catching big waves and at the Machanehs where I proved that I could be tough. To me, synagogue represented an old folks’ social gathering designed to forge business contacts under the pretence of being pious while listening to prayers in an incomprehensible language. As far as I was concerned, that theater and teachers pinching my penis did not represent a path to a higher truth.
If the adopted norm for modern Jews was to be atheists, why should I waste my valuable time going to synagogue? If they wanted to use Eastern European traditions and fear to keep me inside a fence, this would not work in the Rio de Janeiro of the 1970s. In addition, employing Zionism to keep the community connected seemed plain ridiculous: if our parents – like most of their friends – had chosen to emigrate to far-off Brazil and hadn’t the guts to fight for Israel, what commitment could they demand of us? With a room full of expensive presents and a new status, I was ready to discover the real world and not the wonders of the Holy Scriptures.
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