The secrets in Grandma’s closet
My mother and fellow TOI blogger, Jill Shames, is a teacher’s teacher; she has trained many empowerment self-defense instructors in Israel (including yours truly). Empowerment self-defense, as a profession, tends to attract the most interesting people, and there was one student in particular that she insisted I just had to meet.
My mom knows that I’m a sucker for stories that involve secret Jewish heritage, particularly if it’s Spanish. Well, everyone who knows me knows that now; my debut novel, By Light of Hidden Candles, explores questions of Jewish identity in the context of the Spanish Inquisition and its aftermath. My mother hinted that it was for this reason that she wanted to introduce me to Shefa Ora. After what must have been several years of procrastinating, I finally invited Shefa over for a Shabbat, and asked her to tell me her story.
Shefa is a Krav Maga and empowerment self-defense instructor living in Jerusalem. She was born in California to a mother of Mexican heritage and the Baha’i faith, the oldest of three sisters. The first twist in her story came when Shefa was 11 years old: her mother revealed that she had a different father than her sisters–a Jewish man who was killed, apparently in an accident, before Shefa was born.
Having learned that she was part-Jewish, she began to take an interest in Judaism. She recalls feeling drawn to aspects of Jewish culture without even realizing that that’s what they were. When she was in her 20’s, her mother was killed in a tragic car accident while crossing the street, and Shefa told me about an odd incident during the funeral: when the bulldozer was about to pour the dirt into the grave to bury her mother, she cried out “STOP!” Grabbing a handful of dirt, she sprinkled it over the grave before allowing the bulldozer to finish the job. She had no idea what came over her–only later learning that relatives pouring handfuls of dirt into the grave is a Jewish burial custom.
Over time, Shefa got involved with an Orthodox Jewish community and began the process of formal conversion to Judaism. When Shefa called her grandmother to tell her about a car accident she had just been in and how the Jewish community of San Diego helped her, her grandma, Linda Francis Ortiz de Chapparro, exposed a secret about their maternal line: that she herself was a Jewish woman. Shefa was bewildered as to why she had hidden this information and tried to explain to her that there was no need to be afraid, as WWII was over, but her grandmother hushed her and said, “No, you don’t understand; if anything goes wrong, tell them you are Catholic!”
This is a familiar story I’ve heard in many different versions. A few years ago, I wrote an article for Pnima Magazine about Genie Milgrom, another woman who discovered after converting to Judaism that her ancestors were crypto-Jews. In Genie’s case, the story began to unravel when her grandmother died and left her two pieces of jewelry: a pendant shaped like a hamsa, and an earring shaped like a Star of David. The story in By Light of Hidden Candles also revolves around a piece of jewelry passed from grandmother to granddaughter through the generations.
Well, after Shefa’s grandmother died, Shefa’s aunt sent this to her from among her deceased grandmother’s possessions.
Shefa showed it to me along with another treasure discovered among her grandmother’s things: a collection of old photographs. She showed them to me one by one, explaining the family connections, taking me back through Mexico and Castile of the 18th and 19th centuries. Most families couldn’t afford to have portraits taken regularly, but her family owned the San Mateo Mines in Uruachi Chihuahua, Mexico, and were wealthy. This is one of the photographs, which she believes features her great-aunt Margarita and cousin José. Look very carefully at the symbol on his shirt below the collar.
When Shefa emerged from the mikveh after the ritual immersion that completed her conversion process, the rebbetzin said that many converts talk about coming out of the pool feeling transformed, and asked Shefa how she felt. “Wet,” was her response.
What she didn’t tell the rebbetzin was the sound she heard upon emerging from the water: the voices of four women speaking together. They said, “Welcome home.”
Shefa eventually moved to Israel, and found an opportunity to learn Krav Maga. As a little girl she survived an abusive situation by kicking an adult in the face and breaking his teeth, and ever since then she wanted to learn to fight. She now uses her skills and strengths to empower women and teach people how to defend themselves with confidence. She can be reached at 02KMShefa@gmail.com or via her Facebook page.