Finding Wholeness

Finding Connection in Isolation

This past December I found myself doing a Hanukkah presentation for a room full of bleary-eyed teenagers. Anyone who has taught adolescents knows it can be quite a humbling experience, to say the least. And to top it off, I was a 10-hour flight from the familiarity of home and the Jewish community in the Bay Area where I was born and raised.

Just two years ago I celebrated Hanukkah alongside other like-minded Jews, and now here I was in the suburbs of Madrid, far away from the kind of vibrant Jewish community I’d always taken for granted.

When I first decided to move to Spain and become a North American Language and Culture Assistant, I had no idea what to expect, aside from some tapas in my not-too-distant future. I didn’t know which city I would be living in, let alone where or who I would be teaching.

Fast forward to now and I’ve been living in Madrid for a year and a half. In that time I’ve gotten used to embarrassing myself in front of 13-year olds and working in a new country that doesn’t feel so new anymore. In many ways, Madrid has become my home away from home.

And yet, while teaching my students about Hanukkah, I felt a sort of loneliness that I hadn’t in months. Judaism is and has always been a collectivist religion. Minyans require a minimum of 10 Jews to be present for a number of important rituals, from weddings to Torah readings. Mourning the deceased entails sitting shiva, or inviting others to sit with you in your grief. And holidays are spent in community — praying, celebrating and eating alongside loved ones.

I have spent many of these holidays away from my immediate family, and even still, I was always within reach of an inviting Jewish community ready to meet me with open arms. Strangers from Boston to Chicago to Southern California have made an extra place setting for me at their Shabbat dinners, invited me to Purim spiels and to spend warm evenings under a sukkah.

Now that I’m living halfway across the world, I am constantly encountering people who have never met a Jew, let alone can name the first thing about Judaism. To these individuals — whether they be my students, strangers in bars, or new friends — my culture, and in essence, my personhood, is a complete anomaly.

To say I've experienced a sort of culture shock would be an understatement. And as with any shock to the system, this has left me feeling lonely, confused and misunderstood. How can I engage with Judaism in a meaningful way without my community by my side? What would that even look like?

Over many months I’ve sat with those feelings and questions, trying to envision a new kind of Jewish existence. And in that time I’ve reflected upon the same idea, over and over again: history — and how, and for whom, it is told. In searching for answers I just found more questions, and unending curiosity.

So when my mom visited me last spring, we turned our shared curiosity into a kind of pilgrimage. This led us to Hervás, a town of under 4,000 in the western region of Extremadura, where we learned about the Jewish families that once had a prominent presence in the village. It brought us to the El Tránsito synagogue of Toledo, the Sephardic museum of Córdoba and the Jewish quarter (Barrio Santa Cruz) in Sevilla. And in our quest, we learned about the Caminos (paths) de Sefarad, the governmental program highlighting Sephardic legacies throughout the country.

Over the course of a week or so, my mom and I ended up forging our own camino, traveling from site to site and learning about the influential Jewish population that once was. Many Spaniards will speak highly of the centuries when Christians, Muslims and Jews were said to have lived together in peace and tranquility. However, the narrative often stops there, with little or no mention of the hundreds of years of exile, forced conversion and death that followed.

Much of that darker history was highlighted in museums along the Caminos de Sefarad, but I am left wondering how many non-Jews are actually seeking these places out. I appreciate that this camino offers Jewish people a chance to connect to their own ancestral history or that of other Jews, but I also believe this legacy to be important to the collective historical memory of the country as a whole.

When I talk about the Spanish Inquisition with my students, they know the basics, perhaps in a similar way to how some school children in the U.S. (in more progressive cities) might be familiar with Columbus’ painful colonization of the Americas. This is to say, young people have heard of the topic but lack the ability to meaningfully engage with it, due in large part to misinformation and the intentional obscuring of history.

This has caused me to reflect on my role as a teacher in Madrid, and most likely the only Jewish teacher my students will ever have. It feels hypocritical to go on tirades about Spain's despicable legacy as someone from the United States, a country with arguably one of the worst historical legacies in the modern world. Yet I feel like I can’t talk about my Jewishness without highlighting how the very land I'm standing on once held vibrant Jewish communities who were forcibly torn apart from the place they knew and loved.

Maybe it's because I feel privileged to freely express my religious and cultural heritage in a country that used to kill people for doing just that. And maybe it’s because, amidst feelings of isolation, I have found solace in my role as both a teacher and student of history.

I may be far from my cultural and religious community, but every time I talk or learn about Jewishness — past, present, future — I feel that much closer to the Jew I am and the Jew I am becoming.

At The Well uplifts many approaches to Jewish practice. Our community draws on ancient Jewish wisdom, sometimes adapting longstanding practices to more deeply support the well-being of women and nonbinary people. See this article’s sources below. We believe Torah (sacred teachings) are always unfolding to help answer the needs of the present moment.

Sources

Caminos de Sefarad, Official Tourism Portal of Spain

Caminos de Sefarad, Red de Juderías de España

Museo Sefardí/Sinagoga del Tránsito (Toledo), Spanish Ministry of Culture and Sport

The House of Sepharad/Casa de la Memoria (Córdoba), Siente Córdoba

Inquisition in Spain, My Jewish Learning

Spain’s Historic Offer of Citizenship to Sephardic Jews, The Atlantic

Finding Connection in Isolation
Roxy Rozo-Marsh
Roxy Rozo-Marsh

Roxy (she/her) currently works as an English teaching assistant in Madrid, Spain. When not teaching,  she enjoys being an extrovert-about-town, singing karaoke and binge-watching trash TV.

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