On Passover, Recalling My Family's Escape from Inquisition-Era Spain – Kveller
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On Passover, Recalling My Family’s Escape from Inquisition-Era Spain

The other day I was shopping at the ShopRite and as I walked in, I saw men filling a large metal display with all kinds of Passover cakes, candy and specialty macaroons. It immediately brightened my mood.

There are some people that dread this holiday as the thought of cleaning the house, hosting Seders and refraining from eating bread is too much to handle. Not me. Passover holds a special place in my heart because my maiden name is Pessah, i.e. Pesach.

My father’s side is originally from Spain. As history books remind us, Spanish Jews enjoyed a “Golden Age” in harmony with other religions for many centuries until the Spanish Inquisition. My family story goes, that on or around 1492 when the Jews were being forcefully expelled from Spain, my ancestors were one of the last Jewish families to leave. They resisted converting to Christianity, but did not want to leave their homeland either.

It was the first night of Passover and their Seder was in full swing. They didn’t care and sang loudly and openly with the windows open. People outside heard them—and on that night, they were forced to leave Spain. Since it was during the Passover holiday that they were expelled, this is how we allegedly got the last name “Pessah.”

This is a story from many centuries ago, so I cannot attest to its full validity, and maybe, it’s a total bubba maisa (old wives tale). Either way, I like to believe that there is some truth as to how my family received our last name.

Like the Israelites, my family in Spain lost their freedom, but they never sacrificed their identity and faith. They found strength and broke free from persecution. They fled to Greece, a foreign land and culture to them. But they adjusted and lived comfortably for hundreds of years until the Holocaust.

The Nazis invaded Greece on April 6, 1941. Passover fell out on April 11th that year. Again, my family faced religious persecution and exile. My grandparents hid in the Greek mountains with my father, who was an infant. My grandfather, a Rabbi, was a messenger for Greek partisan groups who were resisted the Nazis. He was caught on more than one occasion by the Nazis, but because his intelligence, instincts and also luck, he managed to escape. Sadly, however, much of my family was murdered in the concentration camps and did not return home. But the ones that survived, persevered. They left Greece with heavy and broken hearts and moved to America, an unknown land and culture where they would start new and ultimately thrive.

The Kabbalah states that there is a reason why things happen on the anniversary of original events. At these times, we have the ability to connect to what originally occurred and to draw strength from the events in creating change in our own lives in the present day.

What I draw from my family who went through persecutions, inquisitions, Holocausts and terror, there is that no difficulty or evil that can’t be overcome. I also remember to have determination, strength and faith in God like my forbears did, even when life’s events suddenly go into the direction of darkness and the unknown.

At this time of year, spring, I reflect on my inner self. Passover is physical “spring cleaning” of the house as well as a mental and spiritual Spring cleaning. Perhaps we are all slaves and prisoners to something in our lives, whether it is time, money, power, identity or public opinion. I use this time to identify my weaknesses and break free from the proverbial chains that prevent me from reaching a higher level.

This is a time for new life and new beginnings. The bare trees will soon have green leaves, colorful flowers will bloom and crops will grow and reach its maximum potential. And, with the example of my ancestors to guide me, so can I.

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