Marlena Maduro Baraf came to the United States from her native Panama and studied at Occidental College in Los Angeles and Parsons School of Design in New York. She is principal at a small interior design firm in New York. She also worked as Editor with the McGraw-Hill Book Company and has been an active member of the Sarah Lawrence Writing Institute community. Her work has been published in the Westchester Review. La Misa is an excerpt from her memoir, working title, Mami. You can contact Marlena at https://twitter.com@MarlenaBaraf
One by one, every girl in the queue to the chapel reaches into the basket by the open double doors and plucks a head covering, a round doily the size of a yarmulke pinched with a single bobby pin that does not discredit the sweetness of the tulle and the lace. I attach mine, and I walk in.
We adjust our eyes to the softened light. Opposite the altar, at the foot of the room, is a stone bowl half-filled with holy water. Girls that remember dip their middle fingers into the liquid and touch their foreheads to begin the sign of the cross. En el nombre del padre, at the forehead, del hijo, high on the chest, del espíritu santo, left shoulder, then right. Nuns are singing Gregorian chants in the balcony. Voices of angels rain down on our heads. The procession continues down the center aisle. There is a single row of pews on the right and the same on the left. The younger grades settle closest to the metal grille near the altar, the older, high school girls at the back. We genuflect. We slide into each pew from the center axis towards the wall until every pew is filled. Before the priest begins, we kneel onto the wood ledge that is attached to the seat in front, clutching the petite, shiny white misales with white-ribbon tails peering out from gold-edged pages. After the right number of minutes we sit, and the mass begins.
Because the prayers are in Latin, the bells serve to alert us that it is time for communion. Voicing rhythmic incantations, the priest lifts the round wafer above his forehead, consecrating it, pronouncing it the body of Christ. The altar boys agitate the bells. Girls who have confessed earlier squeeze past the rest of us in the pew toward the center aisle. They line up quietly in dutiful intention. They approach the priest at the grille and kneel before him.
Panama, ninety-five percent Catholic, had been a crossroads for trade for hundreds of years, and panameños were accustomed to people of many sorts. But if someone asked, “¿eres judía?” you pulled in a short breath and gulped it down. The word for Jew in Spanish is harsh, the letter “j” sounding like an “h” in English, thrown from the throat across the upper palate. Hebrea was a better, softer word, “h” in Spanish having no sound. Los hebreos were the people of the book, children of Abraham and Moses, receivers of the Commandments
“¡Tú mataste a Jesús!” I was sitting in the back of the bus with no way to escape. I still remember the burning words. Eight-year-old Camila had twisted her head to face me. “You killed Jesus! (Small flames circled my spongy heart.) The school bus fell silent. We knew the damning fact. We had learned it in la clase de Religión: Judas the traitor turned in the son of God. Judas the betrayer, un judío.
On any one year there were only three or four of us at Las Esclavas –always cousins. We were a tiny group of Jews in Panama and those of us niñas who attended Las Esclavas had to go to mass before classes like the other girls. The Catholic orders had the only good schools in Panama then. Some of my tíos chose to send their children to public school in the Canal Zone where they would study in English, but had no religious instruction. Papi wanted us to be “panameñas primero.”
Our adviser at school was madre Concepción, a massive woman covered completely except for the exposed shield of her face–and her hands. She and the other nuns at school wore thick black robes in ample folds held at the waist by a band, reaching down to the tips of their shoes. I noticed the shoes. The squeaky, black-leather, laced shoes were radical. Our mamis wore pretty three-inch heels. The nuns sailed down the halls surrounding the courtyard, their dark headdress with a white band across the forehead making their skin very pink. They were a different sort of creature. And they were kind.
We, the Spanish Jews, were an established community in Panama, older than the country. Almost rabiblancos, the “white-tailed” elite of Panama. Nevertheless I studied Catecismo and Religión and learned about Purgatory, where souls with venial sins could take up temporary residence.
“Madre, can Jews go to Purgatory?” I asked.
“Not unless they convert.”
“But if you are good and you die before you convert, what happens? ¿Vas al infierno?”
“Sí,” replied my teacher. “The rule is that if you have heard of Jesus and don’t convert, you cannot be saved.”
“What about Limbo? Can Jews go to Limbo?”
“If there was a baby not Catholic who died before he had ever heard the name of Jesus, he can go to Limbo.”
Where did I belong? How could these madres who knew my family believe that we would skid down in a giant chute to burn forever with the Devil?
I became a pest at Catechism. Still, the story of Jesus and the tactile wisdom of the tradition were irresistible. There was a glossy rosary bead for each prayer. Our fingers touched the prayer when we recited each sonorous call and riposte. My sister Patricia and I succumbed. We snuck pink rosary beads into the house and said prayers at night under our bed sheets. When Patricia worried about a boy, she prayed to the Virgin Mary.
“I want to convert,” I confessed to Madre Concepción. “I want to be a nun like you.” The madres held me back for a while then arranged a meeting with a priest in the front room where they welcomed parents. I poured out my anguish, “Padre, me quiero convertir. Me quiero convertir.”
“Niña,” he said, “espere un poco. Wait until you are older. You have a fine tradition in your Judaísmo.¿Sábes?”
A girl sticks out her fleshy tongue to receive the gift, a small piece of the unyeasted wafer; then she stands up with lowered eyes. She brings her fingers together and drops her chin to contain the presence that is now inside of her and returns to us, walking slowly along a new tributary to the outer end of our pew. The girl steps in, and the rest of us, subdued and empty, slide toward the center to give her space.
I listen for the angel voices. The priest concludes the mass. “Ite. Missa est,” he declares, “the mass is ended,” and we file out to begin our day.
I long for communion.
Because I didn’t grow up in her time, I never understood my grandmother’s disquiet. At the end of a school day when I might come to visit, my doting abuelita would look up at me with her troubled-blue questioning eyes, “¿con quién andas?” Who are your friends?
She never spelled it out, but I knew that I was meant to unearth an ‘Arias,’ a ‘Vallarino,’ or another prominent name in Catholic society. I resisted revealing the names of my friends, friends that did match what my Amamá longed for. My friends were my friends, Anita, Marce, Ceci, mis amigas católicas who lived not too far from mi casa de piedra on Calle Uruguay.
Were Amamá’s worries miedos de un pasado antiguo? Were they lingering fears resulting from the Jews’ banishment from Spain centuries ago, fears that coursed in the family blood? Why was mi abuelita so bothered?
At the close of Yom Kippur we gather at tía Connie and tío Stanley’s house to break the fast. As if we need reminding that we are a clan, all the tíos and primos come together. Even the Motta brothers who married Catholic women and raised their children Catholic come to break the fast. At my aunt’s white draped table we reach for the tall silver carafe–hot to the touch–steaming with coffee boiled in cinnamon water. A pretty, distended bowl holds a glossy mound of egg yolks and sugar that have been whipped to a frenzy. We dip a large silver spoon into the white, and we wait while the thick cream drops into our coffee cups with a slow-moving plop. There are not many rules. Ham but not pork. We eat shellfish now. My country is the land of the shrimp. Distant from other Jewish groups, we are on our own.
Our sinagoga is a long rectangle with stucco walls and a turret in the middle. On Avenida Cuba con Calle treinta y seis. Tíos, it’s almost all tíos. There is a minyan every Friday night. The same ten or twelve alternate the roles of presidente, vicepresidente o tesorero. One De Castro, one Fidanque, one Motta, Cardoze, Maduro, Lindo or Toledano–reading at the podium in their guayaberas. In earlier decades it would have been different men with the same last names, a game of musical chairs. It would have been one or the next and then the same one again sitting on the red leather chairs facing the family in the pews, next to the Ark holding the Torá and the Panama flag on its slender pedestal.
An elder reads a prayer for the “Reader” and the group responds with their lines marked “Congregation” or “Chorus” from the blue books stored in slots behind the pew in front. They drone their rumble in English, skipping the prayers in Hebrew except for the Shema and the Kaddish (naturally using the Spanish inflections, Cheh-má and Kahdeesh).
I hear the soft thunder of the congregation in the double height above my head. The bells and tiny concave metal discs dance to their own music on the silver staff holding the scrolls of the Torá.
At the leftover end of the synagogue las tías organize a school on Saturday mornings, a one-room schoolhouse for primos. It is a long and slender void dotted with square folding tables with tubular legs that keep pieces of your flesh when you click them in place. In this shiftable room the adults also meet after Friday night service for a glass of Manishevitz and little chunks of pound cake. We sing from the red hymnal and act stories from the Bible. I win an award for learning Hebrew words that I do not understand.
During World War I a chaplain assigned to the Jewish enlisted men in the Canal Zone introduced the small Panama clan to the Union Prayerbook used by the Reform congregations in the United States. The group completed a synagogue in l935 and hired their first rabbi, a young graduate from the Hebrew Union College, still clinging to Spanish and Portuguese chants. The rabbi served for five years. There were others, but the community was not able to hold on to a rabbi for long.
I imagine that my tíos looked upon the new rabbi’s talit with long tendrils of fringe at the ends and felt connected to an ancient and venerable wisdom. He made them think and called them to moral action. I experienced an occasional visiting rabbi, and that’s how I saw it. I didn’t have many details.
We were a tiny minority living in a small nation with a capital city set next to the Pacific Ocean, warm and open, an expansive country. We had little reason to complain, and we were careful not to offend.