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Posts Tagged ‘romania’

The Truth about Bucharest School no. 19

Posted by E on December 2, 2016

scoala-19

This note was originally posted in October 2016 on the Facebook wall of ‘Scoala nr. 19’ – the Bucharest elementary school I attended between ages 6-11.

This spring the nightmares came back. Hardly a month goes by without a flashback, but after my mother died in December 2015, everything that happened to me in Romania intensified. The last 30 years of my life have been a nightmare, and much of it stems from what happened to me in Bucharest, at Scoala Nr. 19.

I write this note in English because it’s the language I’ve spoken for the last 30 years. My parents are both dead, and I don’t have any Romanian friends in Toronto, Canada, where I emigrated at age 11 before the 1989 Romanian Revolution that toppled dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. I feel awkward expressing my emotions in Romanian, but the scars of what happened to me at Scoala nr. 19 still haven’t faded. Pain doesn’t fade with time. Sexual exploitation has consequences, especially at a fragile, tender age.

I was 9 years old when my mother defected from communist Romania, four years before Ceausescu’s regime was defeated. My father was 68 years old and didn’t want a child; his long-time affair with his mistress was all that he cared about. I was nine years old when my father began to lock me out of our apartment on Magheru Boulevard, and when I realized for the first time that nobody cared if I lived or died.

At nine years old I was skinny, always hungry, and most of all – afraid. The boys at my school started to pick on me – none worse than Marc Faur, the gang leader of a posse of boys who made my life miserable. He sensed who the most vulnerable, defenceless kids were in our school and honed in on me.

Those boys attacked me before and after school – kicked me, grabbed at my breasts, and Marc always made sure to punch me in the stomach with as much power and force as he could muster. They stole my innocence and at only ten years old, they made me feel that I was worthless, garbage and should kill myself.

Marc Faur hit me almost every day, making me feel dirty and afraid because nobody else tried to defend me. I know what it’s like to double over in pain, gasping – choked out of breath, feeling as worthless as a cockroach. Feeling that nobody gives a shit about me, that anybody can do whatever they want to me with impunity. I was alone, and Marc – well, Marc was the Pioneer President of Class E. His mother was a renowned opera singer, while my own parents were deaf. Worthless.

After my mother defected on a trip to Italy in 1985, my father and me were labeled political traitors. No teachers gave a shit about me.

The teachers knew better than to pick on Faur, and consequently he became our class bully. Marc Faur was a big, overweight boy and I was scrawny and unloved. Nobody cared how much I cried behind the school gymnasium, how hungry I was because nobody had packed a lunch for me.

Our teacher, Tovarasa Elena Hlatcu, sent notes to my father that my hair wasn’t brushed and I hadn’t washed my face. She sent notes after my period started, saying that “Someone should make sure the child is clean and doesn’t smell so awful.”

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My father didn’t give a shit. I lived on the streets most of the time, fending off pedophiles, depending on my best friend’s family to feed me. I was a proud girl and never asked for food, but I didn’t turn away any sandwiches or leftovers, either. Marc and Silviu Constantin abused me in every way possible – kicking me, spitting on me, grabbing my breasts, punching me in the gut, and Marc Faur went so far as to look for cockroaches and drop them in my hair.

Marc wrote horrible things on the blackboard, calling me a whore, and (as always) punched me in the stomach and in the breasts, with as much force as he could. Others, like Dan Popescu didn’t care about my abuse; they were too delicate to hit me themselves, so they looked the other way. Even as boys teased, hit and abused me, Dan (who was the only boy I ever had a crush on) looked the other way.

To this day, I am terrified of bugs. I relieve what Marc did every moment I step into the shower and wash my hair.

To this day, often I look in the mirror I am embarrassed by the size of my breasts. Silviu and Faur did this – they made me feel like garbage. They assaulted me while (at only ten and eleven years old) I felt too worthless and ashamed to tell our teacher or my father, who probably would have beaten me for causing trouble.

Thirty years have passed. I am forty years old, but the trauma those boys caused me was worse than a sexual assault – it has permeated every pore of my being. It made me feel ugly and unloved. It made me feel disgusted with my own body, which I felt had betrayed me. As a teenager, I started picking, cutting at my skin; I hated every bit of me. I was as worthless as they made me feel – even worse.

The trauma that I experienced at Scoala Nr. 19 is still part of my daily life. To this day, nobody has apologized for destroying my innocence and causing me the nightmares that still return today. Nobody has apologized for making me feel ashamed of my body, for the disgusting words I still hear inside my head today.

But I have nothing left to lose – and I’m no longer willing to remain ashamed and feel worthless just to cover up what those boys did to me. They physically and sexually abused me. They raped my innocence, and I don’t owe them anything.

I refuse to be silent anymore.

Writing this post is part of empowering myself again – reclaiming the power that they stole from me.

Postscript: after I came forward with the truth about what happened to me, on Oct. 27 I received an “apology” via email from the bully ringleader of the abuse, Marc Faur, saying he was sorry for “not being nice” to me.

marc faur apology

“Not nice” meant beating me during recess, among other things.

I rejected the apology because it wasn’t genuine and decided to write openly about it and post about it on his Facebook page this past week.

For the last 48 hours I’ve received hate-filled messages from his friends in Romania, telling me to “Go fuck yourself”, “you’re deranged”, and calling me terrible insults and names. This is without them knowing any evidence.

THIS is the reason women and girls don’t report abuse.

Soon they enlisted Facebook friends to attack me – friends who weren’t even Romanian and had no clue about what happened in the 1980s. Foreign friends who simply wanted justification to attack a stranger.

marc-faur-threats

In the last 48 hours I also received messages asking me to excuse the actions of 11-year old boys. But none of those requests acknowledged the trauma caused to a 10-year old girl. Just because this happened decades ago does not lower the impact, the pain, the consequences of their abuse on my life.

Why are girls considered worthless compared to boys?

Why is my trauma considered worthless?

costin-craioveanu

Former classmate Costin Craioveanu writes on Marc Faur’s Facebook wall: “I remember her…a superb being…it was impossible not to abuse her.”

This is pathetic – it’s bullying, and it’s NOT right. Abuse does NOT have an expiration date.

December 4 update: Other women have approached me with memories of being assaulted by boys at my old school. A model whose photos are pictured on Faur’s Photography page also contacted me privately. Another woman spoke about being raped by a boy from School no. 19, but from a different graduating year.

Last night I also spoke with an old classmate who was also beaten and abused by Marc Faur and shared the effects it had on her life. I hid her identity to protect her privacy and ensure she won’t suffer the abuse I’ve received over the last week. However, her story is important and needs to be heard. Her account is written in Romanian, but states that she was repeatedly emotionally and physically abused by Marc Faur.

We are not alone!

marc-faur-abuse

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Posted in abuse, marc faur, romania | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Traveling through Transylvania in Search of the Real Dracula

Posted by E on October 18, 2016

transylvania-by-solowanderers

Transylvania, courtesy of Go Visit Transylvania tourist board

I woke up yesterday to see #Transylvania trending on Facebook. After a momentary surge of excitement (how often is Romania ever in the news?), I figured it probably had something to do with Halloween. Sure enough, I clicked on the hashtag to discover that Bran Castle was now accepting overnight guests. More specifically, Airbnb – my favourite way to travel, btw – just hit the marketing jackpot by being featured in dozens of newspaper articles for offering a contest where “two brave souls” will get the chance to have a sleepover in Dracula’s old digs.

bran-castle

Bran Castle, courtesy of its official website

Maybe it’s because I was born in Romania and half my family hails from the Transylvania region. Maybe it’s because I’m a history buff. But around this time of the year I always get a little ticked off at the hoopla made over a fictional character who bears no resemblance to Vlad Tepes, the fifteenth-century Prince of Wallachia, a man whose actions shaped the history of my homeland and the entire European continent.

For more than two decades, Bran Castle has been a cash cow for its millionaire owner and the Romanian government, neither of whom bear any shame for whoring their history and national pride. Thousands of tourists visit every year, led to believe that they are visiting the Prince of Wallachia’s medieval castle, without realizing that Bran has never been Vlad Tepes’ principal residence. The reality is, Bran is pretty enough but inauthentic – a virtual Dracula Disneyland that has little to offer in terms of historical fact.

bram-stoker-dracula-fluoritlaufer-public-domain

Bram Stoker, cc public domain

When Dracula-the-novel was first published in 1897, few readers bothered to check the accuracy of its depictions. The fact that English writer Bram Stoker never stepped foot in Transylvania did not abate the thrills of readers for over a century, spinning off countless horror films, cheesy sparkly-vampire pulp romances and pretty much the entire Goth subculture as we know it.

House where Vlad Tepes was born

House where Vlad Tepes was born

It helps that Romania is a remote land where few foreigners have stepped foot in. After centuries of serfdom and communist oppression under the totalitarian regime of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, it is a place still shrouded in a fog of mystery – a place where horse-drawn carts still ride on the highway alongside cars, where wolves still howl through the forests at night and smoke curls from the chimneys of village houses untouched by modern electricity.

Not that I want to burst anybody’s bubble, but vampires are not real. The original ghouls of Romanian folklore, the strigoi, were awful dead zombie-like creatures that didn’t have the romantic appeal of an Edward Cullen. Like the Russian witch of the woods, Baba Yaga, these were stories you told naughty children to keep them from wandering through the woods after sundown.

But let’s say you really want to know who Vlad the Impaler was and why he was so bloody. You want to figure out why he became so feared by his Ottoman enemies and beloved by his people. If you were determined to walk through his footsteps and discover the real man behind the legend, you would begin in Sighisoara, the UNESCO protected village where Vlad was born. Here are some photos I took last year when I was in Romania researching my memoir Remember Your Name.

img_4809 img_4925  elisa-sighisoara-yellow-street vlad-tepes-statue

Next, you would take a drive up the narrow winding road that leads to the Biertan fortified church, a perfectly preserved medieval church that overflows with history (and likely ghosts). You would observe the ancient villages that dot this beautiful and pristine countryside where peasants still live off the land, gypsies still tell fortunes, and where sheep and goats freely roam the green valleys of the Carpathians.

elisa-biertan-tower2 biertan-church

And then you will invariably find yourself in Sibiu, the capital of the Transylvania province. Sibiu is a beautifully-preserved medieval town built by the Saxons in the 14th century, and brings together German, Transylvanian and Wallachian influences that have coexisted here for nearly a thousand years.

Sibiu

But to know Vlad Dracul, there is one last place you must still visit – his real castle and main fortress, the Poienari Citadel. By observing this imposing mountainous fortress, you’ll catch a glimpse back into history, to a land forever under attack by nomadic tribes and religious zealots. A land whose people still suffer the scars of brutality, whose hearts have been so hardened by suffering under decades of oppressive communism that they allow intolerance and xenophobia against religious and sexual minorities to thrive rampantly.

poienari-citadel

Not much has changed in six hundred years. The war between the East and West still rages, a war of ideology and barbarism, but sabers and maces have turned into chemical bombs and nighttime air raids.

The same hatreds continue to thrive.

If you ask a villager about Vlad Tepes, you’re bound to hear that if it weren’t for him the reach of the powerful Ottoman Empire would not have ended at the Black Sea. Although he has largely been reduced to a cartoon character by the feverish imagination of a nineteenth-century Englishman, the bloody, merciless actions taken by the Prince of Wallachia in the fifteenth century directly impact the shape and history of Europe as we know it.

So when you dress up like a vampire for your Halloween party or open your door to a trick-or-treating mini-Dracula, remember that sometimes fact can be more interesting than fiction.

Happy Halloween! 😀

If you enjoyed the read, please consider dropping a dollar in my Patreon donation jar 🙂 

sighisoara

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The Latest Poetry News

Posted by E on May 13, 2016

CV2 coverLast month (April) was all-together a great month as far as poetry goes. My first – and so far, only – villanelle poem was published in one of Canada’s oldest literary journals Contemporary Verse 2: The Canadian Journal of Poetry and Critical Writing (CV2). It’s the only national poetry magazine that continues to publish four times a year and I am so excited to be included in the Spring 2016 edition.

I first heard of the acceptance last year, and didn’t know which particular issue my poem would appear, so I kept waiting. After nearly a year, I was starting to wonder if it had been back-burnered forever (what should I do? Would it be a major faux-pas to query the editor? yikes). But then – as if by magic – a small, nondescript white envelope appeared in my mailbox. It was just thick enough to contain a magazine, and there it was – CV2’s annual poetry-only edition!

In this day of online publishing, I consider myself fortunate to have my poetry appear in print. There’s no comparison to the great joy of holding a periodical or a book in your hands, a palpable thing you can touch, smell and (after much pride and celebration) put on a shelf. If you’d like a copy, you can pick up the latest CV2 edition in any major bookstore or order it online directly from their website. I’m in the company of some really great writers!

I first tried my hand at a villanelle after reading Elizabeth Bishop’s One Art, a poignant piece about loss and heartache. The most famous villanelle of all is, of course, Dylan Thomas’s eternal Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night (one of my favourite poems of all time). Nothing compares to the sheer power and awe that poem contains, the magic cast through its hypnotic (heart)beat of repetition.

CV2 poemAs I soon discovered, villanelles have a notoriously difficult pattern and have fallen out of use largely because of the time and labour involved in creating this haunting pattern. Wikipedia defines a villanelle as:

“a nineteen-line poetic form consisting of five tercets followed by a quatrain. There are two refrains and two repeating rhymes, with the first and third line of the first tercet repeated alternately until the last stanza, which includes both repeated lines. The rhyme-and-refrain pattern goes like this: A1bA2 abA1 abA2 abA1 abA2 abA1A2 where letters (“a” and “b”) indicate the two rhyme sounds, upper case indicates a refrain (“A”), and superscript numerals (1 and 2) indicate Refrain 1 and Refrain 2.”

I wrote One Europe soon after returning from my journey to Romania, where I researched my father’s past and tried to access his dossier from the Securitate archives. It was also an observation of the current state of emotional numbness and brutality that lingers in the post-communist era.

It was a lot of work, but the joy and sense of accomplishment I felt for being able to create something this difficult complex was incredibly rewarding. My recommendation to all you poets out there is to try your hand (at least once) at an ornate, complicated archaic format just to experience what poets of other generations had to work with, back when rhyme was the only accepted form. If anything, it will whittle your words into a sharper, tighter poem. It’s worth the exercise, believe me.

Given the fact that my first-ever villanelle was accepted for publication so quickly (most poems get peddled through quite a few editors before they find a home), I plan to write a few more this summer. But first, I need to work on edits for my existing pieces.

This brings me to another piece of good news: a few months ago, the in-house editor at ARC Poetry Magazine recommended me for a free mentorship program with their resident poet, a renowned and very established Canadian poet who gave me some really useful tips for revising my poem Voyage to Brazil, which they are considering for publication. So hopefully (fingers crossed) it will appear in ARC sometime this year – but either way, the mentorship and keen eye was invaluable. The poem is that much stronger and powerful thanks to ARC’s help, and I’m sure it will find a home soon.

And speaking of Brazil, it’s where I’ll be spending part of the summer working on my book and other poetry & research projects. Stay tuned for details.

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So Badly My Eyes Hurt, So Badly – a Romanian Folk Song

Posted by E on February 4, 2016

I first heard this song when I was in Romania in the spring of 2015, digging into my family’s secret past. My family defected from Romania in the mid-eighties, before the Revolution that ended Ceausescu’s dictatorship, but there were Securitate records and secrets that I still had to uncover, so I returned to my old haunting grounds, my bullet-scarred Bucharest.

Perhaps I’d heard this song before, sometime in my lost childhood, because a curious sense of deja vu and aching loneliness came over me with those first notes. It was like I received a punch to the gut….and since I blocked so much trauma from my early childhood, I realized that I had something to learn from this experience. Impulsively, I grabbed a sketchbook and decided to set upon translating this old folks song, if only because I couldn’t find another translation into English anywhere online. Its Romanian title is Rau Ma Dor Ochii, Ma Dor – which roughly translates to Badly my eyes hurt, hurt me.

As a poet and someone who cares more about the feeling and meaning in the words, I chose to do a looser translation that focuses more on the meaning of the lyrics rather than the literal translation. I kept most of the authentic words wherever possible, but hopefully I succeeded in conveying the deep, bottomless longing and painful sadness that lingers in this song and makes it haunting…..at least to my own ears.

For the first week I kept listening to this song, I couldn’t stop myself from breaking into tears: it reminded me of the essence of why I was in Romania, chasing ghosts and demons and being unable to stop until I understood WHY. Why did my family’s path take the turn that led me into a cold and foreign country, and why did CNSAS, the authorities who inherited the Securitate Archives, prevent my father’s files from being released more twenty years after his death.

Could it have something to do with him being murdered within 24 hours of his return to Bucharest in 1988? Could it have something to do with the fact that I was followed by a plain-clothes agent in Bucharest and told in no uncertain terms that I should stop asking questions about my father’s death?

The song is called “So badly my eyes hurt, so badly.” There are countless renditions of it, but this one – sang by these two young women of the Romanian Armed Forces, haunted me the most – and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

As I mentioned earlier, I found no English translation online so I gave my best effort to convey the sentiment of this old, traditional Romanian folk song from the mountains of Transylvania. It’s pure heartache in song, a deep sadness and ache that I’m certain I failed to describe within the simplicity of this translation – but the melody transcends the language.

So badly my eyes hurt, so badly
From the brightness of the stars
And I go, and then again I go
Down to the river under the walnut tree
I make myself, and again I make myself
Chop wood from fir and wood from birch

So badly my feet hurt, so badly
From walking all the beaten paths
And so badly my eyes hurt, so badly
From witnessing the pain of those leaves

So badly does my heart ache
That you love another one
But I will leave without knowing
And I go, and then again I go
Down to the river under the walnut tree
And I make myself, and then again I make myself
Chop wood from fir and wood from birch.

Where you have gone, I do not know
Just that my soul is empty and hollow
And so I go, and on I go
to the river under the walnut tree
and again I make myself, and make myself again
chop fir and to chop birch
and so badly my eyes hurt, so badly
from feeling the pain of those leaves.

field haystacks

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My Little Girl – The Wildflower of Alexandria

Posted by E on January 14, 2016

Cu Mama Iablanita bridge 2

When you’re on the brink of death, common lore says that your life flashes before your eyes. But what they don’t tell you is that the same thing happens when someone you love – or at least someone who was a tremendous influence in your life – dies.  Take for example, my mother – who died only a month ago.

Parinti meiMy mother Lucia and I weren’t close – if anything, I was a parent to her: because both my parents were deaf I was paraded around like a hearing aid dog, interpreting anything they needed to know, translating back to them the often stressful or painful things a child shouldn’t be privy to. And yet this happened – I was there when my mother was arrested by Romania’s Securitate police and escorted off a plane because she’d made the mistake of confiding in a childhood best friend, Dida Tufeanu, the fact that she intended to declare political asylum. I was there when my father beat her brutally, when his fists rained upon her even as I tried to wedge myself between them.

On December 2, 2015, I lost both my mother and my little girl.

When someone you love dies, your entire life flashes before your eyes – every memory you shared between each other. Every kiss, every blow. The lightest, earliest caress glimmers behind your eyelids – like the time my mother read me fairytales. The time she pretended that Mos Gerila (Father Frost) was at the door and he had brought me two new book volumes of fairytales. The moment she put scars on me for the first time.

Lucia was the mother who kissed my forehead every night. The mother who hit me until she drew blood, whose nails clawed at my skin until new scars were left on my hands and arms. The mother who caressed me as I slept and told me I was the smartest little girl in the whole wide world. The mother who let my father hit me and joined in sometimes.

Sibiu 1My mother Lucia confessed that my father hated children and at the age of 55 he didn’t want a new life in his new, Securitate-given apartment. Over and over again, she told me that my father kicked her in the stomach throughout her pregnancy – determined to abort the fetus who was sure to cause him troubles.

Whenever I didn’t do my homework or play the part of the perfect little daughter, my mother told me that she wished she had indeed aborted me – and shared her regret that my father (who she had married only to obtain a Bucharest city permit) hadn’t managed to kick her stomach hard enough to get rid of me.

Elisa Sibiu deaf school

School for the Deaf, Sibiu spring 2015

But when she loved me, my mother touched my cheek and told me that I was her little girl forever – despite the fact that my brown eyes (my father’s eyes) disappointed her. Despite the fact that she had always dreamed of a Shirley Temple doll – blonde and blue eyes – and her happiest time was right after I was born and when my eyes had (almost) looked bluish. But then my baby blue eyes turned brown and her love for me waned, and then she turned into the same little girl nobody wanted.

Nobody ever wanted my mother – as a small child, she was the wildflower of Alexandria in Teleorman county, Romania – a deaf and dumb little girl who was raped around age 12 by brutal villagers – monsters who in turn transformed her into a monster. She grew to love only animals – kittens, puppies, baby goats – but never trusted people, and it showed.

Lucia was a deaf little girl whose own mother didn’t want her. Who was sent away to her uncle’s estate where she spent years living in the barn next to the outhouse, among the sheep and goats she tended because as “deaf-and-dumb” in the old country she wasn’t deemed human enough to sleep inside the house.

My mother lived in barns, next to sheep and goats, for most of her childhood. She slept in haylofts oblivious of the mice and rats that scurried at her feet. Having fallen off a changing table when she was two, her tympanic membrane had shattered and she was rendered deaf. Once she was deaf, she was useless. In 1940s Romania a deaf child was a curse, a useless mouth to feed. So her mother abandoned her on her uncle’s doorstep, and after that she slept inside a barn for years, unworthy of a bed inside their house – a feral child exposed to all elements except a human’s love.

All my mother ever knew was pain and hardship, and that is all she taught me.

Lucia fetita smallAnd then, the rape by village boys. She was barely twelve. The rape that caught the village priest’s attention and got Lucia sent away to a girls’ Boarding School for the Deaf in Sibiu, the heart of Transylvania. There she would learn to read and write despite having lived as a semi-feral child through critical stages of development.

That school would be the happiest time in her life – she made friends for the first time, learned to sign, lip-read and communicate with others. But the best part was when her and her friends raided the kitchen at night, or when they snuck out the window of their dormitory and went to the movies – when they enjoyed the brief freedom their fleeting youth had to offer.

But those early brutalities never took away the sting of her strap, the sharpness of her nails. My mother clawed and tore at my innocence because she herself never had the chance to be innocent.

She hit me because she was never caressed – she abused me because nobody ever taught her the importance of being loved.

My mother hurt me because everybody in the world had wounded her – because when you live with unkindness, you don’t ever learn how valuable we all are, how each of us without exception deserve love. She was deprived of love and learned that the only way to overcome her worthlessness was to wound others – and wound me, she did.

If I could see you one more time, Mama – I would tell you that you weren’t worthless. You didn’t deserve the pain and horror that others in that brutal world inflicted upon you, making horror be the only thing you knew.

I wish my father hadn’t raped you, Mama. I’m sorry that he impregnated you through rape and made this child that neither of you wanted. I’m sorry that he kicked your belly and convinced you that abortion was the only way – only to give birth to me, an inferior little girl who would never match your desperation for a Shirley Temple doll who might actually bring you happiness.

Iablanita bridgeI brought only pain, because that is the only thing you taught me – I still look at the thin white scars across my hands and arms and cry for you, Mama. A little deaf girl unwanted by the world. A little deaf girl sent out to feed the sheep and goats from daybreak to night, just skin and bones, a feral little thing who slept in the barn next to the animals you tended without anybody ever wandering if you were thirsty or hungry. Without ever wondering how you were in those cold hills when there was nothing except you, a little girl, and the brutal winds of Alexandria county, Romania.

I’m sorry that I told the police what you did, Mama. I was only fourteen years old, and I didn’t understand – but within a week I made sure to recant my testimony because I didn’t want you to get arrested. I didn’t want you to suffer more than you already had, more than a human being could ever suffer. You made countless mistakes that changed both of our lives, but in the end you loved me more than you loved anybody else in the world. You loved me as much as you were capable of loving, despite nobody ever having loved you. You did the best with what you had, and that was so very little.

Elisa Biertan tower2I inherited your pain, Mama. It was seeded inside your DNA, inside the epigenetic code your passed into my blood. Your pain shines in my eyes, Mama. Your wounds are my wounds, just as my father’s ancestral pogroms flow through my bloodstream.

In your later years, you were MY little girl – I tried my best to be there for your needs, despite my failures. I brought you food and paid your bills and tried to understand your needs, although I couldn’t. I’m sorry I put you in the hospital – I thought that after you broke your leg, that was the best thing for you. I wanted you to eat and be cared for, and the waiting list for the Deaf nursing home you wanted to go to was oh so long. But now I think I made a mistake. I should have made sure you stayed in your home, I should have figured out a way for you to trust the help that might have been arranged. Even if you wouldn’t open the door for social workers and Meals on Wheels, even if you didn’t trust anybody but me. Maybe you might have lived longer – although we all die. Although after all, nothing matters.

bob rumballThe month after you died, I tried to kill myself. We all die anyway, right? – so what’s the point? I felt that everything I ever did was wrong, and that you died because I forced Mount Sinai Hospital to keep you and look after you until you’d get a bed inside the nursing home of your choice, Bob Rumball Home for the Deaf. But neither of us knew back then that Bob Rumball nursing home had come to accept hearing people, and in some cases placed deaf people lower on their list in favour of hearing applicants. I didn’t know that in the end you would die in hospital while waiting 13 months for a bed at the Bob Rumball Home for the Deaf – after having waited another year before that also – in total, close to 2 years overall on their waiting list. For whatever reasons which I strongly believe involve either mismanagement, corruption, bribery or God knows what, the Bob Rumball nursing home in Barrie, ON kept taking more and more hearing people in instead of a deaf person like you, who most needed their help.

Elisa Sighisoara yellow street

Walking the same streets my mother had walked

I miss you so much, Mama – the wildflower of Alexandria county. The skinny little girl who herded goats barefoot, thirsty and afraid, and nobody ever loved because they all thought you were worthless. I understand now why you didn’t know how to love – because nobody ever loved you. Because you were born and eventually died alone, like a parched little flower, so tender and beautiful but unwanted by the world, in the foothills and plains of Teleorman county.

You were somebody, Mama. Even in this awful, ugly world where the rich are everything and the poor are considered worthless, you were an innocent little soul who deserved more but was never loved and was abused in every way imaginable. I’m sorry this happened to you, my little girl. I’m so sorry that you didn’t understand the meaning of compassion because you never felt it yourself.

Lucia July31And after all that pain, life cheated you by cutting your life short through early onset dementia (Alzheimer’s). Although your last wish was to return home, there was no money. You worked more than twenty years for Canada’s CIBC bank, never missing a single day of work, and they packaged you out without a pension, leaving you to die in poverty. Leaving me an orphan in a cold, indifferent country I was forced to come to as a child – a country that has brought me only pain.

You were only 71 when you died – an unfair, ugly death you fought with all your might. It wasn’t fair! You didn’t want to die – you struggled so hard against the darkness that seeped into your existence – that made you forget how to eat, how to drink. The darkness that made you become weaker by the second, that fought me so hard whenever I tried to feed you, to keep you alive. But through it all, you didn’t want to die. You raged against the dying of the light – you fought to hang on, no matter what.

In my heart you will be both my mother and my little girl forever. On December 2, 2015, I lost both my mother and my little girl.

I couldn’t even afford to bury you, and I know how scared you were of being cremated. In your later years you regretted so deeply that you couldn’t return to Romania, and I shared your pain. In the end I was just as worthless, just like those who were supposed to protect you – I’m sorry that I failed your wishes, Mama. I’m sorry that in the end I didn’t have the money to abide by your wishes. In the end, I failed your last wish not to be burned.

I think of those little white hands, their skin so translucent and frail. A little nest of bird bones, a tiny sparrow limp inside my grasp. No semblance of the beautiful lady you once were, or the spiteful young mother who clawed my skin to shreds. No more heavy tears, no more regrets. We had made peace with each other, and I could finally see that beautiful light of your soul, the light that had never had a chance to shine.

My little girl, I told you as I kissed your cheeks, your forehead. Goodbye, my little girl. My little one.

I can’t wait to see you once again. I can’t wait until this pain is over – we live in this horrible world where indifference reigns and nobody gives a shit about the fragility of life, the tenderness of vulnerability, the frailty of hope.

You were innocent. You deserved to be loved. You deserved it, but everybody failed you. And then you failed me – because you didn’t know any better. Because nobody ever taught you how to love.

Goodbye, my little girl. Goodbye.

imagini-cu-ghiocei  Stefan Luchian - Pastorita

Posted in abuse, ancestry, deaf, death, indifference, mother, personal, romania, sadness, suicide | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Journey to Judaism: The Day I Became A Jew

Posted by E on August 10, 2015

Elisa Jerusalem cropped

I became a Jew on the day I was born, December 17. Thirty-eight years had passed between the moment my mother gave birth to me in Romania and the day I was formally accepted as a Jew by rabbis in a North American synagogue.

After I’d completed a year of study, my mentor rabbi informed me that I was ready to take the next step toward conversion – writing a formal essay explaining why I wanted to embrace the Jewish faith, and meeting with a Beit Din. For those reading this who are unfamiliar with the term, a Beit Din is a rabbinical court assembly made up of three observant Jews (at least one of whom is a rabbi) who decide if a convert is fit to be accepted for conversion to Judaism.

Embracing Judaism was the last step along a journey of self-discovery that had taken me many years to explore, and I wanted to do this right – it was important to me that I should have a conversion process that followed the halacha (Jewish law) closely, which meant having a Beit Din made up of at least one rabbi, followed by a ritual immersion in a synagogue mikvah – a pool of water derived from natural sources.

It was the beginning of December and with my birthday right around the corner, it was only natural that I would schedule my Beit Din and Mikvah day on my birthday. How could I choose any other date? What better day to experience a spiritual rebirth and be formally acknowledged as Jewish?

The sun was shining brightly when I woke up early in the morning – too early in fact. The excitement and nervous butterflies churning in my stomach made it impossible to go back to sleep. ‘This is the last day I’ll wake up and not be Jewish,’ I thought. I busied myself by having a long shower, brushing and flossing my teeth, washing my hair and scrubbing my fingernails and toenails free of any traces of nail polish – there was to be no barrier between the body and the Mikvah water.

Brilliant sunshine illuminated the path toward the Beth Hillel synagogue where I would be formally interviewed. I knew it would be a beautiful day, and it turned out exactly as I’d imagined – how could such an important day ever be shrouded in clouds?

The rabbis met me in the lobby of the synagogue at noon. My Beit Din was composed of three ordained rabbis, all active members of the Rabbinical Assembly, although one had retired from his congregation. After everyone arrived, we walked over to the meeting room in the back of the synagogue. A long conference table split the room which could have seated twenty. The three rabbis sat on one side of the table, and I took a seat across from them.

“As we begin, I’d like you to tell us what brought you here and why you want to become Jewish,” Rabbi Levine said.

I summarized some of the key points that I wrote about in my conversion essay:

“The feeling that propels me toward Judaism isn’t as simple as breaking it down into words. It’s a feeling, an echo of something within myself that I am just now recognizing and giving voice to.

I feel that I have always been a Jew. I was born in the mid-1970s in communist Bucharest. Under Ceausescu’s dictatorship, Romania didn’t prioritize religion, choosing instead to indoctrinate their people to worship the State. I don’t remember either of my parents being religious in any way. We never went to church. I identified with my father’s family much more than my mother’s side. I stood out among my maternal cousins by being the black-haired, dark-eyed child who didn’t fit in. People said that my father and I ‘looked Jewish’.”

 Iosif Hategan age 15 Iosif and Ana

Above: me at age 11.  Centre: my father Iosif (Josef) at age 15.  Right: My father and grandmother Ana.

We emigrated to Canada when I was 11 years old. My father subsequently decided to return to Romania and died there when I was 13. I never had the opportunity to ask him all the questions I would have liked to know – Why did he hide his own heritage? Why did he feel ashamed of who he was?

I’ve had people tell me, Why bother to convert. Your father was a Jew, you don’t believe in Jesus as the messiah, so what’s the difference? But it bothers me that I am not recognized by all Jews as a fellow Jew because of my patrilineal descent, and I feel the need to undergo this formal process so that I can both learn much more about Judaism, and to feel like a “real” Jew.

In my soul, heart and mind, Judaism is more than a religion for me. It’s a shared history, a family and a connection that has always been there, just outside the realm of my consciousness and yet was always there. Like a pulse that cannot be subdued.

After my father’s death, I lived in a rough low-income neighbourhood with my mother. As time went by, she grew increasingly abusive and I had no choice but to run away. Between the ages of 14-16 I lived in several Children’s Aid homes. In time, I ran away from an abusive foster home and returned to my mother’s apartment. At age 16 I was friendless and desperate. Eventually I became recruited by a neo-Nazi group, the Heritage Front. They became the family I felt I’d never had, and looked after me at a time when my only choice was to live on the streets. They also put me in touch with an internationally-renowned Holocaust revisionist and Hitler sympathizer, Ernst Zundel. Zundel gave me a job working in his basement printing press, fed me and looked out for me.

By the time I turned 18 I knew that what the group was doing was wrong. I wanted out of the organization but they were possessive of me and I didn’t know of a way out. I attempted suicide and eventually I turned to an anti-racist activist, who put me in touch with the director of a think-tank on extremist right-wingers. He, in turn, asked me to spy on the Heritage Front and Ernst Zundel and collect information that could be turned over to the police.

defection 1994-2Hategan articleMetro Toronto

For half a year I gathered as much information on illegal activities, weapons and dangerous persons, as well as stole Ernst Zundel’s national and international mailing list, which consisted of people all over North and South America and Europe who had sent in money to fund Zundel’s Holocaust revisionist projects. In 1994 I testified in court and sent 3 Heritage Front leaders to prison, effectively dealing a serious blow toward dismantling the group.

I was only 19 years old. I lived in hiding and attended university in Ottawa under an assumed name. Upon graduating Magna cum Laude with a Criminology and Psychology double-major, I taught ESL in Seoul, South Korea and subsequently travelled throughout Europe the following year.

I spent some time in Krakow and visited Auschwitz and Birkenau. Something stirred in me that summer – an inexplicable familiarity, a sense that I was connected to those places in some undefinable way. When I first heard Ladino songs, it was as though I could almost recognize them. The music seemed familiar somehow. Then there were the places in the south of Spain, as well as in Poland and Hungary that I visited – they felt as though I’d been there before. In Debrecen, the city my father was born in, I allowed my feet to take me where they wanted to go, and I ended up on a narrow, cobblestoned street, in front of a half-burned synagogue with smashed-out windows.

It felt like I had been there before. The feeling was strong, palpable, like a childhood memory – a memory that was just outside the realm of my consciousness.

I eventually returned to Canada and tried to lead a normal life. But something always clawed at the back of my consciousness, pushing me toward a Jewish path. I lived along Bathurst street, in a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood. I began to read books on Judaism and spirituality. Ten years went by since I first thought of undergoing a formal conversion to Judaism, but something always held me back – I first wanted to discover the truth about my father, my family’s past. I had to know our own past in order to go forward.

During a visit to my paternal grandmother’s village in Transylvania, I tracked down relatives, old family friends and neighbours, and asked questions. At my uncle’s house, among my deceased grandmother’s possessions, I discovered a box of mementos and photographs that I’d never seen before. The box was marked with the Jewish surname “Kohan” – the Hungarian version of Cohen. I finally began to believe that my suspicions had been true, and that my father had actually been Jewish.

Back in Canada, I ordered a DNA kit from 23andme, sent in my saliva sample and waited for a month to receive my results. When they came in, it was a surreal experience – one of the most significant days of my life. To realize that after so long, what I had suspected was actually true! I burst into tears of joy, knowing that I was no longer alone – at last I had a past, a history. And well over 20 relatives in the 23andme database with the surname Cohen, some of whom offered their help in piecing together our common ancestry.

23andme EH profile  23andme EH profile2 

Part of my conversion essay:

In my soul, heart and mind, Judaism is more than a religion for me. It’s a shared history, a genetic memory, a family and a connection that has always been just outside the realm of my consciousness, yet was always there. The more I learned about Judaism through my study, the more I felt my bond to the past grow stronger.

My father’s denial of his religion and heritage was like an invisible wall that kept me from my past. But with each day and each hour, the wall becomes increasingly transparent. The bricks fall apart and I begin to see a glimpse of something beautiful and mystical on the other side. The shadows of those great-grandparents and the whispers of their lives comes through to me, through me, and out into my very own existence.

I have had thousands of Jewish ancestors from Poland, Russia, Galicia, Ukraine and Romania, whose truth, lives and stories have been wiped off in only two generations. One hundred years. That is all it took to wipe out my family’s connection to their own lineage and heritage.

I look at the world and wonder how many others walk around unaware that the blood of Sephardic conversos or Ashkenazim forced to hide their religion runs through their veins.

I aim to reclaim that heritage.

“Please read your Declaration of Faith for us, Elisa.”

I stood up and read the piece of paper which I had practically memorized over the past year.

declaration of faith Iosif and Elisa Anna-Philip

Left: my declaration of faith. Centre: my favourite photo of me & my father.  Right: grandmother Ana with her husband.

Afterwards, they asked me to sign it and I did so, then handed it back to them. I answered several questions related to holidays and ritual, and recited a couple of prayers. Then one of the rabbis asked me more about my father’s family. “Did you know the biggest group of immigrants to Israel after the war were from Romania?”

I hadn’t known this, and he smiled at me warmly and told me a story about his friends who had come from the same part of Transylvania as my father. Then our conversation touched on the Holocaust, and I mentioned the profound experience I’d had in my twenties when I visited Europe’s biggest concentration camp, the largest mass-murder site in the world.

Rabbi Fertig sat up. “You were at Auschwitz?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“What was it like?”

I gazed into the distance, recalling the summer of 2001 when I had backpacked across Europe, and how my journey to find my roots had led me to Auschwitz. “I went in the summer, when the grass was this high.” I said, lifting my hand to indicate waist-height. “It was a sunny day. A very beautiful day. The sun was high up in the sky, and there was such a vivid a juxtaposition of life and death. The grass was buzzing with crickets and frogs, filled with life….right up among those terrible barracks at Birkenau. I walked inside the barracks and felt that emptiness….the void, the echoes of the lives that had been lost there.”

Rabbi Levine stared at me for a long time. “So many millions perished in the Holocaust – and now you are returning to the fold.”

“I am but one drop,” I said quietly, my eyes filling with tears.

We all fell silent. After some time, Rabbi Brief asked me, “Have you chosen a Hebrew name?”

There was never any doubt in my mind what my Hebrew name would be – Elisheva, of course. The Hebrew version of my own given name. Better yet, it somehow ‘fit’ me. It felt more right than anything else.

“Elisheva Sarah.”

Rabbi Levine cleared his throat. “I am obliged to inform you that although a Conservative Beit Din is accepted by all conservative and affiliated denominations, some Orthodox will still refuse to see you as Jewish.”

I nodded. “Yes, I know this.”

“Do you have any questions for us?”

I hesitated. “Do you think….will I be accepted by a Reform synagogue?”

The rabbis looked at each other in amusement. “They’re going to love you,” the oldest of the rabbis answered. “Reform already recognizes you as a Jew because you have a Jewish father – so just based on the fact that you still went through this when you didn’t have to.”

Rabbi Levine peered into my eyes. “I read your conversion essay and I have to say it really moved me. You’re a very good writer. A very gifted writer.”

Something stirred inside me. Trying to fight back the knot in my throat, I said, “I’m working on a book to preserve the memory of those in my father’s village who have been forgotten. I want to do this for them – I’m the only one left who still carries their stories. Everyone else has passed.”

He nodded, and his eyes communicated such a deep empathy, such a sense of recognition and understanding, that I had to bite my lip to keep from tearing up. My eyes swept the room – the other rabbis were nodding, acknowledging me. I felt, in that moment, that they were seeing the real me – that part of my core I had kept hidden for so long. The vulnerability. The sadness and the truth of what I’d always known to be true. The real core of me.

Rabbi Levine pushed back from the table. “I am ready,” he said. He looked to the others: “I know it’s cutting this short, but I’m satisfied with this. I’m ready to make this woman Jewish.”

my Mikvah my mikvah2

We walked out of the synagogue and around to the side of the building, where another door stood open. A tall, thin woman waited for us there, her hair covered under a beret-type hat. She beckoned us in and we shook hands. “Welcome Elisheva,” she said, smiling at me. “You can leave your coat and stuff here. I warmed up the water really well for you, and have everything set up for you. Come and let me show you around.”

I smiled back at her, and Carol’s eyes glided to my hair. “You have long, gorgeous hair,” she said with a smile, and I instantly read between the lines. The hair was going to be a problem. Making sure there were no tangles was going to be challenging enough. But then she added, “I’m concerned that it might float up when you submerge. Every strand has to go underwater.”

The rabbis sat down on a small bench in the narrow corridor that led to several rooms, including the one where Carol was leading me. It turned out to be a small but perfectly clean bathroom with a shower stall and all the toiletries one could imagine.

She closed the door behind us and pointed out everything, careful to inspect that I wasn’t wearing any nail polish. I started to remove my earring studs and put them in my backpack while she explained what I already knew – I was to scrub off everything once again, wash my hair thoroughly and brush it so there were no tangles anywhere. Then, when I was ready, to walk through another door wearing little bootsies to keep from slipping and only the towel.

“The Mikvah is completely private,” she assured me. “The rabbis will only listen to the submersion and I will be the only one in the room with you. They will hear you say the prayer, but they cannot see you. I am here to make sure your privacy is respected and I myself will not look at you – when you descend into the Mikvah I will hold up the towel and respect your privacy. You can rest assured that your privacy and modesty will be respected at all times. So take as long as you need to get ready, and I will be on the other side of that door.”

After she left, I tried to keep myself from shaking. To think that I was so close to the Mikvah I’d read so much about, so close to the completion of a journey that had taken me years to achieve!

The bathroom was spartan and super-clean. A shelving unit ran beside the sink, and everything I could possibly have forgotten was there: nail polish remover, cotton balls, extra soap, toothpaste, shampoo, dental floss, even a small vial of Air d’Temps perfume that I planned to spritz on after the ceremony was complete (but forgot to, in the ensuing excitement). As Carol had promised, two different kinds of combs lay ready to tackle my difficult hair. I chose the one with the wider-spaced teeth and bravely stepped into the stone shower stall.

The shower itself was as I’d expected, with the worst part being – of course – running the brush through my well-shampooed (but not conditioned) curls. Needless to say, when it was all said and done I lost more than my usual amount of stray hairs, possibly because I was so excited, nervous and emotional about the ritual to follow that I brushed a bit too impatiently and managed to snap off some more split ends.

The last thing to go were my contact lenses. The Mikvah rules were that nothing could stand in the way of the water immersing the body, not even contacts. I placed the case carefully on the sink ledge and wrapped the fresh white towel around my body.

Then I reached for the door handle and stepped into the other room.

The room was low-lit, with several pot lights illuminating only the water – which was as blue as the sea. The Mikvah was larger than I’d imagined, much larger than a Jacuzzi but not quite the size of a swimming pool.

Am I really here? Is this finally happening? I wondered, gazing in awe at the water that would soon immerse every bit of my being. It’s so beautiful.

I kicked off the bootsies and held still while Carol the Mikvah Lady inspected me in order to pick off any stray hairs that may have fallen down my back. I checked myself also and found an additional long hair that I handed her.

After she discarded the loose hairs, Carol came back and stepped behind me. “You can give me the towel and go in now,” she said, holding the towel I handed her up in front of her – as promised, to protect my modesty. Although I’d wondered what it would feel like being completely naked in front of a stranger, I realized that I didn’t feel embarrassed at all – this felt like such a perfectly natural, even maternal process.

I walked toward the Mikvah and began to descend the seven steps that led down to the main pool. I held the railing and stepped down the seven steps–each one representing a day in the Creation story. Then an unexpected challenge arose: by the fourth step I could already tell that the water was too deep. As in, over my head. I’m not a swimmer by any stretch, and have never managed to hold my own in the deep-end of a swimming pool. I would never be able to touch the bottom.

Over the past year I’d researched anything I could find about other people’s accounts of their conversion ceremonies, but had never read about the situation that confronted me now – being only 5’2” tall, by the time I reached the lowest step I was already immersed up to my chin.

I gazed into the shimmering depths of the main pool and realized, not without a fair amount of trepidation, that I would never be able to stand upright in it. The water was high enough to go over my head. Although I love splashing around in water, I’m not a swimmer and have never managed to tread water in the deep end of a swimming pool.

An irrational fear seized hold of my mind. Has anybody ever drowned in a Mikvah? I wondered, cringing inwardly at the ridiculousness of the question. Worst case scenario, Carol the Mikvah Lady was here, along with three rabbis on the other side of the wall partition. Surely somebody would pull me out if I didn’t resurface after a while, right?

My desire to become a Jew was now confronted head-on by my fear of drowning. The combination didn’t make for a particularly mystical experience. Did I want to convert badly enough to risk drowning? Would you rather live as a Christian or risk drowning to become a Jew?

The answer came hard and fast: YES. Yes, I wanted it that badly. Badly enough to jump off into the deep end, where the water towered above my head – not knowing if I would bob back up or sink right to the bottom.

Over the months that led up to this ceremony, I’d imagined this day to be a peaceful, holy, life-changing process. In a way, this was still partly true – with that tranquil blue water so warm and lovely, lapping at my skin, an aura of serenity had surrounded me. But suddenly another part of me was seized with fear. As anxiety mounted in my chest, I realized that in order to become a Jew I would have to conquer my terror.

I took a deep breath and tried to balance myself on the lowest step, which was really hard because the salt water makes you buoy about, making it impossible to keep your feet firmly planted onto the tiled ground.

“Are you ready?” Carol’s voice resounded behind me. “Take your time. When you’re ready, I want you to take a deep breath and jump away from the step. When you’re fully immersed under the water, lift your legs up so that you don’t touch the bottom to make sure that for an instant, you’re floating free.”

I sucked in a deep breath, steadied myself….and then stepped off the ledge. Water flooded into my eyes, mouth, over my head, and suddenly I was up again, sputtering and flailing toward the metal rail in the corner. I seized hold of it and clambered up onto the last ledge again.

Carol looked at my ungainly flop and smiled sympathetically. “We’ll have to do that one over again. Your hair didn’t go all the way under.”

Strands of my hair had floated to the surface since I hadn’t sank deep enough. “Does this happen a lot?” I asked her.

She nodded. “You’re very buoyant – we all are – so what you’ll need to do is really let go and try to jump up a little when you step away from the stairs. The force of you jumping up will ensure you submerge all the way down.”

I took another deep, shuddering breath, and felt determination flow through my entire body. I hadn’t come this far to allow fear to stop me now. I thought about my father, my grandmother, about our family friend Steve Bendersky and the relatives he’d lost in the war, about the numbers tattooed on his arm, about the heritage that had been denied me. I thought about the people who had been killed over the centuries for being a Jew, about all who had walked down this path before me as converts and embraced their Jewish neshama.

I had come this far. I was ready.

It still felt scary, taking that plunge – but I no longer cared about drowning. I wanted to leap as far into that water as I could, to take it all into my heart, to let it remind me of my strength and ability to survive anything.

I was enveloped in a cocoon of blueness and warmth – the perfect heat of a womb made of nature’s own waters that seemed to have always existed in and around me. I opened my eyes underneath the water which coated every pore of my being and thought, This is the day I was born. Back then, and then again today.

No sooner did that realization hit than a force propelled me upwards – the force of my own buoyancy. I hadn’t drowned after all. In fact, I felt stronger than ever.

Carol’s voice echoed throughout the small room: “Kasher!”

I repositioned myself on the last step, filled my lungs with air, and leapt up again. I sank down into the depths of the Mikvah and didn’t fight it this time – I gave myself to it in body and soul.

When I bobbed back up, Carol called out “Kasher” for the second time.

I half-swam back toward the steps, found my balance again and turned to face the blueness. This would be my third jump. When I came back up again, I would be a Jew.

“Take your time,” Carol said softly. “If you want to take a moment to say a silent prayer – just for yourself.”

I closed my eyes and felt tears brimming behind my eyelashes. I mouthed the words of the Shema silently, for everyone before me, and then again for myself – that I be worthy of that painful, beautiful legacy and that I might contribute toward making the world a better place.

And then I took the biggest leap of my life into the waters that had always waited there for me. I lifted my knees up to my chest and spread my arms out to my sides, and the Mikvah embraced me.

And as I came up to the surface as a Jew, Carol called out for the third time, “Kasher.”

My voice shook as I spoke the words of the final prayer, Shehecheyanu, a prayer uttered by Jews for two thousand years: “Barukh Ata Adonai, Elohenu Melekh Haolam, Shehecheyanu, Vekiyimanu, Vehigiyanu, Lazman Hazeh.”

As soon as I said the last word, “hazeh”, voices all around called out “Mazel Tov!” I heard the rabbis break out into applause from the other side of the partition carved in the wall, congratulating me.

I turned around and emerged out of the water slowly, its warmth following me. Carol was beaming at me, holding out the towel. “Mazel Tov, Elisheva.”

I pitter-pattered back to the bathroom where I was shaking as I toweled off, got dressed as quickly as I could, and put in my contact lenses once again. I was too impatient to take the time needed to blow dry my long hair, and as a result I was still dripping water when I re-emerged into the little room where everyone was waiting for me.

The rabbis surrounded me and put their hands on my shoulders, breaking into song. As they sang, said their blessings and gave me all the official conversion paperwork, tears started to course down my face. They sang the old traditional Siman Tov/Shalom Aleichem song and I just folded my arms across my chest and bit my lip to unsuccessfully stop myself from crying. The oldest rabbi, probably close to eighty, wrapped his arm around my shoulders in a way a father might comfort a daughter and as he held me while I cried, I felt the warmth of his joy – I had come home.

Elisa and rabbis my menorah

Above: me with rabbis after the ceremony.  Right: a beautiful antique menorah – my conversion gift

In April 2015, a couple of years after my conversion to Judaism, I left for Romania in order to research my newest book, Remember Your Name. Because Bucharest is only a two-hour flight from Tel Aviv, I decided to make my first journey to Israel. I also fulfilled a secret wish I’d carried since my conversion – to go to the Western Wall and recite the Mourner’s Kaddish for my father.

IMG_9298 Jerusalem arches IMG_9131

It took me a lifetime to realize that my parents had been a by-product of their time – they had suffered so immensely that they had absorbed their oppression and passed it onto others. They made others suffer because that was the only way they could relate, after the pain they had endured. They hurt me because they themselves had been hurt. And then I too, as a child of their hatred, had tried my best to keep that light of hate alive – because I’d never known another way. So many scarred, wounded people have created the world we live in today, where suffering and oppression breeds brutality.

When I was in Israel, a new understanding flooded me – that my story doesn’t end with dissecting my own family’s hatred and buried identity. It doesn’t end with me converting to Judaism. I’m also digging back further into the history of hidden Jews and forced converts in Europe, and the internalization of hatred, the transformation of victim into oppressor. We see this everywhere today – oppressed becomes oppressor, persecuted people turn the brutalization they suffered into outward brutality – from the peasant workers’ 20th century revolutions that turned into communist dictatorships, to the Jewish-Arab conflict in the Middle East.

It’s all a vicious cycle. A cycle where hatred and religion-fueled intolerance supresses the spark of divine essence, the oneness, that connects all beings. A cycle of hate and judgemental intolerance so brutal that it’s pushed me toward feelings of worthlessness and thoughts of suicide for most of my adult life. Until I realized that the future of humankind doesn’t rest with governments and profit-driven policies but within us – that love is stronger than hate. Unity is stronger than division. Kindness reveals much more courage than brutality. That is where everyone’s G-d resides. In deeds of loving kindness. In recognizing our mistakes and showing forgiveness to those who harmed us. And in understanding that our differences are nothing in comparison to the beautiful light that shines within us all.

Elisa TelAviv sunset yad vashem vista

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Posted in anti-semitism, family, hate, identity, jewish, life, news, religion, romania, thoughts | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments »

Rumania, Rumania…lost like the song

Posted by E on May 21, 2015

field haystacks

I’m writing this post while listening to the old Yiddish song, Rumania Rumania. It’s full of nostalgia for a homeland that has been lost and now forgotten, for its sweet wines, hearty cooks and pretty girls – I’m including a YouTube link to the song at the bottom of this post.

My birthplace. My original homeland. The apex of so much pain, grief and longing. A place that has suffered a thousand years of wars, invasions, pogroms, oppression and terror, and is still in transition. Where it will end up in another century, I have no idea. It is a place I love and hate all at the same time, for so many reasons that are all intertwined so tightly in my heart that I could never fully separate the individual strings and emotions which, like arterial veins, crisscross my connection to this place.

Elisa AteneuElisa haystack Romania2015

Romania is a painfully beautiful, lost country. From the moment you set foot within its borders, everybody from taxi drivers to people sitting on a park bench will tell you about the endemic government corruption, how the rich have ransacked the country and left the poor to despair. But what they don’t tell you, as they cling to the Orthodox religion with hateful fervour, is how religion and xenophobia has poisoned their own hearts.

Bucharest’s Gay Pride parade is on Saturday and already the hate and frenzy has begun online – on several blogs I’ve read people suggesting plans to attack the demonstrators in the name of Jesus and morality. Ever since the Revolution of 1989, the Orthodox Church has been growing in influence and, not coincidentally, so has hostility toward any change in humanitarian rights. Homosexuality has been legalized only since 1996 and to this day (despite having been part of the EU since 2007) Romanian courts still have not granted any form of recognition toward same-sex couples. Forget marriage – they don’t even acknowledge the union between a same-sex couple. Gays can’t adopt. Gays can’t donate blood. For all intents and purposes, gays cannot exist as gay without violent opposition.

I found it telling that, in contrast to North American Pride parades that celebrate fun, diversity and having a great time, the local brochure printed by Accept Romania to describe the march is focused on preventing attacks: after the march, make sure to walk away in pairs. Don’t wear things that can identify you for attack. Meet and leave via the metro, rather than on foot. In Romania, taking part in the Pride Parade is an act of defiance, of insurgency, of rebellion. It is the very definition of courage.

LGBT people here are literally prepared to fight for their rights, to risk being filmed on television and fired the next day, to risk being struck with stones and boots – something that we in the West take for granted. The Stonewall riots of 1969 are hardly on our minds as we walk down the street holding hands with our lovers, shoot our water guns and wear rainbow-coloured necklaces during our Gay Pride weekend street parties. It reminds me of the early days of suffragettes – where women who fought for the right to vote were assaulted on the streets and demonized in the press.

Stonewall-Riots-June-28-1969 

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The Romanian public’s rampant hostility and religious fervour, along with the idea that “We’re not the sinful West, we don’t have many of THOSE kinds over here” (actual words I’ve read on a blog today) is partially fed by ignorance. They don’t realize that gay people are everywhere, including in their own families, because most gays and lesbians rightfully fear coming out to their families and coworkers. How can they, when they live in a country where gays are often called “sodomites” by people who also refer to Jews as “jidani” and openly express contempt toward those of a different ethnicity (i.e. the Roma people). People here have been beaten, assaulted, sentenced to prison and murdered for their right to love.

On a personal level, it disturbs me how many of my own relatives are so brainwashed by dogma that there is nothing left between us. It’s disturbing how a cousin told me a long time ago that she’d prefer if one of her sons died than become a “poponar” (a derogatory term for gay males). Why should it matter to someone, who I love and choose to live with? Who I sleep with is none of her business – just as I don’t care whether she still has sex with the ugly, irascible, xenophobic husband of whom she often complained. Why is her opinion, anybody’s opinion in fact, more important and valid than mine – who appointed her judge and executioner? How can love for your own child be overwritten by such deep-seated hatred for homosexuality that you’d rather he or she died than be free to love whoever they want?

It’s disturbing how easily the previously oppressed have become oppressors. It’s a process I am still working on capturing in my new book, a process that was recently featured on Romanian news.

So for the record, for the sake of any relatives or former classmates who stumble onto this page: I am and have ALWAYS been gay. I love my partner deeply and I am also proud of my East European background. I am not sick, nor am I confused. The abuse (from both genders) that I experienced as a child has nothing to do with my sexual orientation as an adult. And I promise you that I’m not the only lesbian you’ve ever met. In fact, there are people in your own family, at work, sitting on the bus next to you, people just like you, who are attracted to the same sex.

In the end, I will ALWAYS side with love over hate. I will ALWAYS choose love and human rights over allegiance to blood and nation. And if you’d rather choose Jesus over accepting me, my life, my Jewish religion and my chosen spouse, then I am sorry for you but don’t need your judgement in my life. I don’t want to lose hope, but feel that it will take several generations to wipe out the hate I’ve witnessed over here.

Posted in hate, history, homosexuality, ignorance, love, news, personal, religion, romania | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

The most important book I’ll ever write, and it needs YOU

Posted by E on March 20, 2015

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“This story needs to be told and widely read” – reknowned human rights lawyer Paul Copeland

Dear friends, supporters and occasional voyeurs 🙂

everyone who knows me is probably aware of how reticent I am to discuss the details of whatever it is I’m working on – it’s a weird idiosyncrasy common mainly among writers and is the result of a befuddling combination of nerves, superstition (if I talk about it, I’ll jinx it!) and just plain discomfort at being asked questions that demand answers you haven’t quite worked out yourself.

But it’s time for my manuscript to come out of its closet and introduce itself – until now, only a handful of close friends ever knew of its existence. Until last night, I kept it under wraps for many reasons – but now circumstances force me to appeal to all of you and share my first-ever crowd-funding effort for this book.

Please, PLEASE take a moment to click on this link and check out the detailed story behind this manuscript. I feel so strongly about it that I have no doubt it’s the most important, and powerful, book I will ever write. So please – even if you can’t spare a dollar, at least share the Project link among your friends, relatives and whoever you think would be interested in supporting a book that will hopefully make a difference.

REMEMBER YOUR NAME is a memoir that depicts a journey into the roots of hate, identity, human trafficking and self-discovery in Eastern Europe.

It’s also the story of my family, the story of my country, the story of my people.

We all have our own story, but that story doesn’t belong to us: it’s the story of the hometown we came from, the people who gave birth to us and the people who came before them; the kids we went to school with, the neighbors across the road. It’s the story of every individual who came into our path, who added their own presence, experience, emotions, light and darkness to the universe that became our own.

I picked GoFundMe over Kickstarter because of its flexible funding model – which means every single dollar you donate WILL actually reach me, whether I meet my funding objective or not. So please be part of my team and together, let’s make this book happen!

Remember Your Name is a memoir about memory, heartbreak and belonging. Tying together six hundred years of revolutions, cruelty, despair and transformation, this is a luminous journey of love, loss and hate into the heart of a memory that refuses to be forgotten.

I am deeply grateful for anything you can do to help. Thank you.

Posted in abuse, ancestry, hate, jewish, love, manuscript, media, revolution, writer, writing | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Memories of my communist childhood – growing up under the red banner

Posted by E on December 28, 2007

 

 

After my last post, in which I wrote about my impressions of Cuba, I received some mixed feedback – exactly half of the commentators were against the Cuban regime, and half advocating earnestly for it. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of middle room for discussion when it comes to communist systems of government, does it? I’m not entirely sure what a middle ground would look like, but like any other battle of sectarian ideologies, this battle-line is drawn down the middle with a clearly-defined marker.

My opinions differ from most people I know, not necessarily in their ideology as much as from the formative experiences that have shaped who I am. I am a product of a so-called utopian society that like most others, found its end in a bloody revolution. There are many who still long for the good old times, simply because nobody ever was taught to think for themselves. For many decades, the people of my homeland were brought up to fear what was above them, the Golden Father of all Children, and when his regime fell so many older people didn’t know how to take care of themselves since they had always relied on the state to provide, to teach, and to think for them.

I was one of Ceausescu’s last batch of communism-raised children. We were an experimental generation of youth raised under the shade of a red star, in the Golden Epoch of our Fatherland. Our homeland, our Patria, was what we swore allegiance to. In grade 2, I received my Red Scarf and became a Pioneer. I remember that day clearly – for weeks I practiced memorizing a poem about our Great Father Nicolae Ceausescu that I later recited flawlessly in front of the Pioneer Assembly. In grade 3 I was stripped of one of my pioneer medals because my mother was a political defector. My father and I were followed by the Securitate for two years while we waited for our departure papers under the Red Cross Family Reunification program. In grade 4 I learned how to shoot a rifle. Officially, I became a child soldier for our homeland.

I loved my country. I truly, deeply appreciate that I had the opportunity to grow up sheltered from violence, from materialism, from being over-sexualized at an early age. I loved my uniform, my internal sense of fairness truly appreciating the equality that this white shirt and pleated navy skirt represented: all children, gypsies, christians, jews, all faiths and social classes brought together under one flag, one song, one classroom.

At the same time, I saw a country brought to its knees under the weight of its foreign exports. All of our rich resources were being exported to pay for Romania’s increasing debtload, a debt incurred as part of Ceausescu’s attempts at civilizing its people from its bourgeois roots: churches and villages were raised to the ground in order to pave roads and build collective farms and factories. People were reduced to a name on a ration card, one kilogram of flour and sugar per month, a litre of oil. Nothing more or less.

I remember standing in those lines: the line for bread, for butter, for meat, for books – any leftover money from people’s salaries was spent in a desperate attempt to buy food. There was never enough food for everybody. You could line up at 5 a.m. and it still didn’t guarantee there would be enough left by the time your turn came to the cashier. People made a habit of lining up: they didn’t know what kind of meat would be available at the butcher’s that day, but they arrived promptly at 5 in the morning, always five in the morning – for bread, for clothing, for various amenities.

And what did those people do in those lines? They laughed, they cried, they cursed “Him” who could not be named, but everybody knew – we were all co-conspirators, well-versed in the language of innuendos, scathing jokes and trepidation. Unlike the socialist red banner we lived in, nobody loved their neighbour. Everybody was jealous of each other – tried to figure out who had more, how they got it, and if we could get it too. People called secret, anonymous phone lines and denunced their neighbours for nothing more than a move to a better apartment or a better job assignment.

Under the red banner, I knew hunger, I knew pain, and what I experienced most of all – was fear. A deep, breath-taking fear that crushed your voice inside your ribs. You didn’t look up, you didn’t ask Why, you just obeyed. I knew people who worked at collective farms who went to jail for holding back a chicken from the monthly counts, just to feed their families a bit more protein. Only those who worked for the Party, the State, the Securitate, would have access to foreign currency and could go to that wondurous place we only heard stories about: the Shop. At the Shop, you could buy toblerone bars and Nescafe coffee, and loads of products we spied foreign tourists being served in fancy restaurants. Unfortunately, I never bought anything at the Shop. It was not for people like us. While Ceausescu was building the second-largest palace in the world after the Taj-Mahal, replete with gold bathroom fixtures, I remained underweight for my age.

Sometimes I wonder if anybody who glorifies a system like that of Romania, the Eastern Bloc, like Cuba and China’s, has ever lived inside this world. I don’t wonder this very often since I already know the answer: they have not. Nobody who has lived inside this world of sensory and emotional deprivation would wish for it again. Sure, nowadays Romanians will grumble that: “Before we had money but no food, now we have lots of food but no money to buy it.” But if questioned again about their past, their eyes glaze over and deep sighs can be heard. The emotional blackness of those days will always scar the lining of our souls.

Ceausescu meant well. So did Marx, and Che, and even Adolf (yes, I am mixing political affiliations!). Nobody starts out with the desire to massacre the spirit of their nation. But through deeds that are meant to be “for the good of others”, the result remains the same. Atrocity and sadness remains the legacy of so many regimes where scores of nameless people perish in the name of a warped ideology. Even after the 1989 Revolution, the scars remain, and they will remain there, imprinted on my heart, for the rest of my life.

I miss my childhood, the people I will never see again, the friends and neighbours who we have lost touch with, who all fled in the night to Australia, America, and Europe. One day you had lunch with somebody, the next day they were gone – and you didn’t know whether they had been arrested or paid someone to smuggle them over the border. As for myself, I never wanted to leave my homeland – I was dragged, kicking and screaming, away from it at age 10. In retrospect, it was already too late – I inherited my country’s history in my genes; its pulse beat in my veins like a tumultuous river. Even when citizenship was forcibly stripped from me as a defector, I remained Romanian. It was a thing they could never take away.

Nowadays, when I meet other Romanians I search for the legacy of the terror in their eyes: there is a darkness there, always, a haunted look that lies behind their smiles, their happy countenance. I see other survivors of my generation, other experimental byproducts of a world where walls cound talk, and where a whisper could mean exile. We walk like aliens among Canadians in this country, like wolves in sheep’s clothing – we are not of your world, this world of smiles and polite conversations. We are survivors of something that cannot be fathomed by those who are fortunate enough to have been born here.

I came from a world where being a lesbian would have meant a mandatory five-year jail sentence with hard labour. A world where my writing would be censored and condemned. Where my poetry would have to be dedicated to the Party. Where my life would forever remain not a burning flame, but a sigh.

I have realized that those people who continue the lovely fairytale of a communist utopia surely must not have experienced it. To be perfectly honest, I would absolutely love it if a true socialist state could exist in this world – a state of egalitarianism where all are cared for and provided by a loving government. But that will never happen, since it is not within the boundaries of human nature – it is by default that we strive to compete with each other, to outdo each other’s accomplishments, to work harder and seek greater peaks than those of our neighbours’. By default, true socialism cannot work. I have met leftists who said to me “Oh, but Elisa dear, what you experienced wasn’t truly communism, but state capitalism.” Because of course, they considered themselves experts of socialist systems, and every time one failed, it was attributed to the fact that “Well, that wasn’t REALLY socialism anyway, or a failed attempt at communism.” This came from well-meaning but confused activists, naive individuals who refused to acknowledge that every failure of communism over the last hundred years has been a sign of its instability and profound inability to ever be implemented.

Because as tough and hard-core a leftist as you can be, when you are inside oppression and you suffer in silence, you have but one of two choices: become the enemy, or be broken. On the tree-lined boulevards of Bucharest, in Moscow’s squares, on Beijing’s winding streets, and in the slums of Havana, people survived the only way they know how: a breath at a time.

To all deniers of oppression worldwide – shame on you. What is so quickly forgotten is destined to be repeated.

Posted in activism, canada, censorship, children, communism, cuba, freedom, gay, lesbian, life, politics, propaganda, revolution, romania, russia | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 17 Comments »