Author reveals intimate history of family, Sephardim

During Victor Perera's visit to Jerusalem in 1973, his aunts brought out a document and said: "This will explain what happened to your father and uncles in Guatemala."

Written in Hebrew by his great-grandfather Rabbi Yitzhak Moshe Perera of Jerusalem, the document warned sons and grandsons never to leave the Holy Land without consent "from now to eternity." This testament also contained a curse with three degrees of excommunication of anyone who dared to break it.

"All of that fascinated me," the 61-year-old Berkeley resident said.

This incident, in addition to decades of genealogical research, led to Perera's new book, "The Cross and the Pear Tree: A Sephardic Journey."

The non-fiction work traces Perera's surname back to 14th century Toledo, Spain. The book simply could have been a climb up his family tree, but Perera weaves in pieces of lore and history. This intimate tale of the Perera family becomes the history of all Sephardim.

By researching Spanish and Portuguese archives, Perera traces his distant relatives through the forced conversions and subsequent horrors of the Inquisition and the expulsion from Spain in 1492.

The Pereras, like most, did not escape the terror of the Sephardic past. The author, in fact, writes that, for his ancestors, the Inquisition was "a holocaust stretched out over centuries."

Those who converted but were accused of secretly continuing to practice Judaism were labeled marranos, Spanish for swine. Many of these New Christian ancestors later were tortured or burned alive.

The book then follows the Jews who chose exile over conversion as they migrated to Amsterdam, France, Jerusalem, Guatemala and the United States.

In the last half of the book, Perera shifts almost exclusively to his own life as a 20th century Sephardi growing up in Guatemala and Brooklyn. He also traces his career as a journalist and author.

"The Cross and the Pear Tree" is Perera's sixth book. Researching and writing this one, Perera said, helped him uncover his great-grandfather's motive for drawing up the document and its curse.

"I realized that behind the curse is a marrano anxiety," he said.

His great-grandfather apparently believed that Jews could only remain Jewish and free of danger by staying in Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. Though he has chosen to live outside the Jewish state, Perera, in some ways, agrees with his great-grandfather's analysis.

Perera's father left Jerusalem to join his brothers who were running a department store in Guatemala in the 1920s. Perera was born in the Central American country and criticizes his father because he "all but turned me into a marrano" by shunning religious education and ritual. The most dramatic example of this negligence is Perera's revelation that he underwent two circumcisions.

His first circumcision was performed by a non-Jewish doctor, whom his father purposely chose in an attempt to dispense with religion. But the inexperienced doctor botched the operation by leaving behind a small flap of foreskin. Five years later, a rabbi learned of the incident and persuaded Perera's father that only a proper brit would make the child a Jew.

The anxiety of Perera's great-grandfather about the diaspora has a historical foundation as well. The family surname — alternatively spelled Pereira — is actually an old Christian appellation and means that at some point family members had converted. The name itself translated from Spanish means pear orchard or pear cultivator. The family's original Jewish name was Abendana, or Son of Dana.

The book's title, which describes the contents of the family's coat of arms, also reflects this religious digression. The Christian branch of the family incorporated a cross in a stylized floral design. The Jewish branch replaced the cross with a pear tree.

"The cross is part of every Sephardic Jewish experience," Perera said. "The fact remains we were Christian for a time."

Today, Perera considers himself "deeply Jewish" and "quintessentially Sephardic." But he also describes himself as a "twice-a-year Jew" who observes only the High Holy Days and Passover and harbors great ambivalence toward strict observance.

This is the third book of Perera's to focus on Jewish heritage. "The Conversion," published in 1970, was a Sephardic novel set in Spain. "Rites: A Guatemalan Boyhood," published in 1986, was a memoir of his childhood.

Perera believes his newest book may be his last about Jews because he isn't sure he has more to say on the subject. His next book will focus on whales.

But Perera considers himself fortunate for taking a journey of discovery that, for him, was somewhat akin to therapy. Studying his lineage in depth has liberated Perera from the awe and mystery generated by the document his aunts showed him more than 20 years ago.

"It has lifted the sense of curse. It has humanized the story for me," he said.