Victor Perera, writer and Sephardic authority, 69, dies

Victor Haim Perera was haunted by a curse. His great-grandfather, Rabbi Yitzhak Moshe Perera of Jerusalem, had warned his sons and grandsons never to leave the Holy Land without consent "from now to eternity."

The author of "The Cross and the Pear Tree: A Sephardic Journey," a nonfiction work largely about that curse, died in Santa Cruz on June 14. He was 69.

Perera's parents were Sephardim from Jerusalem who immigrated to Guatemala City in the 1920s.

"Why Guatemala?" he asked in a talk sponsored by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture at Stanford University in 1998. "I've written four books to try to answer that question, and the closest I've come is, why Guatemala?"

When he was 12, his family moved to New York City. After graduating from Brooklyn College, he got a master's degree in English literature from the University of Michigan.

Perera worked at various times for The New Yorker, The New Republic and The New York Times Magazine. From 1972 to 1979 he taught journalism and creative writing at U.C. Santa Cruz, and then taught at the Graduate School of Journalism at U.C. Berkeley from 1993 to 1998.

Perera was "a man of intense and diverse interests, all connected by a search for a kind of mystical affinity or spirituality," his friend Bernard Taper, a retired U.C. Berkeley professor, who met Perera back in his New Yorker days, told the Bulletin in 1998.

"The Cross and the Pear Tree" was not only about Perera's own family but about the history of Sephardic Jewry. In that work, he blamed his father, who turned away from Jewish ritual, for "all but turn[ing] me into a Marrano," Perera told the Bulletin in 1995, referring to Sephardim who converted to Christianity but secretly continued to practice Judaism.

Doing the book was a form of therapy for him, he said in 1995. "It has lifted the sense of the curse. It has humanized the story for me."

Perera's ambivalence about Judaism continued throughout his life. In 1995, he described himself to the Bulletin as "deeply Jewish" and "quintessentially Sephardic," but also as a "twice-a-year Jew" who had no tolerance for strict observance.

Perera's other works focused on the Guatemalan Civil War, and the Lacandon Mayas of the Mexican rainforest.

"The Cross and the Pear Tree" is one of three books Perera wrote with Jewish themes. "The Conversion," published in 1970, is a historic novel about the Jews of Spain, and "Rites: A Guatemalan Boyhood," published in 1986, is a memoir of his childhood.

Perera was a co-founder of the Los Angeles-based Ivri-NASAWI, an organization intended to promote Sephardic-Mizrachi culture.

In 1998, Jordan Elgraby, Ivri-NASAWI's other co-founder, said Perera was irreplaceable in the Sephardic academic community. Elgraby is currently at work on an anthology of Perera's work that will be published in the fall.

Berkeley author Rebecca Camhi Fromer compared Perera's influence on modern Sephardic culture to that of Philip Roth or Bernard Malamud on 20th century Ashkenazi culture.

His latest project was a book on whales. Judy Frankel of San Francisco, who came to know Perera through her interest in singing Sephardic songs, told the Bulletin in 1998, "He actually felt that he had communicated with the whales. He was absolutely positive that whales know about humans and want to be close to us."

In 1998, Perera had just taken a swim at Tilden Park's Lake Anza, when he suffered a stroke from which he never fully recovered. He then moved to a rehabilitation facility in Santa Cruz.

A year after his stroke, he had regained his ability to speak, but he was only able to do so with great difficulty.

In 1999, a benefit was held by his friends to help pay for his care. Held at the Portola Valley home of Myra Lappin, the event drew more than 100 people and raised nearly $5,500. Lappin, who had studied Ladino with Perera, said he inspired her to do genealogy work, which led to her discovery that she had some Sephardic roots.

"Even though my ancestry is Eastern European, I always had an intuitive sense that there were roots that had been overlooked," Lappin told the Bulletin in 1999. "Victor was a large part of opening my eyes to a culture that I belonged to but was largely unaware of."

Perera was divorced; he is survived by his nephew Daniel Perera of San Francisco.

Donations can be sent to: Ivri-NASAWI, 1033 N. Orlando Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90069

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."