Am I Jewish?

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Surreal moment of a woman who has to choose which imaginary scale to climb to the sky

Iskah Esther Tarashi is the only chareidi diplomat in Israel, serving as commercial attache at the Costa Rican Embassy in Tel Aviv. Ami Magazine recently caught up with her in Greece, where she had gone to give a presentation on trade to government authorities and the business community. This regal woman, who speaks gently and peppers her story with phrases like “baruch Hashem,” grew up asking if she was Jewish, and she waited decades for the only answer she could accept.

I was born and raised in Costa Rica, a peaceful country known for its coastline, rain forests and mountain ranges. The state religion is Roman Catholicism. I went to a parochial school, and all of my family and friends were practicing Catholics. I didn’t have any exposure to Judaism until high school,
when my social studies teacher gave me an assignment to research my family’s genealogical tree. When I asked my parents and grandparents some questions, my father’s mother,
whom I called Tita, said, “There are some parts of our history that are best kept hidden.” I became very curious, but she wouldn’t tell me any more.
When our class studied the religions of the world and learned about Judaism, I recognized a lot of the Jewish behaviors: My grandmother lit candles on Friday night, kept separate utensils for meat and milk, dressed modestly and covered her hair when she prayed. I asked her, “Tita, why are you doing these things?” She said, “It’s the tradition of our family. We don’t talk about it.” But I couldn’t stop asking the question, “Am I Jewish?”

We recently hired a firm in Spain to do a full family genealogy. They traced our roots going back 17 generations. We discovered that no one is Jewish on my mother’s side, but my father’s family comes from anusim (conversos) who escaped the Spanish Inquisition.
As a teenager, something stirred inside me. I started to have trouble saying the Catholic prayers in school. I couldn’t stop thinking about Judaism. I went to the only Judaica store in the country and bought a Tanach and a transliterated siddur.
When I was 20 years old, I went to the synagogue and told the rabbi I wanted to convert. He turned me down, saying, “Conversions from Latin America won’t be accepted anywhere.”
I wanted to start keeping kosher, but the only kosher restaurant was inside the synagogue, and they wouldn’t let me in because I wasn’t Jewish. So I went to the market to search for kosher items. I remember how excited I was to find challah and Kedem grape juice. It was a confusing time. I was reaching towards Hashem, but I didn’t really know what that meant. I bought more books and kept reading and learning.
I married a Catholic. It felt like the only option—which just shows how little I actually understood about becoming a Jew. My daughter’s birth triggered a strong feeling in me that something had to change. I didn’t want her to grow up Catholic. My husband, who had become a lay leader, only wanted her to grow up Catholic.
My husband and I argued a lot about religion. One day, I decided I’d had enough. I took my daughter, left the house, and never returned. It was a frightening time in my life. My husband and I divorced, and I became a single mother. I
didn’t know a lot about Judaism, but I celebrated the Jewish holidays with my daughter.
In 2011, a rabbi from Monsey visited Costa Rica, and I approached him to ask how to convert. He told me that I should fly to the United States with my daughter and go through giyur there. But I couldn’t afford the tickets, accommodations or missed time from work.
It was a hard path, wanting to convert and facing so many obstacles. Every once in a while I’d get frustrated and think, Who needs this? Why am I fighting so hard to be a Jew? Then I’d feel that yearning inside to be close to Hashem. I’d think about what it says in the davening, about how Hashem runs the whole world and what a gift it is to be close to Him. Who wouldn’t want that?

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