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Coming Out of Hiding to Reclaim Your Roots

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MATURE student Shulamit Hudson was born Constanza Parra into a family of hidden Jews in a small town in Colombia, South America.

 

Happy to have at last found her spiritual home in Prestwich, Manchester, the mother-of-four has spoken about the hidden Jewish practices which both sides of her family had kept for generations.

Her own spiritual journey back to her Jewish roots had detours in China and Cheltenham.

"I was born in a small town where there was no Jewish community," Shulamit said. "I come from an anusim (hidden Jewish) background."

Her maternal great-great-grandmother converted to Catholicism in the late 19th century when the Catholic Church held political sway over the newly-emerging Colombian republic.

Shulamit said: "She became almost antisemitic, talking about how problematic it was to be Jewish and how difficult were the rules.

"Her daughter, my great-grandmother, felt very embarrassed that her mother had taken that approach."

To defy her mother's anti-Jewish stance, Shulamit's great-grandmother actually learned and practised shechita - a skill she passed onto Shulamit's grandmother.

"When I was growing up I thought I had an allergy to pork," Shulamit said. "We never ate pork. My maternal grandmother always killed the chickens we ate."

A childhood incident springs to her mind when her local community were slaughtering a pig as part of their Christmas celebrations.

Appalled at the way the assembled townspeople and the slaughterer were taunting the trapped pig, Shulamit's grandmother, Candida Cormona, demanded that the animal be allowed to die with dignity.

Dismissing the assembled crowds, except for her young granddaughter, she very quietly said a little prayer and slaughtered the pig at its neck.

Shulamit said: "She knew exactly what to do. She was touching the knife and saying look how sharp it is, without nicks. She didn't like killing big animals, only chickens.

"Although we were with the other townspeople, we were not going to eat the pork, but she could not bear the thought of everyone watching the pig's cruel death."

Shulamit's friends, whom she used to bring home for meals, used to tease her because she always threw away an egg with a blood spot.

She said: "My grandmother would not allow me to use an egg with a blood spot because it was fertilised. I could not understand how my friends could eat such eggs.

"We only ate very soft cheese, bola, which was freshly made with no rennet. I was told that hard cheese was horrible and smelly and you shouldn't eat it.

"No-one explained to me why we performed the customs we did."

As mezzuzot were forbidden by the Catholic Church, Shulamit's grandmother put Psalms in either Hebrew, Ladino or Spanish behind every door of their home.

Shulamit's paternal grandfather was a butcher. In the 1940s, when the Catholic Church still had a lot of power in Colombia, they threatened to close his shop because he refused to go to church on Sundays and pay the church tithes.

For business reasons he joined the church, but changed his surname from de la Parra to just Parra.

Shulamit said: "When he decided to move into the Catholic Church, he took the 'de la' out of Parra because he felt that it meant 'belonging to'. When he moved away from Jewish practice, he said, 'I don't belong anywhere'."

Her father, Silvio Parra, was sent to a Catholic school in Manizales, a nearby city with a Jewish community.

Shulamit said: "He made many Jewish friends. He was supposed to be in the school's Jesuit church early on Sundays. He told the school he was staying with relatives, but they were not relatives, but Jewish friends.

"He had to fight against the school. My grandfather kept bribing the school to leave him alone for not going to church. It was always a problem. My father always wished he lived in a Jewish community.

"My father told me he always felt an outsider. We didn't feel comfortable. It's a very strange feeling when you know you are a member of the community in the place you grew up, but that you are different."

Shulamit's family did not work on Shabbat unless they had to. For seven years Silvio was forced to work on the holy day.

But Shulamit said: "Apart from that he never drove on Shabbat. When he later owned a farm, he would pay his farm workers on Friday at 1pm, and dismissed them until Monday."

She continued: "When I was growing up, I wished I could be Jewish. I wished we had a Jewish community in our town.

"I dressed differently. I used to dress with long sleeves. In Colombia girls were wearing very low-cut shirts and were showing their navels. Many were having breast implants.

"I was raised to dress covered up. My family were so Jewish, so proper in their manners."

At 15, Shulamit went for a holiday with an aunt in the Colombian capital of Bogota and stayed there for a school term.

She said: "I met a very nice Jewish family and used to stay there for Shabbat. The father said that he was surprised because I felt like one of the daughters of the house.

"It was normal for me to stand up for the blessing of the wine. It felt so normal being with Jews. When I went back to my hometown, my father was really upset. He said that he wished we could move to Bogota and be Jewish."

After finishing school in her hometown, Shulamit went to medical school in Cali. But homesick and ill with gall bladder problems, she left after three semesters and transferred to a closer university to study medicine and languages.

It was there that she met her ex-husband Dominic Hudson, an English volunteer installing biodigesters on coffee farms and training the local community in their use.

Although not Jewish, Dominic appeared to share Shulamit's Jewish values.

She said: "He had similar customs and never ate pork. Dominic was very spiritual. He prayed three times a day, including at 5am. He only ate a few animals, fish or chicken, and he wanted to circumcise our four sons. He thought circumcision important."

Three months after their marriage, with Shulamit still at university at the age of 18, Dominic was offered a job providing water treatment for ICI and British Steel in Brecon, Wales.

In the UK, Shulamit found herself pregnant with her eldest son Malcolm, now 18. Sandy, 17, Sebastian, 15, and 10-year-old Stefan followed. The couple divorced amicably when Stefan was one.

With her university education disrupted, Shulamit was looking for ways of supporting herself financially. After training as a TEFL teacher of foreign languages, she found that the only decent jobs available were in China, where she went with Stefan.

There she taught languages and translated for a trading company.

She returned to the UK because she was missing her other children and set up her own business.

Living in Cheltenham, which was near to where her elder sons had moved with their father, she felt that God guided her in her successful business enterprises of selling made-in-China remote control helicopters in the winter and sunglasses at motorway service stations in the summer.

Once Stefan was at school, Shulamit decided to continue her university education and was accepted to study Chinese culture at Manchester University.

She arrived in 2009 and settled in Chorlton.

She said: "At Manchester University, my Argentinean friends teased me for being too conservative and old-fashioned in the way I dressed. Again I was feeling odd and different."

She decided to seek out a Jewish community where she could feel comfortable and started making the hour-long walk to Sale Hebrew Congregation.

But while looking for a Sephardi congregation, she met Hedva Abel and her brother Rabbi Ariel Abel at Manchester University post-graduate centre, where Shulamit is proceeding to a master's degree in Latin American and Chinese culture.

The Abels encouraged her to go to the Congregation of Spanish and Portuguese Jews, in Moor Lane, Salford.

Not wanting to drive to shul on Shabbat, she recently moved to Prestwich and Stefan is now a pupil at Manchester's King David School.

Shulamit said: "Now that I am living in a Jewish community, I feel permanently aware of being Jewish. I feel very much that I have come home.

"My father said that I am taking him and his family back to something they missed and wanted, that I am taking them back home."

He told her: "It is so difficult to live a life in hiding. You feel you are a foreigner. I wish I could have done the same. I wish I had been braver when I was younger and forgot about what everyone said and went to Bogota to have lived a Jewish life."

And the Jewish future looks good for Shulamit's sons, the two youngest of whom are also now practising Jews and the elder two practise as much as they feel able to.