I invited Hannah Eyal to speak at AACI Netanya, and she entitled her talk “Depth of Jewish Identity.” She grew up as a normal Catholic girl in Porto, Portugal, but she never felt religious. Her family had some unusual customs that her grandmother had brought with her from her village, that she thought of as old superstitions. Her grandmother never went to Church, although her parents occasionally did. She grew up questioning everything and found herself not believing in Christianity.
After she had received her MA in psychology at the age of 25 she decided to take a trip to India and Nepal in a quest for spirituality. There she met for the first time a group of Israelis and she was amazed by them, she was astonished to learn that there were still Jews living in the Holy Land, which she thought was only an ancient Biblical story. When she went around in Nepal, people kept saying “shalom” to her, that she assumed was a Nepalese greeting, but the Israelis laughed at her and told her, no it is Hebrew, they think you are Israeli.
In India she met more Israelis in a cafe and found herself able to communicate with them (in English) more easily that she had ever experienced before. She found one particular Israeli, Shai, very helpful and she had an intense conversation with him about Judaism and Israel and her feelings. At first there was nothing romantic about this, but later they saw each other and there was a certain understanding that this was deeper. Later they agreed to keep communicating after they returned home, but remember that he was a Jewish Israeli and she a Catholic Portuguese. After she returned home she told her parents and then Shai came to visit and met her parents, and then they decided to get married and soon she visited Israel. At first she did not experience any particular feelings, but as she landed she started crying and had a feeling of “return” and as she learned the history and went to the Kotel, she had a strong spiritual feeling.
She returned to Portugal to tell her parents about her trip. She mnetioned the 6 pointed star that all Israeli women wear and her mother told her about a particular star that her mother had given her when she was 12 (as the oldest daughter) that would protect her. Hannah asked her mother to find this star and she did and of course it turned out to be a Magen David (star of David). She also found several other practices that were typical of the Anousim (secret Jews) who were labelled “New Christians” by the Portuguese (and Spanish). Such as: sweeping towards the center of the room, not to the door (where the holy mezuzah had been), covering mirrors when someone died, washing ones hair after menstruation (as in a mikve), and more. Also, she researched her family genealogy and found that they had typical Anousim names. At that point she decided that she had Jewish origins and a strong feeling of identity and she decided to convert.
She came to Israel and converted in 1.5 years, although her visa did not allow her to work (it was very difficult). But, with Shai’s help she persevered and obtained the certificate of conversion and then they were married in a Jewish ceremony, with her parents present. She pointed out that Bnei Anousim come to their discovery and reconnection to Judaism and the Jewish people as individuals, each has a unique story, not as a large group as in the case of the Soviet or Ethiopian Jews. But, there are millions of Bnei Anousim living in Brazil, Portugal and elsewhere and nothing is being done to help them. There needs to be a complete change of attitude in Israel, among the people, the rabbinate and the State. Now she is pregnant with a daughter and she feels that she has found her true place and that she is reestablishing the cruelly interrupted chain of Jewish continuity. It was a very moving and inspirational message.