December 12, 2018

A Woman of All Faiths

Above the ancient port of Jaffa, next to a lighthouse, is the house of Simon the Tanner, where, according to Christian tradition, Jesus’ apostle Peter had a divine vision in which he was told it was OK to eat nonkosher animals, and which he interpreted as permission to forgo Jewish law and preach Christianity to Jews as well as pagans. 

Today, an elderly Armenian Christian woman lives in the house. Her husband’s family, the Zakarians, have maintained and operated the fabled lighthouse for generations. t is perhaps ironic then, that Mrs. Zakarian’s grandchildren grew up keeping kosher. All but one of her grandchildren from her daughter, Miriam, converted to Judaism.

That one is Sylvia Garaysa. Her choice to remain a Christian was not an obvious one. Then again, nothing in her childhood home was obvious. Her mother, Miriam, married Shlomo Zazon, a traditional Jew from Fez, Morocco, and out of respect for her husband, Miriam kept a kosher home. Her children were told they could fast on Yom Kippur if they wished. The matzo, bitter herbs and shank bone on their seder table were flanked by a bowl of pastel-colored Easter eggs. At Christmas, her father would bring home a pine tree for the children to decorate. 

Later, well-meaning neighbors would tell Garaysa that living in the Jewish state would be much easier if she were to follow in her five siblings’ footsteps and convert. “But I refused. I was born this way,” she said. “It’s not right for me, spiritually. It’s not a part of my destiny.”

Destiny is a word that comes up frequently in our conversation. Garaysa firmly believes she was put on Earth to fulfill a higher purpose particular to her, but that doesn’t nullify any one religion in her mind. “If I believe in God, then I have to believe in these three religions,” she said. 

She interlaced her fingers. “It’s a puzzle that connects to itself.” 

In her house once owned by a rabbi, Sylvia Garaysa, daughter of an Armenian Christian and a Moroccan Jew, wife of an Arab, has a kindergarten with children of different faiths.

But it didn’t always. When she was a young girl, her multiple and often clashing identities would leave her confused. “When you’re a child, it’s a great weight [to bear]. Who am I? What am I? And why do I need to go through this?”

Garaysa was lucky enough to marry Rami, an Arab Christian who loved and accepted all of her sparring identities. They live in a house that belonged to a rabbi, which, she said, is no coincidence. “There are hidden things here, which help us along the way,” she said, her eyes welling up. Garaysa frequently becomes emotional, a trait that seems at odds with her strong-willed persona but that also endears her to those who know her. 

Fifteen years ago, after the birth of her eldest daughter, Aline, Garaysa dreamed she would open a kindergarten. It would be a seismic career shift from her job as a bookkeeper. Today, in her house once owned by a rabbi, Garaysa, daughter of an Armenian Christian and a Moroccan Jew, wife of an Arab and mother of four, has a kindergarten with children from Arab, Muslim, Christian, Sephardic, Ashkenazic, Ethiopian, religious and secular families — not an easy feat in a place as politically charged as Jaffa. Yet, in a decade and a half, not a single parent has had a politics- or faith-related objection to the way she runs her kindergarten.

Garaysa said her pupils are her spiritual children, and they are part of one heart.  

In springtime, the children hold a mock seder with matzo and a seder plate and, yes, Easter eggs. On Yom HaAtzmaut, they paint an enormous dove with the colors of the rainbow. 

 “You’re all a part of Israel,” Garaysa tells the children,. “It is my country the same way as it is yours. And what’s beautiful about it is that it is full of color.”