A long-time resident of Santa Cruz and Berkeley, Victor Perera suffered a stroke in July 1998 which has  silenced his voice. Contributions to the author are managed through the organization he cofounded, Ivri-NASAWI. Call (323) 650-3157 for details or click here.

This story originally appeared in Metro Santa Cruz, in theSeptember 23-29, 1998 edition.

Bridge Builder: With an identity forged from three cultural streams, Victor Perera reminds us of the complexity of being.


In Praise of Empathy: Perera as the Other-Sider

by Jordan Elgrably

The first thing I noticed about Victor Perera when we met five years ago was that he is a man of extraordinary empathy — a compassionate observer, a spiritual secularist and certainly someone who cannot be contained by ordinary boundaries. You could call him an exemplar of the Abrahamic line; Abraham, that early rebel who rejected idolatry, gave up his wealthy inheritance and set out across the desert in search of a higher truth. Abraham called himself an "Ivri"—a border crosser or "other-sider." The story of Victor Perera's life and that of his antecedents fulfills this ancient pattern of crossing over to the other side, using free will to take fate into your own hands.

An author, a progressive journalist and a much-beloved educator who made his home in Santa Cruz and the San Francisco Bay Area for many of the past 25 years, Perera forged his identity from three cultural streams, that of Latin America and his native Guatemala; the peregrinations of Sephardic Jews kicked out of Spain some half a millennium ago; and the life he's made for himself in the United States, ever since he arrived in Brooklyn as an awkward teenager. The son of a wealthy Guatemala City merchant, Victor Perera emigrated to the States and fell in love with the English language. "I remember thinking of myself as a chameleon when I came here," he said in a 1995 interview with me for the Washington Post. "I started forgetting Spanish and learned to speak Brooklynese."

Although Perera's native languages were Spanish and Ladino, he has written his five books in English. His last book, in fact, is a brilliant memoir that tells the story of his Sephardic roots. The Cross and the Pear Tree, a Sephardic Journey, begins with reminiscences of his mother Tamar Nissim Perera, who spoke seven languages. Yet I wonder: if one is a polyglot (and Perera followed in the family linguistic tradition), and if language is the collective memory of a people, and Sephardic Jews have many languages, what does that say about our cultural identity?

"There's a very clear answer." Victor replied. "The cultural memory of the Sephardim after the Expulsion [from Spain] is a memory of Diaspora, and each of those languages ... is a reflection of that state of diaspora: state of exile, state of expatriation, the state of survival."

He experienced his Ivri/other-sider atavism when he married Padma Hejmadi, an East Indian he fell in love with in Ann Arbor and married in New Delhi, "on an astrologically auspicious day on her Sanskrit calendar." Hejmadi's mother, it turns out, was an Aryan Brahmin "whose forebears came from Ur, in Sumeria. Ur, of course, was the birthplace of Abraham, the father of us all, a coincidence that took the kick out of our miscegenation and made us feel like long-long cousins," Perera writes in the essay "On Being Sephardic."

In between a stint on the editorial staff of The New Yorker and publishing a novel, The Conversion (which ironically earned him a favorable comparison with Saul Bellow—ironic because Sephardic Jewish authors have so often been invisible, and when one gets noticed, who is he compared with), Perera taught at Vassar, and later became a familiar face on the faculties of UC Santa Cruz and UC Berkeley. Yet as much as he loved the attention that comes to the gifted teacher, he was ever restless, ready to pack a bag and be off. He traveled frequently around the U.S. and in Central and South America, Europe and the Middle East, usually on assignment for one publication or another. Victor Perera did not always make friends, however; his early defense of Palestinian rights and reports on the deplorable situation of Sephardic and Arab Jews in Israel earned him plenty of enemies at home.

Most of those who know Victor Perera's writing, I would venture, view him as a defender of the underdog; and indeed, for years he's written, sometimes in protest or outrage, on the fate of the indigenous peoples of Central/South America, about the lost Jews of the Southwest and Brazil (known as Crypto-Jews or Anusim), and others. But the tone of his writing is persistently empathetic, revealing his concern for human rights and equality, for bridge-building between cultural groups. Three of his books about Central America are The Last Lords of Palenque: The Lacandon Mayas of the Mexican Rain Forest (with Robert D. Bruce), Unfinished Conquest: The Guatemalan Tragedy and Rites, a Guatemalan Boyhood. Each exhibits Victor's strong connection to the land and people he writes about. The Cross and the Pear Tree merits a second reading, for in addition to being a thoughtful meditation on history and identity which weaves together Spain and the Americas, Europe and the Middle East, what this memoir reveals is that "to be a wandering Jew teaches you tolerance of other cultures, so that you go from exile to universalism."

In several places, Victor writes of pre-Inquisition Spain's "triadic bond," in which Jews, Muslims and Christians lived such interwoven lives that they created a society rich in cross-pollination. His own work often reminds us of the complexity of identity, as we sometimes forget how close we have been to other cultures: Jews forget their debt to Muslim/Arab and Greek culture; Christians forget their debt to Jewish liturgy and civilization; and we all forget what we owe our environment the ecology that must be sustained and about which Victor Perera has written so eloquently.

In recent years, Victor turned from writing about the Mayas and the Jews to writing about another fragile and embattled friend: the environment. He was working on a new book for Alfred Knopf, titled Of Whales and Men, when he suffered the stroke in 1998 that has prevented him from picking up his pen.

In his Contemporary Authors entry, Victor Perera provided a glimpse into his raison d'être. "I write to know better the soul within me, to see, to be illuminated. I write to find my peers, other seekers who strive to become part of a regenerative process in a time of destruction and decay."

A fine writer, a persistent seeker, and above all, a true empathizer, Victor has inspired many of his students, friends, colleagues and readers to cross over to the other side.

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Jordan Elgrably is a writer who cofounded, with Victor Perera, Ivri-NASAWI, the New Association of Sephardi/Mizrahi Artists & Writers International, in 1996.