At six years old, I knew my mother’s idols were powerless
As told to Tziyona Kantrowitz by Malka Shifra
Malka Shifra (née Sonia) grew up in a home in Los Angeles that was filled with idols and animal sacrifices. Even as a small child, she was a truth-seeker, challenging her mother’s gods. As an adult, Malka Shifra pursued other religions in her search for Hashem, each time ending up disappointed. Until, at last, she finally found Him
When I challenged my mother’s gods, I was a child, like Avraham Avinu.
My childhood home in Los Angeles was packed with idols in every direction. Each had a different name and attribute. Each “demanded” various things from their believers. And my mother was a believer.
She devoted all her love and time to her gods. She would dress the idols in hand-stitched garments, give them cigars to “smoke,” and splatter the idols' pots, which they stood on, with blood from animal sacrifices. She filled the pots with the gods’ “needs”: feathers, stones, wood, bones, and more. Every day, she lovingly laid out food in front of the statues.
The house would stink from the cigar smoke, the blood, and the rotting meat, vegetables, and even cake that she eventually threw away after a few days. Even as a six-year-old, I could not understand. Why did she feed the idols? What power could they possibly have if they couldn’t even eat their food?
MY parents were born and raised in Cuba but escaped during the Cuban Revolution in 1959, arriving in America as political refugees. I was born in 1967 and given my name, Sonia, by my father. It isn’t a Cuban name at all. It means wise. Maybe he had a hunch about my future life.
My parents loved the freedom of America and expected their four children to realize how fortunate we were to be born Americans. Yet my parents never even considered integrating into America’s white culture. The American way of life stopped outside our doors. We spoke only Spanish in the house, even though we kids all spoke English fluently in school. My mother didn’t care or want to know about our neighbors’ or classmates’ cultures. All that mattered was our Latino Santerian community.
Like most Cubans, my parents were followers of the pagan religion Santeria (see sidebar). Our community held frequent events, almost weekly. The most extravagant of these were “initiations,” a ceremony where a person was accepted to be a believer as a priest to one of the gods. There would be dancing, cigar smoking, liquor passed around, songs from Africa, and lots of meat. Almost 100 animals — rams, goats, sheep, cows, all sorts of fowl — would be slaughtered as a ritual for the bigger events.
Every year, my mother hosted a party for her birthday. She threw herself into a fervor, spending many days preparing the food for the guests and the idols.
On the day of the party, my mother took all her favorite idols into the living room as the main attraction. Her favorite idol was a black wooden man fiercely holding two swords above his head. Next to him was a seven-foot statue with his two dogs.
I gazed up at them, wondering how these inanimate objects could consume so much of my mother’s attention. Since the age of six, I had doubted the power of my mother’s gods. But today, at the age of ten, I would openly challenge them — and be punished severely for doing so.
During the party, when no one was looking, I approached the huge statue that overtook the room and asked him my questions.
“Who are you?”
It didn’t answer.
“What are you? Are you real?”
“What power do you have over my mother? Why don’t you talk or say something?”
I was furious. “Why don’t you eat the food Mother gives you? She sacrificed herself only for you!”
“Listen, I will walk away. I will give you privacy. Eat something, move something. Please show me that you have power. Show me you are more than a piece of wood.”
I walked away. Even though I was full of curiosity, I didn’t look back. After five long minutes, I went back.
Nothing had changed.
I suddenly felt a wave of fear. I had confronted the god, and he hadn’t answered me. I spent the rest of the party terrified of the consequences.
And I was right. Someone had observed my little rebellion and had informed my mother. She confronted me and I immediately started to confess, as tears were already forming in my eyes. “I just wanted to see if it exists. I wanted it to tell me face-to-face if it was real.”
My explanations only increased her anger. I knew the punishment would be terrible. The worst wasn’t the denial of dinner, treats, or a visit to any friends. It wasn’t the big spanking my mother gave me, either. The worst came the next day on four feet.
My mother took me out to the garage, where the animals were slaughtered. A ram had been tied to a post in the sacrifice area, braying his last testament. He was my sin offering. I had to hold on to the ram as he was slaughtered slowly before me.
Growing up, I never knew about other belief systems beyond Santeria. Everyone I knew either believed in Santeria or was connected to it. Even though I attended public school, there was never talk about anything religious, a G-d or otherwise. Not anything. I had never heard of the Bible. I knew nothing of Jews, Christians, or Muslims. I didn’t know Israel was a country.
But one thing I knew: I hated idols. I hated anything to do with my mother’s religion. I couldn’t wait for the day that I would be old enough to leave it.
Years later, when I started to date my husband, we discussed religion, and I told him up-front about my fierce hatred for idols. He mentioned that he grew up as a Catholic, an unfamiliar religion to me. When I visited his mother’s home for the first time, I almost fainted from fright. The house was filled with icons of a man on a cross. My reaction surprised him, and he couldn’t understand why I thought of them as idols. Kindly, my future mother-in-law took down the icons and hung them only in her room once she understood my aversion.
The first time I was exposed to the bible, I was in my thirties. I was given a copy of the Old and New Testament at a church I visited. It took a long time before I paid attention to it. But when I did, I was intrigued.
The Old Testament told stories of real people who tried to do the right thing and sometimes failed. It was about people who had temptations and had to deal with the consequences of not following G-d’s word. I especially loved reading Jeremiah, mainly when he taught the Israelites that G-d knows each of us even from the womb. There was a G-d Who cared about my purpose in life and knew us from birth. That knowledge was precious. It meant we all had value in G-d’s Eyes.
I connected to the words of the prophets. They inspired me to not only avoid sins but to seek to do good deeds. This concept does not exist in Santeria. Santerians believe the gods bestow good or bad will on you if you bribe them enough. The gods weren’t there to motivate people to be better. Rather, the people were there to fulfill the gods’ desires.
I loved the idea that one should and could repent. I realized I had a strong need to make a connection with G-d. My whole approach to prayer changed. I started conversing with the G-d Who created me and the world. And if He created me, assuredly, He knew what was best for me. I loved the idea that I could speak to Him directly.
Unfortunately, I quickly realized that this was not Christianity’s view. Christianity’s highest figure serves as an intermediary to talk to G-d. I was confused: He was never mentioned or even alluded to in the Old Testament, so what was his value? I felt comfortable and loved speaking with G-d directly. If He created us and knew who we were before birth, why must we use a mediator? Isn’t G-d big enough and intimate enough with each of us to handle us alone?
I had more questions: How could the New Testament change what was already written in the Old Testament? I wondered how the words of G-d and Moses could be annulled by a man living centuries later. I couldn’t wrap my head around that concept.
As I was grappling with these questions, 9/11 happened. When the Twin Towers fell, I felt like I was aligned with the rest of the country: in the face of our vulnerabilities, we were searching for meaning. Every day, I woke up with more questions: What was my mission in the world? What is life all about?
During this tumultuous time, my husband and I looked around us in Los Angeles and, seeing the rise of Hispanic gangs, realized we didn’t want to raise our family there. We decided to relocate to Houston and start afresh in a new city.
During the nearly two decades that I lived in the Houston area, I developed a deep feeling that there was Someone Who was watching out for me. But my spiritual yearnings and questions lay relatively dormant since I was so busy trying to make a life for myself. I found my calling as a teacher in the Montessori school system. I developed a love of horseback riding. And most importantly, I raised my children in a home built on the solid foundation of a healthy marriage. I felt satisfied, fulfilled, and happy. I had everything.
So I did not expect the deep spiritual emptiness that overcame me.
We had joined a supportive church community in Sugarland outside of Houston, and I enjoyed the worship and singing. But it wasn’t enough. I had questions and needed answers. In bible class, I sat on the edge of my seat, fully engaged. But the more I demanded real answers, the more upset the Elder would become. Finally, he told me not to come back to class.
I obeyed the Elder and stopped going to bible classes or church. When the holidays came, I told my kids they were on their own. I wasn’t going to buy a tree, decorate it, buy presents, or even make a festive meal. It was too fake for me, and I didn’t want anything to do with it. I hadn’t gotten any answers to my questions, and I didn’t see why we should celebrate anything.
Easter came, and I said the same. I started to see the absurdity of it all. Why do we decorate a tree with tinsel? Why do we have chocolate bunnies and painted eggs? The holidays are just massive commercial opportunities that don’t have any religious significance. I couldn’t continue being part of such a farce. And indeed, I couldn’t promote it.
Instead of going to church on Sunday, I started to keep Saturday as my holy day of rest, as the Israelites did in the Old Testament. I had a large walk-in closet in my room, which became my sanctuary. I would sit on my favorite comfortable wicker rocker with a short table next to me. In this quiet space, away from everyone, I read and reread my Old Testament.
I prayed to the G-d of the Old Testament for understanding, acceptance, and connection. But most of all, I prayed for clarity. I had been bounced around in different belief systems for too long; none of them felt close to being true. The story of the Exodus spoke directly to my heart. I thought I was part of these Israelites; their story somehow became my story.
I felt compelled to study and read the Bible repeatedly, trying to learn the truth. To squeeze in my learning before work, I would get up at four a.m. each morning. I would cry and beg G-d to let me know what it all meant.
After keeping Saturday as my inner sanction for a month or two, a clear inner voice spoke to me. It simply said: “Wash your hands.”
Wash my hands? What did that mean? I had just washed my hands. With soap and water! I realized it must mean something spiritual. But that made me nervous, too. Everyone in my family thought I was going crazy, and maybe I was if I was hearing voices in my head.
A few months later, without any explanation, I woke one morning and looked at myself in the mirror and felt my clothes were too revealing. I was showing too much skin. I even felt my hair was too provocative. I started to think. If I am standing before the King of the world, I need to dress modestly.
I began to wear my shirts more buttoned up. Then I put on a skirt. Then I looked for dresses or skirts that weren’t too tight or too short. I covered most of my body.
Eventually, I felt I needed to cover my hair. I googled “head covering” and saw that many religions, including the Christian Church, had a reason for women to cover their hair. So I grabbed a towel or sheet and wrapped it around my hair. With each step I took, I felt a bit closer to G-d. I felt His presence.
Once, as I was reading Deuteronomy, I read the Shema: “Listen, Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, and the L-rd is One.” I started to cry. G-d is One. G-d is not all the idols, not a son, a ghost, or a father. He is the only One. That was it. I couldn’t have anything more to do with the Church.
My husband was worried about me and could not understand what had happened to his wife. He spoke to the pastor, who called me into the church for a meeting. I again explained my questions to them. The pastor looked at me sternly. “Just follow the Church and your husband. Don’t ask questions.”
I knew that was the end. When I got home, I told my husband that I couldn’t follow the pastor’s demand. I knew that what the Church was preaching was wrong. I needed to listen to and follow my religious stirrings, even though I had no idea where I was going or what I needed.
The church was furious with me. They told members to pray for me. They threatened that I would burn in hell if I didn’t repent. They excommunicated me, forbidding anyone to speak or have anything to do with me. My husband demanded that I obey him and follow the Church. But I couldn’t. My husband and I had been together for 25 years, and they had been the best years of my life. But I couldn’t ignore this deep inner pull to follow the truth.
I said goodbye to my marriage. I said goodbye to my two grown children. The only one left at home was my youngest son. At the tender age of 12, he told me that he loved me, but he wanted to follow his father’s path.
I knew our marriage’s failure was my fault. I was the one who changed; I was the one who demanded new rules and became a different person. So I walked out without any demands or property. I left with nothing.
Alone and on my own, I was more determined than ever to find the truth. Unknowingly, I followed the Israelites when they said, “Naaseh v’nishma.” I was walking the path without understanding where I was going.
I started my search online. I found a website for a “not-anymore-Christian” chat room. It was a group of people who had many questions about the Church but still believed in spirituality. Someone in the chat group was part of a Messianic church, so I decided to try looking there.
The people in the church loved talking about Jews, Israel, and the Torah. I had never really heard of the Jews, not in the sense that there are real people alive today who keep the laws of the Bible. I just knew about the Israelites of Exodus. I figured anyone could claim they were a Jew if they wanted to be. Just like the Bible is for all, Jewish ancestry was up for grabs. I was happy the church discussed the Old Testament, but unfortunately, they discussed the New Testament way too much for my liking.
As always, I started asking questions. And as before, my questions were met with resistance and anger. Someone even remarked, “You must be a follower of those crazy rabbis Skobac and Singer!””
Who’s that? I wondered. And I immediately googled their names.
The online lectures by Rabbi Tuvia Singer and Rabbi Michael Skobac were profound and persuasive. I identified most with Rabbi Skobac, who emphasized the treasure that secular Jews had and shouldn’t miss out on. I contacted him first via Facebook, and eventually, I had lengthy conversations with him on Zoom.
Once I understood that Judaism was the only true religion, I decided to see which denomination would fit with what I was looking for.
One Friday evening, I drove to a Jewish Reform Temple, near where I lived. As soon as I stepped into the building, I felt there was something dishonest about it. Just the name Reform implies constant change. Promoting change reminded me of my mother bowing to the gods to get what she wanted. I didn’t want a religion that would change according to whatever the people think is good at that moment or whatever new politically correct fad is popular at any given time. Truth, by definition, can’t be so malleable.
But I knew I had to remain objective. I noticed that the people in the congregation seemed interested, involved, and dedicated to their temple. The congregants spoke much about social action, tikkun ha’olam (which I later understood to be “fixing the world”). They were friendly, warm, and open to inviting new congregants into their temple. No one asked I if I was Jewish, which was pleasant, but I wondered if they even cared.
The building itself was beautiful, with colorful stained-glass windows. Physically, I could see myself being happy in such a place. But something was off for me spiritually. I now understood where the Messianic church got its look.
The following Shabbat, I went to the Conservative temple, another beautiful historic building with great beauty in its design and stonework. As I entered, I saw men and women sitting together, with most women and some men wearing kippot and talleisim. At the bimah, a woman with a kippah on and a skinny tallis draped along her shoulders was holding up the sefer Torah high so everyone could see it. I wasn’t sure if she was the rabbi or someone who had been called up, but I immediately turned around and left the building mumbling to myself, “This can’t be. This can’t be.”
At that point, I had read enough in the Old Testament to have questions: how could a woman hold a holy Torah scroll? Even if there was a logical answer to my question, I still had an innate feeling that something was wrong with the picture.
The more I learned about both the Reform and Conversative movements, the more I realized that though the congregants were serious about their Judaism, they weren’t committed to the commandments. Their temples seemed to serve primarily as social halls with a Jewish theme.
The next stop was Orthodox Judaism. The following Saturday morning, I set out early for the long drive to the closest Orthodox synagogue. I dressed as usual: I covered my hair with a scarf and wore a long skirt and a blouse with long sleeves. As I was driving to the synagogue, I stopped on the side of the road and spoke to G-d.
“I feel alone. I have no support.”
I was so upset that I hit the steering wheel. “I am all by myself on this journey. You need to show me something, guidance, a sign, support me somehow. I know that I need You in my life. I left a beautiful 25-year marriage to make this journey. I don’t know where I am going. I feel blind. Please help me.”
After a 45-minute commute, I pulled into the parking lot of a Chabad shul. As I walked in, the rabbi was lecturing about the parshah. The shul didn’t have stained glass windows, high ceilings with beautiful arches, or a stage for whoever led the service. It was a simple room set apart into two rooms with moveable room dividers. The simplicity was remarkably enchanting and pure. There were no theatrics or VIPs here. It felt genuine.
An older woman dressed like me, except for wearing a wig, sat in the front seat of the women’s section and turned to me as I entered. She smiled and indicated that there was a seat empty next to her. I nodded and quietly sat down.
I immediately fell in love with the prayers, even if it was all in Hebrew. I loved the sound of it. The language seemed joyful and had a sanctity about it. The congregation would respond or sing along, but rarely together. Everyone said their prayers at their own speed and intonation. It sounded like I was overhearing each person’s personal conversation with their Creator. Occasionally, someone would sigh deeply, cry loudly, or rock back and forth, holding the prayer book close to their eyes. Even the women, who were much quieter, read from their books, mumbling under their breath. They were pleading from their hearts.
When the sefer Torah was brought out, everyone stood as if they were before a king. And though it was a shul mostly for the not-yet-religious, and women wore pants and short skirts, there was reverence and decorum in the room.
The woman who had called me over when I first came in invited me to join her at the kiddush. She introduced herself as Moriah and asked me my name.
“Sonia,” I answered timidly, having never really liked my name.
“Oh, what a beautiful name.”
I smiled with a bit of puzzlement on my face.
Only after another woman approached me and asked my name did Moriah realize she had heard me wrong. “Didn’t you tell me your name is Malka?”
“No, though that is a beautiful name.”
“Well, I think you are a Malka. Malka is a queen — a perfect name for you. You are like a queen. Now, Malka, tell me about yourself,” she said, calling me by this newly ordained name.
I told her a little bit about myself. Later I would choose Malka as my Jewish name because of her. I felt she had a clear vision of my journey and I was proud to use it as my new identity.
At the kiddush, the rav approached me and started to ask me questions. He was intrigued. He asked, “Are you Israeli?”
“Israeli?” People find this hard to believe, but I had never heard of the country Israel. I knew of the Israelites from the Bible, but I had no idea there was a country today filled with modern-day Jews. I had never met a Jew until I started my crazy journey. I was stunned. “What is an Israeli?”
“Aren’t you Jewish? You look Israeli.” He noted my dark skin.
“No,” I answered a bit wistfully. “What is Israeli?”
“They are people from Israel.”
“No, I am not Israeli. I am a nobody. I don’t know anything, just a simple person looking for the truth.”
“That’s beautiful,” he replied. “You should join my family and friends tomorrow on Sunday morning. Our three-year-old son is having his upsheren in our home. Please, my rebbetzin and I would love for you to come.”
“What’s an upsheren? What is a rebbetzin?” I asked, confused. But I assured him I would love to come.
When I met the rebbetzin, I realized that she might be able to answer the questions that had plagued me during the last few years. I made an appointment to speak with her. I remember that my heart was beating so loudly I was sure she could hear it.
“I’m not sure who I am at this point,” I told her. “I’m just looking for the truth. I have been searching for a long time. I need to talk to someone because I need answers.”
Then I took the plunge. “Can I ask you some questions?”
“Sure, my pleasure,” she replied.
“I have to tell you, these questions have come to me like voices from my soul. If you can’t answer them, I know it’s time to get myself to an asylum. I don’t know what these questions mean or what I should do. I am exhausted. I’m so tired of this fight. I need answers now.”
She nodded her head, encouraging me to continue.
“Why do I feel I need to wash my hands when they are already clean?”
The surprise was written across her face, but she answered. “Every night, our soul partially leaves our body, and in the morning, we thank G-d for returning and restoring our soul. Yet our hands have collected impurities, which we call tumah. We wash our hands with a cup, pouring water onto each hand, back and forth, six times to wash away the tumah and make us tahor — pure.”
I almost cried. The rebbetzin had answered my question, opening a whole new world of deep concepts far beyond what I had ever dreamed of being told. I sat there dumbfounded.
“Can I ask you a few more questions? Why do I feel the need to cover myself?” I pointed to my scarf and sleeves.
She smiled. “You are innately aware of how precious your soul and thus your body is. And only things that we treasure do we conceal and hide. Your body not only protects your soul but is precious as well. That is why you felt the need to cover yourself modestly. You know how noble you are.”
I was simultaneously incredulous, overwhelmed, and thrilled. My inner voice had been teaching me about mitzvot. And I was finally getting answers. Real answers. She didn’t tell me to stop asking questions, nor did she think I was a heretic.
“I have another question. I love to read the Bible, with the prophets and the book of Psalms, but is there another book for praying?”
The rebbetzin got up from her seat and walked over to the bookcase. She pulled out a thick but short book, which had English on the left side and what I guessed to be Hebrew on the other side.
“Here, this is called a siddur. It has the morning, afternoon, and evening prayers, Shabbos prayers, and much more. It’s a book of prayer.”
“Really! There are special prayers for morning, afternoon, and evening?! Not just for the Sabbath? This book is just for praying?”
“Yes. Yes. And yes. We read this book daily to know how to say our prayers. Here, take it. It’s yours.”
I felt faint. I looked up at the rebbetzin and started to cry. “I’m home. I’m finally home. I can’t believe I made it home.”
She looked at me, then raised her eyes and hands to Heaven and spoke directly to G-d: “They are coming home. The old souls are coming home.”
My conversion process wasn’t easy. I knew in advance that I would be turned away three times. I was discouraged by many people, including other converts. They warned me that it was a painful process, that I could live happily as a Noahide. But I had been searching for truth my entire life, ever since I was a young girl questioning the idols that pervaded my home. I only wanted the real thing. I wanted to be a Jew.
Two years later, and three days before Shavuot, I converted and was named Malka Shifra bat Sarah Imeinu. The “bat Sarah” part, I love — it reminds me that I am connected to Avraham and Sarah because I chose to follow their path.
Hashem has bestowed so much goodness upon me. Soon after I converted, I felt driven to move to Israel. I knew it was the home of the Jews, which now included me. Before I even made aliyah, I had a contract to work in a Montessori school in Israel. I worked there for six years before Corona hit and the world shut down. But one closed door opened another, and it was during this time that I met my wonderful husband, who grew up frum. He is also a divorcé, and we spent a lot of time talking and learning about each other. I love his friendly, approachable, and humorous way of facing life. He loves my passion and truth-seeking spirit. We got married in 2020 and now live in Bet Shemesh, where with the help of my husband, I am hoping to open my own Montessori nursery school.
I still marvel when I think about what it took to get here — to be a holy Jew living in Eretz Yisrael, the holiest of lands. I have finally come home.
Santeria is a pagan religion, created 500 years ago during the time of Christopher Columbus when African slaves were sold and taken to the islands of Cuba, Haiti, and the Caribbean to harvest sugar cane. The African slaves held on to their voodoo religion but were forced to become Catholics. Santeria was formed as a mixture of the two religions. Today, according to statistics, 70 percent of Cubans are Santerians. And it’s not just popular in Cuba: there are almost five million followers of Santeria in the United States.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 844)
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