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Victor Perera, 69; Wrote of Curse He Believed Plagued His Sephardic Jewish Family

June 19, 2003|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Victor Perera, an author and journalist who wrote three memoirs about his experiences as a Sephardic Jew raised under what he believed was a family curse, died of a stroke Sunday at home in Santa Cruz. He was 69.

Perera's three-part opus explored his tumultuous childhood and the effects of his great-grandfather's command that the family never leave the Holy Land.

The first of the three books, "Rites: A Guatemalan Boyhood" (1986), explored Perera's beginnings as a Sephardic Jew born in Guatemala City whose parents had immigrated there from the Holy Land. His father ran a textile shop.

His second installment, "Unfinished Conquest: The Guatemalan Tragedy" (1993), described life under a violent Guatemalan government.

Perera's family left the country and moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., when he was 12, but he often returned to Guatemala as a journalist in the 1980s and '90s. He wrote a number of articles about the military regime and its victims: thousands of missing people presumed dead.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 20, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Perera obituary -- An obituary in the California section Thursday on author and journalist Victor Perera incorrectly referred to a group he co-founded as Sephardic/Mizrahi Artists and Writers International. The correct name is Ivri-NASAWI, New Assn. of Sephardi/Mizrahi Artists & Writers International.

His third memoir, "The Cross and the Pear Tree: A Sephardic Journey" (1995), attracted the greatest critical attention. In it Perera delved into the history of the Sephardim, Spanish-speaking Jews who lived in Spain and Portugal before the Inquisition, which began in 1478. It was an exotic saga with mystical overtones centered on the family curse.

He quoted his great-grandfather, Rabbi Yitzhak Moshe Perera, who threatened that if his children left the Holy Land, where he lived, they would forfeit "wealth, honor and long life."

Over time the author came to see this pronouncement as a curse.

By emigrating from Jerusalem, he wrote, his father had disobeyed orders. His sin was visited upon Victor as well as Victor's sister, Becky, the writer believed. She suffered from mental illness. "I came to see Becky's schizophrenia as a metaphor for the fracturing of our family by a dark legacy of ancestral sins," Perera wrote.

He considered his own circumcision as more proof of the price his family paid for disobedience.

A botched procedure by an inexperienced doctor when Victor was a baby led to a second, more successful attempt five years later. He referred to the experience as his castration. "I have done penance for my father's transgression in having sired me in a foreign land," he wrote.

Researching his ancestors, Perera discovered relatives in Spain and Central America, including a number of Marranos, Spanish Jews forced to convert to Catholicism during the Inquisition.

Insights into the family history were a form of therapy for him. "I write to know better the soul within me, to see, to be illuminated," he said. "I write to find my peers, other seekers who strive to become part of the regenerative process in a time of destruction and decay."

His fascination with Spanish Judaism led to an interest in other cultures, beginning when he was a graduate student at the University of Michigan in the late 1950s. There he earned a master's degree and a PhD in literature and met Pajma Hejmadi, a fiction writer.

He became immersed in her Hindu traditions, and the couple married in a Hindu ceremony in New Delhi in 1960, causing a terrible rift in his family. They divorced 12 years later.

Perera's first job was as a fact checker at New Yorker magazine, where he met Bernard Taper, a staff writer on the arts and culture in the '60s.

"Victor was very interested in personal self-knowledge and saw himself against the very large history of the Sephardic people," Taper told the Los Angeles Times this week.

As a journalist, Perera wrote features and opinion pieces on the environment, ethnic cultures and Latin American politics for magazines and newspapers, including The Times, through the 1990s.

He also worked as a lecturer on the journalism faculty at UC Santa Cruz for 17 years starting in 1972 and at UC Berkeley for five years beginning in 1993.

After retiring, he co-founded Sephardic/Mizrahi Artists and Writers International, which sponsors the Sephardic arts.

In a 1995 interview in the Washington Post, Perera said his years spent exploring his family's history had led him to understanding.

"To be a wandering Jew teaches you tolerance of other cultures," he said, "so that you go from exile to universalism."

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