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Ester Rafailova

Family Project
By: Ester Rafailova
College Now Course - BSS 1

When Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand were exiling all Jews from Spain, they were left with three choices: to convert, to leave, or to die. This group of people, better known as the Sephardim's, were now settling anywhere they could, traveling as near as Europe or as far as the Middle East. This same group of people happened to be my great, great ancestors. Some may believe this is where I acquire my dark, Spanish features from. Nonetheless, my Sephardic ancestors settled in Azerbaijan, a beautiful country right in the heart of two continents: Europe and Asia, bordering the Caspian Sea, between Iran and Russia.

For decades upon decades my relatives had been raising their families in a community mainly made up of Sephardic Jews, isolating themselves from most of the country as a result of the religious disagreement amongst the Muslims and Jews. Down the road the number of Sephardic Jews grew so immensely that my relatives now had their own language, which has been handed over from generation to generation still to this day. Unfortunately, the newer generations are not obtaining the language as well as our parents did; for example I am not able to speak it, but I can understand most of it.

I was born on February 20, 1990, on my great grandmother's seventieth birthday; the eldest of the grandchildren from my mother's side, and the third from my father's. I wasn't named after anyone in particular. My mom was fond of an actress named Ester and decided to give that name to me. However, right after I was born my mother experienced many complications. Her body started failing, and she had to lie in the hospital for several months due to her abnormal fever. Everything worked out for the better in the end, except, the doctor told her she would never be able to have a second child. Sure enough, a year and six months later my parents had their second child, my sister. She was named after my father's mother, Svetlana. One of the main traditions in my family is passing the parents' names to the eldest sons' children, even if the grandparents are not yet deceased. Since my father was the only son in his family, my parents named my sister after his mother. Still to this day, the tradition is kept out of respect to our ancestors.

Up until I was four my family and I resided in the capital city, Baku. All of the men in the family worked together in a prosperous business; we were fortunate enough to lead a wealthy life. I can still recall the long summer days and nights my immeasurable family spent at my grandfather's beautiful summer house that had acres upon acres of neatly gardened land, and how ripe and mouth-watering the fruits were, just handpicked from the backyard. We would all gather for weeks at a time, each night its own festivity, and set a table all the way around the wrap around balcony, with scrumptious shish-kebob and various native dishes, decorated with lively cultural music. There were so many people everywhere, singing, dancing, giving toasts and laughing; those were the days to remember, everyone was able to gather together for a good time. As you can tell, I have quite an extensive family. Actually, that might just be an understatement; my family is enormous.

The cultural beliefs and traditions are extremely strict in my family, and are expected to be carried down. Still to this day, we are not allowed to marry outside of the family or culture; each marriage is arranged by either the father or uncle, and sometimes the girl is actually bought. It is severely frowned upon if a girl is seen simply conversing with a male; it basically ruins the reputation of her family. The median age for getting married is twenty, and a pregnancy is expected right after. If the first born is not a son, the couple must keep reproducing until they have at least one. The mother is expected to raise the child with all the right manners. Of course, divorces are forbidden, unless it is an excused situation such as an abusive husband. Careers for women are optional, although in Azerbaijan the woman usually stayed home taking care of the house and children.

Also, it is crucial that the family sits down at the dinner table every single night, with the table set before the father gets home from work. Since childhood, girls are trained to be perfect housekeepers, cooking, cleaning, serving, and more. Only on rare occasions are girls allowed out with their friends, they are forbidden from sleepovers, parties, hangouts, and the list goes on. It is very hard for my cousins and me especially because we were raised in a completely different environment, where no one else around us was mandated to meet the criteria. Back in Baku, since everyone was raised the same way with the same morals, it was understandable, in America it is different, but of course there is no fighting it. Raising your tone or speaking back to an elder is ultimately forbidden, even if they are incorrect. Young adults and children must refer to them with respectful names at all times. Although some of my family's cultural beliefs sound unusual, parents rely on this to keep control of their families and prevent anything bad from happening.

In June of 1994, my family moved to America in search of a better life. Situations between the Muslims and Jews worsened in Baku. Within five years, the majority of my relatives all moved out to America as well, and all to the same place - Brooklyn, New York. Back then, renting an apartment was the common thing to do. My parents came to America with barely any knowledge of what to do, and they worked tremendously hard to provide our family with everything we needed. Both my father and mother gained the education they needed to get stable jobs, and in the meantime, my father had to work nights to support our lifestyle. Nevertheless, it was done by all my relatives, and it shows how hard working they all are and how much they all care for their families. Everyone was still able to keep in touch because we were so close, soon enough it was impossible to walk more than two blocks without seeing a relative outside. For this reason, my parents decided it was time to move out of Brooklyn.

Next stop: Staten Island. December of 2001 my parents bought a house on Staten Island for several reasons such as: it was less crowded, there were no relatives right next door gossiping about who saw who doing what, and it was quieter, for the time being of course. Within the next two years four families moved to Staten Island, and some even moved to New Jersey. By now, the traditions we once had in Baku are clearly starting to dissipate. Extended families, which were once as close as first cousins, are barely seen or heard from. Annual gatherings for summer laughs and toasts with hundreds of people no longer exist. Living in a modem world changed everything completely. The only time everyone gathers together is for an occasion such as a wedding or for a new born baby's first birthday. My grandparents and great grandparents always remorse about how they wish they never moved. They feel as if all the cultures and traditions have been thrown out the window, and soon enough there will be no one to carry down any traditions at all. They are partially right. With each generation, children become more Americanized, and are not educated about their roots and where their ancestors come from. Our amazing foreign foods can no longer be carried down because there is no one there to watch grandma make it and learn. Our language, once so rich and full of meaning, has no value to it because English is now spoken in the house more frequently than any other language.

Even so, today there are still many beliefs that are carried down and cannot be avoided or ignored as much as I would love them to be. Out of respect to our elders and great ancestors who have come a long way, the Americanized generations do their best to keep their parents and grandparents satisfied no matter how bizarre the standards are. Year by year my family tree grows significantly bigger, though it seems impossible. After nearly thirteen years of living in America, even though my family has adapted to modem life, we still value our traditions and hope to pass down as much as we could to the newer generations to come.