In December 2002 I had the unique opportunity of traveling to Israel where I met Nizin Lopez, a Cuban immigrant to the U.S. whose journey in discovering his Jewish identity is one of miraculous proportions. Through the generous program offered by the Birthright Organization and under the supervision of the Los Angeles based Sephardic Educational Center, Nizin, myself and close to 60 other local Jewish youths traveled for free to Israel for 10 days.
During the course of the trip I developed a close friendship with Lopez and he revealed his harrowing tale of escaping from Cuba and remarkable transformation into Jewish life. Lopez's story of returning to his Jewish roots is indeed an inspiration to many of us who have been raised Jewish but often forget our rich history and traditions.
In December of 1992, after enduring the difficulties of life in Stalinist Cuba, then 17-year-old Nizin Lopez decided to risk his life and escape the island for the chance to live the American dream in the United States. "You really don't have choices or freedom in Cuba," said Lopez. "They tell you what you have to eat, watch on T.V., they practically control your life." While living in Cuba, Lopez was informed that his grandparents were Jewish but was never exposed to Judaism because it was prohibited by Cuban law.
Trained as an artist, Lopez said he felt restricted and unable to freely express himself and made the faithful choice to flee his homeland for a better life in Florida. With only a few belongings, he traveled on foot from his village and carried two canisters of gasoline that served as tickets for the boat ride Lopez was making with his father and 13 other refugees. "It was very hard, I walked for miles through the thick bushes, getting cuts on my arms and legs," Lopez said. Following a few days at sea the boat carrying Lopez and the refugees was destroyed and the group was stranded on Anyuila Key, an island off the coast of Florida.
For nine days, Lopez and others were left without food or water and barely survived by drinking a little rainwater and eating snails. "It was really rough, I almost died," he said. "But I had faith in G-d that I was going to make it." Eventually the refugees were rescued by the Bahamian coast guard and imprisoned for two weeks in a Nassau jail with little food or clothing to stay warm.
Lopez said he and the other refugees managed to contact relatives in Florida who secured their release from the Bahamas and paid for a smuggler to take them close to the U.S. shores. Finally in early January 1993, Lopez's unbearable journey across the ocean to America was over when the U.S. coast guard rescued him and the others off the coast of Florida and granted them political asylum in the U.S.
Following his arrival in America, Lopez spent the next nine years trying to forge a new life for himself as an artist who created album covers for Heavy Metal rock bands and pursuing other artist endeavors. Being a wild spirit, he was quickly drawn into the world of Heavy Metal rock music and became involved in the music, sex, drinking, and even experimentation with drugs.
Nevertheless during this time, Lopez still strived to learn more about his links to Judaism because he was aware that his grandparents from his mother's side were Turkish Jews who had immigrated to Cuba in the 1920s. "There were times that I wanted to find out about my Jewish roots but other Jews I approached for help didn't believe me, they though I was lying about my family being Jewish," Lopez said. Then in July 2002, Lopez approached a rabbi at an Atlanta synagogue and discovered that Jewish law recognized an individual's Jewishness according to matrilineal lines.
Therefore since Lopez's grandmother and mother were Jewish by blood, his suspicions that he was also Jewish were confirmed on that day. Lopez said that he was immediately overcome with feelings of joy and excitement when discovering that he was Jewish because he was finally able to reconnect with his religious and cultural background that was almost completely erased during his life in Cuba. "It is very fulfilling and satisfying to see the fact that I'm following the traditions of my ancestors," Lopez said. "Life makes more sense now that I know I'm Jewish and I understand all the struggles, pain, and extreme circumstances I went through happened."
When learning of his Jewish identity, Lopez completely transformed his way of life by changing his looks, eating habits, clothing, and fully embracing all aspects of Jewish life. While he indicated he has not become very religious, Lopez said he has become an observant and spiritual Jew. Lopez's quest to learn more about his Jewish identity and love of Judaism lead him to study the Torah, Kaballah, and even make the courageous decision to have a "brit milah" or circumcision at the age of 26, a few months before traveling to Israel. "It was hard after 26 years of being very free, there are new restrictions you need to follow as a Jew, but if you're gonna do something, you gotta do it all the way or not at all," he said.
Lopez also said his decision to travel to Israel during the current difficult times in the region was to become more aware of his Jewish ties and create new friendships with other young Jews. "I really love it here (Israel), you feel a direct connection with the land and with other Jewish people here," Lopez said. Following our 10 day trip in Israel, Lopez said he planned to return to his home in Atlanta to complete his degree in multimedia graphic design and even perhaps make alyiah to Israel in the near future.
"I also want to find a way to bring my mom and sister out of Cuba so I can teach them more about our Jewish roots," he said. Lopez indicated that his ultimate goal is to gain more recognition as a surrealistic artist by exhibiting his paintings that have been influenced by and contain aspects of Jewish mysticism.
Meeting Nizin Lopez and learning of his unbelievable return to Judaism despite living in a totalitarian regime in Cuba, facing the hand of death while escaping his home, and being tempted by the shady aspects of American life, was probably one of the most awe inspiring aspects of my visit to Israel. As a strong advocate for Israel, I felt as if Lopez's courage and dedication to holding steadfast to his Jewish roots was an ideal example of why we as Jews need to strongly support our homeland in Israel and why we should never let go of our extraordinary heritage.
His story should serve to inspire and encourage many of us in the Jewish community who were born and raised Jewish to embrace our rich traditions, pass them onto our children, and avoid the many pressures of assimilation in the Diaspora. It gives me immense pride to have met Nizin Lopez and call him my friend because he is a reminder to all of us that despite the hardships we as Jews have endured over the centuries, there are still many of us in the younger generation that continue to shine on and have remained faithful to our beliefs in Judaism. Nizin Lopez, who plans to change his name to "Nissim", the Hebrew word of miracle, indeed lives up to his name because his life story and return to Judaism was undoubtedly miraculous.