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One woman learned on the eve of her Roman Catholic wedding. One man as he was studying for the priesthood. Madeleine Albright famously learned from the Washington Post when she was named Secretary of State.
“What is it like to find out you are not who you thought you were?” asks Barbara Kessel in this compelling volume, based on interviews with over 160 people who were raised as non-Jews only to learn at some point in their lives that they are of Jewish descent. With humor, candor, and deep emotion, Kessel’s subjects discuss the emotional upheaval of refashioning their self-image and, for many, coming to terms with deliberate deception on the part of parents and family. Responses to the discovery of a Jewish heritage ranged from outright rejection to wholehearted embrace.
For many, Kessel reports, the discovery of Jewish roots confirmed long-held suspicions or even, more mysteriously, conformed to a long-felt attraction toward Judaism. For some crypto-Jews in the southwest United States (descendants of Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition), the only clues to their heritage are certain practices and traditions handed down through the generations, whose significance may be long since lost. In Poland and other parts of eastern Europe, many Jews who were adopted as infants to save them from the Holocaust are now learning of their heritage through the deathbed confessions of their adoptive parents.
The varied responses of these disparate people to a similar experience, presented in their own words, offer compelling insights into the nature of self-knowledge. Whether they had always suspected or were taken by surprise, Kessel’s respondents report that confirmation of their Jewish heritage affected their sense of self and of their place in the world in profound ways. Fascinating, poignant, and often very funny, Suddenly Jewish speaks to crucial issues of identity, selfhood, and spiritual community.
About the Author:
Barbara Kessel is Director of Administration of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York. A freelance writer of nonfiction and poetry for 25 years, her work has appeared in The New York Times, Hadassah Magazine, and Midstream.
“Kessel has successfully tackled a complex issue, adding considerably to our understanding of those who become ‘suddenly Jewish.’”—The Buffalo Jewish Review
“Kessel supplements the accounts of her interviews with material on the psychological difficulties faced by those whose association with a family or a group is drastically altered by the information that their roots they thought they had are not their roots at all.” —Kliatt
“Overall, Kessel’s interviewees, with their disparate experiences, shared something deeper than Jewish genes. ‘The most prominent finding I encountered was the human need for authentic identity,’ she says. ‘People profoundly wanted to know who they really are, even if they ultimately rejected their identity. They all wanted to know what it was they were rejecting. I don’t think you can build a relationship with anyone — including yourself — on the foundation of an identity that is false.”—London Jewish Chronicle
I remember grandmother taking me to what I thought was a church in Mexico City. We had to sit in the women's balcony in the back. There was a man leading the chants in a language I had never heard. I remember her saying, "Never forget who you are." I understand now that it was a synagogue. Later, when I asked my mother what my grandmother meant, she said it was a silly rumor and to put it out of my head. I couldn't, though.
For Jews the year 1492 recalls more than "Columbus sailed the ocean blue." It was the year of the Edict of Expulsion from Spain, the apex of the Inquisition, that period when the Jews of Spain and Portugal were given three choices: to convert to Catholicism, leave the Iberian Peninsula, or be killed. Those Jews who would not elect one of those three alternatives created a fourth: to live overtly as Catholics but covertly as crypto-Jews.
While most of the conversions to Catholicism resulted in absorption into the Catholic community, those converts who harbored or were suspected of harboring Jewish allegiance were killed, often at the stake. Many New Christians, as the converts were called, settled in Mexico, Central and Latin America, and the Caribbean. Those converts in Mexico who still practiced Judaism in secret were soon pursued by inquisitors sent from Spain to ferret them out. This time they fled north, to Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico. There they continued to live surreptitiously as Jews but outwardly as Catholics. In July 1997, more than five hundred years after the expulsion from Spain, I met some oftheir descendants.
The ultimatum to convert or die has been delivered to the Jew so many times that the Jewish response to the issue has become codified. Jewish law requires its adherents to accept death rather than publicly renounce their faith. As a result, an implicit stigma attaches to those unwilling to offer themselves and their spouses and children as sacrifices to a belief. The descendants of the crypto-Jews are sensitive to that stigma.
The sensitivity over this tragic period in history plays itself out even in the nomenclature. It is inappropriate, for example, to refer to such a person as a Marrano, which, while it connotes a Jew who hid his Jewishness, actually means swine in Spanish. Marranos had to be more-Christian-than- Christian in order to escape suspicion, so they would make a show of eating the non-kosher pig. That is the less abrasive explanation for the use of the word. The other possible explanation for applying the word Marrano to Jews in a pejorative sense is because Jews were still reviled even after they converted.
More acceptable is the Hebrew word anusim, which means "those who were forced," referring to those Jews who converted under duress. Converso simply means "one who converted" and could denote a Jew who converted to Catholicism out of genuine commitment. Those who converted during the Inquisition either embraced their new religion to greater or lesser degree, or they retained Jewish customs sub rosa to the extent possible without being detected. Those latter are called "crypto-Jews."
One of the places I posted my query was on Sephardic (Spanish Jewish) Web sites. I soon learned that the seventh annual two-day conference of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies in Denver was imminent, and I made arrangements to attend. The conference started off with a modest cocktail party. There were small tables scattered about the hotel meeting room, with three or four participants seated at each. When I entered, the room was abuzz with people chatting away. I spotted an empty chair and sat down. We exchanged smiles around the table, and I listened as the two women and one man talked about a photo exhibit of Southwest American gravestones that had either Hebrew lettering or Jewish symbols etched on them. As soon as they reached a natural break in the conversation, the three turned to me.
"Are you here to research your genealogy?" one of the women asked.
"Not really. I'm a freelance writer doing a book on people who discover their hidden heritage. I thought this would be a perfect place to research that topic."
The only worse thing I could have said would have been that I was the Grand Inquisitor come from Ferdinand and Isabella's court. They looked at one another and sequentially excused themselves from the table. It was not until the end of the conference that I learned there had been a journalist at the previous year's gathering who masqueraded as a crypto-Jew (a crypto-crypto-Jew?) in order to gather material for a story. When people who had shared their history with him found out, they felt violated. The truth is, the crypto-Jewish community is very secretive and self-protective. Until I had listened to some of the presentations at the conference, I did not appreciate the fear many of the crypto-Jews still feel today. Once I did, I understood much better the tone of an electronic letter I received in May 1997, two months before the conference, from Maria B. Gonzalez.
Are you sure you want to open this up to all Jews or are you most interested in Askenasim? You see, there are a lot of Sephardic conversos in this country and throughout Latin America and Spain. We can trace our Jewish roots through the most reliable form: the unaltered historical accounts passed down from generation to generation. We are told the truth only after we inquire and piece it together ourselves. The clues were always there; we just had to look.
Only recently have I disclosed my identity for the first time to a close friend. She has been so encouraging that it has given me the courage to approach you. I have, in the past, on many occasions been snubbed and outright rejected by the "white" Jews. That is why I ask if you are interested in including us as part of your research. Please don't feel obligated in any way. We have been living for the most part unaffected by the stereotypes imposed by "white" Jews.
Sincerely yours, Maria (A Catholic to my priest; a Jew to my rabbi.)
I was surprised and saddened by Maria's letter. Sephardic Jews, after all, are probably closer in ethnicity to the original Jews who left Egypt and received the Ten Commandments than am I, a blond, blue-eyed descendant of German (Ashkenazic) and Romanian Jews. I wrote back to Maria that I was most certainly interested in her heritage, and she requested that we speak by phone rather than communicate by mail. "I was trained to listen and observe subtleties by my grandmother," she said. She was skittish at the outset of our conversation, but as she relaxed, she became more discursive, and we ended up talking for quite a while.
I am descended from the Mendez family, believed to be originally from Madrid. There were several families who arrived onto the Mexican coast to the port of Tampico in the mid-1860s. Three of those families were related to one another: the names were Mendez, Vargas, Perez. According to the book entitled A History of the Marranos by Cecil Roth, both Mendez and Perez are Sephardic Hebrew names. It was these three families who founded the town of Salem in Mexico. I've always wondered if that's related to Shalom or Salaam.
We go back to fifteenth-century Spain and earlier. Some of us were exiled, some killed, some survived. Much of our history has been lost, but there are stories that were passed down by word of mouth. By the time I got to high school, I noticed that our family was different.
I was raised Catholic. I was baptized, went to church, got communion. My grandmother lived on a farm in Mexico. I stayed with her when I was a child. She had animals and would hire men to kill them when she needed meat. There was something special about the killing. She insisted that they kill them very fast so the animal would not suffer. Once it was killed, the animal had to be propped up by its hind legs until all the blood had drained into the ground, which I now know is related to Jewish kosher laws. To this day I cannot eat rare steak, it's so ingrained in me not to eat blood. In Mexico our family wasn't allowed to eat blood sausages, even though they are very popular. We never ate cheese and meat together, like everybody else. I thought it was just my grandmother's peculiarity. Now I know that Jews don't mix milk and meat. We were not allowed to eat the tail or hind part of the animal; it was considered filthy.
Many of the kosher laws got confused because of the length of time they had to keep them repressed. Like, when visitors left, my grandmother would boil the pots and silverware. She had separate pots for each different kind of food. It was her attempt to keep kosher. They made me wash my hands a lot, especially before eating, like traditional Jews do. We never ate shellfish. Grandmother said it was because they were bottom feeders. We swept dirt to the middle of the floor instead of pushing it out the front door. Grandmother lit candles on Friday night. We never married outsiders, only second or third cousins and people from certain families, and the first-born son was always given the name of his father, making the name traceable for centuries.
My mother was promised to the son of one of the other chosen families. Because she married someone else, she dishonored the family when she dishonored the agreement. They didn't want to accept me, but they did, on the condition that I would live with my grandmother and she would teach me the family customs. Our family reads between the lines about everything. There is a tremendous fear of discovery. I was shown a lot of the customs, but they were never explained. I don't think they knew they were Jewish customs. Anyway, we were so Catholic, you wouldn't believe it. We were almost obsessed with Catholicism.
When I made Jewish friends growing up, they kept asking me if I was Jewish. I remember in high school they showed us some concentration camp footage, and I felt like I'd been stabbed in the heart. That didn't happen with the Japanese internment films or the other war films. There was something about the Jews being killed that felt personal. I had never felt a pain like that. I've never told this to anyone. I've thought about it a lot. Maybe there is something transmitted genetically. I've always felt a comfort level around Jews that I couldn't understand.
Finally, many years later, I felt compelled to find out why I was so different. I talked to a Sephardic rabbi who pieced my story together. He looked like me, he talked like me. In Mexico, when amongst ourselves, my family spoke some words and phrases that are an ancient form of Spanish. They also spoke some Catalan. When that rabbi spoke Ladino [Hebraic Spanish], I was able to understand him. The more I knew, the more I wanted to know. I even went to Spain and found the areas my family fled to when they left Madrid. I found the village my mother's family came from in Catalonia, north of Barcelona.
My cousins don't want to know about our heritage and my mother considers it ancient history. The only thing they have preserved of Judaism besides the customs is the belief that there is only one God, and that Jesus was a son of God but not God himself. That's a big difference from Christianity, which believes that Jesus was divine.
When my friends would ask if I'm Jewish, I would say "no," because Judaism is a religion and I wasn't raised a Jew. I don't talk about my background much. I can't explain the fear, but it's almost like an instinct. It was very scary to find out I belong to people who were persecuted, but I'm also curious. I want to learn about Judaism, but at my own pace. I've learned some good things from Catholicism and from Judaism. I can't say which I would choose.
Maria's recital of her history contains many of the components described by anthropology professor Seth Kunin. Kunin divides the crypto-Jewish community into four categories: (1) people who practice Jewish rituals, self-identify as Jews, and hold Jewish beliefs (such as monotheism); (2) people who have been told or have discovered through genealogy searches that they are Jewish; (3) people with Jewish customs in their family, but who consider themselves non-Jews; and (4) people who have none of the three criteria (practice, identity, beliefs), but feel themselves to be Jewish.
In a discussion of whether Jewishness is an attained or an ascribed status, crypto-Jews offer a fascinating model. Those crypto-Jews who are told by their parents that the family is Jewish, or discover as much when they research their roots, are defining themselves genealogically (by descent). Those who identify as Jews on the basis of their customs or beliefs, or simply by virtue of "feeling Jewish" would fall into the "consent" category. And to ratchet the complexity up a notch, it is worth noting that the two often overlap, for instance, in people who discover their Jewish lineage and then figure out retroactively that the family emphasis on the Ten Commandments was Jewish as well.
I was glad that Maria opened up during our conversation, and it was not until two months later at the conference that I appreciated just how much of an effort it must have taken for her to do so. The opening conference remarks were delivered by Esmeralda T., a fortyish woman with very straight dark hair, a tailored pants suit, and no-nonsense shoes that matched her demeanor. She ascended to the podium with an assertive stride, a stride that announced her intensity.
I participate in crypto-Judaic matters despite the jeopardy it puts my family in. I don't reveal details about our background, but I know that people like myself need guidance and I am committed to give them whatever help I can, just as I have been helped to recover my genealogy.
She went on to read a letter from a woman desperate to find relatives, her aunt having contracted a Jewish genetic blood disease. That disease was the first clue the family had of its Jewish ancestry. Toward the end of the emotional letter, Esmeralda broke down in tears. "This is why I do what I do," she said in conclusion, unable to continue.
I still had difficulty absorbing the idea of actual danger befalling people who revealed their Jewish heritage, but it became clearer the following day, when Margarita Hernandez read some of her poetry on the subject of recapturing lost identity. I recognized her as one of the women who had left the table two nights before when I introduced myself. She had a striking appearance—a pale white complexion, contrasted by black hair and deep plum lipstick. To introduce her work, she talked about her life. Even her prose had the dreamy quality of poetry.
My family has lived in an adobe house in New Mexico since 1850. My mother is Presbyterian. My father is a pseudo-Catholic. His credo is the Ten Commandments. We were raised differently than our neighbors. Why? Who am I? Why am I different?
I have two sisters and a brother. Three years ago we began to discover our Jewish identity. Now what? We have three problems. First of all, three of us felt the urge to pursue our heritage, and the fourth remains a fundamentalist Christian. We don't want this new information to create a family rift.
Second, imagine what happens to a person who announces his Jewishness at work. It can be very difficult, to say the least. I was interviewing for a job two weeks ago. When the personnel director looked at my résumé, she asked, why do you belong to so many Jewish groups? I didn't get the job.
Third, how many Hispanos are prepared to self-declare? You become an oddity.
I look at the landscape of horizon, cactus, sky, and I wonder—who am I? Where am I going? Why did my people come here? How do I tell others and whom do I tell? Why should I give an interview to a stranger who knows nothing about me? Nothing about us?
Among the conference presenters was David Gitlitz, who delivered a historical overview of the period. Gitlitz cited a fascinating statistic, that almost everyone of Spanish or Portuguese descent is likely to have some Jewish ancestry. Nevertheless, he cautioned that there are significant difficulties in tracing a clear line of crypto-Jewish roots. For one thing, Gitlitz has little faith in the use of surnames as an indicator because Jews had to discard typically Jewish names in order to escape suspicion or persecution. Furthermore, with no Jewish models to learn from, no books or artifacts, the transmission of Judaism suffered. Being Jewish became more a matter of intent than action.
There has been so much interaction over the centuries with the surrounding non-Jewish community, and so much variation in beliefs and customs that the legitimacy of crypto-Judaism is clouded. After centuries of intermarriage and cultural assimilation, how can anyone be sure that crypto-Jews are descended from Jewish ancestors in an unbroken chain? Add to that a motif of self-imposed secrecy, even between parents and children, and the problem is compounded. If parents were afraid to follow Jewish practices or tell their children the family is Jewish, how Jewish can the family remain, especially through the generations? Doubts about their authenticity make their reentry into the Jewish mainstream a challenging proposition.
The issue of legitimacy is laced with bitterness. Today's crypto-Jewish descendants' pride is injured when their heritage is viewed as suspect. After all the pain our ancestors suffered at the hands of the Catholic Church, they protest, we now have to endure the suspicion of our own people?
As I was rushing out of the final conference session to catch my plane home, an attractive silver-haired woman with cornflower blue eyes tugged at my sleeve and whispered, "I'm Miriam." I tried hard to place her but she could see from my befuddled look that I could not. "I sent you an email." I still did not know who she was. "Ah! Miriam! I'm so glad you introduced yourself. Thank you. I'm sorry that I have to run, but it's wonderful to meet you." I looked up her correspondence when I got home. And I really was glad that she introduced herself.
When I was twelve years old, my grandfather, George Ramus (originally Ramos), told me that he was an English Sephardic Jew. It made quite an impression on me. In college I took a course in Judaism given by a rabbi. It explained many things to me. I was raised Catholic but when I was about twenty-nine years old, I decided I could not be Catholic anymore. I always felt as if I didn't quite belong in Catholicism or Christianity.
Recently I have been researching my grandfather's genealogical roots, and have been visiting a Sephardic synagogue. I enjoy the service and feel stirred in my heart.
Last January I changed my name from Mary Wagoner to Miriam Ramos. My husband, Richard, goes to synagogue with me and is very supportive.
I believe I inherited "tissue memory" or genes from this side of my family. I have many interests and traits similar to my grandfather's family. I sincerely identify with my Jewish roots. I honor and revere them; but I just don't know what I will do at this point. I guess I will continue to reflect on this and read the different books I have collected on Judaism.
This is about all. I didn't expect to write this much.
Sincerely, Miriam Ramos.
I wrote back to Miriam after the conference and she shared more details with me about her grandfather, details that were not possibly but definitely Jewish.
I was raised Roman Catholic, as was my mother and her mother, my grandfather's wife. When I was twelve, I saw my grandfather facing the window, hand on head and speaking softly in a foreign language. In reply to my question, he told me it was Hebrew and that he was praying. I asked him why and he responded, "Because I'm a Jew!" I ran home to my mother and announced that Grandpa was Jewish. She didn't seem amazed and cautioned me not to tell anyone just then.
Grandpa's dishes were kept separate from ours. He never ate pork, and when I asked about it, I was told "Grandpa doesn't like it." The answer was curt and I knew, in my child's way, that there was more to it.
My grandfather never criticized Catholicism nor emphasized his being Jewish for the remaining eight years I knew him. He was a fine, moral, soft-spoken man, whose honesty and reliability was never questioned. The more I looked at photos, read his poetry, thought of him and the events in his life, the stories he told me about his own family, their interests, values, and artistry, the more I recognized my genetic heritage. I cherish the knowledge that I am part Jewish.
Another person who became more expansive with me after the conference was the poet Margarita Hernandez, whom I telephoned a few weeks following my return. Although it has been five years since she discovered her roots, Margarita is still enthusiastic about her find. I shared with her my initial confusion at the reluctance of crypto-Jews to "come out." She told me that even though she writes newspaper articles about her history, she is still anxious.
We're not accepted. One of my dad's relatives had his headstone burnt. And when we wandered onto some property that used to belong to my dad, the current owner shooed us off. I thought he might have been about to pull a gun on us. There was a definite atmosphere of danger and imminent physical harm. We were known to be "different," and if they had realized exactly why, it would have been a lot worse.
We had customs that were unlike our neighbors'. My grandmother would throw an egg in the garbage if it had a blood spot in the yolk, which I now know is a kosher law. We would burn our fingernail clippings in the stove, another Jewish law. Around Passover, during Semana Santa [Holy Week], we would eat quelites [lambsquarters], and we would have a special meal. During the year, when we baked bread, we would take off a piece and burn it—another Jewish practice. And for forty days after childbirth, women were considered unapproachable. Now that's straight out of the Pentateuch! It blew me away when I realized that!
Growing up, we didn't go to church. Our parents sent us to a nondenominational school whose foundation was the Ten Commandments and good deeds. When I was in junior high, the civil rights movement was in full swing, and I remember telling my grandfather proudly, "We're Chicanos." He was a very mild man. I never saw him angry or upset, but he was that day. He took down his father's Spanish-language journal from 1893, and showed it to me. "We're Spaniards. Never forget." I had seen the journal before, but this time it was pivotal for me. I started to do research and by my early twenties I had traced our family back to Cordoba and Medina.
Five years ago, our family gathered for a wedding. By then my suspicions were very strong. I had done a lot of reading on the Jews of New Spain and I decided I must tell my siblings. Well, my sister's reaction was, "Are you just figuring that out now? Haven't you thought about the way we grew up? In high school, my Spanish teacher asked where we're from. I told her we're from northern New Mexico. She said, `You're one of those Sephardic Jews who ran away with Columbus.'" My sister couldn't believe how slow I was in realizing our connection. She continued, "I remember drawing a picture of the Morada, the Catholic chapel. I drew a crucifix and, I don't know why, but I also drew a Star of David. When Mom saw it, she said, `You shouldn't draw that. It's the holy symbol.'"
My brother's reaction just shocked me to pieces. He opened the top button of his shirt and showed me his Star of David necklace! He said he hadn't felt Hispanic since eighth grade. And he told me he had studied everything he could get his hands on about the Holocaust.
When I talked to my aunt, she said, "Oh, honey, we know, but we've been Catholic so long." There's a lot of family discomfort around this subject. Nobody wants to invite social ostracism. Many family members belong to the Penitentes group. It's an offshoot of the Catholic Church, supposedly. When a person dies, for example, they have a brotherhood that washes the body and wraps it in white linen. They bury it in a pine box. The night before the burial, the brotherhood (or sisterhood, if it's a woman) holds a vigil until the funeral. All of that is exactly in keeping with Jewish tradition.
It's sad that my siblings and I hadn't spoken of this until we were in our forties. It was such a healing moment. It was like there had been a hole inside us. It's taken me a long time, but now I see things more clearly. It's like there's a genetic coding.
The Denver conference was primarily academic. When I returned home and resumed my interviews, their tone reverted to the more personal. One of the warmest, most cheerful correspondences I had was with Rogelio B. Amaral, who was very generous in his use of exclamation points and romantic reminiscences. After the first few paragraphs, I pictured him as a mustachioed Latin lover, and my inner ear heard his letters in a Spanish accent. I had seen his posting on the Internet indicating that he was researching his background, so I wrote to him offering some genealogy Web sites that might be helpful.
Hello, Barbara! My name is Rogelio B. Amaral. I run an orphanage with twenty-one kids from an Austrian institution called SOS Kinderdorf International. My mother's maiden name was Elena Barragan. I just discovered that my mother's family came from a Sephardi family of conversos established in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, in the late sixteenth century. All I know is that her family originally came from Toledo, Spain.
Most of my family have been raised as Christians, but our names are Jewish! Abraham, Isaiah, Zacarias, Elias; and all the women in our family are given names like Sarah, Ruth, Miriam, Isabel, etc. My father, against my mother's wishes, gave the name Rogelio to me. She had chosen the name Jared. Many of our celebrations coincide with Jewish holidays. Uncle Abraham always killed a tender goat called "cabrito" during the Easter festivities. He said it was to commemorate when the Patriarch was ordered to kill his eldest son and ended up offering a tenderling instead. The knife was blessed before the killing and the meat was cut with precision. (Now I know about the kosher laws.) I wondered what was the meaning of that and asked around. The neighbors told me my uncle was a little nutty. Ha, ha. Now I know!! Another thing: we do not eat pork. No Sir! And: all of our men are circumcised. My mother never explained to me why. She just told me it was for practical purposes. (I still wonder what she meant by "practical," ha, ha!!)
I feel very comfortable thinking about myself as a Jew, although I am not religious at all. This might be the only reason that has kept me from making the alijah [move] to Israel. I don't know what to do about that. At fifty-one, it may not be a very wise move to think about going to Israel. And being a secular Jew is not very well recommended there nowadays, ha, ha ... After receiving your letter, I would like to make contact with you because I'm really interested in finding my origins. My aunts and uncles are dead, and my cousins don't care about this, really. Half of them are Catholic, the rest left that faith and went to the Protestant (Pentecostal) side.
I wrote back to Rogelio asking him how he discovered his mother's Sephardic background. Was it surprising?
Shalom aleijem! Five years ago, when I was the principal in a high school run by the Salesian order, a Catholic priest named Juan de la Fuente Burton told me if I knew the origin of my mother's last name, Barragan. I told him I knew it was from Aragon in Spain. He laughed when he told me that I was far from my site of origin. He told me about the expulsion and about Toledo, the place he said was the real location of my family's origin. He told me he knew my grandfather and most of the Barragans in the region. In his opinion they were all conversos. I thought about my mother's physical appearance—the curly hair, the nose ... it was so obvious!!! It was like a spark. Like if a curtain opened and a whole scenario appeared in front of me. There we were, after so many years since the moment of departure from our beloved "Sepharad." Yet, I don't regret our Christianity, because Jesus was a Jew after all! Ha, ha ... and there we were mixing both legacies, which I embrace proudly. What is your opinion about this, Barbara? Could I be a true Sefardi Jew? Ha, ha ...
Hugs, Rogelio Amaral
I told Rogelio his letters were fascinating and I thanked him for being so open. I asked him whether he had been a religious Catholic beforehand.
Yes, I was. I met Father de la Fuente in the Seminary. I was bound to be a Salesian priest, provided I finished my studies. I left the seminary because of two reasons: First, because of a lovely girl called Carmen ... ha, ha ... Second, because of my recently discovered Jewishness. When Father Burton told me about my Jewish background, it felt as natural as could be. All the pieces fell into place. You see what I'm talking about? Eventually I became an agnostic.
Rogelio's correspondence with me was lighthearted in tone, but not at all lightweight. I took very seriously every detail people shared. I regarded their revelations as a sacred trust, and so, when Joe Zavala contacted me with his startling story, I tried hard to understand his mindset, much as I was inclined to be skeptical. He spoke in a deep voice with a Texas twang, and needed no prompting.
My dad comes from a Spanish family on his father's side. There was bad blood between my father and his mother. They didn't talk for years, until she was on her deathbed.
Our family name was originally de Zavala. I found out we have roots in Montenegro, in the Yugoslav Republic. The family went from Yugoslavia to Spain. De Zavala is also a prominent name in Texas. Lorenzo de Zavala, originally from Mexico, was the first vice president of the Republic of Texas.
I always favored Jews. As a kid I wanted to go to summer camp with my Jewish friends. My grandfather died when my dad was young, and a lot of customs in the family were lost. My dad was brought up Catholic. From my recent studies, I figured out why: the Spanish Inquisition.
The Zavalas are believers in Christ. I was worship leader at our base chapel in Germany. We go wherever God leads us. Nine months ago, God spoke to me and said, find a Messianic congregation. So one Friday night I went. The rabbi-pastor said, "Hey, I've done a study of Sephardic Jews, and Zavala is a very Jewish name. It's from the Hebrew: gold of God." When I told my dad, he said, "Oh yeah? So where's all our money?"
I was shocked to hear about the Jewish connection. It was a real bombshell. Now I had a struggle. What do I do? Do I follow a new path? Or stay what I am? Then God spoke to me again. Be yourself, He said. That gave me peace of mind. I've been studying Messianic Judaism ever since, and when I have a question, I ask our rabbi-pastor. Some of the Jewish traditions give me problems, but then I look into them and find a resolution. My rabbi-pastor told me, "You're fulfilling a prophecy of the dispersed coming back together. You're finding lost Jews and bringing them back."
Some months later, I wrote to Joe about a Web site that mentioned Zavala as a crypto-Jewish name, and he wrote back to say that he had found some possible Jewish ancestry on his mother's side of the family. The last thing he wrote was, "Take care and be blessed," which I heartily reciprocated.
Fifty-two-year-old Charlene Neely saw my posting on the Kulanu website. Kulanu (Hebrew for "all of us") is an American organization that studies and maintains contact with Jewish descendants from Portugal and Spain. Unlike Joe Zavala, who sought to combine his dual heritages, Charlene chose between the two.
Having converted to Judaism as a teenager, decades before she discovered her Jewish roots, Charlene gives the sense of being entirely comfortable with her identity. She did not regard her discovery as a form of validation, because she already felt legitimately Jewish. But she has used it as a tool to convince Jews to be proud of their heritage.
I was born in L.A., but we moved to San Diego when I was five. My father is from Cornwall, England, and my mother's was among the first thirteen families to settle New Mexico. They were from Gallegos in Galician northern Spain. We had an Old World value system, a strong sense of being part of an ethnic group. But things were not so wonderful in California if you were Hispanic. I remember hearing my parents talk about a petition against them when they wanted to build a house in Long Beach, because the neighbors thought my mother was Mexican. I grew up aware of that prejudice.
Neither of my parents was Jewish. My father was a non-practicing Protestant, and my mother was from a strong Catholic family. When she married out of the faith, the Church tossed her out. We didn't have any religion in the house except that my mother expressed a strong feeling of one God. Jesus was never part of it. She taught us to do good to our fellow human beings, and she stressed education. Of twenty-nine cousins, I'm the only girl with a college degree.
At thirteen, I felt there was a spiritual hole in my life. I started asking my friends if I could go to services with them. I went to all kinds, but each felt uncomfortable because I didn't believe in Jesus. It made no sense to me, and I was brought up not to close my mind.
At the beginning of sophomore year, my mother said, why not ask Susie to take you to synagogue? Susie's response was, "Are you out of your mind?" as if to say, why would anyone in their right mind want to be Jewish if they didn't have to? But the minute I walked in, it was like, holy smokes. This was home. This was people caring about each other, welcoming each other, hugging! Imagine a church: you walk in, you shut up, and you pray. Our problem as Jews is, you walk into the synagogue and you never stop talking! The pronouns in the service struck me, too. Christian prayer has to do with the singular: MY personal salvation. "I" and "me" are all over the service. In the synagogue, everything was "our" and "we." There was a sense of community, responsibility. And family was predominantly part of Jewish theology and life. You're not alone.
I went to talk to the rabbi. So did my parents. I started meeting with him weekly. I even went to confirmation class with kids my age. I studied all sophomore year, and in June, at age fifteen, I converted.
When I got married, my mother's mother danced with the rabbi. She laughed and said, "Maybe I'm Jewish, too." I thought, wow, how supportive. I became a Jewish educator, very involved in the Jewish community. When my younger son had to do a family tree for school, we researched the archives on my mother's side. We went back four hundred years, and found a relative who came to the New World in 1541. We found names like David, Daniel, Abram, Jakovo. My mother's family tree was more like a bush! So much inbreeding. It was mind-blowing. She and I are third cousins. Everyone within ninety miles is a cousin. We have a complete organ donor strip in New Mexico!
When I read [New Mexico's state historian] Dr. Stanley Hordes's articles on crypto-Jews, I was engulfed by the implications. It's not like there was one "smoking mezuzah," but there were lots of little clues. Some I came on simply by asking my mother questions. Just last year she mentioned that her family never ate pork. She thought it was because it was too expensive. Her mother lit candles in the bedroom every Friday night. I thought it was a Catholic thing. I never connected it to my Shabbat candles until I read Hordes.
It's a big responsibility: five hundred years and now I find myself home. There are layers of Catholicism over the Judaism, and when you become Jewish you have to set them aside, which is difficult, because those layers are what kept you alive for five centuries.
I dislike when converts are called "Jews by choice." What are born Jews? Jews-by-force? It's important to me that people realize: if you become Jewish, you have to do it in its totality. It's hard enough being accepted by the Jewish community when you convert. You can't make a half-hearted commitment and expect to be welcomed.
There's something intrinsically powerful about Judaism. Finding my roots doesn't make me feel more Jewish. I'm glad I converted long before I discovered my background. The only reason I tell my story is so Jews won't turn their backs on converts who marry in. On the one hand, the Jewish community alienates them, and on the other, they bemoan the intermarriage rate. Hey, why not try to kill yourself twice?! Be sensitive to the intrinsic value of Judaism. That's my message. Let's not shortchange who we are. You can be away five hundred years and then come home.
The same sense of a fevered search that I observed at the conference of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies exists on the discussion group Anusim, the busiest of all my email subscriptions. Every day I open my program to find a multitude of letters describing family names or rituals, and asking whether these could be evidence of a crypto-Jewish past. Speaking at the conference, psychiatrist David Kazazz said he founded the Resource Center for Crypto-Jews with Seth Ward of the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver, for people engaged in a search. He sympathized with their need for completeness. He noted that the issue of personal research is not exclusive to Jews or adoptees but to anyone with a truncated sense of self. "They could be Gypsies, they could be anything. But they need to know who they are." The center gets one or two calls each week from people asking whether they might be descended from conversos.
Nan Rubin, project director of the documentary Hidden Jews of New Mexico, says National Public Radio was inundated by phone calls after its 1987 broadcast of "Search for the Buried Past." That twelve-minute piece, which was repeated in 1992, elicited the most mail NPR had ever received to date. According to Rubin, people think of crypto-Jews as exotics huddled in an adobe, waiting to be Judaized. The real reason these stories resonate is not because they are romanticized, she says, but because "people are drawn to identity issues."
Not all the crypto-Jews I interviewed live in the southwest United States. The others were equally intent on locating their roots and establishing their identity, but with a major difference—the crypto-Jewish descendants in places other than the American Southwest were not wrapped in that mantle of fear. Perhaps because their grandparents had not been hunted down in Mexico, or because they did not live in overwhelmingly Catholic communities, these others spoke more freely about their newly discovered past.
Unlike the people I met at the Crypto-Judaic Studies conference, Sophia's family hailed from Sicily, one of the havens temporarily opened to Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. I had called Sophia, a fifty-year-old professor of philosophy, in May 1997, when the rabbi who converted her to Judaism gave me her name. While I was in Denver meeting crypto-Jews, Sophia was in Italy meeting her cousins for the first time. When I spoke to her in May, she was preparing for that trip.
My parents are American-born. My mother's parents are from Sicily, my father's mother is a New Yorker, and my father's father is from Florence. I was sent to Catholic school, but my parents never went to church, which at the time I thought was hypocritical.
I met my husband in 1975, but we didn't get serious until three years later. His parents are Jewish, but, as good Trotskyites, brought him up with absolutely no religion. On Passover, for example, they had no Seder, but they'd eat matzo balls with their dinner. That was it. In 1978, he started thinking about religion. He decided he wanted me to become Jewish so our kids would be Jewish. That was fine with me. He didn't really believe in God so it wasn't as though I had to commit to much of anything. We took a twelve-week course at Hebrew Union College, and decided to join a Reconstructionist temple. The rabbi got to know me and felt I would find a Conservative conversion more meaningful, so I went to study with Rabbi Stephen Lerner. We developed a very special relationship. We're both academics, so we had many fascinating conversations. The four classes I took with him were more anecdotal than rigorous, though he assigned me reading material. He had me light Friday night candles, eat kosher meat, things like that. In the back of my mind, I was thinking: my grandmother used to do these things—soak meat in salted water, broil steak on a separate grill, refuse to eat seafood.
My mother was a very busy woman, so I practically lived with my grandparents. They spoke Italian but understood English. They called me their daughter, not their granddaughter. Grandmother used to pull the shades down on Friday night and light candles in front of statues of saints. I remember her striking the match and telling me, "this is for after you pull the shades." When I learned about Shabbat candles, it was like a light went off in my head. She was very old when she met my husband. "Is he Jewish? Okay." I even remember her teaching me to sweep toward the middle of the room, like crypto-Jews did.
Grandmother's name was Annamaria. She came from Castelbuono, a town of refuge in 1492. Jews were given an extra year to stay there. All the names in Castelbuono are Anna. I have cousins named Anna. My ` mother's name is Annette. I'm going there this summer to look at tombstones and read church records. There has always been a priest in my family. Grandmother said our women had to marry within the family, and the priest would tell them whom to marry. She herself married out of the family. She got away with it because she was her father's favorite. Grandfather worked for her father, and they fell in love. Besides, her father had already "given" a daughter to the family, so that made it easier for her to marry out.
When I converted to Judaism, I felt as if I'd never been anything else. My husband and I are very active in our synagogue now. Our parents have been very supportive. We have a big Seder every Passover. I feel my life has brought me to a position where I can interpret all these items that by themselves don't signify anything but when they are added up paint a picture. I feel I've received a message: Nobody said kaddish [the Jewish mourner's prayer] for this family for five hundred years. This will be my project. I'm going to find a way to memorialize them.
At summer's end, I wrote to Sophia to ask how her trip had been.
I'm going back in January to see my new family again. I met more than one hundred people I'm related to. My grandmother is a legendary figure in the family for her beauty, kindness, gentleness, and love for my grandfather, which is exactly how I remember her. Everything was as she said, only better—I couldn't have even imagined it.
Unfortunately, the church and castle where the records are kept were closed for renovation. I learned a great deal, though, about family surnames and customs, and am even more convinced that the family was crypto-Jewish.
The Jamaicans I spoke with fit more into the category of people who "feel Jewish." Small wonder, considering Jamaica's eclectic Jewish history. In The Secret Jews, Joachim Prinz describes Jamaican crypto-Jewry in a section on international commerce.
Others settled in the West Indian archipelago and became deeply involved in the newly developing sugar trade. In the seventeenth century the European settlers, on the island of Barbados, were mainly Marranos who had emigrated from Holland after converting to Judaism ... In British Jamaica, the Jews were active in the cultivation and refining of sugar, and they were so valuable to the economy that when some Christian merchants asked the governor in 1681 to exclude the Jews, their petition was rejected.
In successive centuries, Jews arrived from both Sephardic (Brazil, Curacao) and Ashkenazic (Bordeaux, Bayonne, Amsterdam) communities. There was considerable intermarriage, such that a large percentage of the Jamaican population is thought to have Jewish ancestry. The possibility is strong; the certainty is elusive.
Physician Anthony Leigh MacFarlane lives in Canada now, but his baritone has retained a trace of its Jamaican musicality, those liquid Is and the drawn-out "ah" sound for a: Jah-may-kah. Tony showed me a photo of his father. But for the intervening years, they could be identical twins. Those are strong genes. And the picture of his father's Jewish mother showed what could have been a fraternal twin, so alike are the features. All three share a café-au-lait complexion, wide nose, curly gray hair, eyes that home in on their target with an encompassing intelligence. As we walked to the subway, Tony maneuvered himself to the street side of the sidewalk in a chivalrous gesture that I have not seen in decades. A gentleman and a gentle man, in speech and action.
My father was the illegitimate son of Alexander MacFarlane and Agatha Mendes, my Jewish grandmother. MacFarlane's wife was sick. He was going to marry Agatha after his wife died, but he himself died soon after. People used to tell me my grandmother was Jewish, but I had no idea what it meant. I asked my non-Jewish grandmother and she said, "The Jews are a proud, stiff-necked people." The tone of the message said: This subject is taboo and they are not nice people.
Jamaica is a plantation society. It was very structured. The owner was the absolute boss. Then there were house slaves, field slaves, and intermediate functionaries. That's why even today, it's difficult to get certain kinds of information. Jamaicans are bred with a need to keep secrets. Slaves didn't want the masters to know what they were doing, and the master didn't want the slaves to acquire knowledge. That's the background you need to understand my family history.
My grandmother paid for my education, something she highly valued. I was taught by Jesuits. They discouraged me from pursuing higher education, but by 1957, I was in university. Two years later, I came to Canada for a ten-week vacation. At that time I was a practicing Roman Catholic. I figured I'd spend some time in New York before going back to school. I traveled by bus, and this one time I sat next to a guy who started chatting. After fifteen minutes we exchanged names.
"I'm Irving Goldstein."
"What kind of name is that?"
"Jewish? My grandmother was Jewish. What's a Jew?"
When I got back to Hamilton, I ran into a girl I knew. She said, "What did you do this summer?" I said, "I met a Jew." She said, "Big deal. I'm Jewish, too. Want to come to synagogue with me?"
I went and soon realized I was much more comfortable in the synagogue than I ever was in a church. I received a lot of dinner invitations and was exposed to highly intellectual conversation. One day I took a look at the Encyclopedia Judaica. There were six pages on the Mendes family. That was my validation. It was the first time I heard the word Sephardic. I started reading like crazy: Exodus, William Shirer, The Last of the Just. It's in the blood. I can't otherwise explain my drive to know my background.
Just before it came time for me to go back to Jamaica, I asked the rabbi to convert me, which he did. After my medical training, I established a practice in Canada. Today I am president of the Reform congregation I belong to.
When I was about nine, on the plantation, I read a book about a royal child who was substituted for a commoner, his exact look-alike. Mark Twain was it? I always felt different when I was at the Jesuit school. I used to put that down to the fact that I came from the "country." I experienced a strong conviction that I was in the wrong place, that I wasn't recognized as who I should be. I have since learned that this is a common phenomenon among children, but with the reconnection to my Spanish-Portuguese roots, I had the distinct feeling that I had come into my true identity.
The authenticity of crypto-Jews was not my focus; my concern was the experiences and reactions of those individuals who discovered or suspected they were descended from Jewish victims of the Inquisition. They were tenacious in their quest to establish their identity. Once they made the connection to the past, the experience of their forefathers was very real and meaningful to them. How they got to that understanding—whether through culture, genealogy, or inner drive (consent or descent)—made little difference to them. What mattered was knowing who they were and where they came from.