Growing up in a small town in southern Colorado, an area where her ancestors settled centuries ago, Bernadette Gonzalez always thought some of the stories about her family were unusual, if not bizarre. Her grandmother, for instance, refused to travel on Saturday and would use a specific porcelain basin to drain blood out of meat before she cooked it. In one tale that particularly puzzled Ms. Gonzalez, her grandfather called for a Jewish doctor to circumcise him while he was on his death bed.
Only after Ms. Gonzalez moved to Houston to work as a lawyer and began discussing these tales with a Jewish colleague, she said, did “the pieces of the puzzle” start falling into place. Ms. Gonzalez started researching her family history and concluded that her ancestors were Marranos, or Sephardic Jews, who had fled the Inquisition in Spain and in Mexico more than four centuries ago.
Though raised in the Roman Catholic faith, Ms. Gonzalez felt a need to reconnect to her Jewish roots. “I feel like I came home,” said Ms. Gonzalez, who now often uses the first name Batya. “The fingerprints of my past were all around me, but I didn’t know what they meant.”
It is difficult to know precisely how many Hispanics are converting or adopting Jewish religious practices, but accounts of such embraces of Judaism are growing more common in parts of the Southwest. In Clear Lake, a suburb south of Houston, Rabbi Stuart Federow has overseen more than a dozen conversions of Hispanics in recent years. In El Paso, Rabbi Stephen Leon said he had converted more than 40 Hispanic families.
These conversions are the latest chapter in the story of the crypto-Jews, or hidden Jews, of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, who are thought to be descended from the Sephardic Jews who began fleeing Spain more than 500 years ago. Their story is being bolstered by historical research and advances in DNA testing that reveal the prominent role played by crypto-Jews and their descendants in Spain’s colonization of the Southwest.
For more than two decades, anecdotal evidence collected by researchers in New Mexico, Colorado and Texas suggested that some nominally Catholic families of Iberian descent had stealthily maintained Jewish customs throughout the centuries, including lighting candles on Friday evening, avoiding pork and having the Star of David inscribed on gravestones.
Many rabbis view assistance to and conversion of crypto-Jews as a modern Jewish responsibility. Science is now shedding new light on the history of the crypto-Jews and molecular anthropologists recently developed a DNA test of the male or Y chromosome that can indicate an ancestral connection to the Cohanim, a priestly class of Jews that traces its origin back more than 3,000 years to Aaron, the older brother of Moses.
Family Tree DNA, a Houston company that offers a Cohanim test to its male clients, gets about one inquiry a day from Hispanics interested in exploring the possibility of Jewish ancestry, said Bennett Greenspan, its founder and chief executive. Mr. Greenspan said about one in 10 of the Hispanic men tested by his company showed Semitic ancestry strongly suggesting a Jewish background.
“The results have just blown me over, reminding me of something out of Kaifeng,” Mr. Greenspan said, referring to the Chinese city of Kaifeng, where a small Jewish community persisted for about 1,000 years until the mid-19th century when it was almost completely assimilated. “Lots of Hispanic people tell me they’re interested in something Jewish and they can’t explain it. Well, this helps explain it.”
John García, a lawyer in El Paso whose family moved to the United States two generations ago from northern Mexico, said he had heard stories since he was a boy that his family had a Sephardic Jewish past. He formally converted to Judaism in 2001 and had a bar mitzvah in El Paso, at the age of 53, together with five other crypto-Jews. Mr. García, a lawyer in the public defender’s office in El Paso, never works on the Sabbath and is an active member of Temple Mount Sinai, a Reform congregation in El Paso.
“I’ve had to go beyond my comfort level in something I would call a reversion rather than a conversion,” Mr. García said. “There were an intervening 400 years when my family had become Catholic, but something about Judaism, I don’t know exactly what it was, was kept alive.”
Take Juan Mejía. Raised as a Catholic in Colombia and educated at Christian schools, Mejía was on his way to becoming a monk when he discovered as a teenager that his family had Jewish roots. His grandfather would recall men gathering in darkened corners to place towels on their head and pray from a strange book.
After a torturous journey, which involved his rejection by the tiny Jewish community in Bogota and several years of study in Jerusalem, Mejía converted and began training for the rabbinate. Now Mejía is dedicating his rabbinate to helping Jewish descendants like himself who want to reconnect with their roots.
Descendants of Conversos, Jews forced to recant their religion under threat of execution by the Inquisition, who continued to practice their religion in secret, have received more attention in recent years. Articles describing stories of Latino immigrants who discover their family’s strange rituals are Jewish in origin have appeared in both the Jewish and mainstream press.
Rabbi Rigoberto Emanuel Viñas, a Cuban-born rabbi who teaches classes in the Bronx for Anusim — as forced converts are known in Hebrew — has been featured in The New York Times.
And Rabbi Mejía promises to take the type of outreach Viñas has pioneered to a new level. With many Conversos shunned when they turn for help to Jewish communities in Latin America — those communities are beset by a “colonial mind-set,” Mejía says, and have contempt for the claims to Jewish ancestry by the locals — Mejía hopes to reach them over the Internet.
Mejía already runs a Web site that offers online instruction in Jewish topics. He and his wife, also an ordained Conservative Rabbi believe that only in the United States, with its large, secure and welcoming Jewish community, can Anusim be educated and brought back to their roots.
A recent, detailed survey of American Jews (“American Jews in 2020”) from the Pew Research Center shows that 7% of all American Jews now identify as Hispanic. The majority of these Hispanic Jews are converts to Judaism who have been romantically attracted both to Jews and Judaism. Most of these Hispanic Jewish converts are also genetically returning home.
The genetic signatures of people in Spain and Portugal provide new and explicit evidence of the mass forced conversions of Sephardic Jews to Catholicism in the 15th and 16th centuries, a team of geneticists reported according to the NYTimes (12/4/08). Twenty percent of the population of the Iberian Peninsula has Sephardic Jewish ancestry the geneticists found.
The study was based on an analysis of Y chromosomes by biologists led by Mark A. Jobling of the University of Leicester in England and Francesc Calafell of the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.
In 1391 there were anti-Jewish riots in several Spanish cities. Thousands of Jews were forcibly baptized. The Church viewed these baptisms as valid because the Spanish Jews had freely chosen baptism over death, unlike Jews in France and Germany during the first and second crusades, who chose to kill themselves rather than be baptized. Over the next three generations there were additional riots that led to more forcible baptisms.
Of course, Jews forced to be Christians didn’t stop believing in Judaism, but they had to practice, and teach their children in secret. The Church knew this but thought that all Marrano (as secret Jews were called) children and grandchildren would be indoctrinated in the true faith and become believers. This did not happen.
In 1480 the Inquisition began holding trials in Spain. Over the next two centuries thousands of people would be tried, tortured, and imprisoned or executed. In 1492 all unbaptized Jews in Spain were exiled. Over 100,000 Jews left Spain, most of them going to Portugal. In 1497, they were expelled from Portugal, but first all their children were forcibly baptized, so parents who didn’t want to lose their children had to remain and freely choose baptism.
Decades later many secret Jews, or their children, found freedom in the new world. When the Inquisition was established in Lima (1570) and in Mexico City (1571) secret Jews fled to all parts of central and south America to escape. Latinos who are drawn to Jews and Judaism have a Jewish soul from one of these ancestors. (see: A History of the Marranos by Cecil Roth and God, Sex and Kabbalah by Rabbi Allen S. Maller)
Many non-Jews married to Jews who learn of their Semitic ancestry through DNA tests often end up converting to Judaism. Elliot Dorff, a conservative rabbi at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, welcomes these conversions. “We would really want to encourage such people to rediscover their Jewish roots,” he said.
Although non-Jewish people who find Jewish origins through DNA are not strictly Jewish, halachically speaking, Rabbi Dorff noted that many people in this situation already feel a deep-seated connection to the Jewish religion.
Now tens of thousands of Spanish and Portuguese speakers who are descendants of Jews who were forcibly baptized during the 15th century are being attracted to Jews and Judaism because they have Jewish souls and are now returning to the Jewish people.
If you know any Latino married to a Jew please tell him or her about this simple test that usually indicates when a non-Jewish person has a Jewish soul.
1- You like to ask questions? But when you asked them as a child, you were told faith is a gift from God and you shouldn’t question it. This never satisfied you, although others didn’t seem to have a problem with this view.
2- The trinity never made any sense to you even as a young child. You prayed to God the father more easily than Jesus the son of God, even though you were told to pray to Jesus. You could not believe that people who didn’t believe in Jesus wouldn’t go to Heaven.
3- You found you related well to Jewish people you met at work or at school even though they were culturally different from your own family.
4- When you first learned about the Holocaust you reacted more emotionally than did other members of your own family.
5- When you started to learn about Judaism the ideas and values seemed reasonable and the traditions and heritage seemed attractive. You felt that at last you were coming home.