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Sparks of Holiness, Rekindled

May 9, 2009 | by

Descendants of forced converts of the Inquisition are rediscovering Judaism.

One bright spring day, the Inquisitors of Mexico caught Diego in the marketplace, hiding three matzos under his hat. In their torture chambers, he denied he was Jewish, insisting that unleavened bread placed under one's hat was a known cure for chronic headaches. Meanwhile, the local spies of the Inquisition, like their counterparts in Spain and Portugal, continued combing the marketplace, looking for anyone displaying a particular interest in purchasing bitter herbs or celery (used by many Spanish Jews as karpas) that day.

Behind locked doors and in hushed tones, the so-called "New Christians" fearfully passed on the Torah's commandments to their children. Obviously, under these conditions, the Jewish law was not understood, so that gradually, errors, omissions, and distortions became part of the tradition that was passed from generation to generation.

Behind locked doors and in hushed tones, the so-called "New Christians" fearfully passed on the Torah's commandments to their children.

In Belmonte, Portugal, for example, matzos are baked only on the 16th or 17th of Nisan - a vestige of the days when they had to fool the Inquisitors, and Pesach songs are sung in an undertone. Meanwhile, the women take their daughters out to lakes or rivers and there they teach them songs of the Exodus and the Splitting of the Sea of Reeds.

Professor Shulamit HaLevi, a genealogical investigator specializing in the Marranos and their descendants, told us that once when she gave a lecture at Chicago University, a man introduced himself to her as a Christian from Brazil. "I have a feeling we are descended from Marranos," he told her, "because our family has always insisted that the children marry their cousins.

"I put him through a quiz I've developed," says Professor HaLevi, "designed to check for Jewish customs in the family, and I uncovered no sign of Jewishness. I told him I was sorry, but I had no way of verifying that he was descended from Jews. Still, he insisted he had Jewish origins, and as proof, he brought his elderly mother to see me, who proceeded to recite Psalm 91 from Psalms in Hebrew, in full. She told me that in her family, the deceased are brought to burial while the mourners recite this psalm in a whisper. Then, while I was questioning her, she started leafing through my copy of Nachum Slouschz's book, The Secret Jews of Portugal, published in 1932, and suddenly she looked up in shock. The book contains 'Pesach prayers' of the Marranos, which were recited instead of the Haggada.

"'Who wrote these down?!' she demanded. 'My mother and grandmother told me that these poems were never, absolutely never, to be written down! They said I was only to pass them on by word of mouth!' Then she stood in the middle of the room, closed her eyes, and, with appropriate hand movements, recited the poems from beginning to end."

Professor HaLevi asked the lady to get more information directly from her family. Her three older brothers all admitted to her that they had been told, in secret, that they were descended from Marranos. She herself had only been taught various customs, with no reason specified. "The interesting thing," says HaLevi, "is that I have heard these poems recited in precisely the same form by descendants of Marranos from Portugal to Brazil."

The Deep Secret

Sylvia, a Catholic from Madrid, had been told by her grandfather about a top-secret hiding place in his house. She had pictured some strange, gloomy attic, perhaps featuring an ancient, dusty bottle from which a genie would emerge. Why would her grandfather, whom she knew to be an upstanding citizen, be harboring mysteries in his house?

"At that time, I had been married to Jose for 15 years," says Sylvia in Spanish, while Rabbi Daniel Ginerman provides simultaneous translation. Rabbi Ginerman, of the Banayich Tzion Kollel, engages, among other things, in teaching Torah, especially to Jews who are distant from tradition, and including the descendants of Marranos.

"We had children," Sylvia goes on, "and our life was going smoothly. We never anticipated the upheaval that would come out of Grandfather's hiding place. Trembling, I opened the concealed door built into an inner wall of his house, and there I found a seven-branched menorah, a worn-out piece of fabric I couldn't identify, and a crumbling book in a language that was unrecognizable to me. 'What are these things?' I asked him. 'These are things I inherited from my grandfather,' he told me, 'and he inherited them from his grandfather. They belonged to our Jewish ancestors who were forced to become Christians. You must pass these objects down to the next generation,' he said. 'These were my grandfather's orders, and now I am telling you to do the same.'"

Astonished, Sylvia went home and told her husband what had happened. "Then he started telling me all sorts of evidence that his ancestors, too, had kept Jewish customs. He went and questioned his relatives further, and came back with proofs that his entire family was descended from Jews! We went through a long conversion process and finally became part of the Jewish people according to the requirements of Jewish law. In Sivan 5763, 25 years after our wedding in a famous church in Madrid, we stood together under a chupa in Jerusalem. We left our identities as Jose and Sylvia behind in Madrid, and we became Yosef and Tzvia."

Another Link in the Chain

Maria, soon to become Miriam, is still deeply impressed by her first visit to the Western Wall. "Rabbi Ginerman took me there," she says, still obviously moved by the experience. "I stood there, against that holy Wall of stone, and I cried. I looked at all the Jewish women around me and said to myself, after 700 years of Inquisition that tried to butcher us, to burn us alive, to make us forget we were Jews, to make us just like all the Christians, here I am, a descendant of Don Juan, Don Agular, and all those who hid in the cellars and risked their lives for the Shabbos candles, for the matzos on Pesach. I'm standing here by the remains of the Holy Temple, praying for the Redemption!"

"The first wholesale massacres carried out by the Inquisition began in 1391. These are also known as the pogroms of 5151." So Sylvia Bina informs us, with Rabbi Ginerman interpreting. "And the persecutions began several decades before that."

Like most of the others who returned to their origins, Maria came to Judaism through her grandfather. "I was born and raised in a Catholic family in Barcelona," she says. "We were a warm, close family. We children all loved Grandpa, but if I may boast a bit, I enjoyed an extra-special relationship with him. Sometimes I would sleep over at his house when I was little, and he would hold me on his lap very early in the morning and show me the morning star shining before dawn. I can still hear his words ringing in my ears: 'Maria, do you see that star? It is the brightest star of all, and it shines before the sun rises.' Then his voice would drop, and he would sound mysterious as he said, 'Some day you'll understand why you, too, should be called by that star's name and shine as it does.'"

"You, too, are descended from the Jewish people, Maria, and perhaps one day you will light up the darkness like the morning star." Those were his last words on this earth.

Maria grew, and her grandfather grew old, too old to hold his grandchildren on his lap anymore. Still, his special affection for her remained. Eight years ago, he passed away. Knowing his time was coming, he asked Maria to come and see him. "Five hundred years ago," he told her, "our family was a Jewish family, living right here. Then Ferdinand and Isabella decided to expel every Jew who wouldn't convert to Christianity. Our ancestors chose not to pack their bags and go to Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa, but rather to keep the Jewish commandments in secret. From generation to generation they have passed on the word that we are Jews, and now I want to make another link in the chain. You, too, are descended from the Jewish people, Maria, and perhaps one day you will light up the darkness like the morning star. Now I can die in peace." Those were his last words on this earth.

Without delay, Maria began investigating the meaning of Jewishness. She soon learned that Judaism was fascinating and beautiful, and she, too, is scheduled for an Orthodox conversion in the near future. She says she is sure her grandfather and all her ancestors in the upper world are overjoyed.

It is no simple matter for a young Catholic woman from Barcelona to get up one morning, cast off her whole former life, and go into the desert like Abraham, our Forefather.

Most of the countless descendants of Marranos found all over the globe have to undergo formal Orthodox conversion if they wish to be reunited with the Jewish people. Stories of their grandmothers who apparently came from Marrano families, even maternal grandmothers, cannot guarantee that over a period of 500 years or more the family never assimilated. Marrano descendants in Majorca, Belmonte, and elsewhere, have a greater likelihood of being authentic Jews, since they have historically been very particular to marry only within the extended family. They have also been rejected, over hundreds of years, by their Catholic neighbors, who called them names like chuetos that discriminated between them and the rest of the population. Some families among them have distinctively Jewish names which were kept over the centuries. Nevertheless, anyone from these localities who wants to return to the Jewish fold has to go through an Orthodox Rabbi.

The Allure of Tehillim

It might have been difficult to believe some of the stories we heard from Rabbi Ginerman and Professor HaLevi if not for the fact that they included full names, addresses, pictures, and even living voices willing to come and tell us their tales in person.

The story of a girl named Chere, for example, contains all the elements of a rather sensational novel. Chere was born in S. Klaus, Bolivia, about 20 years ago. Her father had emigrated from Germany, and her mother was a native Bolivian. Both parents were university graduates, and Chere grew up in a comfortable environment. She first heard of the existence of Jews at the age of 15,, and she took an immediate interest in them, even though she personally knew no Jews, and knew of none living within a radius of a hundred miles from her home. It was as if she'd been infected by some inexplicable fever.

She kept asking her father and mother if they were sure they had no connection to Judaism, and they repeatedly assured here they had none. Chere herself couldn't say why she felt so interested in Judaism, of all religions in the world. She found a Spanish translation of Psalms, and read them hungrily. "I felt this tremendous sweetness every time I read that book," she would say afterwards. "I was drawn to the words as if under a spell."

For three years she continued her vague, confused search after she-knew-not-what. On graduating from high school, she decided, as the daughter of a German citizen, to study medicine in her father's native land. Her parents willingly made all the arrangements for her. The night before her flight to Frankfurt, she brought up that nagging question again: "Is our family connected in any way to the Jews?"

Her parents sat facing her, perplexed, until her father broke the silence and said, "I am a Jew. My whole family perished in the Holocaust. I survived. I was a little refugee boy. When I grew up, I decided I would run away as far as I could, tell no one I was Jewish, forget I ever was Jewish, and assimilate. I wanted to escape from everything that had happened to my family."

They had spent over 20 years together, and he'd never told her he was a Jew.

Chere was stunned. She could hardly take in the revelation. Then she noticed that her mother had turned pale and was lying back in her chair. For her, too, this was news. They had spent over 20 years together, and he'd never told her he was a Jew. Taking a sip of water to keep from fainting, choked with emotion, she announced, "It looks like this is a night for revealing family secrets! I have a secret to tell you, too. I am probably Jewish myself! My grandmother on my mother's side told me before she died that we are descended from Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity. I never told this to anyone, not even to you," she said, turning to her husband. Then she began telling all the stories she had heard from her grandmother, who had cautioned her that this was a family secret, which must be passed on secretly to every generation to come.

So now the mystery was solved. Now Chere knew why she was so drawn to Judaism. Two powerful magnets had been pulling her in that direction all along. All that night, she sat up, crying over the fate of her ancestors and over her own unknown fate. After a sleepless night for the whole family, her parents drove her to the airport and said goodbye. She had a flight to Sao Paulo, Brazil, to connect with her plane to Frankfurt. Feeling lost and confused, she wandered around the huge airport. Suddenly she noticed a strange sight. A bearded man, dressed in black, with a large velvet yarmulke on his head, was standing in line waiting to check in. This was none other than Rabbi Daniel Ginerman, on his way to teach Torah in Frankfurt as part of the program of his Kollel in Givat Ze'ev.

"Suddenly a girl came running up to me," he says. "She was almost overcome with emotion. She burst right out and asked me, 'Are you a Jew?' I said I was, and she almost shouted for joy, 'What a story I have to tell you! I just found out a few hours ago that my parents are Jewish, and you are the first real Jew I've ever met in my life!' For the next ten hours she asked me questions about Jews and Judaism. I have never seen such eagerness, coupled with such a thirst for knowledge and wisdom. She never rested for a moment, and never seemed tired. She wanted to hear more and more. The essence of being Jewish, the mitzvot, the history of the Jewish people, their destiny, where are all the Jews today, and what did she have to do to become a proper, observant Jew according to Jewish Law. I glanced out the plane window at the cloudy sky and thought to myself that somewhere out there in Heaven, Chere's ancestors must be cheering her on."

Rabbi Ginerman had to hurry straight to his work in Frankfurt, so he put Chere in touch with one of the leading rabbis in the Jewish community there, and with another rabbi in Berlin. Today, Chere is studying Judaism in preparation for an Orthodox conversion (due to her mother's uncertain status), and she can hardly wait to return to the nation of her forbears. She talks all the time about her Heavenly-ordained meeting with Rabbi Ginerman, who was sent to the airport that day not only by his kollel, but by a guiding Hand from above.

Lighting Candles in the Closet

Many other people, living in South American countries or in Spain, have similar stories to tell of grandparents who revealed to them, on their deathbeds, that they were descended from forcibly converted Jews. Some of these people even perform mitzvot, without knowing what their actions signify. Fernando's family knows, without knowing why, that before they eat lettuce they must hold each leaf up to the light and look at it. Any observant Jew can tell you that this is how lettuce is examined for infestation. But to Fernando's family it is some inexplicable mystic rite that they could never consider abandoning.

Fernando's grandmother, who was well-known for her excellent baking, had another odd custom, too: she would cut a piece off of every dough she made and burn it. The reason she did so was unclear, even to her. But she knew that her own grandmother had followed this custom and that it wasn't to be questioned.

Alfonso's grandmother used to light candles every Friday afternoon in a large closet, which she closed tightly immediately afterwards. The whole family took care that the flames should not leave scorch marks on the closet walls. Sylvia, who became Tzvia, tells us that at family meals, her grandfather would cut the bread, dip each slice in salt, and hand the pieces out to everyone at the table, never knowing the source of this custom.

"Yes, That's Us"

Why don't the Crypto-Jewish families just come out and say that the Inquisition is a thing of the past, no one is being burned at the stake, and it's time to take the menorahs out of the closet and use them openly again?

"This is a psychological issue," Rabbi Ginerman explains. "Many of these people see secrecy as an inseparable element of the tradition they've received. Many are ashamed to admit their Jewish ancestry, because the foreign culture in which they grew up has drilled into their heads that the Jews are a loathsome people who killed their messiah. Some still believe that Jews are guilty of using Christian children's blood in matzos. It is hard for them to face a world that stereotypes them like this, and openly declare that they belong to the Jewish People and converted only 'for show.' About a year and a half ago I organized an online forum of several dozen Crypto-Jews. One of the participants stipulated that I must not publicize her email address. She wouldn't even let me give it to other Crypto-Jews participating in the forum - some of whom were her own relatives. She didn't want them to know she was getting interested in Judaism."

Why didn't the early Marranos return to practicing Judaism openly as soon as the Inquisition ended?

Professor HaLevi points out, in answer to this question, that the Inquisition was officially ended in Mexico only in 1821. The last auto-da-fe, or public burning, took place in 1826, and only in 1834 was the Inquisition formally rescinded in Spain, 550 years after it was officially begun, in the year 1280. This was rather a long time in the eyes of the Inquisition's victims, the forced converts, and their descendants.

"Since the end of the Inquisition, the Crypto-Jews have disappeared from public awareness," says Proessor HaLevi, "and at that point, even if a grandparent whispered to them, 'You are descended from the Jews!' this had little meaning for them. They didn't know any Jews, except perhaps from sermons they heard in Church. They may have been told they were 'Judeos' or 'Sefaradites,' but these were just words; they didn't know where to go from there. To this day, politicians and magnates from Brazil, Spain, and elsewhere come to me wanting to talk over in strict secrecy the fact that they are Crypto-Jews. They won't take any drastic steps, because they don't want to disrupt their lives. One well-known politician who represents the Latino community in America told me that he knows for sure that he is a Crypto-Jew, but it's hard for him to make the decision to convert. He prefers not even to mention the fact, because it would mean losing the next election. But when his mother passed away, he called me and asked me to send him Jewish prayers, in Hebrew, that he could say for her.

"Another Crypto-Jew in northern Mexico, who was the youngest child in his family, told me of a childhood memory. When he was about six, a great-aunt of his passed away. The men sat shiva for her in one room, the women in another. He was hanging around in the women's room and he heard them saying that the whole family was Jewish. He ran to his grandfather and asked him if this was true. His grandfather said it was, and the boy then demanded to know, 'So why do we say we're Catholic?'

"'Because we can't say we're Jewish,' was the answer. Six years later, the boy was viewing a news program that showed the death camps in Europe. He asked his grandfather: 'Those Jews - are they what we are?' 'Yes,' his grandfather said sadly. 'That's us.'"

This article originally appeared in © Mishpacha Magazine 2004

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