After 500 Years, My Family's Return to Judaism
For centuries, Dr. Joe Maldonado’s family hid their Jewishness. Researching his family's ancestry revealed a startling discovery.
Growing up in New York in the 1960s, Dr. Joseph Maldonado had a strong sense of community. Both his parents had immigrated from their native Puerto Rico to New York, where they met and started a family.
Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans are Roman Catholic, Joe’s family had a very strong feeling of separateness from the Catholic Church. His family identified with a strongly Protestant denomination, which was similar to the Mennonite community. Joe recalls his warm childhood in his strongly conservative religious environment, where he learned to have a “tremendous respect for Israel and the Jewish people as God’s chosen people,” he explained in a recent Aish.com interview.
When he reached high school, Joe attended a large public school in New York City and discovered that “the only comparable people who lived a lifestyle similar to mine was Orthodox Jews.” He went on to attend the City University of New York where his best friend was an Orthodox Jew. He then went to Albert Einstein College of Medicine, a division of Yeshiva University in New York.
Joe did additional work at Harvard, Oxford, and Dalhousie University in Canada. He became a urologist, and even worked as an assistant dean and assistant clinical professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, another Orthodox Jewish institution in New York.
From time to time, Joe was even mistaken for a Jew. When he was in medical school – one of only two non-Jewish men in his class – Joe recalls hearing his classmates talking about their extra jobs leading High Holiday services at various synagogues. “I said I was a cantor at a local...shul,” he remembers with a chuckle. With so many of Jewish classmates, it was the only way to be “part of the discussion” during Jewish holidays.
Another time Joe remembers visiting the New York Public Library as a young man, and being approached by an emissary from the Lubavitch-Chabad movement, asking him if he’d put on tefillin. Joe declined the offer but the encounter always stayed with him.
Delving into Family History
While building his medical career, Joe was passionately researching his family’s history. He’d been interested in genealogy ever since he was in high school and had amassed an impressive amount of research. “I was able to trace back both sides to the 1700s,” he notes, “and I became more and more interested as years went by.”
He learned that both his mother’s and father’s families had roots in Europe, and over the years Joe visited Puerto Rico and Spain, pouring over documents in civil registries and in Catholic Church archives. A major turning point in Joe’s research came in in the late 2000s, when he met amateur genealogist Harry Stein. A Chicago native, Harry Stein ran an immensely popular website called Sephardim.com, which contained huge amounts of information about Sephardic Jewish history. (After Stein’s death in 2015, the website became defunct.)
Stein identified dozens of Jewish surnames, and he told Joe that his mother’s distinctive maiden name was associated with Jewish families. At first, Joe wasn’t interested in hearing that his family tree might contain some Jewish associations – but he did remember Stein’s comment that perhaps somewhere in the past Spanish Jews might have been a part of his family.
The World of Sephardim, Anusim, and Crypto-Jews
In the Middle Ages, the Jewish community of Spain was one of the largest and most vibrant in the world. It was also one of the most threatened and complex. As long ago as the 6th century, some Jews living in what today is Spain found themselves targeted for forced conversion. According to historian Max I. Dimont in his book Jews, God and History (1994 edition), King Reccared forced as many as 90,000 Jews to convert to Christianity.
This experience of forced conversions was repeated at different times, particularly after 1391 when Jews were massacred by Christian mobs first in Seville, and then in other towns and cities across the Iberian Peninsula. Whipped up to an anti-Jewish frenzy by Catholic leaders, Spanish mobs looted Jewish property, murdered thousands of Jews, and forced many Jews to convert to Christianity under pain of death.
Throughout subsequent waves of attacks, so many Jews converted to Christianity that their numbers began to pose a problem for “regular” Christians, who suspected that Jewish converts were still maintaining their Jewish religion in secret. These Jews who ostensibly converted to Christianity – and who were seen to be maintaining their Jewish lifestyle in secret – were variously known as “New Christians” or as Marranos, which was a term of abuse. Fellow Jews sometimes called their co-religionists “Crypto-Jews” meaning Jews who maintained their religion in secret, or Anusim, a Hebrew term meaning “forced”.
Historian and former Hebrew University Professor Chaim Hillel Ben-Sasson observed that these secret Jews flourished in Spanish society, causing resentment among the “old” Christians with no Jewish blood. “Gradually Christian antagonism towards the conversos assumed an ethnic and racial character. The concept of the limpieza de sangre (purity of blood) barred the New Christians’ integration within Christian society. More and more violence was perpetrated against the conversos.”
The Inquisition targeted secret Jews, burning at the stake anyone who was convicted of the “crime” of keeping their Jewish traditions in secret.
In 1478, an Inquisition was established to root out heretics within the Catholic Church; it took over from an earlier Papal Inquisition. The Inquisition in Spain was only one such body; Rome and Portugal maintained their own Inquisitions too, for instance. The Spanish Inquisition operated not only in Spain itself, but also in its territories overseas. From 1481, the Inquisition targeted secret Jews, torturing those who were accused of maintaining Jewish practice, and burning at the stake anyone who was convicted of the “crime” of keeping their Jewish traditions in secret.
Thomas Torquemada, a sadistic and fanatically anti-Semitic Dominican Friar, led Spain’s Inquisition. Torquemada wanted not only to root out secret Jews, but to expel all Jews from the country. After his appeal to the Pope to issue such an edict was turned down, Torquemada pressured Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to exile Spain's Jews.
It was an incredible proposition: Spanish Jews were integrated and influential throughout the kingdom of Spain. (In fact, Ferdinand and Isabella’s marriage had been arranged by a Spanish Jew named Abraham Senior.) The royal couple agreed to expel Spain’s Jews, but seemed to waver when the prominent Spanish Rabbi Don Isaac Abravanel came to meet the royal couple in person, pleading for his co-religionists to stay and offering an enormous bribe to the king and queen. It’s said that the royal couple almost wavered, when Torquemada burst into the room, spouting anti-Jewish venom, and succeeded in scuppering Abravanel’s offer.
Joe's mother's ancestral coat of arms with small Stars of David surrounding cross
In 1492, on the Jewish day of Tisha B’Av, which marks the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, Spain’s Jews left the country. Estimates of how many Jews fled on that day range from 40,000 to 100,000. Many went to Portugal. Some fled to Amsterdam, Belgium, Italy, or to Spanish territories overseas such as the Canary Islands and Azores.
Tens of thousands of Jews remained in Spain. They formally agreed to become Christian, but many kept their Jewish practice in secret. These secret Jews were the target of the feared Inquisition. Any secret Jew living in Spanish territories overseas also continued to be hunted by the Inquisition, which operated in Spanish jurisdictions all over the world. Incredibly, the Spanish Inquisition only ended in 1834, after having tortured and burnt to death untold thousands of Jews and others.
Discovering More Family Secrets
In 2013, Spain announced that it would grant citizenship to descendants of Jews who were forced out of the country in 1492. The new policy garnered plenty of headlines around the world, and prompted Joe Maldonado to think once again about possible Jewish connections in his family’s history. “I went back to work on my mother’s family tree,” he recalls. He soon made contact with another doctor who was related to Joe through his maternal great great grandmother.
This new family history went back much further than Joe had ever been able to penetrate; suddenly he could trace parts of his family back to the 1500s. He noticed an unusual feature. “There were all these things called dispensations for consanguinity,” he explains. These were permits that had to be sought from the Catholic Church if anyone wanted permission to marry a first, second, third, or fourth cousin – something that was typically forbidden by the Church, but could be waived with a “dispensation”. Joe’s family history was filled with cases of cousins marrying one another. “I couldn’t figure that one out,” Joe notes. At first he thought that perhaps his ancestors were trying to protect whatever wealth the family had by only marrying within the clan, but there were still questions about this unusual pattern of choosing spouses.
Another unusual feature of Joe’s family tree was the huge range of places where his ancestors came. “I discovered we weren’t just from Spain,” he notes. In many cases, his ancestors had moved from Spain to Portugal, and from there on to Antwerp, Amsterdam, elsewhere in Flanders, the Azores, and the Canary Islands.
Berdugo Rabbinical tree to which Joe's 8th maternal great grandmother Maria Segarra Verdugo (J-haplogroup) is connected
“I started doing a little bit of reading and discovered that these were places where the conversos went to. I realized that the pattern of migration I was seeing was the pattern that fit into these crypto-Jews.” As he researched, Joe discovered the terms anusim and b’nai anusim (descendants of anusim). He was amazed to discover that even in the New World there were people who maintained Jewish customs and traditions stemming from their experiences as anusim hundreds of years ago.
Joe started asking his parents more about their family’s unique customs. He’d heard that some descendants of anusim continued family customs of lighting candles on Friday night – did his family do that back in Puerto Rico, he asked? Not at all, his mother replied, but the more he asked, the more he uncovered some intriguing customs that smacked of Jewish practice.
Some secret Jews had the custom of sweeping towards the center of the room when they cleaned the floor. Dr. David M. Gitlitz, formerly a professor of Hispanic studies at the University of Rhode Island, studied testimony from the inquisition, and noted that some Spanish Jews had a superstition that dirt shouldn’t be swept past the mezuzah on a doorpost, so they swept towards the middle of rooms instead.
“Then I saw my mother would sweep into the center of the room,” Joe recalls. After learning that this custom was associated with secret Jews, he asked her why she did that. “That’s just the way I learned to sweep,” his mom replied. Then Joe realized that his mother never ate eggs outside the home. She didn’t ever want to consume an egg that contained blood spots, so she’d only eat eggs that she herself had prepared so she could look for blood. By now, Joe knew that this too was a Jewish custom (indeed, checking for blood spots before cooking with eggs is a key component of keeping kosher) and he asked his mother about this curious custom too. “That’s because we don’t eat the egg like that,” his mom answered simply. “That’s what my grandmother taught me.”
Another family custom leapt out at him: “My mother wouldn’t mix dairy and meat in the same meal."
Another curious family custom Joe learned was burying people who’d died within 24 hours of their passing. His relatives then used to drape all the mirrors in the house and stay inside for seven nights, praying the rosary and receiving visitors. “Chairs were put out and people would come and visit,” Joe describes. By now he realized this closely echoed the Jewish practice of sitting shiva for a close relative who’s died. His great grandparents’ lack of affinity with the Catholic Church tipped him off that saying the rosary after a family death might be a sign they were hiding something. Why would these ancestors – who claimed to be staunch Protestants – suddenly pray the Catholic way for seven nights after a funeral? “I thought they were sitting shiva and hiding the fact by saying the rosary,” he recalls.
Another family custom leapt out at him: “My mother wouldn’t mix dairy and meat in the same meal," Joe recalls. When he asked his parents about this unusual tradition, they explained that’s just what their families did.
Back in Puerto Rico, he learned that his relatives had an unusual way of slaughtering animals that closely recalled shechita, or Jewish ritual slaughter. “I have videos of my mother and her sister explaining how they killed chicken and calves at the farm they grew up on," Joe recalls. They described using a special knife that had to be very sharp, and killing the animals with one stroke across the neck. Then they used to put rock salt on meat and boil it to make sure no blood remained. Although this method of killing animals differed from the way their neighbors slaughtered livestock, Joe’s relatives simply did it out of long-standing custom.
Joe also noted that many of his family’s names were biblical: “My mother’s brothers’ names are Carmel, Naftali, and Ephraim.” His mother’s family also seemed to follow a family tradition of naming children after relatives who had passed away.
One final family custom also leaped out at Joe as something that might have stemmed from a desire to hang onto Jewish practice in secret. Jewish women traditionally immerse in a ritual bath once a month. In Joe’s family, his mother recalled that all the women used to visit a local river once a month. He asked his mother if this unusual family custom had any particular meaning. “No,” his mother replied, “it was just to have a nice time.” The more he researched Jewish history and customs, however, the more Joe believed he was hearing about long-held Jewish rituals.
“I realized that, my God, these were traditions people were still carrying on but had no understanding as to why they did things,” he says. “They were still carrying on these practices, having forgotten and lost the original meaning of why they did these things.”
Secret Jewish History in Puerto Rico
Officially, Spain did not allow Jews to live in Puerto Rico – though it seems that as elsewhere a community of secret Jews did manage to settle. As Joe researched, he learned about Alonso Manso, a Catholic official who wrote to Church Officials in the early 1500s complaining that the island was “infested” with Jews and received inquisitorial privileges from the Church in 1519. “He was so vicious that other Catholic priests requested that his privileges be taken away,” Joe notes.
One Puerto Rican governing official who was accused to being a secret Jew chose to flee to Spain and face the Inquisition there, rather than face Manso’s sadistic Inquisition in Puerto Rico. Despite Manso’s apparent glee at watching other people suffer as they were burnt at the stake, he maintained his fearsome inquisitorial powers.
In this atmosphere of intense anti-Jewish hostility, secret Jews in Puerto Rico chose to flee to the mountainous interior of the island to hide. The town of Utuado, along with Lares, Adjuntas and Jayuya have families with crypto-Jewish background. In Utuado, some sources indicate that the town even had a region known as “Sector Judeo,” or the Jewish Sector. “The people of the region are referred to as Jibaros, pronounced as Hibaros. Many believe it comes from Hebreos. It is said that many of the residents of Lares spoke Ladino.”
As he dug further into his family’s history, Joe found two relatives who were tried by the Spanish Inquisition. Tragically, one ancestor was burnt at the stake in the Canary Islands and one is recorded as having died in jail awaiting trial in Toledo.
Meeting other Anusim
By now, it seemed clear to Joe that his family were secret Jews. “I realized I couldn’t overlook this,” he explains. Joe was still a religious Christian. Learning that he was a Jew felt like an “existential crisis”.
Some of his friends advised Joe to not let this momentous discovery bother him, but he couldn’t share that view. Finding out he was Jewish wasn’t the same as discovering some minor pieces of family history: it altered his very identity and sense of who he was. “I just discovered that my ancestors lost their Jewish identity because of this horrendous historical event,” Joe realized as he learned more about the Inquisition. “If not for this, my ancestors would have had children who followed these traditions. Four or five generations back, someone knew that they were practicing something in secret.” Joe didn’t want to turn his back on that tradition.
He began reaching out to people involved in research on secret Jewish communities, and soon connected with a board member at The Institute for Sefardi and Anousim Studies in Netanya, Israel. They invited Joe to a conference in Israel in 2015 that was devoted to mapping the Diaspora of Spanish Jews. “Where did all these Jews go when they were expelled from Spain?” Joe asks. He was determined to be part of the group of researchers answering this crucial question.
While he was at the conference, Joe met two other Puerto Ricans. One was a woman who’d discovered she was descended from secret Jews and had formally converted to Judaism. The other was a lawyer who was also uncovering his secret Jewish heritage. “We were the three most unlikely Puerto Ricans,” Joe notes with a laugh. They each had found their way the conference after years of painstaking research into their family histories. To this day, Joe believes their meeting was “set up by Hashem,” using the Hebrew name for God.
“I felt like Richard Dreyfus in Close Encounters,” Joe explains about that conference. In the movie, Dreyfus’ characters and others all search for the same truth, using whatever limited equipment they can access. Dreyfus’ character feels compelled to create a model of a mountain whose meaning only becomes clear later on in the movie. “I felt like I was carving that mountain,” Joe laughs, “until I met other people who were similarly obsessed with their search, much like in the movie. I felt that 'Oh my God, I’m not the only one.'” A rabbi who was attending the conference told Joe that his and others’ searches for their Jewish history reminded him of Biblical prophecies of the lost tribes of Israel returning from long exile.
“I came back to New York knowing that I needed to make a return to my Jewish roots."
During that trip to Netanya, Joe attended his first synagogue service, visiting a local Sephardi synagogue. “It was a very powerful moment,” he recalls; “I didn’t understand a thing that anyone was saying but my soul understood.”
Connecting with Jews in New York
“I came back to New York knowing that I needed to make a return to my Jewish roots," Joe explains. He reached out to a number of rabbis and began working with Rabbi Peretz Steinberg, who was then working as the rabbi of Young Israel of Queens Valley in Queens, New York.
After hearing Joe’s remarkable story about his family history, Rabbi Steinberg suggested taking him up to New Square, a town north of New York City, which is the home of Rabbi David Twersky, known as the Skverer Rebbe, and his followers. A direct descendent of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement within Judaism, Rabbi Twersky is one of the most renowned and revered Jewish leaders alive today. That visit led to one of the most powerful moments in Joe’s Jewish journey.
At first, the Chassidic garb of Rabbi Twersky and some other Jews in New Square surprised Joe. It felt very foreign. Yet when Rabbi Twersky started speaking with Joe, he too was amazed by Joe’s family research. “I want to make this as a return,” Joe recalls explaining to Rabbi Twersky. He explained that he wasn’t an outsider who wanted to convert to a brand new religion. Rather, he saw himself as a long-lost Jew who was “coming home”. “My family are Jews who got lost along the way,” Joe explained.
Rabbi Twersky listened and then said, “This isn’t a conversion, this is a return.” Although Joe did eventually choose to go through with an Orthodox Jewish conversion so that no one would ever have any question about his Jewishness, he felt validated by Rabbi Twersky’s confidence. “Hearing Rabbi Twersky saying it was a return is sufficient,” notes Joe.
Joe started keeping Jewish holidays and other mitzvot. There was no synagogue in the small town where he lives in upstate New York, but he was lucky to find an Orthodox synagogue in Utica, New York, which was driving distance. He purchased a house nearby to that synagogue, which he maintains as a “Shabbat house” where he and guests can stay in order to be walking distance to the synagogue on Shabbat.
Embarking upon his new Orthodox Jewish lifestyle wasn’t always easy. At the time Joe was serving as the president of the State Medical Society of New York, and he often found himself at conferences on weekends. He managed to find hotels near to synagogues and to keep Shabbat as well as kashrut and other Jewish traditions. He also started learning Hebrew.
On Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2016, Joe went through with his conversion. He already had a Jewish name, given to him by his parents: Joseph Raphael. He took Peretz as another middle name in a tribute to Rabbi Steinberg. Later on, Rabbi Steinberg realized that the day of the ceremony was the yahrzeit of his beloved grandmother Perel, after whom he was named. For a long time, Rabbi Steinberg’s parents weren’t blessed with children; shortly before her death, his grandmother Perel gave them a blessing, saying they would soon have a child. It seemed as if Perel was once more bestowing blessings, helping to infuse holiness into Joe’s life as he embarked on life as a Jew.
Joe Maldonado is unmarried and has no children. While his parents and relatives have so far not followed Joe’s path of rediscovering their Jewish heritage, they’ve come to accept this new facet of their family.
Joe’s brother is no longer living, but before he died, he started giving Joe Hanukkah presents instead of Christmas gifts. Joe’s mother is accepting and has even enjoyed lighting Hanukkah candles with him. Joe’s father was resistant at first, but Joe describes a phone call he overheard one day when he showed up unannounced at his parents’ home. His dad was listening on the phone as a cousin described how her son was doing his medical residency at Beth Israel Hospital. “Dad said, 'oh, that’s a very good Jewish institution – by the way, you know we’re Jewish... Joe did the research genetically and genealogically and we’re Jewish. You can’t argue with the facts.'” Though he didn’t say it directly to Joe, hearing those words at last meant a world to him.
Can These Bones Live?
In the past five years, Joe continued to research his family tree and found to his amazement that both of the Puerto Ricans he met years ago in Netanya at the conference are his cousins. He’s also found some other Jewish relatives, including a rabbi living in Germany who’s a fifth cousin. He traced his mother’s family back some more and located a relative’s grave in a Jewish cemetery in Curacao. He’s also located the ketubah, or Jewish marriage contract, of his eighth great-grandfather's eldest son, who was married in the famous Sephardi synagogue in London, Bevis Marks.
Ketubah of Joe's 8th maternal great grandparent's eldest son married at the Bevis Marks Synagogue in 1711
Joe notes that the prophet Ezekiel is shown some old bones lying on the ground and is asked, “Can these bones come to life?” (Ezekiel 37:1) God shows Ezekiel a powerful image of long-dead bones coming back to life. “Then behold, there was a noise, and the bones drew near, each bone to its (matching) bone. Then I looked, and behold, upon them were sinews, and flesh had come up and skin had covered them over…” (Ezekiel 37: 7-8). Soon, to Ezekiel’s amazement, a huge crowd of people stands, made up of the bones that just moments before seemed to be utterly dead.
“This is my story,” explains Joe. “We are the descendants of the bones that were dust, that were long gone.” Each time he performs a Jewish mitzvah today, he is demonstrating that even a long dormant Jewish line has come back to life.
A few years ago, Joe was in Syracuse, New York, and was once again approached by a young Chabad-Lubavitch emissary who asked him if he wanted to put on tefillin, just as he’d been asked so many year ago outside the New York Public Library. This time, Joe replied yes.
“I thought this is probably the first time in 500 years that anyone in my family has put on tefillin.”
To date, Joe has found eight cousins – descended from his ninth maternal great-grandmother – who have also returned to traditional Judaism. “We’re coming home,” says Joe.