After 500 Years, Closing the Circle

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October 6, 2022

8 min read

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My Jewish grandmother from 15 generations ago died in a Catholic convent as a nun.  My spiritual return to Judaism began with dreams of becoming a nun.

I didn’t go searching for Violante Fernández Gómes, my grandmother from 15 generations ago. The document with her story, along with our family tree listing my grandmother all the way back to Violante, appeared suddenly out of nowhere, sent to me by a distant cousin.

It may sound preposterous to keep track of fifteen generations of grandmothers, but when you convert to Judaism not knowing you had any Jewish ancestors, one from 15 generations ago will do just fine.

Her story also happens to be incredible.

What does an ousted, closeted Jew who is kicked out of the palace in ignominy do? She went to live in a convent and became a nun.

Violante Fernández Gómes was born to Victoria and Pedro Luis, descendants of forcibly converted Jews. She was stunning in her beauty, and the Prince Luis, son of King Manuel, insisted on marrying her, even though she was known to be a “New Christian” — the daughter of conversos (Jews of Spain and Portugal who were forcibly converted to Catholicism in the time of the Inquisition).

She bore him two sons, Antonio and Juan, and life in the palace of the prince was great for a good many years — until something happened.

Violante Fernández Gómes

Exactly what transpired 500 years ago is a mystery we’ll probably never know. All that the accounts tell us is that “something that was discovered, pertaining to her [Jewish] blood, caused her to be banished from the palace.”

What does an ousted, closeted Jew who is kicked out of the palace in ignominy do? She went to live in a convent, home of Catholic nuns, and became one. Not long afterwards she died there, surrounded by the symbols and rites of Catholicism.

I like to imagine that Violante, in spite of her situation, remained true to the God of the Jewish people in her heart, praying for her children to someday return to their people, to their true faith.

In the end, her son Juan, who sailed to Mexico, married a Jewish woman, Catalina López de Nava, whose family secretly adhered to the Jewish customs. Their descendants also kept the Jewish traditions alive in secret, in their new home in what is now Lagos de Moreno in Jalisco, México.

Violante’s son Juan

Many of their descendants were caught by the Inquisition and tragically burned at the stake, sanctifying God’s Name in Mexico City.

Violante must have cried copious tears for her son Antonio, for he was taken to be raised in the church to be a Prior, a type of clergyman. But even he managed to marry a woman, Ana Barbosa, who was descended from Jews — although he remained a Catholic all his days.

Antonio, briefly king of Portugal, was ousted by Phillip II, King of Spain, and fled for his life to France, from where my great grandmother, Emilie, his descendant, emigrated to the United States in 1900, and where I was later born.

Discovering Judaism

And now we have another mystery. Why did my father, who wasn’t a Christian, decide to put me into a Catholic convent school? My Catholic nanny, Marie, who cared for me after my mother’s passing, was very pleased at this turn of events. For two years in my childhood, I was surrounded by the nuns, statues and symbols of the Catholic church.

Because the Catholic nanny was almost like a second mother to me, by the time I was 12 I had decided to follow in her footsteps and become a Catholic. I even had hopes of growing up to be a nun like the sisters of the convent school I had attended.

My Catholic nanny was like a second mother to me and by the time I was 12 I had decided to follow in her footsteps and become a Catholic.

But then everything suddenly changed.

A Jewish girl, Leah, came to our town and became my best friend. She said, “We Jews don’t believe in a ‘god’ that’s a person. Our God isn’t physical at all. He has no body, you can’t see Him, and He’s All-Powerful. He’s above this physical world. He’s not a human and never was a human. He is above everything.”

This shocked me. There were people in the world who didn’t believe in Christianity? Who believed in a God that was purely spiritual, invisible, and above everything? This got my attention.

Her son Antonio Gómes Avis who was briefly king of Portugal

It took me some time to wrap my brain around it— but when Leah brought me to her synagogue, I could somehow feel her “invisible God”. And this was the beginning of a new journey in my life.

Meanwhile, Leah noticed that I was somehow drawn to her people and their way of life, and without really thinking about it much, she began teaching me everything she knew from having grown up in a traditional synagogue. She saw my interest in learning Hebrew, loaned me all her textbooks from her shul’s after-school program, and I learned to read Hebrew and some basic vocabulary.

Leah’s family were very warm, and her parents — perhaps recognizing the needs of a girl orphaned of her mother — showed me a great deal of love and acceptance. This, coupled with the acts of kindness that I saw being done for others by the members of Leah’s synagogue, greatly influenced my break with Catholicism and drew me towards the Jewish people.

When I graduated high school and went to college in Wisconsin, I made many Jewish friends, some of whom were on a path to reconnect to their Jewish heritage. Seeing my interest in Judaism, they brought me with them to spend Shabbat at the home of an Orthodox Jewish family.

This amazing experience transported me to another world, to a spiritual oasis called “Shabbat”. I was hooked.

My friends told me that as the Rabbi’s guests, we should be careful not to do anything to “break Shabbat.” So for the first time in my life, I experienced what keeping Shabbat was like. This amazing experience transported me to another world, to a spiritual oasis called “Shabbat”. I was hooked.

Needless to say, my plans to join a convent had been left far behind me.

How Do I become Jewish?

But how to become Jewish? At this point, God, who had been leading me step by step in the right direction, caused me to meet and befriend Sarah, who had just converted to Judaism. She told me her whole story, explaining exactly what the conversion process entailed.

I confessed to her that I wasn’t Jewish and had been confused as to how to proceed. With her amazing support—for which I’m eternally grateful— after a period of study the day came when I stood before a Beit Din, a tribunal of Orthodox rabbis, and finally became a Jew.

All this occurred without me knowing anything of my Jewish ancestors.

Only many years later, after I married and my children had grown, did my daughter and I start tracing our family tree, and we were shocked to discover ancestors with Jewish-Spanish names. Suddenly we were Spanish! This was bewildering enough— but at the same time, I started to feel as though my ancestors were here with me, driving me to discover more about my family, and to help others who have Spanish descent to come closer to their Jewish heritage.

She died in a convent — and I started out in a convent, with dreams to become a nun — but then turned around and became a Jew!

Then I received a link to the document with Violante’s story from the widow of my distant French cousin. When I read it, I was overwhelmed by her story. It seemed like something out of a novel. She was a converso and married the king’s son? She was banished from the palace and died in a convent as a nun?

But even more than that, I was struck by one very interesting detail: Where Violante’s story ended, mine began. She never had the chance to return to her people and live openly as a Jew. She died in a convent — and I started out in a convent, with dreams to become a nun — but then turned around and became a Jew!

The Divine orchestration was just too powerful to ignore.

My Rabbi told me, “Maybe you are finishing your ancestor’s mission in this world.” I suspect he’s right. I can imagine Violante praying from the depths of her heart for her descendants to return home.

It seems that God has heard her tears and after 15 generations brought our family back.

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