My Secret Jewish History
After 500 years, Genie Milgrom has finally come home.
Genie Milgrom always knew her family was a little different. Born in Cuba into an upper-class Catholic family, she could trace her ancestors’ history back hundreds of years to a small town in Spain. When Genie was a young child, the Communist revolution swept Cuba and Genie’s family fled the island in 1960, settling in a vibrant Cuban refugee neighborhood in Miami.
Though her family couldn’t take all of their possessions with them, they were careful to take several boxes of family documents. Some of these papers were hundreds of years old and her family had always prided themselves on keeping track of their family tree and unique family customs. No matter where they’d moved in the years since they left Spain, they were always careful to cart several boxes of papers with them.
Genie Milgrom holding a plate of Chuletas
In an Aish.com interview, Genie recalled that even though her Catholic Cuban community was very tight-knit, she always felt her family was different. “I was very close with my mother's mother and used to love cooking and baking with her when I was a child." Her grandmother had a few unique customs. Whenever they would bake bread, they would tear off a small piece of dough, wrap it in foil, and put it in the back of the oven to burn. Whenever a recipe required eggs, Genie and her grandmother would crack them and first check for blood spots, discarding eggs that weren’t clear. When they washed lettuce and other vegetables, they would first check them carefully for bugs using a bright light.
Curious Family Customs
“All these things were being taught to me when I was a child,” Genie said, though she can’t ever recall reasons for these strange practices being given to her. She assumed that some customs, like burning a portion of dough, were for good luck. Yet they seemed more important to her grandmother than just a good luck charm. Even when her grandmother was elderly and frail, she would still make an effort to get up and check that Genie had separated and burned a piece of dough. If Genie forgot, her grandmother insisted that she go back and do so.
Another strange family custom was only marrying relatives. Going back hundreds of years, family members would only marry other members of their large extended family. Genie’s mother was the very first descendant to break with this tradition, marrying Genie’s father from outside the clan. Another strange custom that only recently began to be discarded was not eating pork, even though pork and ham were popular foods among both Spanish and Cuban families. For Genie's family the food was taboo.
Genie's great aunts.
Genie also always had an inexplicable curiosity about the Jewish faith. “When I was about eight, I made my first Jewish friend, a girl who went to the same summer camp in Florida." Genie spent hours asking her new friend questions, learning all she could about what it was like to live in a Jewish home. Even at that young age, she felt the pull to explore Jewish life. “I’ve always believed in God, but I felt uncomfortable growing up Catholic."
For years Genie didn’t have time to pursue her curiosity further. She went to a Catholic college, then met her first husband, a man from the Cuban community. At their wedding in a Catholic church, Genie learned yet another strange custom from her family. "Before the ceremony, my mother and grandmother rushed up and pinned shawls to our backs.” Looking back, these seem reminiscent of prayer shawls traditionally worn by Jewish men in synagogue.
Genie and her first husband had two children together, but she always felt something wasn’t quite right. She was still fascinated by Judaism and wanted to learn more. “By the time I was 28, I was ready to question my Catholic upbringing" – and this eventually caused her marriage to unravel. She and her husband divorced, and Genie started working for her family’s global medical supply business, traveling around the world selling health care items.
Spending hours on long flights, Genie finally had time to read about Judaism. “I started to examine what was happening in my soul.” She devoured hundreds of books.
But Genie realized voracious reading wasn't enough; Judaism has to be experienced and lived, not just studied. “It isn’t just a set of laws, it’s a whole lifestyle,” Genie realized. So she started visiting local Miami-area synagogues to see what Jewish life looked like in practice.
At first she started frequenting various non-Orthodox synagogues. Some of these were warm and welcoming, but Genie couldn’t help but feel disappointed. She couldn’t understand why some Jews were choosing not to embrace so many of the beautiful Jewish practices that were so drawing her towards Jewish life. So she decided to experience services in an Orthodox synagogue.
The only Orthodox synagogue within walking distance from Genie’s home was Young Israel of Kendall in Miami, a small congregation. Genie will never forget walking into the building for the first time. “I wound up in a little shteibel,” she recalled, using the Yiddish word for a small synagogue, “and this is where I said, 'Oh my gosh, I’m home.'”
Genie spoke with the rabbi and explained her attraction to Judaism and her desire to convert. To her great surprise, the rabbi listened to her intently but told her that he couldn’t help her. Judaism discourages proselytizing and it took more than one meeting with the rabbi for Genie to convince him she was serious about becoming Jewish. Eventually, she met with the local Beit Din (rabbinic court) in Miami, and began the long, slow process of learning about Judaism with the aim of converting.
It took about five years and it wasn’t always easy. Genie taught herself Hebrew and continued to read. Her family wasn’t enthusiastic about her journey and there were times when she felt very much alone. Eventually, Genie made one good friend at shul – a woman named Bonnie – who helped and encouraged her. It was Bonnie who went with Genie when she was finally ready to convert. The moment she emerged from the mikveh (ritual bath) after her conversion was an intense spiritual experience. “This was the moment of my greatest accomplishment.”
Building a Jewish Life
Genie’s family didn’t share her enthusiasm for her new Jewish life. Her grandmother, in particular, seemed distraught. “She was visibly upset when I converted,” Genie said, “and kept telling me it was dangerous to be a Jew.” Genie assumed that as a Catholic, her grandmother feared that becoming Jewish posed a spiritual danger. But her unease seemed to be so extreme, Genie suspected that her grandmother harbored an unspoken fear about being a Jew. Sadly, Genie never had the chance to discuss with her the root cause of her fears.
Genie Milgrom and Prof. Avi Gross, from Ben Gurion University,
researching the Spanish Portuguese at Etz Haim Library in Amsterdam
Genie observed Shabbat and kosher laws. She got involved with her synagogue, yet life wasn’t always easy for a working single mother. On a business trip to Santiago, Genie met Michael Milgrom, a religious Jew whose family came from Romania and Russia. Michael’s upbringing could not have been more different from Genie’s. He’d attended some of the world’s most prestigious yeshivas in New York and Jerusalem, and was part of a large Orthodox family. They soon recognized that they were soul mates. Genie and Michael married and Michael’s family welcomed her with open arms. Genie was now part of a warm Jewish family she’d always wanted.
The couple moved into a new home in Miami and Genie became the president of the sisterhood and the treasurer of the shul. Then her beloved grandmother passed away, on a Friday morning. "Shabbat was fast approaching," Genie said, "and I assumed that she would be buried on the following Sunday or Monday, as was customary in the Catholic faith. But my mother told me that our family tradition was to bury people very soon after their deaths, the same day if possible." Genie was shocked to hear that they were following this Jewish custom and protested that as an Orthodox Jew she would be unable to attend a funeral on Shabbat. But Genie’s mother was adamant and she followed family tradition, burying Genie’s grandmother the next day, Saturday.
A Shocking Surprise
Though friends stopped by to be with her, she felt terrible that she missed her beloved grandmother’s funeral. Later in the afternoon, Genie’s mother drove up and made an unannounced visit, handing Genie a small box. “Your grandmother wanted you to have this the day she died,” Genie’s mother said.
Hamsa that belonged to Genie's grandmother
Genie opened the box and was mystified. Inside were two pieces of old, worn jewelry. One was a small old hamsa charm and the other a tiny gold earring with a Jewish Star of David inside. The pieces finally clicked and Genie recognized that many of her seemingly quirky family customs were actually Jewish in origin. Separating and burning a piece of dough when one makes bread is a mitzvah, commandment, that Jewish women around the world perform with a blessing when making a significant amount of dough. Checking for blood in eggs and for insects on vegetables are also both Jewish laws in preparing food, ensuring that we don’t violate the Torah’s prohibitions on eating blood or insects. Marrying cousins would have ensured that Genie’s family remained Jewish, with only Jews marrying other Jews.
Gold earring with Star of David
"When I saw my grandmother’s Jewish jewelry, I fell back on my chair and realized that from beyond the grave Grandma was telling me we’re Jewish.”
Genie questioned her mother about the jewelry, but she merely suggested that perhaps a Gypsy had once given them to the family. Genie felt certain that they meant more than that and that her family, which had originated in Spain, was perhaps descended from secret Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism under the Spanish Inquisition and had kept their Jewish practices in secret. She kept asking her mother for more information about the family, and finally her mother gave Genie some old family papers they’d carried with them through the generations. Among the documents Genie found a family tree going back hundreds of years, to 1750.
Genie started doing genealogical research and found an online community of people who, like her, suspected that their families might be descended from secret Jews from Spain. “I was certain we were from Crypto-Jews who were forced to hide their Jewishness from the Inquisition. Since I was so happy being Jewish, I wanted to sing it from the rooftops, and wanted my kids to know the joy of being Jewish too."
Putting the Pieces Together
Genie decided to hire a professional genealogist to help. Knowing that Jewish lineage goes through the mother, Genie asked him only to trace her family tree through her maternal line. If she could prove that her maternal ancestors were Jewish, then her grandmother, her mother, she and other relatives were Jewish from birth as well. “I told the genealogist just follow the maternal grandmothers back until you find they’re Jews.”
Genie in Fermoselle
The genealogist didn’t mince words. “"You’re nuts!' he said.” Tracing a family back so many generations – over 500 years to a time when Jews could live openly in Spain before 1492 – seemed impossible. Yet Genie was undeterred. “There were two options: either I was nuts or I was right. And I wanted to be right.” The strong feelings she’d always had drawing her to Judaism gave Genie hope. “I had this feeling that I was Jewish from birth and I wanted desperately to prove that."
It took eight years, but the genealogist found documents tracing Genie’s family line back to 1545 in Spain. Before that, Church records weren’t so organized and research was much more difficult. Genie was able to trace her family back to a small town called Fermoselle in western Spain, and by then she’d identified 800 ancestors. She and Michael decided to travel to Fermoselle in Spain and see what they could find.
They visited the town with other researchers, and after much work and many conversations with local historians, they made some startling discoveries. The Spanish Inquisition lasted from 1478 to 1834 and had broad powers to root out any supposed Catholic who seemed to be performing Jewish rites in secret. Anyone found to be practicing Judaism or even suspected could be burnt to death. Yet some secret Jews did succeed in leaving messages for each other. Genie found some intriguing carvings on Fermoselle’s church and other buildings. One carving shows a large cross with a sword going across it. Atop the cross is a Jewish menorah and on the bottom are twelve balls. Could these represent the twelve Jewish Tribes, under the nose of the Catholic Church? The carving was topped with the Hebrew letters yud, hey, vov and hey, spelling out the Hebrew word for God.
The streets of Fermoselle, Spain
Eventually Genie and other researchers uncovered the ruins of a synagogue and what appeared to be two ancient mikvehs in Fermoselle. An elderly resident even whispered to them that she’d heard there had once been a Jewish quarter in the town. Some of the houses were connected to one another via underground secret tunnel; perhaps these enabled secret Jews to flee from Inquisition authorities.
Most chilling for Genie was a story that locals told her about a field outside of town that was called El Humilladero, or “The Humiliation”. Animals used to be slaughtered there, locals explained. For years there was a curious custom: residents of some towns across the River Duero that flowed near Fermoselle and divided Spain from Portugal used to make an annual pilgrimage to the empty field. There, they would leave stones, echoing the Jewish custom of placing stones on top of graves. When she heard this, Genie felt certain that El Humilladero was where Jews were once humiliated and publicly burned by the Inquisition, and that the pilgrims laying stones were secret Jews honoring their memories. Genie made her way to the field and recited Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.
Reclaiming Her Jewish Family
Gazing across the Duero River into Portugal, Genie suddenly had an idea. Portugal had its own Inquisition, but it didn’t start until 1536, years after Spain’s Inquisition started hunting for secret Jews. What if her ancestors had simply crossed the river into Portugal to find religious freedom? Genie put the idea to the genealogist she hired. He began looking at nearby villages in Portugal. Genie’s hunch was right: within a day her genealogist found 45 relatives he could prove were directly related to her family. After consulting with yet more researchers, Genie finally had proof she was related to people who’d once lived openly as Jews.
In the corner of the second synagogue in Fermoselle
While conducting this in-depth, groundbreaking research, Genie read the original Inquisition records and was horrified at the tortures inflicted on her ancestors and other secret Jews in Spain. "I finally understood why there was such a strong feeling inside of me,” she said. “These grandmothers were killed for not eating pork, for changing sheets on Friday, for not cleaning house on Shabbat. These women were burned at the stake for things I do every day.”
It took 15 years of painstaking research, but Genie finally had proof that her maternal line – and other branches of her family as well – had once lived openly as Jews. She had long been in touch with a rabbinical court in Jerusalem that has the power to grant conversions, and she packed copies of every document in a box and shipped it to them. “I eventually got a letter from the Beit Din Gadol saying God brought me to this place, that there should never ever again be a question that I was born Jewish, and that all descendants from me are Jews,” she said in a voice laden with emotion.
Genie has written six books and shared her experiences with many other people who feel they might be descended from secret Jews. “I’m not doing this for me anymore,” she explained, noting that many people have turned to her for help with their own genealogical research. She also has a message for her fellow Jews who may take being Jewish for granted. “My story resonates with Jews from all backgrounds because here is a person who was literally crying for something that other people just toss by the wayside. I want Jews to appreciate the treasure they have in being Jewish."
Genie with the Bnai Anusim Community of Guayaquil
In the years since Genie uncovered her family tree, she has deepened her Jewish faith. Even though she’s not able to eat gluten, she insists on baking challah every week for Shabbat so she can perform the mitzvah of separating challah, the mitzvah her grandmother used to perform when they baked bread together.
Fifteen generations separated Genie from her relatives who last lived openly as Jews. These fifteen grandmothers could never assert their Jewishness while they were alive, but now Genie is determined to remember them and honor their lives.
Genie lights two extra Shabbat candles in honor of the many grandmothers she uncovered who were born Jewish but were never able to light Shabbat candles of their own. When she lights them, Genie pictures them standing beside her, sharing this holy moment with their great, great, great grand-daughter Genie.
After years of painstaking research she’s uncovered the names of grandmothers: Ascension Diez Flores; Maria Basilia Flores Alvarez; Maria Manuela Alvarez Garrido; Teresa Garrido Mayor; Jacinta Mayor Martin; Josefa Martin Fincia Montano; Anna Maria Funcia Montano Fernando o Fernandez(s); Teresa Fernando Rodrigues(z) o Fernandez(s); Maria Rodriguez Montano; Catalina Guerra Rodriguez; Catalina Rodriguez(s) Ramirez; Maria Rodriguez Santos Goveia; Phelipa Rodriguez; Maria Ramires Rodriguez; Catalina Ramires.
These women represent a straight line going back to pre-Inquisition Spain. And to this list, add Genie Milgrom, a proud Jew who finally found her way home to Jewish life after 500 long years.
Genie Milgrom has been featured in Aish.com's video series, Beyond Beleif. Watch here.