Moment magazine: Conversos Come Back

Jewish Again, Moment Magazine Cover Story

First Prize, AJPA Rockower Awards for Magazine Feature Writing

By Lisa Alcalay Klug
January 6, 2004

Five hundred years after the Inquisition, the descendants of forced converts return to their roots.

Seven years ago Karrie Melendrez went to sleep thinking she was Christian. In the middle of the night, her paternal grandfather Joseph, a native of Mexico, came to her in a dream.

“We’re Jewish,” he explained.
“What do you mean?” she asked. “You mean you, me, Dad, Uncle Ricky?”
“All of us are Jewish.”
With that, Joseph disappeared.

When Melendres awoke, she was struck by the strangeness of the idea that her family could be Jewish. “I’d never heard of a Mexican Jew.” Her family background was already colorful enough: her great great grandfather had traveled to America from Spain with the circus. He fell in love with and married a Mexican woman and they settled in New Mexico. Melendrez, a 34-year-old screenwriter living in Los Angeles, had never heard any Jewish element to that story, but she consistently felt drawn to Jewish friends and Jewish friends and Jewish culture, and was often mistaken for being Jewish. Still, Melendrez sensibly assumed her dream was just a dream and went on with her day.

Her thoughts on the matter, however, began to change a week later when she heard a radio broadcast about “Conversos” and their descendants. Converso Jews also known as Marranos, Anusim or Crypto-Jews were forced to convert during the Spanish Inquisition. The various names used describe the community have different connotations “Marrano,” Spanish for “pig,” is a derogatory term that has fallen out of use. “Converso” is Spanish for convert. “Anusim,” Hebrew for forced converts, is the most sympathetic term. Melendrez learned that many converses fled to the New World under the threat of death or conversion only to be persecuted again during the Mexican Inquisition. Quite a few settled in what is now New Mexico, where members of her family still reside. This was the first Melendrez had heard about Southwest Hispanos with reportedly Jewish roots.

Inspired by the synchronicity of her dream and the radio program, Melendrez spent a year methodically researching her family’s genealogy, learning that her surname resembles a popular Anusim name: Melendez. “There were Melendez that were killed in the Mexican Inquisition,” she says, “and from what I understand Melendrez is the same family.” Based on that discovery, Karrie Melendrez began to consider she might really be of Jewish descent.

Melendrez’s experience is emblematic of a fascinating trend that has been at work since the 1970s, when ethnic pride “went public.” Stories of Latino grandmothers passing on the tradition of lighting Shabbat candles in the basement, or Chabad emissaries discovering candles lit in wine cellars in Spain, are among the most popular tales of hidden Jews.

Beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s descendants of Crypto-Jews in New Mexico began to explore and accept their past in an “open and public way,” according to sociologist Michael Caroll. Since then, Hispanics have been reliving this process again and again, sometimes with doubt cast over their claims.
Once Conversos arrived in the New World it was easy to return to Judaism. In 1942, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain ordered all Jews to convert to Christianity or be banished from the kingdom. By the time Joseph Bonaparte abolished the Inquisition in 1808 an estimated 31,912 “heretics” had been burned at the stake, 17659 had been burned at effigy and, according to some reports nearly 300,000 forced to convert.

As many as 200,000 Spanish Jews likely fled to nearby Portugal and other places of refuge only to be murdered when the Inquisition spread to that country, as portrayed in the popular work of fiction, Richard Zimler’s The last Kabbalist of Lisbon. Others escaped to friendlier countries around the Mediterranean or to the New World.

Those who fled to the Americas went on to play important roles in commerce and the development of the New World. “Midway between Judaism and Christianity, Conversos also helped create the first maritime links between Europe and America.”
When the Catholic Church extended the Inquisition to the New World in 1572, converses faced continued discrimination. There are no conclusive numbers but it is reported that as
recently as 80 years ago, a man was hung in Columbia for being a Jew. It is estimated that millions of Anusim throughout the New and Old Worlds––reportedly including such famous folk as actress Rita Moreno and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro––may be descended from Conversos.

In the past two decades, nearly every time Stanley Hordes, adjunct research professor at the Latin American and Iberian Institute of the University of New Mexico, lectures, there are “people from various pasts of Latin American and the American Southwest who tell me they were told by various relatives that they were once Jewish. On a recent trip to Miami, people from Cuba, Columbia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Puerto Rico –– all in one weekend––came up to me similar stories. They have all come out or are in the process of exploring mainstream Judaism.”
One common experience they share is their elders’ reluctance to discuss their Jewish origins, says Hordes, author of a forthcoming book tentatively titles To the End of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews in New Mexico. Melendrez’s father, Sony does not support her exploration of her roots. “My father doesn’t accept that we’re Jewish. He says, It’s not true.”

After 500 years of keeping secrets, an intense fear of discovery is practically innate. “One of the most intriguing aspects of modern crypto-Judaism is the survival of a culture of a
Secrecy that is evident in the patterns of silence and disclosure that characterize twentieth-century families with Crypto-Jewish ancestors,” according to Janet Liebman Jacobs, author of Hidden Heritage: The Legacy of the Crypto-Jews. “At the heart of the secrecy is a ‘trauma’ of Jewishness directly related to survival in which norms of silence and confidence were shared by members of medieval families and communities who sought to sustain, without injury, their prohibited way of life.”

Sometimes this secrecy has had unexpected consequences. I once met a man who told me about his brothers. They grew up Catholic but each fell in love with Jewish women, converted before marriage, and underwent symbolic circumcision. Only years later did their elderly mother reveal that all those steps were unnecessary. The family was already Jewish.

Not everyone believes in the claims of Latinos who say that they are rediscovering their Jewish roots. In December 2000, the Atlantic Monthly published an article entitles “Mistaken Identity? The case of New Mexico’s Hidden Jews.’” Authors Barbara Ferry and Debbie Nathan argued the preservation of remnants of Crypto-Jewish ancestry was “improvable” and denied the veracity of the existence of Anusim descendants. They relied heavily on the work of folklorist Judith Neulander, who reportedly told Ferry and Nathan that Hordes and other scholars had confused practices of Protestant Seventh-Day Adventists and Muslims with those considered to Crypto-Jewish, such as keeping the Sabbath and avoiding consuming blood. Neulander even suggested racist motivations, according to Ferry and Nathan, who quoted her saying, “Hispanos are using Crypto-Jewish identity as a postmodern market for ethnic purity. What better way to be a noble Spaniard than to be Sephardic, since Sephardim almost never marry outside their own narrow ethnic group—and would certainly not intermarry with Native Americans?”

In their conclusion, Ferry and Nathan questioned whether the entire Crypto-Judaism phenomenon has been “mistake.” They continue, “Historically, perhaps. But faith, of course, is always about more than history. Religions are built on collective wishes and hopes. And with southwestern Crypto-Judaism the wishes and hopes may, in the end, prevail.”

As it turns out, Ferry and Nathan were mistaken. It is not ultimately hope that will resolve the debate but science.

Ferry and Nathan’s article preceded a flurry of recent stories and genetic studies that found Catholic Hispanos, quite unexpectedly, with genetic forms of breast cancer, skin lesion and degenerative mental problems that are generally exclusive to Jews or Middle Easterners, says Jon Entine, author of forthcoming book Abraham’s Children: How Genetics is Unlocking Jewish Identity and the Hidden History of the Bible. “Some of these genetic markers are almost totally absent in the general Hispanic population. So how did they get these mutations? Entine asks.

For answers, we turned to the Molecular Genetics Laboratory at New York Univeristy School of Medicine. “There have been well-researched cases of Southwest Mexican–Americans who test for Jewish genetic diseases rarely found in the general Hispanic population,” says lab co-director Dr. Carole Oddoux. “There is objective evidence for some kind of Jewish heritage among these people. No quite enough is known just yet. It does beg for further research.”

Oddoux’s co-director at the lab, Dr. Harry Ostrer, director of the Human Genetics Program at the NYU School of Medicine adds, “If people are willing they could undergo mitochondrial and Y-Chromosomal DNA testing to more firmly establish which Jewish lineages they have, but it’s dependent on their desire to learn about their origins.”

William Sanchez, 51 is known as “Padre Bill” to the congregants of St. Edwin Catholic Church in Albuquerque, where he serves as pastor. According to his family’s oral tradition, Sanchez believes his ancestors are related to Theresa de Jesus––St. Theresa of Avila, Spain––one of the patron saints of the Carmelite order. St. Theresa’s paternal grandfather was reportedly Juan Sanchez of Toledo, a well-known Converso. Sanchez also remembers his grandparents practicing certain mourning rituals, such as covering mirrors and avoiding haircuts and shaving on the anniversary of a loved one’s death. He even queried the Carmelite order to confirm St. Theresa’s Jewish background. But “nobody would admit to the fact that she had Jewish heritage.” After watching a PBS special on genetics in 2000, Sanchez decided DNA testing might be the key to the mystery. “I had no precise understanding of our Jewish heritage,” Sanchez says. “I understood [DNA testing as] a way to do far-reaching genealogy beyond historical records, going back thousands of years.”

In 2001, Sanchez turned to two independent, reputable sources to confirm his suspicions. Oxford University’s Oxford Ancestors and Family Tree DNA in Houston, Texas, which works closely with Dr. Michael Hammer, Director of the Genomic Analysis and Technology Core facility at the University of Arizona and a co-author of what their website describes as “the first paper showing that present-day Cohanim are descended form a single male ancestor.” Before he received any results, Bennett Greenspan, Family Tree DNA’s Jewish President and CEO, phoned Sanchez. According to the pair, their exchange went something like this:

Greenspan: Are you William Sanchez
Sanchez: Yes
Greenspan: Did you know that you have Jewish ancestry?
Sanchez: Yes
Greenspan: Did you know you have Cohanim ancestry?
Sanchez: No
Greenspan:Do you know what that means?
Sanchez: Yes
Greenspan: What is your profession?
Sanchez: I’m a Catholic priest.
Greenspan: (Pause.) Well, we’ll take you back.
Sanchez: We never left

“And that,” says Sanchez, “is the feeling among the true Crypto-Jews. We never left. We survived. We did what we had to do to survive.”

Subsequently, Oxford ancestors, confirmed the results. Sanchez was so intrigued that within a month he tested his father passed away in 2003, Sanchez pour his inheritance into testing another 50 sanchez’s in New Mexico in the “Sanchez-Chavez Surname Project.” Another 10 paid their own costs. Expenses exceeded $10,000. Says Sanchez, “It was well worth it.”

Of the 60 male participants, 16 showed shared genetic material from one common ancestor, Greenspan says. Sanchez believes that person was Jacinto Sanchez de Inigo, born in New Mexico in 1663. Jacinto was the son of a Franciscan friar, Francisco Munoz from Sevilla, Spain, and Juana Lopez de Aragon––the province encompassing Barcelona that was once heavily populated by Jews. Within recent months, Sanchez discovered archival material from Mexico City that show Munoz, who would not have been permitted to marry as a friar was reported to the Inquisition for a “scandalous lifestyle.”

“I don’t know when our people, the Crypto-Jews in New Mexico, stopped consciously knowing or realizing who we are,” Sanchez says. “I just know that genealogically speaking, for the first five generations of the Sanchez family, that all married [within]. I know that because of the genetic markers and having analyzed the Chavez family, which is a family of cousins that my family married on both sides for generations.”

None of the surname project’s participants today practice Judaism and Sanchez doesn’t feel it necessary to change his profession or his beliefs. He sees his Catholicism as a process naturally evolved form Judaism, in a cyclical, rather than linear progression of time. “I don’t believe it’s like losing one faith and gaining another one. I also believe it’s not disrespecting the practice of the Jewish faith.” Only one relative, a female cousin of a male participant in the surname project, has undergone conversion and joined Albuquerque Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb’s Congregation Nahalat Shalom the Southwest Center for Jewish Renewal.

From the pulpit, Sanchez preaches that he and fellow Anusim descendants are among the multitude promised to Abraham that will number as great as the stars in the heavens (Genesis 15:50. Having lost his parents, Sanchez’s project has also allowed him to “reclaim a sense of family” that benefits his two nieces, who are the closet he has to children of his own “Crypto-Judaism is something our ancestors left within us to discover how united we are and the journey that we’ve been on,” Sanchez says. “if we can love ourselves more and spread that self-esteem and knowledge in the world, we can really survive and live together in “convivencia” (peaceful coexistence). It’s promised. The stars don’t fight against each other they just shine. And one star isn’t jealous of the other. It doesn’t interfere with the other’s shining. I think that’s what God’s mind and heart is all about.
“Where is this leading us? I don’t know. God knows” Sanchez says. “For some people, it will mean that they will have a rebirth, a renewal of the practice of Judaism. And for others, it will mean that they are affirmed in their Christianity.”

In 2001, San Francisco- Based Joshua Venture, a fund for Jewish social entrepreneurs, awarded a two-year fellowship to Orthodox Rabbi Rigobero Emmanuel “Manny” Vinas to develop El Centro de Estudios Judios “Torat Emet,” a non- profit beit midrash/house of learning initially housed at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, New York. Vinas, a Cuban Jew whose family descends from Anusim, initiated the project to assist fellow Latinos interested in returning to Judaism. When his parents moved to the United States in 1960 as refugees from Castro’s Cuba, they realized their “family customs” were universal o what became their greater family the Jewish people.

Vinas, 35 who earned his ordination at Orthodox Kollel Agudat Achim in Borough Park in 2001 and certification as a religious scribe from Yeshiva University in 1995, serves full-time as a congregation rabbi at Lincoln Park Jewish Center in Yonkers, New York. He also acts as El Centro’s executive director and teaches introductory Judaism classes in Spanish. In 2003, New York’s UJA Federation Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal awarded El Centro four years of funding to support its work and the development of Torah Tropical a national Spanish-language Jewish quarterly newspaper launched in late 2003. The paper circulates in New York, Chicago, Boston, Miami and parts of Arizona with plans to expand to New Mexico and beyond.
Vina assists with formal conversions as well as “rites of return.” According to a decree issued more than 1,000 years ago by Rabbenu Gershom––a medieval commentator whose widely accepted decrees include the current ban on polygamy––the Jewish community is obligated to assist and accept those who were forced to convert away from Judaism. What’s more, when a person has reason to believe he or she is already Jewish, immersion in a mikveh is completed with reciting a blessing.

“This is not an issue of conversion to something they are not,” Vinas says. “It is a ritual of return, a part of making life passages. It’s an amazing experience to see a person stand in a mikveh and tell a Beit Din (rabbinic court) that they believe in only one God.”

Vinas tells the story of an Ecuadorian woman, who remembers her mother, grandmother and other women immersing monthly in a pool water open to the sky near the church. Friday night, she ate at her grandmother’s house. Her grandmother made sure the fires were Her grandmother’s made sure the fires were prepared in a special way so she would not have to tend them. And she would light candles before dinner. After attending Vinas’ classes, she immersed in a mikveh without a blessing remarried her husband –– an Ashkenazi Jew––in a Jewish ceremony according to halakhah, Jewish law.

“You have people come and show up in front of rabbis and they will tell the rabbis about all these family traditions and many rabbis don’t even know what it is,’ Vinas says. “The Jewish community has done virtually nothing to try and attract these people and they are still coming. I think that’s God’s work.”

NEAR THE END OF HER 12 MONTHS OF genealogical research, Karrie Melendrez was driving through Los Angeles’ Pico Robertson neighborhood when she saw a sign for an introductory Judaism class.

“Once I was in the sanctuary for the class, I felt comfortable coming back for servicees” says Melendrez, who began attending synagogue regularly soon after. She now considers herself Jewish and plans to officially return to Judaism sometime in the future in order to give her status “finality.”

As for the dream in which her grandfather Joseph revealed her family’s Jewish roots, Melendrez says, “From a spiritual perspective, I feel my late grandfather is the one who has guided me toward Judaism and he is pleased that I want to live a Jewish life.” No long ago Joseph’s sister, Melendrez’s great-aunt Nina, confirmed her brother’s dream pronouncement. The Melendrez family is in fact Jewish.

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