22 May 2009

Texas: Discovering Jewish roots

Rabbi Stephen Leon of Congregation B'nai Zion (El Paso, Texas) relates why he does what he does:
“God said to me, 'I cannot bring back the 6 million who were killed in the Holocaust, but there was another group before who are alive in much larger numbers than Holocaust survivors because it's been 500 years, generation after generation of generation," he said. "Their souls are still alive. … You have to do something about it.’”
The story of Hispanics with Jewish roots returning or searching in various ways to discover who and what their families really were so long ago is told in a story by Amy Klein here.
Three strange things happened to Rabbi Stephen Leon the first week he moved here in 1986 to lead Congregation B'nai Zion, the Conservative synagogue in this border city.

“Rabino,” said a Catholic man calling from Juarez, Mexico, about 30 minutes away. “I need to talk to you.”

Every Friday night from the time he was little, the man's grandmother took him into a room, lit candles and said some prayers in a private language he didn't understand. His grandmother had just died, and he asked his mother if she would continue the tradition. She told him to go find a rabbi.

Three days later, a Catholic woman from El Paso came to the rabbi after visiting a relative in mourning, where she noticed that all the mirrors were covered.

“Why are you doing this?” she asked her relatives. They said it was a Jewish custom.

Then the cable guy came, and the rabbi told him, “Shalom Y'all.” The man -- a Catholic Hispanic -- opened his shirt and showed his Jewish star necklace -- he had just found out about his Jewish roots.

“Three incidents in a week and a half?” Leon recalled. “There has to be something going on.”

Twenty-two years later that something is still going on: A steady trickle of Hispanics in the Southwest, from Juarez to Texas to New Mexico, are discovering Jewish roots.
Some people remember unusual customs (not eating pork or not working on Saturday) holiday traditions. For others, it's a word, a name, and they wonder who or what their family really was once upon a time and long ago.

There are several names for these people - such as Crypto-Jews. Anusim (Hebrew, child of the forced). Judios (Spanish, Jews). Conversos (Spanish, converts), as well as the insulting, pejorative Marrano that should never be used - it is an infuriating word to Hispanics with Jewish roots.

All the terms refer to Jews and their descendants whom the Inquisition forced to convert after Spain, Portugal, and later Sicily expelled non-Catholics, forcing Jews to convert to remain. They went underground, continuing to practice traditions in secret and even maintained certain customs after migrating to Europe and the New World, including the Southwest US.

Some are interested in genealogy but not returning to Judaism, some are messianics observing both Jewish and Christian customs. Some return to Judaism openly.
“Who do you count?” asked Stanley Hordes, one of the foremost experts on the Crypto-Jews and author of “To the End of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico” (Columbia University Press, 2008).

“Chances are really good that many people have Jewish ancestors going back 500 years,” he said, estimating that after half of Spain's several hundred thousand Jews left the country, half converted to Catholicism -- half of those Jews converted willingly, assimilating and eventually blending into Catholic society.

“There were certain families that held onto ancestral Jewish faith and continued to practice,” he said. “Today, the overwhelming majority are perfectly content in their Protestantism and Catholicism. Only in a handful of cases people are exploring a relationship with mainstream Judaism.”
On Shavuot, some returnees will celebrate bnai mitzvot at B'nai Zion, a 400-family synagogue, where conversos number 10%. Leon quips that without the anousim, he might not have a minyan.

Blanca Carrasco, 43, returned to Judaism last year and is about to celebrate her bat mitzvah on Shavuot (this year it begins the evening of May 28). She has journeyed from Catholic child in Mexico, Evangelical Christian, a decade at a Messianic congregation, and finally she and her husband returned to Judaism.

Some members of Leon's congregation began their journey at El Paso's Messianic Center where they learned about Judaism, festivals, holidays and Crypto-Jews. Carrasco found some Converso names and that a grandmother spoke Ladino.
“Now we belong -- we are not longing anymore, we are here," Blanca Carrasco said. "We reached the place we were heading to.”
Leon has returned 50 anousim families to Judaism since arriving in El Paso. Previously he headed a New Jersey congregation for 22 years.

Disagreeing with Leon's approach is El Paso's Chabad Rabbi Yisrael Greenberg. He also receives calls from Hispanics who think they have Jewish roots, but he discourages conversion or return
“I think the Crypto-Jew is a real thing -- 500 years ago in the Inquisition hundreds of thousands of Jewish boys and girls disappeared from the Jewish community … Jews always disappeared from the Jewish community -- most of it by force,” Greenberg said.

But, he added, referring to the strong religious ties of Mexican families and the community, “We have to be careful -- we break families.”

“We should put our energy into the Jewish people rather than to try and bring anusim back,” Greenberg said. “If the anusim have a desire to understand Judaism, then let's teach them about their ancestors and let them have an understanding,” he added, implying that the best thing to do would be to leave it at that.

Another person quoted is "just curious." He's been researching his genealogy and considering DNA testing. He discovered Dr. Hordes' book and heard him speak at the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society in Taos, NM.

Leon helped start an anousim/Sephardic learning center and yeshiva in El Paso with Rabbi Juan Pablo Mejia (of converso background himself), a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary's Rabbinical School in New York, and Sonya Loya, director of Bat-Tzyion Hebrew Learning Center in Ruidoso, N.M.

The goal is to raise awareness in the Jewish and general community about the Inquisition and Crypto-Jews, on a par with Holocaust remembrance.
“The anusim will come back eventually; there is a yearning. There is a divine plan out there,” Leon said.

With Hispanics being the fastest-growing population and the Jews constantly concerned about their diminishing population, Leon says the Jewish community should welcome those Hispanics who want to explore their Jewish ancestry.

“I think the anusim are the only answer,” he said. “They are returning one way or another.”
Read the complete article at the link above, as well as other Tracing the Tribe posts on the various aspects of the Converso issue. There is a companion piece to this story, an interview with Dr. Stanley Hordes, "So You Think You're a Crypto-Jew?"

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