SPANISHJEWISH “ROOTS”

A JOURNEY OF DISCOVERY DALLASFORT WORTH RESIDENTS ARE RECLAIMING THE HERITAGE THEIR ANCESTORS WERE FORCED TO CONCEAL TO SURVIVE

When Dallasite David Sifuentes Jimenez 40 signed up to take a class at the Jewish Community Center about the medieval Spanishbased language Ladino he thought he was merely adding to his storehouse of knowledge of linguistics his hobby He had no idea the class would lead him on a voyage of selfdiscovery

Jimenez grew up in a middleclass family in Harlingen His father’s family was from San Luis Potosi northern Mexico and his parents’ marriage had been arranged He was sent to parochial Roman Catholic schools and was raised Roman Catholic In college he got a double masters in finance and accounting and today works as a manager in business services at Parkland Hospital Through an incredible series of coincidences which some might see as no less than the hand of God at work Jimenez learned a year ago that his family heritage is not what he believed it to be that it had been kept a secret from him Not only that he also found out that hundreds of others in the US and northern Mexico have the same secret: that their family was actually descended from the Jews of fifteenthcentury Spain and that their lineage has been preserved for over 500 years to present times

Every schoolchild knows that Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain sent Christopher Columbus on his historymaking voyage in 1492 to the New World What is not in most textbooks however is that a few months earlier the same Spanish monarchs fresh from driving the Islamic Moors out of Spain issued a notorious “Edict of Expulsion” which required all of the estimated twomillion Jewish citizens to either convert to Catholicism under penalty of death or leave Spain within 30 days with only the possessions they could carry on their backs An estimated half went into exile to friendlier countries in Europe north Africa or the Ottoman Empire (today’s Turkey) whose sultan welcomed the banished creme de la creme of Spanish society merchants physicians educators Others stayed behind and either converted or pretended to convert while continuing to practice Judaism secretly

These “Marranos” (literally “pigs”) or “conversos” or “cryptoJews” came under intense scrutiny by the Inquisition Many later fled to “Nueva España” the Spanish territories in the New World sometimes accompanying to northern and central Mexico the conquistadors some of whom were CryptoJews themselves One of the greatest Luis Carvajál admiral in the Spanish navy founded Nuevo León including the cities of Tampico and Monterrey His land grant extended from Tampico west to the Pacific and north to presentday San Antonio He was later accused of harboring “Judaizers” and died in an Inquisition prison Other family members were burned at the stake When the long arm of the Inquisition established itself in Mexico City some even fled with Don Juan de Oñate in 1598 and established the first colony in what is today New Mexico

No matter in which part of the world they ended up these Spaniards inexile fiercely clung to their dual Jewish and Spanish heritages whether openly or in secret They maintained their Jewish customs and traditions to modern times and even their Spanish language which became known as “Ladino”

When David Jimenez took the Ladino course taught by Rachel Amado Bortnick a native of Turkey and descendant of Spanish Jews herself some light bulbs started going off in his head He knew that the Spanish spoken in his home had not been the Spanish that was taught in school

In Ladino or “JewishSpanish” he learned the Spanish word adiós is adio because the Jews wanted to emphasize the fact there is only one God “My mom” he says “uses that word two or three times a day I looked it up in three pretty hefty Spanish dictionaries and it never showed up

“I noticed the way Rachel pronounced other words and phrased certain things also were very much like my mother” The more he learned in the class about SpanishJewish customs other things clicked: Every spring around Easter his mother makes a special unleavened bread pudding called capirutada for what she called the “Passover” of Christ rather than the “passion”

No one in his family has any typically Hispanic Christian names like “Maria or “Jesús;” they’re either Greek names or Hebrew Old Testament names “My mother’s name is Elia the female version of Elias my uncle is Salamon my cousin on my father’s side is Rachel My parent’s grew fig trees and lemon trees; no one else in Harlingen grew them My sister a physician who moved to Florida also was growing fig trees right on the oceanfront I thought it was a little bizarre until I found out these are all common practices in Sephardic culture”

The clincher came when he brought in a photo of his sister’s wedding a Catholic wedding in which she had insisted on getting married with the couple draped in a large prayer shawl explaining that it was a Spanish custom When he found out that it was actually a SpanishJewish custom he confronted his sister about it and she revealed that she had been practicing Judaism secretly for many years

The oldest daughter she had been the only one of the nine children who had been told of the family’s true heritage a common practice for 500 years

“It turns out that usually the mother would pass the information to only one or two offspring” Jimenez learned “Parents not only were afraid they would be turned over to the Inquisition but that children might accidentally be indiscreet and give information to neighbors or strangers who would then turn them in It’s a whole culture of secrecy”

When he asked his mother why all the secrecy she said very plainly “I’ve never told you and no one ever asked”

How did he feel when he found out? “To be honest with you I was shocked! I had been sent to Roman Catholic schools although we were anticlerical I felt a great sense growing up that we were part of the Hispanics of south Texas but we were not like the rest of them My entire family felt that way: not that we were better than them but we were apart and different I’ve since talked to a lot of people who are descended from CryptoJews and there’s always the sense that you are set apart”

Frank Longoria 59 of Arlington found out as an 8yearold child shortly before his father’s death from liver cancer that his family was descended from Spanish Jews on both sides One ancestor came to Nuevo León around 1620 and married Ana Rodriguez a CryptoJew descended from the original settlers who came over with Carvajál Later ancestors founded Camargo in south Texas and the first ranches in south Texas Until 1820 Longoria points out it was a crime to be other than Catholic and those who practiced Judaism did so at the risk of their lives although some did to a degree

His father was born in south Texas but he moved to San Luis Potosá­ where Longoria was born in 1937 “We were pseudoCatholics” Longoria recalls “We kept up a public appearance we went to church a couple of times a year but in our homes we really didn’t Most people who knew they were descendants of Jews kept it way in the background There were no synagogues no contact with other Jews to keep the rituals alive My father kept ties as much as he could but I don’t think he had a dream of returning to Judaism “In our home we didn’t have any statues of saints or pictures of Jesus or the Virgin which was very strange because everybody else had them Also even though we didn’t observe Shabbat we ate meat on Friday which was against the Catholic tradition in those days When my mother cracked an egg she would make sure there was no blood She would go berserk if a maid had cracked an egg directly into the frying pan She always insisted we wash our hands more as a ritual When my father died they covered the mirrors My father refused to have a priest when he was dying He was a freemason and I found out later that in the lodge he had observed Passover”

With his US citizenship Longoria came to the US in 1952 was in the army and later got a job with the US government for which he worked until his retirement in 1995 A genealogy buff he has traced his ancestors to Spain to the late 1400’s some to prominent Jewish families Because of the land grants there are also records at the University of Texas When he confirmed his Jewish heritage it also confirmed that everything his relatives had told him was true

RESPONSES TO LEARNING THE TRUTH

Both Longoria’s and Jimenez’ response to dealing with the truth of his Jewish ancestry has been profound and personal and each has been different

Rachel Amado Bortnick in whose Ladino class David Jimenez discovered his Jewish heritage has been instrumental in helping many descendants of CryptoJews in the DallasFort Worth area wrestle with their new identities She says the reactions vary “Some are not ready to declare they are of Jewish background Some feel a kind of pride for being associated with this history but they are not ready to become Jews again

“Many Christians who come from Jewish background are very secretive even today sometimes without even knowing why because the fear of being discovered by the Inquisition almost has become part of their culture It’s a very difficult thing They come from Christian culture sometimes tinged heavily with antiSemitism They don’t really know where they belong so there are a lot of ambivalent feelings But the fact is whether or not they become Jewish just knowing that these people are descendants of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews who were forced to convert and we are their cousins we’re from the same stock this in itself is very exciting and should be open and shared”

Amado Bortnick who was raised as a Sephardic Jew in Turkey speaking Ladino came to the US as a college student married a US citizen and stayed She herself faced a huge culture shock coming here to the US where most Jews are “Ashkenazic” (descended from Jews of Germany eastern Europe and Russia) rather than Sephardic (from the Hebrew word for Spain Sefarad) Many Jews she encountered here couldn’t believe she knew nothing of gefilte fish and bagels spoke Ladino and knew no Yiddish She on the other hand was shocked that US Jews knew little of their own Spanish heritage especially because the Sephardim even those who came to the US considered themselves the aristocrats among the Jewish people Today she is also president of the Dallas Jewish Historical Society

For her it is exquisitely ironic and touching that 500 years after the Edict of Expulsion tore families apart their descendants are now coming forward and discovering each other “I feel very privileged that I’m here to reestablish contact with them and I find it a very emotional and touching experience In 1492 families and friends were split Some chose to stay and convert or practice Judaism in secret others like my family left and went east and went through a different kind of hardship: exile from the motherland of Spain Still others went west and came to this hemisphere hounded by the Inquisition in Spain and continued to be pursued by it here’

’Now 500 years later we are meeting each other here together the descendants of these families who were split apart It’s a phenomenal event sort of like cousins coming full circle and meeting again” The reaction from the Jewish community has been mixed So far there is no formal outreach program Some who learn of their heritage wish to return to Judaism and have done so but even they face controversy as to whether or not they need to go through a formal conversion process Amado Bortnick says “Some of these people say ’My family has never mixed with people who were not of this background even in 500 years so why should I have to convert? I’m already a Jew’ I think it’s a difficult position They really need counseling and don’t get it You are not who you thought you were and after you discovered who you really are the people from that group don’t accept you”

Seven years ago the former state historian of New Mexico Stanley Hordes now a private archivist started the Society for CryptoJudac Studies Hordes had researched the colonists who first settled New Mexico and discovered they probably were Jews fleeing with Carvajál’s lieutenant governor after Carvajál was arrested by the Inquisition

After Hordes published his research and received publicity people would come into his office close the door look around and say “’My grandfather never ate pork all the boys in my family were circumcised and this family across the street from us would always light candles on Friday night” Hordes began putting two and two together and traced their lineage as much as possible discovering there were still descendants of these early settlers who were practicing Judaism In many cases they had passed the information to their descendants; in others just certain practices and rituals

Today the society is mainly academic but through it people are finding each other At the society’s fifth annual meeting in Albuquerque last year presentations were given both by scholars and CryptoJews themselves “We found there are many more than we originally thought” says the society’s Arthur Benveniste of Los Angeles himself a descendant of Spanish Jews “At first we thought there might be 1500 but now it’s quite a bit more like several thousand It’s difficult to say how many are in Mexico where the state of Nuevo León was settled by Jews and there were originally tens of thousands I just got back from Brazil where there is an organization that so far has received 2000 inquiries” Benveniste says those who are contacting the organization are for the most part returning to Judaism “Several are the only members of their family doing so We also have members who want to remain Catholic or Protestant but still be affiliated with us”

A separate organization is being formed made up of CryptoJews themselves Why now 500 years later is this phenomenon occurring? For one thing it is only in this generation that many CryptoJewish families have mixed with other people Until now those of CryptoJewish background not even knowing why did not mix or marry with others “The world is changing and the old traditions are dying out” Benveniste points out “These people talk about customs their grandparents did such as slaughtering animals in the kosher way Of course today they go to the supermarket As the traditions are dying with the old generation the young want to preserve at least the knowledge of it It’s also part of our culture in the US to come out and acknowledge who you are what your roots are And with worldwide communications with the Internet it’s becoming easier to do so”

Since David Jimenez learned of his Jewish heritage a year and a half ago he has made contact with people throughout the US and researched the Jimenez family genealogy Even the name Jimenez he learned is a Sephardic name literally son of Simon Jimen he says is the old Ladino pronunciation for Simeon In Ladino the “j” is pronounced ’Ez’ and stands for son of” He also is proactively learning more about Judaism including taking Hebrew and reading Jewish theology and learning the liturgy of the festivals and synagogue services “It doesn’t feel uncomfortable I grew up going to Catholic school and a Catholic university Our liturgy and so much of what Catholics do is based on Judaism People don’t know that I wouldn’t say it’s been traumatic for me but it was difficult reconciling with my 40 years of Christianity If I convert it’s going to be to orthodox If you do it you should do it right Both Catholicism and orthodox Judaism demand a lot of their laity” Jimenez who is single says he gets support from his Jewish sister although his younger brothers and sisters whom he calls the “MTV generation” are secular towards all religion His mother he says is happy he knows although her own set of beliefs is somewhat fused between Catholicism and Judaism “Even though we live in America and there’s freedom of religion among Hispanic Catholics finally coming out and admitting we’re of Jewish background for most is very traumatic Three months ago” he says “I was at a little ’holeinthewall Central American restaurant’ on Garland Road in east Dallas For some bizarre reason they had a painting of the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe and right next to it they had a Star of David They were very secretive and the proprietor didn’t want to talk about it Just by her not wanting to talk about it you know what’s going on So it’s even bigger than I even imagined It’s not strange or unique as I first thought it was”

For Frank Longoria discovering his Jewish heritage led to a full return to Judaism in 1981 After his genealogical research had verified for him that he was in fact of Jewish ancestry he started visiting with his distant cousin Magda Hinojosa who had converted back to Judaism and married a Jew “She encouraged me to find out more about Judaism She was like my mentor and guided me through the process to various readings and rabbis There is no outreach program The Jews in Mexico don’t bother because they’re worried it may be held against them but here in the US I was fortunate”

He read about Carvajál circumcising himself “and it gave me courage to seek out a physician and undergo the ritual operation I said ’Carvajál did it; I should be able to do it’ I know some conversos take the position that they’re just as much a Jew as you are but I don’t agree I felt if I were going to do it I was going to do it right I lost all this and I want to gain it back I had a Bar Mitzvah too last April”

His wife Charlene who is not Hispanic also converted and is very active in Arlington’s Beth Shalom synagogue One of Longoria’s sons age 30 and his wife also are in the process of converting “He read some of my books and went to the synagogue and liked the people there and the rabbi so he decided to convert of which I’m glad My grandchildren are going to Hebrew school and are being brought up Jews I have two daughters They may some day come around but I don’t want to force them”

Longoria strongly wishes to say to others that even though they may have lost their heritage they can find their roots and hopefully can go back “Once upon a time we were forcibly converted to something we didn’t believe in and all these hundreds of years we’ve been in limbo Some of us have been granted the blessing of returning to Judaism”

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