The Story of My Newly Discovered Jewish Heritage

Nothing Can Erase 6000 Years:

It is a phenomenon known the world over but best recognized and publicized in the West: someone discovers they are Jewish after a lifetime of not knowing Elie Wiesel who to my knowledge has not touched upon this subject would probably say we need the Maharal Rabbi Yehuda Löwe (Judah Leow sometimes rendered as Leon) of Prague to make an ignorancefighting golem for us Somehow I don’t think that would suffice Many great Jewish masters often made points about the coming of ha Meshiach the Messiah and of the resulting reunification of all the Jewish people The seventh Lubavitcher Hassid Rebbe Menachem Schneersohn up until his death in 1993 often wrote and spoke about the Messiah and the reuniting of all the Jewish people Weak point or not it seems this is happening now Many Sephardic Jews are rediscovering themselves and they in turn are rediscovering lost siblings

A prominent Canadian scholar Simcha Jacobovici and an Ashkenazic rabbi Eliyahu Avichail recently finished scouring the world for the Lost Tribes believing they had positively found all but one Not long after this finding of the tribes British geneticist Neil Bradman found a gene marker that separates and distinguishes the Kohanimthe Jewish priestly castefrom all other people This was of vital importance to modern Jewish belief: that the priestly caste of the Tribe of Levi still exists in waiting for the return of the Messiah and the reestablishment of the Temple in Jerusalem Jacobovici had already found “ritually pure” Kohanim living in isolation some in secrecy The single largest community exists on Ile de Djerba an island off the coast of Tunisia The Kohanim genetic marker discovered by Bradman called the Kohen (Hebrew “priest”; it is the singular of Kohanim) Modal Haplotite is a DNA chromosomal sequence marker found on the Y chromosome This marker was used to identify one very important “Lost Tribe” the Bene Lemba (“Sons of Lemba” or Lemba Tribe) of South Africa In an astonishing twist of fate Catholic Cardinal Arinze is of this tribe validating his longstanding claims to be of Jewish descent He joins ranks with Cardinal Lustiger Archbishop of Paris the converted son of Polish Jews

As Jacobovici has said the tribes “may have been lost to us They were never lost to themselves” What a journey of self discovery Often I wonder about the truly lost Jews: those lost to themselves Embarking on a journey of self discovery is fraught with all sorts of emotions and events; yet it is not in the least miserable I have read that it is but I can’t believe it Many Jews having recently discovered their roots become retiring and even paranoid about their newfound identities The Inquisition still hurts

It also became plain to me just how wrong Jacobovici is about lost Jews not being “lost to themselves” My family was lost to itself; how many more lost Jews are out there? In finding my true heritage I was blessed What I share with these “new Jews” is everything that is positive We feel relief because we finally know why we never fit in even at home We feel pride excitement at having learned the truth about ourselves It’s heritage and history in a bottle set afloat centuries ago with the hopes of someone finding it

Our Sephardic Jewish heritage had to be bottled I always knew we were different; my family and the friends of the family all seemed to belong to an aristocracy long vanished My brothers sisters and I always took for granted that this was merely “Spanish pride” Why we fit in so well with all kinds of Jews why we were always so at home with the varying Jewish customs and cultures why we were so like them even trading barbs in Yiddish never seemed to really pique our curiosity Never did we wonder why our speech was so different from that of other Mexicans Never did we question our avoidance of church on Sundays though like most Sephardim including the crypto Jews we seemed more Catholic than the Catholics As a lady from New Mexico described her family my family was also “obsessively Catholic” Today I know that this was all a show an act: not a deception but a thing of survival

A “converso” Jew is a Jew who thinks he’s a Catholic but doesn’t really want to be A crypto Jew is a Jew who knows he’s Jewish but doesn’t really want to be But the ugliest tragedy I’ve seen are the cryptoJewish parents who turn their children into conversos What theft! As I say the Inquisition still hurts If my ancestors knew they were Jews (I think some did but not most of them) then they knew all too well that Jews have always been outcastes Forming ghettos mocked and mistreated Sephardic Jews of our ilk knew that Jewishness itself was a thing to be shunned I believe that my ancestors not very long ago realized that peril still existed

So I believe my ancestors were crypto Jews up until my greatgrandfather’s generation Not until that point in my family history I think did they “become” conversos Anyway they certainly turned their children into conversos Survival of the fittest? Cowardice? Dissimulation? It was at this time that my ancestors emigrated from the Spanish Netherlands from France AlsaceLorraine and Belgium to Mexico They must have continued to live in mortal fear of being accused of Judaizing Judaizing: such an ugly term which means nothing more than practicing Judaism This was the hateverb that was used to accuse so many Sephardim and send them to their deaths Then there is marrano: a truly horrid insult which is used even today by some Jewish writers no less This is not a term that just means “Spanish Jew” or even “swine” or “pig” as some Jewish authors erroneously believe It is a word that means “filthypigperson” and aimed at the Jews it means “filthy Jew pig” It is a word that must never be used as a noun adjective or anything else For example my mother and her brother used to jokingly call the kids puerco marrano”pigfilthypig” a unique Spanish hyperbolewhenever we did something considered dirty but not offensive

This they felt they could do lightheartedly because somewhere in their hearts they knew what it really meant When matters were serious they carefully scolded us by calling us cochino or cochina; in this context meaning a piglike person or slob Note its resemblance to the Italian cucina “kitchen” It is never used in conjunction with marrano Cochino and the diminutive cochinito has been used in Spanish since Medieval times to denote a suckling pig In other words cochino means “pork” “pig” “suckling pig” and “slob”; puerco means “slob” “pig” and “piglike” as well as “pork”; but marrano means “filthypigperson” Marrano is never used in any other context by polite decent society because it is an unvarnished absolutely contextpositive insult I cannot believe my ears when I hear that marrano is now being proudly used by Sephardim as if it were just another version of the term Chicano which is a far cry from a filthy pig!

At home on Friday evenings special things seemed to be in the air We never knew why; even my grandmother and mother didn’t seem to know We were dressed up very clean the shades were always drawn and my mother lit candles My father would not remove his Fedora in the house which always struck us as very odd It was exactly like New Year’s Eve on Fridays We had a good meal and a festive spirit but of course as the teen years arrived and then passed for us fewer and fewer of us were at home

My mother did not mind The tradition just seemed to die a natural death as we kids left home She however never stopped looking forward to Friday nights She was forever relishing that cup of Manischewitz grape wine the candlelighting the drawing of the blinds and shades For her and for my grandmother it was just the way it had always been done I recall the preparations for Friday night supper: there was much bustling as though disaster might rain down on the kitchen after dark

And no one knew why

Even at this depth of ignorance my family kept kosher as much as possible Meat had to be drained of blood (preferably outofdoors in the back yard) washed salted and so forth It is a pitiable condition: the spirit and some traditions remain but the knowledge the consciousness is gone It is the ultimate in thievery It is in this sense that the term “wandering Jew” takes on special meaning and it is in this sense that the “Lost Tribes” takes on its most important true meaning For me it took on a meaning of epic proportions After my mother died in March of 2000 may her memory be blessed I discovered the truth about our family I discovered our heritage not long after her death as if a gift had come from the Eternal One via her “Suddenly Jewish” certainly describes me at that moment

What came to my memory after I had discovered the truth was the scene at my mother’s deathbed after she had passed Exactly as I had read about traditional Jewish vigils and deaths I personally covered or removed and turned over the mirrors except for the very large one Everyone sat and looked miserable certain items were placed on the deathbed and my mother somehow ended up facing the wall to her left Was it coincidence that this meant she was facing east? All are Jewish customs from ancient times

In accord with family tradition I knew I had at least a 30 day mourning period ahead of me during which I could not shave at all could not have a haircut or take a bath I knew I would not be able to go out for entertainment get dressed up or cease to wear black I seem to recall a tradition we once had of giving charity in the name of the deceased and I recall my relatives giving money and saying “SoandSo would have liked this” Why the Jewish connection did not occur to me at the time was very simple: as a Buddhist priest I had obligations to the dead

As a son of a “devout” Catholic and former seminarian I had the duty to administer emergency Last Rites As her son in spite of being overthehill as you can get I was torn into pieces by grief In my grief I was tempted to rend my garments Now I know why There were no elder female relatives left to tend my mother’s body in the traditional way My father was in no condition to do anything As Jews well no one was conscious of it at that time That is the ugliest tragedy of all “As Jews” we didn’t know what to do we didn’t know who we were!

A cryptoJewish lady once commented that she has never called herself Jewish because she was not raised as a Jew I say the Torah is clear: once a Jew always a Jew The children of conversos or crypto Jews are Jews whether anyone likes it or not It is also clear that being a Jew is a state of mind As one very important Jewish scholar tells us being truly Jewish is “more a choice” than anything else

These sentiments helped me to take heart I sought refuge in a new highly moneyed Ashkenazic synagogue that called itself a “center” It was full of old welloff folks who had lost relatives in ha Shoah the Holocaust When I looked at them I could see and feel their loss They also felt like instant kindred folk like relatives previously unknown They even looked and acted like all my relatives What I wonder to this day is whether they saw the same in me I had no doubt that my rabbi was aware of my sense of pain and loss He was keenly attuned to my grief over the loss of my dear mother but at the same time I found him oddly disinterested in my Jewish heritage He essentially ignored me A bad memory The memory I cherish the most is the time I chatted in Hebrew with him; he remarked that I “should be teaching the congregants Hebrew” If anything reaffirmed me made me feel whole again it was that remark Nonetheless he was unmoved by my “Jewish plight” seemed very nervous about the whole thing and didn’t want to encourage me We discussed conversion in his office one day What hurt me the most at the time was his insistence upon the conversion ritual in the first place

I told him I already was a Jew I was looking forward to fully joining the community His reasoning was sound: a conversion has to be seen to be believed The bath the mikveh must be performed I then repeated I had something of a problem with the very idea that I had to convert He was telling me I was not Jewish until they said otherwise The bet din the “official commission” had to gather and witness the conversion It wasn’t enough to say “Here is a ba’al teshuva [returning one]” no they had to rub it in all over again! Finally I accepted the terms and pledged I would “convert with all the faith and zeal that had been used to rob my ancestors of their Jewish heritage” My exact words It must have been at that moment that the rabbi was really wary of me It is Jewish custom as it is the Buddhist to torture (they call it “testing”) a potential convert three times prior to commencing the actual conversion process The rabbi promised solemnly that he would not do that to me due to my sincerity spiritual background and preexisting training in Jewish theology and tradition

There was no formal conversion Perhaps the rabbi thought twice and saw there was no need in my case My siblings pleased to pieces about their “Jewish brother” were looking forward to the ceremony I even told them it would officially mark the beginning of my studies for the rabbinate Today I wonder if that promise the rabbi made (not to test me) in itself was a sort of trap to see if I would get proud and arrogant I didn’t I was too busy feeling happy and fulfilled Somehow I feel that the rabbi laid the trap was frustrated and became a bit resentful Then again as I have always said I harbor no ill will This is all just a vague bad memory of a suspicion And to be scrupulously fair my former rabbi had a truckload of real problems without having to worry about Das Pintele Yid Kid here

Sadly there was nothing else to be done The community well established in my hometown for over a century and a half did not know how to take me or what to do with me That was perhaps the worst part of discovering who I am Like an orphan: there I was a ’Jewish orphan’ in an alien synagogue And it seemed I was not even entitled to consider myself Jewish at all After less than two years of strict observance I returned to my Buddhist ministry with my rabbi’s blessing he no doubt elated at the prospect of ridding himself of my bothersome presence

Perhaps that is the other sad thing: Jews are against Jews very much these days and no one feels it like newly selfdiscovered Sephardim The ugliest thing I notice is a Jew accusing another Jew of not being a Jew Almost sounds like a joke Until I remember that this very thing happened to me and it was the rabbi who had said it Well he meant no harm or offense Since that time three other rabbis have said that to me

Don’t they know how that hurts do they not care?

In spite of this Semitic antiSemitism innumerable gifts have been imparted to me that cannot be taken away Today I know that no matter what happens I am a Jew I know I have a Jewish soul: it made me respond to the call back to my people The privilege to study the deepest Jewish teachings to live and practice openly as a Jew to retain certain Jewish vows to this day is privilege indeed No I am not “a false Jew” “of Jewish descent” “of Jewish ancestry” or an “apostate Jew”

I am a Jew Judio Mosáico Ebreo Hebrew Israelite Zhid Yid Yutai Yehudi Couldn’t be simpler

On the street old Jewish people who do not know me somehow recognize me immediately as kindred and it is this recognition I most relish All the people who come from far and wide who lost everything in the Holocaust some who even remember the pogroms recognize me! World War II veterans are always easy for me to spot because they are the first to ask me if I am Jewish Jews look at me once and don’t ask

I used to be perplexed by the question; today I immediately respond “Why yes I am a Jew!” The war vets tell me with pride that they know LOTS of Jewish people they can always tell Other types of singling out comes with the territory I have suffered various communications accusing me of being “a traitor to my people” “worse than Hitler” and so forth They have told me to get with the program or they’ll put some sort of Jewish jihad on me Lovely people These messages always come from people who call themselves Jewish Often when I am alone thinking I ask myself why Jews flee their community and heritage Why so many Jews leaving the faith not practicing? Is it a message about the abovementioned jerks about modern Orthodoxy stringent Jewish expectations shattered Jewish hopes? Or is it my people stretching forth their hands groping hoping finding accepting each other?

Isn’t that what is supposed to herald the Messianic Age? Is the conversion of a Jew to Buddhism or some other nonChristian religion such a bad thing? Didn’t certain kohanim stalk away from Israel 2300 years ago because they quarrelled with the boneheaded leaders? Isn’t the Torah clear? Doesn’t that mean anything? Once a Jew always a Jew

Isaac Asimov a Russian Jew was once cornered by a friendly but persistent Orthodox rabbi Asimov said boldly that he was an atheist but the rabbi kept pressing him “Yes yes” the rabbi insisted “but what kind of atheist?” Asimov finally caught on and said “A Jewish atheist” The rabbi was joyful and shouted “Aha!” Recalling this story I wrote to a rabbi and said that I think even atheism is ordained by the Eternal One He wrote back delighted saying that it was undoubtedly true There is a Jewish saying that atheism can be a birthplace for true faith What is it in all these ideas and circumstances that is so deep so meaningful?

Many scholars postulate that we all have some Jewish ancestry Whatever the truth may be one thing shines forth in my view: being Jewish has brought me closer to all peoples to the world to the Eternal One At the end of the day I believe that’s all the Eternal One wants of any of us Though I will not make teshuva again though I must now consider myself in practice a Ben Noah gentile though I can now only touch certain parts of Judaism in my imagination guess what? I am still a Jew It just feels so good to say that to know that to live it as best I can and to write it

ANTONIO AKIVA HERNANDEZ was born in Chicago and studied for the Catholic priesthood in his youth At present he is a JudaeoBuddhist priest and anthropologist

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