NY Times: Hispanics in Southwest US, learn they’re Jews

Folks, this is a fascinating article. Reprinted in full from The NY Times:

When she was growing up in a small town in southern Colorado, an area where her ancestors settled centuries ago when it was on the fringes of the northern frontier of New Spain, Bernadette Gonzalez always thought some of the stories about her family were unusual, if not bizarre.

Her grandmother, for instance, refused to travel on Saturday and would use a specific porcelain basin to drain blood out of meat before she cooked it. In one tale that particularly puzzled Ms. Gonzalez, 52, her grandfather called for a Jewish doctor to circumcise him while he was on his death bed in a hospital in Trinidad, Colo.

Only after Ms. Gonzalez moved to Houston to work as a lawyer and began discussing these tales with a Jewish colleague, she said, did “the pieces of the puzzle” start falling into place.

Ms. Gonzalez started researching her family history and concluded that her ancestors were Marranos, or Sephardic Jews, who had fled the Inquisition in Spain and in Mexico more than four centuries ago. Though raised in the Roman Catholic faith, Ms. Gonzalez felt a need to reconnect to her Jewish roots, so she converted to Judaism three years ago.

“I feel like I came home,” said Ms. Gonzalez, who now often uses the first name Batya. “The fingerprints of my past were all around me, but I didn’t know what they meant.”

It is difficult to know precisely how many Hispanics are converting or adopting Jewish religious practices, but accounts of such embraces of Judaism are growing more common in parts of the Southwest. In Clear Lake, a suburb south of Houston, Rabbi Stuart Federow has overseen half a dozen conversions of Hispanics in recent years. In El Paso, Rabbi Stephen Leon said he had converted almost 40 Hispanic families since moving to Texas from New Jersey 19 years ago.

These conversions are the latest chapter in the story of the crypto-Jews, or hidden Jews, of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, who are thought to be descended from the Sephardic Jews who began fleeing Spain more than 500 years ago. The story is being bolstered by recent historical research and advances in DNA testing that are said to reveal a prominent role played by crypto-Jews and their descendants in Spain’s colonization of the Southwest.

For more than two decades, anecdotal evidence collected by researchers in New Mexico, Colorado and Texas suggested that some nominally Catholic families of Iberian descent had stealthily maintained Jewish customs throughout the centuries, including lighting candles on Friday evening, avoiding pork and having the Star of David inscribed on gravestones.

The whispers of hidden rituals coming from thoroughly Catholic communities were at times met with skepticism. One explanation for these seemingly Jewish customs was that evangelical Protestant sects active in the Southwest about a century ago had used Jewish imagery and Hebrew writing in their proselytizing, and that these symbols had become ingrained in isolated Hispanic communities.

Skepticism aside, some rabbis view assistance to or conversions of crypto-Jews as a responsibility. “The American Jewish community provided support in bringing Soviet, Albanian or Syrian Jews to the United States, and helping them in their transition,” said Rabbi Leon of Congregation B’nai Zion, a Conservative congregation in El Paso.
“I don’t see how the crypto-Jews are any different.”

Modern science may now be shedding new light on the history of the crypto-Jews after molecular anthropologists recently developed a DNA test of the male or Y chromosome that can indicate an ancestral connection to the Cohanim, a priestly class of Jews that traces its origin back more than 3,000 years to Aaron, the older brother of Moses.

Family Tree DNA, a Houston company that offers a Cohanim test to its male clients, gets about one inquiry a day from Hispanics interested in exploring the possibility of Jewish ancestry, said Bennett Greenspan, its founder and chief executive. Mr. Greenspan said about one in 10 of the Hispanic men tested by his company showed Semitic ancestry strongly suggesting a Jewish background. (Another divergent possibility is that the test might suggest North African Muslim ancestry.)

“The results have just blown me over, reminding me of something out of Kaifeng,” Mr. Greenspan said, referring to the Chinese city of Kaifeng, where a small Jewish community persisted for about 1,000 years until the mid-19th century when it was almost completely assimilated. “Lots of Hispanic people tell me they’re interested in something Jewish and they can’t explain it. Well, this helps explain it.”

Not everyone who discovers Jewish ancestry, either through genealogical research or DNA testing, has decided to convert to Judaism, but some Hispanics who have found links still feel drawn to incorporate Jewish customs into their life. For instance, the Rev. William Sanchez, 52, a Catholic priest in Albuquerque, spent years researching his family’s past in New Mexico before a DNA test three years ago showed that he almost certainly had the Jewish Cohanim marker.

Since then, Father Sanchez has sought to educate his parishioners on the connections between Catholicism and Judaism, and has helped oversee the Nuevo Mexico Project, which tries to identify Sephardic ancestry among Hispanics from New Mexico. He has encouraged more than 100 of his parishioners to take DNA tests.

Father Sanchez has also introduced some Jewish customs at St. Edwins Church in Albuquerque, where he serves; he blew the shofar, or ram’s horn, this month during the Yom Kippur holiday. At another parish where he used to work in rural northeastern New Mexico, in the village of Villanueva, he would hold an annual Passover supper.

“I have a pluralistic, not an antagonistic, view of our religions,” Father Sanchez said.

Still, others feel they have to make a clean break upon exploring their Jewish roots. John García, a lawyer in El Paso whose family moved to the United States two generations ago from northern Mexico, said he had heard stories since he was a boy that his family had a Sephardic Jewish past.

He formally converted to Judaism in 2001 and last year had a bar mitzvah in El Paso, at the age of 53, together with five other crypto-Jews. These days Mr. García, a lawyer in the public defender’s office in El Paso, never works on the Sabbath and is an active member of Temple Mount Sinai, a Reform congregation in El Paso.

“I’ve had to go beyond my comfort level in something I would call a reversion rather than a conversion,” Mr. García said. “There were an intervening 400 years when my family had become Catholic, but something about Judaism, I don’t know exactly what it was, was kept alive.”

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