07 April 2009

Florida: A Secret Seder

Think about this at your Seders this year: We have forgotten a huge segment of the Jewish people and it is sad.

Remember that there is no day of remembrance for hundreds of thousands of Jews killed during the Inquisition, or forced to convert to Catholicism during that tragic time. It is as if all those people never existed, despite the fact that many families do know their ancestors were burned and converted.

And also know that many of their descendants will again sit on this Wednesday night - in secret, behind closed doors and draped windows - to once again tell the story of Santo Moises, as they have done for 500 years.

In South Florida, a Sephardic woman reminds people that although Yom HaShoah is April 21, there is no such day for the Inquisition's victims. According to some estimates, there are 15-25 million descendants of Jews whose faith, heritage and history were stolen.

These families live today in the US, South America and around the world. Some know exactly who they are and remain hidden in their observance, some barely remember their grandparents' strange customs, some are searching for more and some have found it.

West Palm Beach resident Janie Grackin wants Sephardic history to have a more prominent place in Jewish education, and as part of this, she organized a Secret Seder on March 15 for 150 people.

Read this story here in the Palm Beach Post.

At first glance, there's nothing Jewish about northeastern Brazil, a region full of Catholics and Protestants.

But Jonatas DaSilva spent much of his childhood there wondering at his family's unexplained customs - lighting candles on Friday evenings; avoiding pork and shellfish; and burying the dead the day after their passing.

Then came the shock that his family, like millions of Hispanic families, was once Jewish and forced to convert during the Spanish Inquisition, which started in the late 1400s and stretched over about 400 years.

When he moved to Boca Raton 10 years ago, he discovered a small but growing community of Latin Americans returning to their Jewish roots.

Now 27, DaSilva is Jewish again and preparing for Passover this week, hundreds of years after his family gave up their religion to save their lives.
DaSilva decided it wasn't right to live a lie, he wanted to "embrace things the right way. My family was ripped from the mix of the Jewish people, and I was really determined to bring everything back."

According to Professor Abraham Lavender of Florida International University and former persident of the Society of Crypto-Judaic Studies, there was a crypto-Jewish renaissance in the 1970s in the southwest US. His synagogue, Temple Beth Tov in Miami, has some 60 Hispanic members.

"In the past, it was sort of not talked about, and it was mostly an academic topic," Lavender said. "The main reason that it's slowly been growing in the last decade is that it took that much time to get it out in the public consciousness."
A recent genetics study (Tracing the Tribe reported on it) found that 20 percent of people in Spain and Portugal were of Sephardic Jewish descent - these people also went to the New World.

Sephardic researchers have always reminded listeners and readers, that before the Inquisition, most of the world's Jews were Sephardic. In the US, today, they are a minority, while most American Jews are of Eastern European Ashkenazi descent.

When DaSilva initially considered embracing Judaism, he was told he'd have to convert.

In Brazil, DaSilva wasn't deeply ingrained in any religion. Because his family was forced to leave, he didn't believe conversion was appropriate.

"How can you convert a Jew into a Jew?" DaSilva asked.
In Miami, Sephardic Rabbi Abraham DeLeon Cohen, told him about the possibility of receiving certificates of return.

DaSilva and a dozen other Hispanics in South Florida studied Judaism together. They were circumcised and received their return certificate last year, but have felt isolated.

"When a crypto Jew approaches a rabbi, the rabbi doesn't know what is going on and doesn't know what to say," DaSilva said. "It's a cultural shock."
Most Ashkenazi rabbis don't understand the history and the deep feelings this group of people still retain, or the fear their families still have, even 500 years after the Inquisition.

Rabbi David Goldstein of Chavura Shir Hadash in Jupiter says that he hears complaints of a declining Jewish population, and that half are marrying out-of-faith. At the same time, he argues, there is a group that is receiving no encouragement and not being embraced.

Rabbi Cohen, 67, was raised as a Sephardic Jew in Turkey. He believes 5 million people around the world would want to return, which would be astonishing, considering there are about 13 million Jews worldwide.

Jewish congregations don't traditionally recruit members outside the faith, but Cohen insists that he's simply returning people to a religion they never would have left by choice.

"There are millions of people like Jonatas who want to return," Cohen said.
In South Florida, believes Lavender, there are hundreds of thousands of Hispanics of Jewish descent.

West Palm Beach resident Janie Grackin - from a New York Sephardic family - is frustrated over a lack of education about Sephardic heritage and she organized a Secret Seder held March 15 for 150 people at the JCC of the Greater Palm Beaches.

Even though DaSilva's family is wary, the young man hopes the Jewish community will embrace the returnees and Sephardic heritage. As is common in Converso families, his family has married cousins for generations but none has considered openly identifying as Jewish.

"My grandma thinks it's crazy to return," DaSilva. "There's still a fear of the Inquisition, even though the last crypto Jew was burned in Brazil in the 18th century. The idea that it's dangerous to be Jewish has been passed down from generation to generation.
Instead of an organized Jewish response and outreach to Conversos, the gap is unfortunately being filled by Messianic Christians combining Jewish and Christian practices and attempting to convince people that they can be both Jewish and Christian, impossible by Jewish law.

At your seders on Wednesday and Thursday - if that's your tradition - think about this.


  1. Anonymous1:37 PM

    Amazing! An outreach program by all American synagogues is most definitely called for!

  2. My Jewish ancestry goes from Spain to Italy to England to early Virgina, rather than through the colonies of Spain.

    I have traced my Mother`s family back 17 generations to Spain, to Joseph Ben Joshua Ibn Vives Al-lorqui, born in 1408 in (Lorca?) Spain. The family was apparently forced to convert to Christianity in the early 1400`s, perhaps during one of the massacres in Spain at the time. They fled to Sicily, and then to Bassano in Northern Italy. They were forced out of Bassano to Venice. And then several members of the family were hired to play music in the court of Henry VIII at the time when it was becoming dangerous to be a converso in Northern Italy. (The evidence shows that they were known to be secret Jews at this time, at the English Court.) They were also investors in the Jamestown Company,along with other converso Jewish families who worked for the Court, and several members of these families took up land grants in Virginia as early as 1609/1626, including my ancestor Elizabeth Bassano). The modern City of Hampton Roads Virginia was their family plantation. Four generations latter, a member of the family donated a part of the original land as the first Jewish cemetery in the area.That part of the original land is thought to contain the graves of the first couple to settle there, Elizabeth Bassano and Robert Chandler.

    I have found a large number of crypto/converso Jews in my Mothers family, who all settled in Virginia in the 1600`s and early 1700`s.

    So my research shows me that there is perhaps an even larger group of descendants from Converso families than is thought, if you include the families that went through England and Italy.

    My Direct female line of decent goes back 8 generations to a member of the Mendes/ Anthony family in early Virginia, and from there back to Genoa Italy.

    I am in the process of trying to work out how to be legally recognized as returning, without having to convert. I belong to two communities, Temple Emek Shalom and Havurah Shir Hadash here in Ashland Oregon.

    Glenn J. hill mtglen@laserharps.com

    1. Anonymous12:05 AM

      Hello Glenn, My husband (Jason Miller) is the grandson of Clarence Chandler, whom is the descendent of John Chandler and Elizabeth Bassano. I am curious to find as much information as possible as to whether there is definitive proof that my husband's blood has Jewish ancestry. This is very important to us. Thank you.

      Reannon Miller