25 March 2009

Phoenix: Conversos on stage, through March 29

Along with books and articles detailing the personal experiences and history of Hispanics discovering their Jewish roots, comes a play, "Parted Waters." which will run through March 29 in Phoenix, Arizona.

Commissioned by the Arizona Jewish Theatre Company, the play focuses on three generations of New Mexico Latinos. The grandfather observes his secret religion, the son won't acknowledge it, and the grandson has no clue about a hidden heritage until a family conflict erupts.

Sephardic Jews were forcibly converted to Catholicism during the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal. Many came to the US Southwest, particularly New Mexico, although Crypto-Jews are also found in Spain, Portugal and Latin America. Some families have preserved considerable knowledge and documents, continue to secretly observe Sephardic traditions and teach their children, while others have only a vague idea of their roots.

Playwright Robert Benjamin, of Los Alamos, New Mexico, did extensive research on crypto-Judaism in his state, as detailed in this Arizona Republic story.

"What surprised me was how much of a spectrum there is of experiences," he says. "There are people who embrace it, there are people for whom it is a curiosity, and other people for whom it is a life-changing experience" to discover something so unexpected about their family history.

The central theme is identity, Benjamin says.

"The point I try to make is that people need to think about their cultural identity and make choices," he says. "It's not necessarily a given."
Rabbi Yosef Garcia of Avdey Torah Haya, a Chandler, Arizona synagogue for Spanish-speaking Jews, says the situation is confusing for many hidden Jews because they don't find out until they're adults, when they hear their parents - on their deathbeds - say the family is Jewish.

Of Spanish and Portuguese descent, Garcia was born in the US and raised as a Catholic in Panama. When priests couldn't answer the altar boy's questions, he walked away from the religion at age 13. As an adult, and believing in God, he began studying Hebrew to understand the Bible better. The language came easily to him, almost as if he was Jewish.

At a family wedding, he told his great-uncle, and was stunned by the man's comment: "And he said, Well, we are Jews," Garcia recalls. "I had no idea. You could have knocked me over with a feather."

Garcia's congregation conducts services in Hebrew with instruction in Spanish, and its members are mostly Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Jews from such countries as El Salvador, Cuba, Puerto Rico or Mexico.

He is a member of the Association of Crypto-Jews of America, dedicated to assisting hidden or secret Jews "return" to the the faith of their fathers in a ceremony which is as old as the Inquisition itself. When hidden Jews began arriving in Amsterdam from Spain, well after the 1492 Expulsion, Sephardic rabbinical leaders instituted the ceremony, and also conducted Jewish remarriages, brit milah and education.

Many converso families have very negative feelings about the word "conversion" and feel that Ashkenazi congregations and many rabbis do not understand their history. Those who know their heritage want others to recognize that they have been in hiding. Conversion implies what the Inquisition forced on their ancestors, while a return ceremony is a welcome back after centuries of secrecy.

Shows are at 8pm Thursday-Saturday; 2 and 7pm Sunday, at the Paradise Valley Community College Center for the Performing Arts, 34th Street south of Union Hills Drive, Phoenix. Tickets are $15-40. Call 602-264-0402, or click here.

Jewish Arizona also carried a story on the play with additional insights and pointed to a Nextbook.org review of Yirmiyahu Yovel's book "The Other Within: The Marranos."

Although the book sounds excellent, it is an unfortunate use of the word marrano which is considered pejorative, insulting and worse to Hispanic Jews. Its use in the title perpetuates the idea that it is acceptable to continue to use the word, when most Conversos simply hate it and what it signifies.

An anecdote from the book details the experience of Spanish tourists visiting the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, in New York City. A man murmured a prayer while making the sign of the cross; the tour guide asked him about the prayer.

"Oh, it's an ancient custom in our family," the Spanish tourist replied.

It turns out that the man didn't know what the sounds he was making meant; he only knew that his was a family of "devout Catholics, and on entering a church we say this special benediction as a sign of extra piety."

Research on the part of a Hebrew-speaking friend revealed that what the man was saying was actually
shakets teshaktsenu, which is the phrase Moses uses in Deuteronomy when he commands the Israelites to hate idolatry.

In other words, not a Catholic prayer at all, but rather the vestige of a Jewish past so hidden that the man uttering the words did not know what they signified.

Read the complete stories at the links above for a better understanding of the issues.

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