13 April 2009

Conversos: Returns in Chicago

A bet din - Jewish religious court - met recently in a Chicago suburban synagogue to decide on the conversion of a Mexican immigrant family that has reached across time and geography to solve the mystery of its Jewish roots.

Ignacio Esquivel, his daughters, a brother-in-law and a family friend were answering the bet din's questions, according to this Chicago Tribune story.
"Who had this idea first?" asked David Landau of the panel known in Hebrew as a bet din.

Esquivel, 43, said his son came across a synagogue in
Marquette Park on his way to play basketball one day last year. It had the same name as a secret sanctuary in the family's former home in Mexico City.

That discovery of Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, a largely African-American synagogue on the Southwest Side, led the Mexican-American Esquivel family to reconnect with the Jewish community.

"We are anusim," Esquivel said, using the term for those forced to abandon Judaism during times of persecution. "We believe our ancestors went from Spain and Morocco to Portugal and the New World," Esquivel responded after Landau asked when the family was Jewish.

The bet din was easily assured that the family wasn't acting on a whim; Esquivel even quoted Joseph Caro, the 16th Century compiler of Jewish law. So in March the family completed their conversion with a mikvah, or ritual bath, in time to join other Jews in celebrating Passover.
The family's story began in the Inquisition and the tragedy of so many Jews forced to convert to Catholicism and then persecuted and murdered for covertly practicing Judaism. Ignacio reports that he was still rebuffed recently when he tried to attend a Mexico City synagogue.
"To Jews, we weren't Jewish enough," he said. "To Catholics, we weren't Catholic enough."
Esquivel says that Jews have been sometimes estranged from their faith, he said, but they have a divine promise that the alienation would not be permanent, that "God said I will not give you a divorce."

His home is filled with sets of the teachings of the sages and rabbinical texts. Among the family's puzzling customs were not cutting a boy's hair until age 3 and his father ritually washing his hands before meals.

Ignacio's brother-in-law, Nicolas Albor, saw similar traditions in the home he and his sister, Alejandra Esquivel (Ignacio's wife) grew up in.

Albor felt a spiritual hunger, was a nominal Catholic in Mexico and in the US flirted with evangelicalism. Six years, Ignacio said he'd figured it out, that both families were Jewish.

The men now dress as Orthodox Jews and the women wear head scarves, including their daughter, 15.
The family says their conversion is a way out of that ambiguity and hope their example will encourage others of Jewish ancestry to come forward. The family plans to host a number of anusim at their holiday table on the second night of Passover.

The Esquivels' conversion was held at Beth Hillel Congregation Bnai Emunah in Wilmette which houses a ritual bath. Taking turns, Esquivel, his daughters, his brother-in-law and a friend performed the prescribed ritual. His wife and son, Pablo, will do so later.
Read the complete story at the link above.

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