10 July 2009

DNA: Rejoining the tribe

Family Tree DNA.com answers some 20 queries weekly from Hispanics about Jewish ancestry, according to founder Bennett Greenspan.

The Houston Chronicle covered this story of one Hispanic family's return to the tribe.

Mari Barkhausen’s journey began decades ago as she watched her maternal grandmother’s peculiar ways. Her Mexican-American abuela would light candles on Fridays and draw the curtains before sundown, cover mirrors at home when a relative died and examine eggs for blood spots.

No one questioned her ways, and no explanation was ever offered to little Mari or her siblings.Years later, Barkhausen would realize those customs were not one woman’s idiosyncrasies. They were Jewish customs.

Lighting of candles marked the beginning of the Sabbath. Many cover mirrors when someone dies to avoid concentrating on their grief-stricken appearances.

An increasing number of Latinos believes their ancestors were Conversos or Crypto-Jews — people who outwardly professed another religion but secretley kept Jewish tradition.

Crypto-Judaism has at least a five-century history. Although most people believe it stems from 1492, and the Expulsion, an earlier series of pogroms across Spain also forcibly converted masses of Jews to Catholicism (and many began leaving for other countries back then). The big exodus, of course, was in 1492, when a large number of Sephardic Jews in Spain were given the "choice" of forced conversion or being forced to leave Spain. Many immigrated to Portugal, Europe and Mediterranean countries (Turkey, Greece, Italy, Sicily). Many others converted and stayed.

Some used Catholicism as a cover and kept Jewish tradition, said Stanley Hordes, author of To the End of the Earth: A History of the Crypto Jews of New Mexico. As the Spanish Inquisition became determined to root out Judaism, Crypto Jews were tortured or burned at the stake.
Numerous Conversos fled to Mexico and others found their way north into New Mexico, Colorado, Texas and elsewhere.

The Garcias (Barkhausen’s maiden name) emigrated to Mexico from Spain in the early 1500s, for instance. Mexico later established its own tribunal to persecute Jews.

According to Hordes, Crypto Jews and their descendants also settled throughout the American Southwest, including Texas, New Mexico and southern Arizona. No one is sure how many descendants exist today.

The secret practices and daily traditions continued in homes for generations until many families no longer knew their origin. Eventually, many families’ religious history was lost.

“Even though Grandma didn’t know it was kosher, that was what she was doing,” Barkhausen said.
The story covers the family's journey from Presbyterian roots, Baptist Church, Jews for Jesus, Messianics and - finally - a full halachic return to mainstream Judaism.

Unfortunately, the reporter has included folklorist Judith Neulander's discredited theories that the Crypto-Jews adopted these very Jewish customs from Protestant missionaries.

I wish she would see my Northern New Mexico friends who have been observing stringent Jewish customs - in great secrecy - since the late 1500s on their arrival from Spain. These families refuse to talk to researchers because of the attitude of a very small number of researchers like Neulander. These Conversos know exactly who they are, and have kept careful records and traditions, as well as speak 16th century Ladino (called "mountain Spanish" in New Mexico) at home. Neulander is very wrong.

Quoted in the story is anthropologist Seth Cunin - who is involved with the Society of Crypto-Judaic Studies - is author of the forthcoming book, Juggling Identities: Identity and Authenticity Among the Crypto-Jews.

He says (and my friends agree) that many texts were lost after Jews were forcibly converted, but Jewish identity persisted because of its emphasis on action, ritual and memory.

“The fact that it is preserved suggests that identity and culture do have a perseverance that is much stronger than we might expect,” he said. “It is strong against all odds.”
Says Barkhausen, “We are redeeming the choices of our ancestors. They couldn’t be Jewish. Now, we can.”

I find it interesting that the reporter's name is NOONOO, which is also spelled NUNU in Portugal and is a recognized Sephardic name. Wonder if he knows???

Read the complete story at the link above.

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