13 August 2009

Israel: More 'hidden' Jews

If your Jewish family was faced with a forced conversion (or else) to another religion, what would you choose to pass down to your children and future descendants?

What artifacts would you preserve and how?

What customs would be the most important to you and to them and what could be observed without endangering them?

Tracing the Tribe hopes none of us will ever be faced with such choices, but thinking about these issues may help us to understand what many communities around the world have faced over the centuries.

While this blog often covers issues relating to Jews in Iberia who were forcibly converted to Catholicism, and about the Mashadi Jews of Iran (who went underground), there are also Moslems today who were Jews before being forced to convert to Islam at various times. Much has been written about certain Afghan tribes' Jewish roots and customs, well-known to the Afghan Jewish community.

Here's an article from the Arutz Sheva site about another group of hidden Jews.
Up to 85 percent of Arabs in greater Israel stem from Jewish ancestors, it is estimated. Some of them want to become fully Jewish, but most are scared to even talk about it.

In our search for the lost Ten Tribes in India and Afghanistan, we seem to have forgotten to look for their descendants in our very own backyard.” So says the narrator in a new film about the efforts of a former hi-tech pioneer named Tzvi MiSinai to search out the Jewish roots of Israel's Arab enemies – and to inform them of their Judaic heritage.
Click here to see a very short clip of video footage.

MiSinai has, according to the story, visited places deep inside Palestinian Authority-controlled territory, and heard the stories of Arabs who remember observing Jewish customs.

In what is reminiscent of what happens today in Spain and other Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries, one man says his father shared the family secret on his deathbed. Another, with a photo of a famous rabbi on the wall, says his family has known who they are for generations.
Wrapping what apparently used to be kosher tefillin on his arm, he says, “My father used to do this, and he taught us to do it whenever someone was sick or in trouble.”
Jewish history tells us that most Jews left the land of Israel in 135 CE following the failed Bar Kokhba revolt. The story indicates that many remained and many of those were forced eventually to convert to Islam.

“It turns out that a large part of the Arabs of the Land of Israel are actually descendants of forced converts to Islam over the years,” says Rabbi Dov Stein of the nascent Sanhedrin rabbinical council. “There are some studies that say that 85 percent of the Arabs in Israel are descended from Jews; others say there are fewer.”
In a book written a century ago, claims the article, early leaders such as David Ben-Gurion and Yitzchak Ben-Tzvi wrote:

“If we investigate the origins of the Felahim, there is no doubt that much Jewish blood runs in their veins.” The authors implied that these Jews loved the Land so much that they were willing to give up their religion. The reference is probably to an edict in the year 1012 by Caliph el-Hakim, who ordered the non-Muslims to either convert or leave the Land of Israel.
The estimate is that some 90% of the Jews chose conversion but maintained secret Jewish traditions. Although the forced conversion was revoked 32 years later, it was too late for many.

[A similar story is found in Persian Jewish history where forced conversions to Islam were later revoked. While many returned to Judaism when allowed, others did not.]

A particularly interesting section concerns the Bedouin Sawarka tribe.

According to a tribal leader, there are some 3-4,000 in the Sinai and the Negev, and they “are all Jewish.” He says, “They had no choice but to convert; this was centuries ago… I remember my mother and grandmother wouldn’t light fire on Sabbath, and they had a special mikveh…”

In a Bedouin village east of Hebron, people remember burning a small piece of dough -from the Biblical command to separate a small piece of dough when baking bread. They also remember lighting candles at graves, tearing clothes and sitting shiva for seven days, and not three (the Muslim practice).
In another village just south of Hevron, Muhammed Amsalem – a descendant of Spanish Jews - told Aharon Granot of Mishpacha magazine that everyone in town knows he and his clan are Jews: “Our elders tell us that our forefathers came to this land during the [15th centur Spanish Inquisition, via Morocco. They settled in Ramle. Then the Mamluks forced them to convert to Islam, and they moved to the South Hevron area.”
He says they decided to reveal their roots following the 1967 Six Day War when they learned that a Jewish community had been re-established in Hevron.

“But the Jews saw we had no knowledge of their religious practices and refused to accept us… If the Jewish community would be willing to receive us today, we would join them with great enthusiasm.”
In the south Hebron Hills, says the story, half the Arabs are aware of Jewish origins. The used to talk openly about it, but not these days. A man who publicly spoke about a silver chanukia (menorah) passed down from his ancestors was tortured.

Prof. Ariella Oppenheim of Hebrew University conducted an international genetic study that confirms Jewish-Arab genetic similarities.
"We found that despite the dispersion of Jews around the world for 2,000 years, they essentially kept their Jewish continuity,” Oppenheim said. “In addition, we found that the Jewish population is surprisingly close, genetically, to the Arabs living here in Israel.” She said that the study shows that both the Arabs of Israel and the Jews are descended from the Kurds of Aram in Babylon – the birthplace of the Patriarch Abraham.
In Yatta, there is a large formerly-Jewish presence – some want to return to public Judaism. The article claims it is widely known there that half the residents are of the originally-Jewish Mahamra clan – a name meaning “winemaker,” a forbidden trade according to Islam.

MiSinai says they converted to Islam later in history and therefore maintained more customs and knowledge; artifacts have been preserved. Some homes show Jewish stars over their entrances. In one house, the family had hidden a mezuzah and tefillin.

In another twist, the story continues, Miro Cohen from Tekoa, is friendly with the Arabs in a village called Kawazbe. Both he and the villagers agree the name is a corruption of Kuzeiba, the orignal name of Bar Kokhba.
“These people are the descendants of Bar Kokhba,” Cohen declares. One Arab sitting with him can count his ancestors eight generations back, ending with a grandfather named Kawazbeh. Another elder says openly that his grandfather was a Jew who converted to Islam. Some of the residents want to return to Judaism; they don’t call it converting, because they are “already Jewish.”
MiSinai says that other Arabs with Jewish roots live in Kfar Anzah (Samaria), Samoa (southern Judea), villages around Tel Arad area and other places.

According to Rabbi Stein:

“We know that up to about 200 years ago, the Galilee village of Sakhnin was a Jewish town, with an active synagogue. The Turks pressured them to convert to Islam, but the people there know that they are of Jewish origins.”
Read the complete story at the link above.

In my own experience, the custom of burning a small piece of dough when baking bread is still observed among families in northern New Mexico, but the reason why has been lost to many. Families today look for matches for their children's marriages among those who also keep la dieta (kashrut).

In Iran today, there are villages outside of Isfahan and other places, where similar customs are still observed (no sewing or cooking on Saturday, candle-lighting in secret, marriages with families in other villages with similar customs), but generally do not know why, only that it is their tradition. In other villages, elders keep registers of all births, marriages and deaths in the family, and used to call in the former chief rabbi to perform circumcisions on the eighth day.

In Calabria in southern Italy, Rabbi Barbara Aiello finds that many families in the small mountain towns still observe distinctive Jewish customs in secret, such as those associated with death and burial.

It is something to think about.

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