October 29, 2005

"The fingerprints of my past were all around me, but I didn't know what they meant."

Many Hispanic Americans are discovering their Jewish ancestry:
When she was growing up in a small town in southern Colorado, an area where her ancestors settled centuries ago when it was on the fringes of the northern frontier of New Spain, Bernadette Gonzalez always thought some of the stories about her family were unusual, if not bizarre.

Her grandmother, for instance, refused to travel on Saturday and would use a specific porcelain basin to drain blood out of meat before she cooked it. In one tale that particularly puzzled Ms. Gonzalez, 52, her grandfather called for a Jewish doctor to circumcise him while he was on his death bed in a hospital in Trinidad, Colo.

Only after Ms. Gonzalez moved to Houston to work as a lawyer and began discussing these tales with a Jewish colleague, she said, did "the pieces of the puzzle" start falling into place.

Ms. Gonzalez started researching her family history and concluded that her ancestors were Marranos, or Sephardic Jews, who had fled the Inquisition in Spain and in Mexico more than four centuries ago. Though raised in the Roman Catholic faith, Ms. Gonzalez felt a need to reconnect to her Jewish roots, so she converted to Judaism three years ago.

"I feel like I came home," said Ms. Gonzalez, who now often uses the first name Batya. "The fingerprints of my past were all around me, but I didn't know what they meant."
There are, according to the article, many stories of so-called "crypto-Jews" (hidden Jews):
For more than two decades, anecdotal evidence collected by researchers in New Mexico, Colorado and Texas suggested that some nominally Catholic families of Iberian descent had stealthily maintained Jewish customs throughout the centuries, including lighting candles on Friday evening, avoiding pork and having the Star of David inscribed on gravestones.
It's fascinating and poignant that the old traditions would be kept alive for so long by people who were not talking to each other about the origins of the traditions.

IN THE COMMENTS: A reader is shocked that the NYT is using the term "marrano."


Wade Garrett said...

I found this article to be very heartwarming. Thanks for posting it!

Wasn't there a minor scandal a couple of years ago when some official in New York City referred to Benjamin Cardozo as the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice? It was funny to me, because he was a Sephardic Jew and also because, to the best of my knowledge, his family emigrated from Portugal, not Mexico!

Jeff with one 'f' said...

"It's fascinating and poignant that the old traditions would be kept alive for so long by people who were not talking to each other about the origins of the traditions."

This is true of any number of elements woven into our culture. Look hard enough at almost any holiday, any superstition, any unspoken tradition, no matter how "natural" or minor, and you will find the ghost of some long dead religious observance, usually pagan in origin.

My favorite is the practice of throwing a coin in a fountain. That is a specifically Celtic (druidic) religious practice, a from of sacrifice to the gods. Every person who throws metal coins into water today is re-enacting a religious rite that goes back to the bronze age, at least.

Emily said...

Wow, I am surprised that the NYT would use the word "marranos" in their story. I am a student of Spanish and Portuguese, and i have a particular interest in the history around the time of the Inquisition. Marrano means swine- it is an extremely derrogatory term that the modern Spaniards I know are ashamed of.

The term was widely used at the time of the Inq.- no one denies that. But it is a particularly ugly episode in Spanish and Portuguese history. The only comparison that springs to mind is if the story were about someone discovering their heritage from a black slave family, and saying oh, so I am a (insert N word).

Anyway, people all over the America's are discovering Jewish heritage in a similar way. Brazil, Argentina, etc. After deciding to leave Spain (the only alternative was to convert to Christianity) many Jews went to Portugal, only to be forced out of there 10 years later. Many then hopped on a boat for the new world, ending up in many places.

Many Jews did convert to Christianity, and they were called conversos. If they were suspected of keeping Jewish holidays, then the Inquisition would sniff them out and burn them. Who knows how many people were wrongly accused and put to death for it. But in any case it polarized the whole country.

People started to idenfy themselves as having 'clean blood', with no Muslim or Jewish ancestry. Suddenly people started to call themselves 'old christians', to clarify that they were never of a different faith. To prove this, they would wear pig hooves and such around their belts, to show they had no aversion to pork. Maybe this is part of why ham is is such a staple of the Spanish diet- who knows?

I guess if their religion was so important to the Sephardim who came to the Americas, then it is not surprising that the traditions remain in the families over the centuries.

The linguistic traits are fascinating also- their language is just like medieval Spanish, throw in some medieval Portuguese, throw in some influence from the other languages of the lands the Sephardim settled in, like Greece, Turkey, Morroco, etc. In that way it is like Yiddish, in the development of the language I mean.

Do other folks find this stuff as fascinating as I do?

Emily said...

By the way, the language I was referring to is called Ladino. It is a dying language, but kept alive in folk songs, lullabyes, poetry, etc. There are still a lot of families who speak it at home, but I don't know how many. And it's evolved over the years, like any other language.

Troy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Troy said...

I can't speak authoritatively on the use of the word "marrano" but I have an acquaintance who is a rabbi studying (among other things) "secret Jews" and he uses the term "marrano" in conversation when talking about his work.

I don't if the term has passed into open usage, but the guy doesn't strike me as a racist or fringe weirdo.

Emily said...

Interesting Troy, and thanks for the post. I am sure this Rabbi is not a fringe wierdo. I do wonder if the word is used then in an academic and historical context to distinghuish the conversos from the other Sephardim. Another possibility is that the word is being reclaimed as an identity.

I just looked it up, and the exact definition is someone who converted to Christianity but privately or secretly practiced the Jewing religion.

Regardless, originally the word was very derrogatory. Interestingly enough, it comes into Spanish from Arabic, and is then used to persecute Jews.

P_J said...

Do other folks find this stuff as fascinating as I do?

Yes! I love cultural history and think it is incredibly interesting.

I'm not that much into personal genealogy, but I found one branch of our family that goes back to 17th century France. They emigrated to England (apparently during the persecution of Protestants) and show up for a few generations on the list of a French immigrant church that met in London (who knew there was such a thing?). From there they went on to Virginia, Kentucky, and points west.

I have tremendous respect for people who by choice or in desperation left everything behind to start a new life in a totally unknown place. It's thrilling to be able to connect traditions and language back to these earlier generations.

Emily said...

oy vey- I meant the Jewish religion of course. I was translating from Spanish, and the definition used a verb that in English would be "to Jewish". They kept Jewishing in private." I thought that was interesting, and i must have typed it like that because I was thinking about it.

Synova said...

An interesting case of synchronicity... I had only first heard of these secret Jews last week. Newly a resident of New Mexico, I'd remarked on how little of the local history I knew while talking to a friend.

It makes a lot of sense, though. In the decision to brave the frontier 300 years ago the danger would have been weighed against the additional safety of being as far as possible from the centers of power in Spain. But not far enough to stop hiding!

How many generations is there in 300 years? This was apparently not just customs preserved but hardcore religious faith kept secret from absolutely everyone, even children in the family. My friend explained that the family would appear to be observant Catholics, taking part in all the Catholic rituals, the boys might be altar boys... then one day it would be, you're a man now, and guess what, we're Jewish.

It's absolutely fascinating.

(The word 'Christian' was originally meant as an insult as well... coopting the bad words has a long history.)

MT said...

Maybe "marrano" is "niggah" in Ladino.

MT said...

In the mostly Catholic and formerly Spanish-controlled Philippines, the moslems I think call themselves "Moros" after the Moors of Spain. I suppose like "Moro" isn't a nice word in Spain either.

Emily said...

Heh- Murky Thoughts you're funny.

Yeah 'moro' is not too PC a term these days, but it is still pretty widely used. The more respectful term is simply Muslim, 'musulmán', especially since the Muslims in the peninsula in the middle ages were not all one ethnic group.

Something else I learned recently that I find interesting is that Jewish roots can frequently be traced thrrough surnames. In the peninsula, the suffix 'ez' comes from Hebrew and means 'son of'. So González is the son of Gonzalo and so on- it usually indicates that this Gonzalo converted to Catholicism and kept the name because he considered himself safe from the Inquisition.

In Brazil, Sephardic immigrants would frequently change their names to hide their Jewishness. So the names of trees, plants, etc from the peninsula were frequently chosen. I guess they wanted to seem as 'of the place' as possible. This probably happened in more countries as well, but I don't have all the facts just yet. I am working on a research paper...

In any case the pattern of naming and re-naming can frequently indicate Jewish heritage.

Emily said...

A lot of my friends happen to be Jewish, and i have become really interested in Jewish history. Another little anecdote:

My friend X was engaged to Y, who is a native of Moscow and grew up under communism. She wanted to have a small family wedding in the synagogue her grandparents built, but that was not permitted since Y was not Jewish. Lo and behold, Y's great aunt passed away, she was the last hold out on the big secret that they were Jewish.

Apparently, back in the day this family decided (justifiably so) that Russia wasn't the safest place to be a Jew and they hid all the documents, changed their names, moved to a new city, etc.

After this great aunt passed away, her sister decided she would tell the rest of the family about their roots. Apparently after the fall of communism it was okay to be open about these things.

The happy ending is that X and Y were happily married in the synagogue, since they now knew he was a Jew. The mother of the bride said- great, and now all we need to know is that he's rich and a doctor.... (Joking of course)

Beth said...

Last summer I enjoyed Neal Stephenson's enormous Baroque Cycle, a trilogy set in the 17th and 18th centuries, in Europe, Asia and the New World. He uses the story of crypto-Jews in the Spanish New World territories through one of the recurring characters, a Jew/pirate/gold smuggler/Inquisition captive. It's a great read, and this thread reminded me how much I learned from that storyline.

amba said...

Jewish names from Germany are interesting too. My understanding is a little vague, but it'sthat as part of the development of nation-states in that area in the 18th century, Jews were required to take surnames for census purposes. Before that they had been only e.g."Yakov bar Eli," Jacob son of Eli.

You may be able to tell something about your ancestors by the name they chose. Goldstein (gold stone), Diamonstein, Silberstein (silver), Bernstein (amber), Safir (obvious), may have been in the jewelry trade, or they may have just liked to be named after precious, valuable substances. Greenberg (green mountain), Greenblatt (green leaf), Greenbaum (green tree), Rosenblum (rose flower), etc. were the nature lovers. My ancestors chose Gottlieb (either "God-love" or "dear to God"), indicating that they were either genuinely pious or wanted to be thought so.

I used to think that a lot of Jews must have loved cats, like me -- why else were so many called Katz?! I was quite crestfallen to learn that, as this website explains,

[I]t is an acronym of Kohein Tzaddik, which means Righteous Priest, but is close enough to the German word for "cat" that it could be slipped past registrars who required German surnames!


P_J said...

Amba - How interesting. I'd never heard that about Katz.

This site suggests Sachs as a variant of Isaac. I wonder if it's possible that it was also another attempt to sound native - close to German for "Saxon"

Given all the persecution, it's somewhat surprising that any obviously Jewish names like Cohen survived at all, much less became so prevalent.

MT said...

I think a lot of secular Zionists dropped diaspora and Biblical names and took as names instead Hebrew words for plants and trees--a lot of which took root as it were.

MT said...

If "ez" means "son of" it's but one option, because "ben" is standard for "son of" in liturgical Hebrew. At least I think so.

MT said...

"Zionists" meaning the pioneer Jewish refugee settlers in Isreal, so I was talking about Israeli names being after trees and plants.

37921 said...

I'm not an expert in the demographics of 16th century Spain, but I would imagine a lot more Latinos in the U.S. Southwest have Muslim ancestors than Jewish. But that probably isn't as trendy.

MT said...

Moslems are a dime a dozen. Sufis though, Sufis are hip. Just keep your eye on Madonna awhile longer and see which way she starts spinning.

Blogger said...

The Holy Inquisitions were a good thing.

pst314 said...

emily: I too find this sort of history fascinating.

"The term was widely used at the time of the Inq.- no one denies that."

I have read that it was still in common use in the 18th century.

The Ledges said...

EZ comes from the Spanish and means 'Ness'.

" Gonzalez and
all the names listed come from the original German words, "Gundis Alv",
which loosely translates to "battling elf", a reference to a spirit of
nordic mythology. The name is sometimes inverted, such as "Albigund"
which translates closer to the "spirit of the battle"."

The Ledges said...

Sachs, Sacks from place names in Russia and the Ukraine with no current connection at all to Saxon etc.

Emily said...

There is a really interesting page in Wikipedia about Marranos, I just read it. I learned a lot, especially about the dynamics between Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition, other migration patterns, etc. Apparently the word Marrano does not have pejorative connotations in an academic context, the essay even elaborates on the 3 different types of Marranos.

In a larger context, this is important information to have when considering the persistence of anti-semitism in Europe. It is interesting to observe how different monarchs, different popes, and various religious orders decided to handle the situation at the time.

I have really enjoyed this thread- thanks for the discussion. Though how the Inquisition could be considered a good thing is beyond me.

MT said...

No one expects comments about the Spanish Inquisition.

André said...

I loved this book: The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain.

dramirezg said...

There are several incongruencies, both in the article and in the commentaries. I would highly recommend the bogglers to reaseach the subject, before putting your own spin.

a) The word "Marrano" was coined by Old Christian anti-Semites to publicly offend the New Christians of Jewish lineages. Any Spanish Academic can tell you this, and the word itself is still pejorative to this very day in the Hispanic World. In the Sephardic tradition, such word was never used, and it is only introduced by Ashkenazi (Jews from Franco-Germany) "scholars" who apparently do not know to either how to use a Spanish dictionary, or do not know such things do exist.

b) The word "Moors" ("Moros" in Spanish comes from the fact that the Islamic conquerors of Spain during the 8th c. were from a region of Africa called Mauritania, and it only exemplifies their point of geographical origin. It eventually meant to assign all Muslim peoples living in Spain before their expulsion.

c) To say that Justice Cardozo was the first Hispanic in the Supreme Court is not too off the mark. Eventhough his family name comes from the Portuguese Jews who converted to Catholicism, he belongs to the Spanish-Portuguese Jewish traditions which flourished in New York. Nearly all Portuguese New Christians were of Spanish Jewish stock.

d) 98.0 % of rabbis living today are not part of Sephardic tradition, hence they have no idea about the subject, which in Jewish Law these converts are called "anusim". The fact that they use the word "marrano" is more that proof of their dire ignorance, both in the historical and legalistic aspects.