A return to Jewish roots for descendents of Hispanic Catholics

Growing up in Brazil, Jonatas Da Silva knew there was something different about his family. The women went to the river to cleanse after their periods, relatives were buried within a day and no one celebrated Christmas or ate pork. But it wasn’t until he was living in South Florida that the graduate student came to terms with a lost identity.

Like thousands in Latin America, which has long been predominantly Catholic, he and his family are descendants of Jews who either converted to Catholicism under the threat of the Inquisition or practiced their faith in secret while pretending to be good Christians.

After a series of encounters, Da Silva, now 33, eventually went on to search for his roots, taking Hebrew classes, submitting to a DNA test (he’s Sephardic), and visiting various synagogues, before settling into a Miami Chabad. “Slowly the whole family became more culturally Jewish,” he said. “It was an awakening.”

Da Silva’s story is not uncommon. Centuries after the Inquisition forced many Spanish and Portuguese Jews underground, their descendants are once again embracing Judaism, says Florida International University professor Abe Lavender.

Lavender will be speaking about this phenomenon Monday at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU. Lavender, a sociologist, is editor-in-chief of the Journal of Spanish, Portuguese and Italian Crypto Jews. He has written dozens of books and academic articles, mostly about ethnicity and Sephardic Jews.

The slow but steady return to Judaism is a result of factors dating back more than four decades, Lavender said. The publication of Alex Haley’s Roots sparked the initial interest in genealogy among the public in general. In addition, migration into cities from small towns and villages, where the Catholic Church and the opinion of neighbors held considerable sway, freed inquisitive people to seek explanations about unusual family tradition. Finally, the advent of the Internet and DNA testing made the search for historical and ethnic identity easier.

“The 1970s were a turning point,” Lavender added. “It wasn’t like a switch going on suddenly but something that built up more gradually.”

As descendants of these secret Jews began asking questions about their families, they discovered a convoluted history of persecution and exile, of lives lived in the shadows. Some returned to their ancestors’ religion, while others regarded their history as nothing more than an interesting peculiarity.

“For most people, it’s a confirmation of rumors,” Lavender noted.

No one knows how many have returned to the faith, though the FIU professor believes “a significant number” have done so, about a couple of hundred thousand around Latin America and the United States. The Southwest — New Mexico, Texas, Arizona and parts of California — have been a hotbed of religious rediscovery. Scholars believe that some Hispanics who settled in the area hundreds of years ago were fleeing the Inquisition office that had been established by Spain in Mexico City.

The return to Judaism by Hispanics in Miami has been slower than in the Southwest, but it has been fueled in part by Latin Americans who have come here and felt freer to explore their unusual histories. At Temple Beth Tov-Ahavat Shalom, a conservative synagogue on Southwest Eighth Street in predominantly Hispanic West Miami, about 100 people have converted in the eight years Lavender has been a member. Not all are descendants of these Iberian Crypto Jews, but most have said they had felt a longtime affinity with Judaism.

Lavender says those numbers could increase as awareness grows. Brazil has the largest number of descendants of these secret Jews, but Cuba, a stop on Spain’s old maritime trade routes, probably has many thousands, too. “Every ship that came to Havana had hidden Jews,” Lavender said.

Da Silva doesn’t think he — or his family — would’ve found the way back to their ancestors’ religion in Brazil. But leaving the immediate past behind and being welcomed by the United States’ long history of tolerance eased the way.

“As an immigrant you lose your roots but you also search for them, and it’s that search that led me to this place,” he said. “It’s a way of taking back what was taken away from you by force.”


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