Mexican-American family returns to Jewish roots

Enraptured by the story, the three members of the religious panel kept firing questions at Ignacio Esquivel, who along with his two daughters, a brother-in-law and a family friend were asking for approval to convert to Judaism.

“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, which begins Wednesday evening.

The Esquivels’ story stems from the tragedy of the Spanish Jews. Forced to convert to Catholicism during the Inquisition of the 16th Century, they were suspected of covertly practicing Judaism. Pejoratively labeled “New Christians,” many were sent to Spain’s New World colonies.

Exclusion continues, said Ignacio Esquivel, recalling being rebuffed recently when he tried to attend a synagogue in Mexico City.

“To Jews, we weren’t Jewish enough,” he said. “To Catholics, we weren’t Catholic enough.”

Capers Funnye, rabbi of the Southwest Side synagogue, who sponsored the family’s conversion, is particularly sensitive to those who feel drawn to Judaism.

Funnye, a cousin of First Lady Michelle Obama, is hardly a stranger to multiculturalism. Raised in the black church, Funnye said he converted to Judaism because he couldn’t reconcile the concept of the Trinity with the idea of one God. He is fascinated by how many people around the world have customs paralleling Jewish practices, which he explains with a riff on the Passover story:

The holiday commemorates the Jews’ liberation from bondage in Egypt, followed by God’s revelation of Divine Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. It was the key experience in the formation of the Jewish people.

“They were gathered at the foot of the mountain,” Funnye said. “Then the vessel burst scattering them among every ethnicity and race.”

Esquivel puts the same thought a little differently: Jews have been sometimes estranged from their faith, he said, but they have a divine promise that the alienation would not be permanent.

“God said I will not give you a divorce,” Esquivel said.

The Esquivel family lives on the top floor of a three-flat in Cicero that is stuffed with whole sets of the teachings of the ancient sages, plus enough other rabbinical texts to fill a synagogue’s library. Those books used to be the Esquivels’ only link to Judaism.

That and puzzling bits and pieces of family customs.

“Like not cutting a boy’s hair until the age of 3,” said Esquivel, noting that Orthodox Jews do the same. His father ritually washed before meals, also in the Jewish manner.

Nicolas Albor recalls similar traditions in the home he and his sister, Alejandra Esquivel, 43, grew up in. Albor felt a spiritual hunger. Nominally Catholic in Mexico, he flirted with evangelicalism in the U.S. Then six years ago, Ignacio Esquivel announced he’d figured it out: both families were Jewish.

“My reaction was: Am I a grasshopper?” said Albor, 45. “Hopping from one religion to another?”

Now he and Esquivel dress in black and wear long curled sideburns, in the manner of the Ultra-Orthodox. The women of the family wear head scarves – which stumps Zitlalli Esquivel’s classmates at Morton East High School.

“They say, ‘You’re supposed to be Mexican, so how come you’re Jewish?” – said Zitlalli, the Esquivels’ 15-year-old daughter.

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.

After they emerged from the mikvah, Landau, a cantor, chanted a blessing, and Funnye handed out certificates attesting to their conversions.

With those pieces of paper, they and their descendants were liberated from the bonds under which their ancestors lived.

“I feel like a lost child who has found his way home,” Albor said. There were tears in Zitlalli’s eyes.

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