Spanish-speaking immigrants in New York, descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, rediscover their past

The first time Carmen Maria Rodriguez had an intimation that she had Jewish roots was when she was in her early teens. She was in the Washington Heights neighborhood of northern Manhattan, in the apartment of her grandmother, a Cuban emigre who had fled the Castro regime some years before. Rodriguez’s family had always observed unusual traditions, but when she witnessed her maternal grandmother withdraw to her darkened bedroom and there in the shadows light two candles, something came over her. It was a Friday night.

Rodriguez, who was born in Cuba in 1955, had never before seen a woman light candles on Friday, but she wouldn’t have to wait long to see it again. Washington Heights in the late 1960s was home to a number of immigrant communities struggling to gain a toehold in America. Among the refugees fleeing poverty and persecution abroad was Netty Rothchild, an observant Jewish woman whose family lived next door to Carmen’s grandmother.

The sight on another Friday evening of Netty Rothchild lighting her Sabbath candles led a young Carmen to reexamine a whole range of strange rituals that had inexplicably persisted in her family for generations. Among them, her grandmother’s refusal to allow the children to wear jewelry made from seashells, a popu-lar practice among Cuban women. Or her grandmother’s habit of emptying her house of bread and giving it to the poor on Good Friday, which typically falls close to Passover.

Cast in the warm glow of her neighbor’s Sabbath candles, these rituals no longer seemed like eccentricities. “I thought I was the epitome of Cubanhood until I lived next to Netty Rothchild,” says Rodriguez now, “and I realized that there was something in her that was more like my grandmother than anyone else.”

Rodriguez now believes her family was descended from conversos, the Jews of Spain who, when confronted five centuries ago with the choice between conversion and exile, chose a third path – to convert publicly but continue to practice Judaism in secret. Soon after the expulsion, her ancestors found their way to Cuba. Their religious identity had been largely destroyed, but their traditions survived.

Today, Rodriguez is an earnest, deeply spiritual woman on a quest to reclaim her Jewish past and reintegrate her family line into the fabric of the Jewish people. She has become part of a small community centered around Rabbi Emmanuel (Manny) Vinas, a Cuban-born Orthodox rabbi who runs a Spanish-language yeshivah, El Centro de Estudios Judios Torat Emet, in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. Two nights a week, a small group of Spanish-speaking immigrants, many of whom have stories remarkably similar to Rodriguez’s, gathers in a small room where Vinas instructs them in the basic concepts of Judaism. In the two years the class has been meeting, about 25 individuals have converted to Judaism.

Rodriguez exudes sincerity and perceives herself, like many who have returned to faith, as an instrument of a greater purpose. In some ways, such a conclusion is inescapable. For all the wonders of Rodriguez’s story, hers is but a subplot in a larger epic that traverses more than 500 years and three continents. It is a tale of traditions laid dormant for half a millennia, a real-life Rip van Winkle, put to sleep in Europe in the Middle Ages and resurrected in the crowded tenements of New York.

Much has been written regarding the Jews who fled Spain in 1492 and found refuge in the territories of the Ottoman Empire, parts of Christian Europe and the Arab world. But of those secret Jews who later fled to the New World, comparatively little is known. Casa Shalom, based in Gan Yavneh, southeast of Ashdod, exists to collect and disseminate information on secret Jewish communities. Its founder, Gloria Mound, who immigrated to Israel from the United Kingdom, travels the world in search of lost Jews and claims that there are “thousands” of others like Rodriguez. “These people have Jewish blood in their veins,” says Mound. “Many of the customs that they had always thought of as just queer family customs turn out upon closer investigation to have Jewish roots.”

Carmen Maria Rodriguez’s ancestors are believed to have landed on Cuban shores in 1536, 44 years after Spain’s expulsion decree. Rodriguez grew up as a strict Catholic, and was baptized and confirmed. But at age 17, she registered for a course at the City University of New York’s Baruch College with Michael Wyschogrod, a Jewish philosopher who had been a student of Martin Buber.

“(The course) shook the living daylights out of me,” says Rodriguez. Having been reared on Catholic teachings, she says, Buber’s idea that man could achieve an intimate, personal relationship with God “was something I found shocking.”

Still, Rodriguez continued to live as a Catholic, and in 1985 she was married in a Catholic ceremony at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Midtown Manhattan. Then in 1992, she saw an advertisement in the subway announcing a family service to be held on the Jewish festival of Shavuot. The ad had been paid for by the Lubavitch hasidic movement, and Rodriguez felt compelled to attend; soon she’d befriended several Lubavitch rabbis. Sometimes she served as the community’s “Shabbos goy,” performing small tasks forbidden to observant Jews on the Sabbath.

Some years later, and long divorced, she saw a newspaper article that led her to begin exploring her Judaism seriously. It related how Vinas had helped restore a 150-year-old Torah scroll that had been severely damaged by Hurricane Mitch, the 1994 storm that devastated parts of Central and South America. The scroll, which had been spirited out of Hungary to Honduras after World War II, was recovered from four feet of mud by members of the Comunidad Hebrea de Tegucigalpa. Eventually, the scroll was brought to New York where Vinas, who is trained as a sofer (religious scribe), spent thousands of hours carefully restoring its intricate lettering. “I found religion through the New York Times,” says Rodriguez. “I called (Vinas) and the day that he met me, he said he realized I was this lost Jewish soul.”

Vinas, or Manny as he prefers to be called, has his own story of Jewish discovery. His father came from a small town in Western Cuba that was home to the descendants of Spanish emigrants. Among the rituals observed by his father’s family was the slaughter, soaking and salting of animals before eating. Vinas’s paternal great-grandmother lit two candles every Friday night.

Vinas’s family eventually moved to Miami where he embarked on a spiritual journey after one of his sisters fell ill with leukemia. Though never comfortable in churches, Vinas’s father went to various congregations until, on a Saturday afternoon, he stumbled upon a synagogue. Later, he began going regularly and quickly discovered that his ancestors’ traditions were Jewish in origin. Ultimately, the whole family was converted, and by the time Vinas was a teenager, the family was fully observant. Vinas went on to attend yeshivah in Florida and later to receive his rabbinic ordination.

The press coverage of Vinas’s role in restoring the Honduran Torah scroll caught the attention of others besides Rodriguez. In the days that followed, Vinas was contacted by a number of Spanish-speaking immigrants who wished to explore Judaism, but because of the language barrier, had failed to find a receptive welcome in the broader Jewish community. Over time, Vinas compiled a mailing list that today numbers over 150 families.

“I feel like my whole life is leading up to this,” says Vinas. Like Rodriguez, Vinas feels less like a missionary than an instrument of divine purpose. That purpose, he says, is to create a path for these lost Jews to return to their faith and their people.

It is a path that inevitably leads to conversion. The hundreds of years of separation, and the lack of any clear links to the established Jewish community, make this a halakhic necessity. There has, however, been some resistance.

For the most part, Vinas says his converts have been warmly received by the Jewish community. Still, establishing the authenticity of their Jewish roots is important, not only for the individuals in question, but for the broader community as well. “It means that Judaism is so darn tasty, and tastes so good, that you would have a family practice Judaism in secret for 500 years,” says Vinas. “What does that say to modern Jewish families?”

On a frigid morning last January, Rodriguez sat before Vinas in a small room on 18th Avenue in the Boro Park section of Brooklyn. Also seated at the table were two other rabbis who, along with Vinas, comprised the Beit Din, the ritual tribunal that would authorize Rodriguez’s conversion to Judaism.

Along with Rodriguez, three members of a hasidic family from California whose lineage had been called into question were also undergoing conversion so as to remove any doubt regarding their Jewish status. As the rabbis questioned the Californians, Rodriguez sat quietly, hands in her lap, tears occasionally springing from the corners of her eyes.

When Rodriguez’s turn arrived, Vinas introduced her. “It is my great zchut (privilege) to present Carmen Maria Rodriguez in front of the Beit Din,” he began. Carmen then recounted her history, including the story of her ancestors’ arrival in Cuba after being driven from Spain, her childhood connection to the Rothchild family, and the evolution of her desire to become Jewish that began in the classroom of Michael Wyschogrod.

To ascertain her seriousness and her level of knowledge, Rabbi Herbert Bomzer, the head of the Beit Din, posed a series of questions: “Do you know what the Jewish people said as they stood before God at Mount Sinai,” he asked at one point.

“They must have been very frightened,” Rodriguez answered, “because I am.”

Rodriguez was led to the mikvah for the ritual immersion. She emerged radiant several minutes later, damp hair clinging to the back of her neck. “You look like a nice Jewish girl,” quipped Bomzer, who then gave her a new Jewish name – Esther. With Vinas guiding her, Esther said the shema prayer, in Hebrew and then in Spanish.

The conversion was a culmination. For a long period before, Rodriguez had gradually taken upon herself more and more of the ritual obligations of observant Jews, from observing the Sabbath to keeping the dietary laws.

“The best part is every Friday afternoon, I come home with roses,” says Carmen today. “I fill three vases with seven roses each. It’s wonderful to light the Shabbos candles, and it’s even more wonderful to do the resting. I think of my grandmother and I think of all of my ancestors who used to do it. I was very moved the first time I did it as a Jew. There was no one here. I realized that this is a tradition that had been broken with and I was restarting it after centuries, and I was in awe. I was grateful to Hashem for having allowed me to do this again.”


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