In Spain our name was messiah
Until he was 15, Juan Mejia was secure in his Catholic identity. He grew up in Bogota, Colombia, in an upper-middle class family. His father was a doctor, his mother a sculptor, and he attended a Catholic school in the city. “From an early age, I had a religious soul,” he recalls. As a child he dreamed of one day being a monk or a priest. But the Christmas celebration when he was 15 turned his world upside down. During the family’s holiday gathering, one of his uncles started telling ethnic jokes about blacks, Indians – and Jews. Suddenly, his grandfather hushed the uncle and told the stunned relatives that his own grandfather had been Jewish. He told the family that he had been born in a large ranch in the north of the country, near Medellin, “and once or twice a day the men in the family would go down to the cellar and pray there with towels on their heads” – apparently a reference to Jewish prayer shawls.
When he discussed the incident with friends, Juan discovered that many of their families had similar stories. The most prominent link between them was their surnames, which were of Jewish origin (in Juan’s case, Mejia is the Spanish transliteration of the Hebrew word mashiach, messiah). “We suddenly noticed the origin of our names – Spinoza, Acosta, Erdozo. One friend, whose last name was Spinoza,said his grandmother had insisted that their family not eat meat with dairy products, but that she had claimed it was to prevent indigestion.”
From here it did not take long to realize that his parents and relatives were anusim, descendants of marranos – Spanish and Portuguese Jews who converted to Christianity under the pressure of the Inquisition, continued to observe Jewish customs in secret, and were expelled from their home countries. Some went to South America. After the jarring discovery of his identity, Mejia’s journey to Judaism was a slow one. At first he chose a secular lifestyle, and studied philosophy. He says that in his studies he felt he was learning about the world, but did not actually know it, and so he decided to travel to Europe. A friend with an Israeli stepfather offered to go with him, on the condition that they stop in Israel first.
An anti-mystical experience
The visit, in 1998, ended Mejia’s identity crisis. “From the very first moment I felt a deep connection to the country – to the language, the food, the religion,” he says. “I did not even want to get near Jerusalem, because it seemed like a place that was too holy and I didn’t want to be disappointed. But a week and a half before we left, my friend pressured me to visit. At first we went to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, but aside from thinking that it was a beautiful place, I felt nothing there. I went to the Temple Mount and to the Dome of the Rock, and there, too, the experience was limited to aesthetic appreciation. And then we went to the Western Wall, where I actually had an anti-mystical experience. If in a mystical experience people suddenly feel like some presence is filling them from inside, at the Western Wall I felt a sense of missed opportunity, and anger at my family – for 500 years their ancestors had preserved Jewish tradition, and then in the last generation they had broken with it. I felt that I needed to fix things, to make a tikkun [Jewish concept of correction or reform], and to convert.”
The two continued to Europe as planned, but Mejia’s interest in Judaism did not abate. Everywhere he went, he focused on the history of the local Jewish community. When he returned to Colombia he began studying Judaism, with the intention of converting. At first he went to the Orthodox Jews, but they turned him away; he believes they did so not only because of their strict observance of Jewish law, but also out of racism. “The Orthodox Jews in Colombia have adopted a colonialist lifestyle, and they are uncomfortable with the natives, who seem ‘Indian’ to them,” he claims. The Conservative Jews also refused to convert him, but at least allowed him to study Judaism with them.
In the meantime, Mejia completed his bachelor’s degree in philosophy and decided to move to Jerusalem to study Jewish thought at the Hebrew University. This was at the height of the second Intifada, when terror attacks were frequent. Not surprisingly, he met with strong opposition from his family. “You want to study Judaism, fine; but why risk your life for it?” they said. He insisted, came to Jerusalem and, in addition to his academic studies he attended “every possible yeshiva in town: Chabad, Aish Hatorah, Ohr Somayach. They never even asked if I was Jewish. To them, I was just another university student, and they were happy to bring me closer to Judaism.”
Eventually he told his story to the rabbis, and they recommended that he convert. His chosen path of studies seemed to point to an Orthodox conversion, but he continued to hesitate. “In terms of observing religious precepts, I am Orthodox. But in terms of theology and my views on gender equality, I’m closer to the Conservatives. In the end, what convinced me to choose a Conservative conversion was the Orthodox attack on Conservative Judaism and the threat that I would not be allowed to marry in Israel if I underwent a Conservative conversion. This actually only made me more determined.”
The Conservative rabbi he approached for advice recommended that he convert abroad, since under Israel’s complex legal situation, the state can recognize non-Orthodox conversion only when it takes place abroad. Mejia converted in New York and returned to the Conservative yeshiva in Israel to study Torah. There he met the woman he would later marry, Abby Jacobson, an American Jew from Florida and a fellow yeshiva student.
Searching for Jewish roots
In the meantime, his story appeared on the Jewish Agency Web site and he began to receive requests for help from other anusim around the world, especially from South America. He decided to become a rabbi in order to help them. Since he was not an Israeli citizen, he was unable to study at the Israeli rabbinical school. He and his wife decided to go to New York’s Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary. Last summer Mejia, now 30, finished the third year of his five-year program. Ironically, as part of their training he and his wife spent that year in Israel. Mejia then returned to New York. He is now a rabbi at a Conservative synagogue in the Bronx. One-third of his congregants are immigrants from Puerto Rico, meaning fluency in Spanish was an important prerequisite for success in this position.
Since coming to New York, his story has appeared in several newspapers, leading to more requests for help from anusim who have discovered their identity.
Mejia says this is part of a worldwide surge, which is driven by three factors. One is the rise of religious diversity, especially in South America. “For some 500 years, South America was monopolized by Catholicism. During the last 30 years, evangelist Protestant missionaries have come to the continent. This created a sense of religious openness, which has also affected the discovery of Judaism. Many of those who came to me passed through Protestantism first. They got acquainted with the Bible, and then went on to search for their Jewish roots.”
The second factor is the Internet. “Thirty years ago, had I been a descendant of marranos in Guatemala, I would have been sure that I was the last of my kind in the world. Now it’s very easy to find others. There are communities of anusim that have a community life only on the Internet.” And the third factor, finally, is Israel: “Because Israel is always making headlines, Jews and Judaism are also no longer perceived as something distant.”
But the relative openness has yet to solve the problems of those descended from marranos. “In Lisbon there is a wonderful anusim community that is returning to Judaism. They are affiliated with the Conservative rabbinical court in London, and they have conversions all the time,” says Mejia. “But these are educated people, who know what they want. It’s a completely different story in South America. People there are usually less educated and poorer and because of the racism of the white elite, including that of the Jews, it is not easy for them to be accepted. This situation gives rise to all kinds of absurdities, such as a community of anusim who underwent Reform conversion and have a Reform rabbi, but who have formed an Orthodox community that adopts ultra-Orthodox norms. Many of them have adopted messianic tendencies that pull them toward certain aspects of Christian messianism. Many groups of messianic Jews are nourished by the anusim, since these people have no Jewish tradition and the other Jews are in no hurry to accept them. The problem is that this connection only increases the Jews’ reservations about the anusim.”
Mejia is not the only one to show an interest in the descendants of the marranos scattered around the world. The best-known group involved in this pursuit is Shavei Israel, an Israeli non-profit organization run by Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum and Michael Freund (among other things, the group is responsible for converting and bringing to Israel the members of “Bnei Menashe” in India, who believe they are the descendants of a lost Jewish tribe). Mejia does not support the direction Shavei Israel takes in its activities: “They are too focused on the Zionist issue and on Israel’s demographic considerations. Their ultimate goal is to bring the descendants of the marranos to Israel. I am a Zionist, too, but I still think this poses a problem. After all, those who make aliyah will be the stronger members of the various communities, both financially and in terms of their Judaism. Since these communities are very young, this in effect destroys them even before they have had a chance to grow. This is why I think they should first be given a chance to grow where they developed. The question of their aliyah should be brought up only at a later stage.”
Spanish origins, yekke personality
Mejia already has a detailed plan for an organization that will help the anusim. First, he wants to help them through the Internet: “After finishing rabbinical school, I considered becoming a rabbi in Colombia. I came to the conclusion that such a job would mean wasting most of my time on conflicts with other elements within the Jewish community. To me, it seems more appropriate to help people from afar, so I can reach out not only to those in Colombia, but to people all over the world.”
He is also working on a special siddur (prayer book) for this community. “This is a siddur that preserves the format of prayer that was used by the expelled Spanish Jews, which is the appropriate format for anusim. All of the prayers will appear in three columns – in Hebrew, in Spanish and in a Spanish transliteration of the Hebrew words. It is based on the siddur of the ancient Portuguese Jewish community in New York and on the siddur edited by Menasseh Ben Israel in 1636 in Amsterdam. Ben Israel [who in the 17th century obtained Oliver Cromwell’s permission to have the Jews return to England, some 400 years after their expulsion] is my cultural hero. He grew up as one of the anusim and at age 10 moved to Amsterdam, became a rabbi and was Baruch Spinoza’s Judaism teacher. He also wrote a book called ‘Otzar hadayanim,’ a Portuguese book of Jewish law intended for the anusim.”
Mejia’s longer-term plans include establishing a special yeshiva for anusim in the southern United States in order to attract people from Mexico and South America as well, founding a leadership school for anusim, and establishing a special rabbinical court of conversion tailored to their needs. He plans to return to Israel only when he retires, but that phase of his life, too, is already carefully planned. His dream is to open a yeshiva for Spanish speakers, which will serve not only the descendants of the anusim, but all of Spanish-speaking Jewry. He may have been born in South America to a family of Spanish origins, but when you get to know him, his personality actually seems rooted in the culture of the yekkim, the German Jews famous for their meticulous planning.