Centuries after their ancestors fled to South America to escape the Spanish Inquisition, hundreds of Mexicans are making a dramatic return to their faith. And the ‘established’ Jewish community is none too happy about it.

Yigal Schleifer Puebla, Mexico

IGNACIO CASTELAN, A HAND-some figure with striking blue eyes and an even more striking story to tell, could be compared to Don Quixote – he’s a man who has devoted his life to an unlikely quest. Born and raised a Catholic, like almost all Mexicans, he set out nearly 40 years ago to discover his hidden Jewish roots.

Living in the small, isolated town of Zaragoza, in the rural state of Puebla, east of Mexico City, Castelan’s family was different. Fair-skinned among their darker neighbors, the Castelans didn’t go to church and never ate pork. Every year, in early fall – a time he now understands to be the festival of Sukkot – his grandparents built a hut in their backyard and the whole family would come over and eat fruit in it.

When he left Zaragoza for the first time, at age 18 to join the army, Castelan started to learn a little more about the world around him, and realized that perhaps his family’s practice – which in insular Zaragoza had not seemed so out of place – was not traditionally Mexican. After the army, moving to the picturesque colonial town of Puebla, famous for the colorful tiles it produces and for its ornate cathedrals, Castelan started to further inquire into his family’s origins; his grandparents and parents would never talk about them in any detail, referring vaguely to traditions inherited from their grandparents and the grandparents before them.

Some research and brief exposure to a Sabbath-observing Christian sect persuaded Castelan that these family traditions were actually Jewish. His family, he realized, was descended from the hundreds, perhaps thousands of Jews who came to Mexico beginning in the 16th century to escape the Spanish Inquisition, and had started to practice a form of crypto-Judaism when the Inquisition reached Central and South America in the 17th century. “I was filled with an overwhelming desire to learn more,” says Castelan, now 57, a quality-control engineer at a Puebla metal plant.

So deeply did Castelan plunge himself into study, indeed, that eight years ago, he, his wife and their four children were converted – by Samuel Lerer, a maverick Mexico City Conservative rabbi whose life’s mission has become bringing people like Castelan back to Judaism.

And today, Castelan presides over a community of eight families in Puebla – all of whom believe they have Jewish ancestry, some of whom have also converted. Next door to his whitewashed Spanish-style home stands a brand new synagogue and a Jewish community center – the first ones ever in Puebla, built mostly by Castelan himself and inaugurated last year.

IGNACIO CASTELAN AND HIS COMmunity are not alone. Over the least few decades, across the land, hundreds of Mexicans have started to ask whether they are descend-ants of Jews who practiced their faith in secret.

Aided by Rabbi Lerer and a few other sympathetic rabbis in Mexico and the Southwestern United States, many have formally returned to Judaism through conversion – a necessity after centuries of intermarriage – and started to practice their ancestral religion openly again. And in a few places like Puebla, towns that are off the map of what has traditionally been considered “Jewish” Mexico, small Jewish communities are starting to take root.

But these groups are finding it hard to gain acceptance from Mexico’s established Jewish community. Numbering 40,000 people in Mexico City and a few other large cities, it was created by European and Middle Eastern immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries. Tight-knit and insular, the community has been struggling to make sense of the arrival on the scene of these “indigenous” Mexican Jews, and is generally refusing to recognize them as authentic members of the tribe.

“The ones who were born here and say they are Jewish are not Jewish,” insists an official from the Central Committee, Mexico’s main Jewish organization. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Abraham Jasqui, a Mexico City Jewish leader, was quoted as accusing the converts of turning to Judaism to gain low-wage jobs in Israel. “Israel needs workers,” Jasqui said, in a comment apparently reflecting local perceptions of the converts more than Israeli economic realities. “They will recognize anyone as long as they’re not Arab.”

To these charges, Rabbi Lerer answers that his converts, after a course of study with him, must pass a written test consisting of 220 questions about Jewish belief and practice – a test he believes most people raised as Jews would not pass. More importantly, he says, there’s a yearning to be Jewish deep inside these people. “They have a devotion,” he says, “a sincere sentimentality. It’s unbelievable.”

Beneath the debate about the returning Jews, and the harsh charges against them, lies a still deeper issue. Mexico is sharply divided along racial lines, and the mainstream Jewish community – which has, for the most part, prospered – counts itself among the country’s “European” elite. The experience of being confronted with Jews who are browner than they are, who may look more Mexican than European, has sent some in the established community rushing to shut the gates to their country club.

RESEARCHERS SPECULATE that Jews may have arrived in Mexico with the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortes, who landed in 1519 and seized Mexico for the Spanish crown. What is clear is that after the start of the Spanish Inquisition in the late 15th century, an unknown number of Jews – some who had already converted to Catholicism but continued to secretly practice Judaism – came to Mexico, Brazil and other parts of the New World, as evidenced by numerous colonial church records of trials of crypto-Jews for practicing Judaism.

“They thought they were going to a Spanish place, but with more liberty and more financial opportunities,” explains Solange Alberro, a professor of Mexican colonial history at El Colegio de Mexico, a graduate research center in Mexico City. “I think that many (Jews) felt Spanish, or Iberian, and perhaps subconsciously hoped to find a place in America where they could more or less practice Judaism freely,” adds Alberro, an elegantly dressed woman originally from Paris.

With significantly less church-initiated persecution than in Spain, Mexico was indeed a haven … initially. But when the full force of the Inquisition arrived here too in 1648 (it did not officially end in Mexico until 1820), some Jews were exiled. Others headed into the isolation of Mexico’s mountains and its sparsely populated north – an area that now makes up the southwestern states of the U.S. – in the hope that they could continue to practice their religion away from the eyes of the church.

Historians conservatively estimate that there were 300 Jewish families in Mexico at the beginning of the 16th century. “And it is definitely possible that there’s a direct link between the Jews who came in the colonial period and those who claim to be descendants of crypto-Jews today,” says Alicia Gojman Backal, a professor of history at Mexico’s National University, who has written extensively on the topic.

Today, rabbis in both Mexico and in the American Southwest say that more and more people claiming to be descendants of crypto-Jews are appearing at their doors. Rabbi Stephen Leon, head of the Conservative B’nai Zion congregation in El Paso, Texas, near the Mexican border, opens up the synagogue’s sukkah every year to people who think they have secret Jewish roots. The number of visitors, says Leon, has been steadily growing, from 20 a few years ago to about 60 most recently. Leon has converted 30 such people and their families in recent years; he also helped with the recent establishment of a local support group for people investigating their crypto-Jewish roots and facing the possibility of rejection by their family and by the church.

Rabbi Avraham Palti, head of Mexico City’s 1,000-family Sephardi Community Center, the gathering place of the city’s former Turkish, Greek and Balkan Jews, reports something very similar. Each year in the last decade, says Palti, at least 20 people who believe they come from crypto-Jewish families and are interested in converting have been finding their way to him. As the years go by, his stack of conversion certificates gets thicker and thicker, says the Orthodox Palti, speaking in his book-lined office in the Sephardi community’s ornate $ 15 million center – complete with marble-walled synagogue, multi-story parking garage, and school.

“There’s a phenomenon here in Mexico,” says Palti in a soft, Spanish-accented Hebrew, “and I haven’t seen it anywhere else, of whole families of goyim who want to become Jewish.” And why is this happening? “The anusim came here and got mixed into Mexican society,” Palti answers, using the Hebrew term for crypto-Jews. “But the Jewish spirit remained.”

The phenomenon could yet flourish considerably further. A sizable chunk of Mexico’s population – the highest estimates go up to a dramatic one-fourth of the population in the northern part of the country – may well have Jewish ancestry.

ONE PERSON WHO SEES AN abundance of the Jewish spirit in Mexico is Rabbi Lerer, 85, the Mexico City rabbi who converted Castelan and his family, and who, by his own accounting, has converted 3,000 other people worldwide since becoming ordained in 1938 – a figure which may put him in the record books, but one that has also prompted questions about his methods from some rabbis and lay leaders.

“I feel like we Jews did not fulfill our mission,” says Lerer, who has also served as a rabbi in Florida and Alabama. “When God gave us the Torah, he gave it to us to be emissaries to the world. Every time I convert a person, I feel that for every Jew who was burned, who was tortured, that I’m making another Jew.”

To call Lerer a colorful character would be pale. Born in Jerusalem, he was ordained as an orthodox rabbi by Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, Mandatory Palestine’s first Ashkenazi chief rabbi. A member of the militant Irgun anti-British underground, Lerer eventually made his way to the United States, where he began serving as a Conservative rabbi. In 1968 he reached Mexico City to become the spiritual leader of that city’s Beth Israel community center.

Upon arriving, Lerer heard a story about a small town called Venta Prieta, 100 miles north, where people who looked like native Mexicans were claiming to be Jewish – but were being rebuffed by the rabbis in Mexico City. Intrigued, Lerer went to Venta Prieta and was astonished: He found a community praying in a ramshackle synagogue with an old Torah scroll and a ner tamid that burned olive oil, and claiming descendance from a crypto-Jewish couple who had settled in the area in the 1800s.

“When I attended a service, I said I wished every congregation would pray like that,” recalls Lerer, a shortish man with a scraggly gray beard and large, gold-rimmed glasses. “When you see someone who prays with heart and soul, can you not accept them as Jews?”

Just over a year ago, the community asked Lerer, who had retired to San Antonio, Texas, to officiate at a wedding. He had them undergo a symbolic mass conversion, and began acting as Venta Prieta’s volunteer rabbi, performing weddings, bar mitzvahs and circumcisions.

ALTHOUGH ORIGINALLY ISOlated in the dusty-green foothills of the mountains north of Mexico City, today Venta Prieta is a neighborhood on the edge of the fast-growing city of Pachuca. Its quiet streets are lined with walled family compounds with tree-filled courtyards, reflecting middle-class status if not affluence.

Its Jewish community now numbers about 200. And a few months ago, it received its first full-time rabbi, an Orthodox Argentinian.

“It’s a special place, filled with people who have kept their integrity and done what they thought they needed to do to stay Jewish,” says Jeanne Brody, a professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Toulouse, who was recently in Venta Prieta to work on a genealogical study, and who first came to the community in 1965 as part of a Reform movement mission. “I think there’s a story to be told about fidelity and what it means to want to be a Jew.”

But if there is a story to be told, Ruben Olvera Tellez, 62, a community leader who acts as its spokesman, is not telling it. “You should have come here 30 years ago,” Olvera, a fair-skinned man with ruddy cheeks and thinning hair combed back, says with resignation. Tired of the challenges to his community’s claims as Jews, tired of being treated with suspicion by the mainstream Mexican Jewish community, Olvera seems bent on returning his people to their original isolation. “We did this all by ourselves, without help from anyone,” he says, bitterness in his voice.

A number of the Venta Prieta Jews have traveled to Israel, Olvera mentions, including his own son who is there right now, and a few have even become immigrants. The state has recognized them as Jews, though to marry they must undergo an additional, Orthodox conversion. “Right now, we are closer to Israel than we are to the community in Mexico,” says Olvera.

Lerer’s recommendation prompts Olvera to grudgingly give us a tour of the synagogue. Putting on a black leather yarmulke, he opens an unmarked metal door set into a high brick wall – a reminder that while relations with their non-Jewish neighbors are cordial today, this is still a community founded on secrecy. Inside is a courtyard and a small stone building, with blue stained-glass windows bearing etched Stars of David.

At the front of the synagogue is a marble-lined ark; the rest of the room is taken up by rows of high-backed wooden chairs, divided in the middle by a mehitzah to separate the men and women during prayer.

As we leave the synagogue, Olvera turns to face the ark and steps backwards out of the building. Outside, he points to a large hole in the ground – planned site of a new mikveh; Olvera estimates that the ritual bath will cost around $ 10,000, and says he does not know where the money will come from. The old one, which is inside the synagogue building and was built in 1972, was recently deemed not kosher.

ON THE GULF COAST A FEW hours’ drive from Puebla is Vera-cruz, a steamy colonial port town known for its lively street music scene. As the main entry point for newcomers from Spain to colonial Mexico, Veracruz was the most likely port of arrvial for Mexico’s original crypto-Jews. For the last 20 years, with Rabbi Lerer’s help, a small Jewish community – comprised mostly of people who, based on their family’s traditions, believe they are descendants of crypto-Jews – has been working on maintaining a foothold.

Starting with a few families who contacted Lerer in the late 70s, the Veracruz community has grown to 30 families, most of them converted by the maverick rabbi. Incredibly, an estimated 100 members have emigrated to Israel, some becoming ultra-Orthodox and ending up in Jerusalem’s Meah She’arim neighborhood.

“We finally found the missing piece inside us,” says Judith Valdez, 33, whose family is one of the community’s founding members, about their return to Judaism. An aspiring fashion designer whose brown hair is streaked with blonde highlights, Valdez wears a pendant bearing her name in Hebrew. She speaks a fast-paced Spanish-inflected English, drawing her words out at their endings. Over coffee at a restaurant overlooking the sea, she shows photos chronicling the community’s history: the first sukkah, the first Seder. “Learning about being Jewish wasn’t difficult,” says Valdez – who has spent time in Israel and speaks Hebrew. “It was something we were searching for.”

The community’s diet reflects its connection to Judaism and isolation from established Mexican Jewry: Members avoid pork and shellfish, but neither slaughter their own meat nor buy from Mexico City.

Lerer is back in Veracruz in midsummer for a special event: the bar and bat mitzvahs of seven children. Accompanied by his wife of 53 years, Marguerite, a witty Alabaman, Lerer’s arrival is greeted with applause by a large group of community members waiting for him at his hotel. That evening, Lerer leads Shabbat services at a large room rented from an athletic club, which serves as the Veracruz synagogue. A small ark is covered with a blue curtain with gold trim. Gold Jewish stars hang on either side of it; on the walls are photographs of Israel, of a bearded man blowing a shofar, and of David Ben-Gurion.

Some 50 people are in the room tonight, singing and praying with palpable devotion out of a prayerbook created by Lerer, which has all the Hebrew prayers written in transliteration. The services are led by a twinkly-eyed foreman at the local docks, Joaquin Fentanes Nayen, whose strong, rich voice sounds like a classic cantor’s. Fentanes, 53, who has Jewish roots on his mother’s side, only started to learn about Judaism in his mid-20s; you wouldn’t know it from his praying.

Two days later, everyone meets up again at a gaily decorated hotel ballroom to celebrate. Two of the bat mitzvah girls, doe-eyed sisters Hannah and Ada Munoz, are dressed in fancy Cinderella-like ball gowns, Hannah in pink and Ada in cream, matching ribbons flowing out of their hair. Morning services led by the bar and bat mitzvahs in classic Conservative style precede the celebration and, in the front of the room, Lerer is showing the three bar mitzvah boys how to put on their tefillin. After the services, the party begins, with dancing to Israeli and traditional Jewish tunes, and then to bouncy Mexican pop melodies.

“I was dreaming about this day, to see that my daughters are working toward the way that we are teaching them,” says an emotional Josefa Munoz, 38, Hannah and Ada’s mother. Munoz, a dark-skinned woman with a bright smile and a round, wide face, has been exploring her connection to Judaism since she was a child, when her family joined a Christian sect that used some Jewish traditions but espoused a belief in Christ, something which even then did not seem right to her. She was converted by Lerer a few years ago, her husband later followed suit. Raising a Jewish family feels like the right way to live. “My kids haven’t known anything but Judaism,” she says. “For them it’s natural, and that’s a privilege for me.”

Her daughter Hannah, serious and shy, with her mother’s round face, also speaks of a sense of privilege: “It’s a tradition we have to continue, a heritage from generation to generation. That’s what I feel about my bat mitzvah. I feel like I’m part of a very important group in the world.”

THE ROAD TAKEN BY PEOPLE like the Munoz family has not been easy, and one of the most difficult challenges facing their community has been its inability, so far, to gain acceptance by Mexico’s Jewish mainstream. Both the authenticity of their claim to Jewish ancestry and the rigorousness of Lerer’s conversions have been questioned. “The Jewish community has not been forthcoming, by a long shot, for anusim,” says Schulamith Halevy, an Israeli researcher who works with returning Jews in Latin America.

Mexican Jewry is built around distinct and separate communities of Sephardi, Ashkenazi and Syrian Jews (the Syrians themselves are further divided into those from Damascus and those from Aleppo). Clearly, the rise of an “indigenous” community of Jews, not all of whom fit the traditional class or racial profile of who is a Jew, has been a major challenge.

Josefa Munoz relates one particularly telling story. When she recently went to a Mexico City Judaica store and asked for a pair of tefillin, a salesperson brusquely asked her, “What for?” Told the store was out of tefillin, Munoz ordered and paid for a pair, but many weeks have now passed and she has yet to receive them. “It’s very sad for me as a returning Jew, that already it’s a challenge to live in a non-Jewish place, and when you try to get closer (to the Jewish community) you are treated reluctantly,” says Munoz. “You feel rejection.”

The Central Committee, Mexico’s main national Jewish body, has no contact with the Jews in Veracruz, Puebla or Venta Prieta, which, say community members in these areas, leaves them to do all the work on their own. “First of all, we need to get established as a totally registered community,” says Ari Herrera Ruiz, one of the Veracruz leaders. “We need a proper synagogue. We have the desire, the faith. It would be great to have a rabbi here. We need a Jewish school …”

Mauricio Lulka, the cautiously diplomatic head of the Jewish community’s Central Committee, which has no official contact with the “returnee” communities, says that while he is aware of these groups’ needs, his organization is not the address. “They should get in touch with one of the (established) communities,” the mustachioed Lulka says, while admitting that some of the Orthodox might not be willing to accept Lerer’s conservative conversions.

Gaining acceptance by their fellow Jews might be a tougher battle than they expected, but it’s clear that the devotion to continue living and learning as Jews is there. Rediscovering Judaism and its way of life, says Puebla’s Ignacio Castelan, has set him on a path that he cannot abandon. “For me,” says Castelan, thinking over his words slowly, “to be Jewish is to walk together with the Jewish people when they were prisoners in Egypt. For me it is to leave Egypt with them, to journey through the desert, to suffer with them. For me, it is to arrive at the Promised Land.”


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