Southwest Families Discover Hidden Jewish Roots

May 27, 2009

Author: Amy Klein

Source: Religion News Service

Growing up in Wyoming to Catholic and Protestant parents, Isabelle Medina-Sandoval watched the women in her family practice strange customs—washing off babies’ baptismal water and setting aside some dough when they made tortillas.

“As a teenager, I always had so many questions about spirituality, I always wanted to figure out the puzzle,” she said from her home in Santa Fe, N.M.

But it wasn’t until she was in her 20s that she heard the word “Marrano,” one of the terms referring to Jews who were forced to convert after the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 and their descendants. They were Catholics who often secretly practiced Jewish customs for generations.

Medina-Sandoval’s family’s quirky practices suddenly made a lot more sense.

“Once I started looking, there was never any question,” said Medina-Sandoval, a poet and writer. She finally understood why she had an uncle who raised hogs but didn’t eat them; why her aunts left aside some dough as with the Sabbath challah bread; why she never really felt like she belonged in the Christian faith.

She was, she discovered, Jewish.

Or at least her family had been Jewish, back in Spain, more than 500 years ago. Through her great grandfather’s journals and other genealogical research, she discovered her Jewish roots and eventually decided to return to the faith of her ancestors.

This year on the Jewish festival of Shavuot (which begins Thursday, May 28), as Jews celebrate the giving of the Torah and honor their most famous convert, Ruth, many Hispanic Christians around the Southwest are rediscovering their own Jewish roots.

Some of these so-called “Crypto-Jews” are interested in the genealogical knowledge but are not planning on leaving Christianity; others practice a dual Messianic faith with both Judaism and Jesus; a few give up their faith of origin and convert—they prefer the word “return”—to Judaism.