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Nothing Can Erase 6,000 Years:

THE STORY OF MY NEWLY

DISCOVERED JEWISH HERITAGE

  by Most Rev. Dr. Antonio Hernández

From HaLapid, Fall 2006

 

It is a phenomenon known the world over, but best recognized and publicized in the West: someone discovers they are Jewish, after a lifetime of not knowing. Elie Wiesel, who to my knowledge has not touched upon this subject, would probably say we need the Maharal, Rabbi Yehuda Löwe (Judah Leow, sometimes rendered as Leon) of Prague to make an ignorance-fighting golem for us. Somehow I don't think that would suffice. Many great Jewish masters often made points about the coming of ha Meshiach― the Messiah― and of the resulting reunification of all the Jewish people. The seventh Lubavitcher Hassid Rebbe Menachem Schneersohn, up until his death in 1993, often wrote and spoke about the Messiah and the reuniting of all the Jewish people. Weak point or not, it seems this is happening now. Many Sephardic Jews are rediscovering themselves, and they in turn are rediscovering lost siblings.

A prominent Canadian scholar, Simcha Jacobovici, and an Ashkenazic rabbi, Eliyahu Avichail, recently finished scouring the world for the Lost Tribes, believing they had positively found all but one. Not long after this finding of the tribes, British geneticist Neil Bradman found a gene marker that separates and distinguishes the Kohanim―the Jewish priestly caste―from all other people. This was of vital importance to modern Jewish belief: that the priestly caste, of the Tribe of Levi, still exists, in waiting for the return of the Messiah and the reestablishment of the Temple in Jerusalem. Jacobovici had already found “ritually pure” Kohanim living in isolation― some in secrecy. The single largest community exists on Ile de Djerba, an island off the coast of Tunisia. The Kohanim genetic marker discovered by Bradman, called the Kohen (Hebrew, “priest”; it is the singular of Kohanim) Modal Haplotite, is a DNA chromosomal sequence marker found on the Y chromosome. This marker was used to identify one very important “Lost Tribe”, the Bene Lemba (“Sons of Lemba”, or Lemba Tribe) of South Africa. In an astonishing twist of fate, Catholic Cardinal Arinze is of this tribe, validating his longstanding claims to be of Jewish descent. He joins ranks with Cardinal Lustiger, Archbishop of Paris, the converted son of Polish Jews.

As Jacobovici has said, the tribes “may have been lost to us. They were never lost to themselves.” What a journey of self discovery. Often I wonder about the truly lost Jews: those lost to themselves. Embarking on a journey of self discovery is fraught with all sorts of emotions and events; yet it is not in the least miserable. I have read that it is, but I can't believe it. Many Jews, having recently discovered their roots, become retiring and even paranoid about their newfound identities. The Inquisition still hurts.

It also became plain to me just how wrong Jacobovici is about lost Jews not being “lost to themselves.” My family was lost to itself; how many more lost Jews are out there? In finding my true heritage, I was blessed. What I share with these “new Jews” is everything that is positive. We feel relief, because we finally know why we never fit in, even at home. We feel pride, excitement, at having learned the truth about ourselves. It's heritage and history in a bottle, set afloat centuries ago with the hopes of someone finding it.

Our Sephardic Jewish heritage had to be bottled. I always knew we were different; my family and the friends of the family all seemed to belong to an aristocracy long vanished. My brothers, sisters and I always took for granted that this was merely “Spanish pride”. Why we fit in so well with all kinds of Jews, why we were always so at home with the varying Jewish customs and cultures, why we were so like them, even trading barbs in Yiddish, never seemed to really pique our curiosity. Never did we wonder why our speech was so different from that of other Mexicans. Never did we question our avoidance of church on Sundays, though, like most Sephardim, including the crypto Jews, we seemed more Catholic than the Catholics. As a lady from New Mexico described her family, my family was also “obsessively Catholic”. Today I know that this was all a show, an act: not a deception but a thing of survival.

A “converso” Jew is a Jew who thinks he's a Catholic, but doesn't really want to be. A crypto  Jew is a Jew who knows he's Jewish, but doesn't really want to be. But the ugliest tragedy I've seen are the crypto-Jewish parents who turn their children into conversos. What theft! As I say, the Inquisition still hurts. If my ancestors knew they were Jews (I think some did, but not most of them) then they knew all too well that Jews have always been outcastes. Forming ghettos, mocked and mistreated, Sephardic Jews of our ilk knew that Jewishness itself was a thing to be shunned. I believe that my ancestors, not very long ago, realized that peril still existed.

So I believe my ancestors were crypto Jews up until my great-grandfather's generation. Not until that point in my family history, I think, did they “become” conversos. Anyway, they certainly turned their children into conversos. Survival of the fittest? Cowardice? Dissimulation? It was at this time that my ancestors emigrated from the Spanish Netherlands, from France, Alsace-Lorraine, and Belgium, to Mexico.  They must have continued to live in mortal fear of being accused of Judaizing. Judaizing: such an ugly term which means nothing more than practicing Judaism. This was the hate-verb that was used to accuse so many Sephardim and send them to their deaths. Then there is marrano: a truly horrid insult, which is used even today, by some Jewish writers no less. This is not a term that just means “Spanish Jew”, or even “swine” or “pig”, as some Jewish authors erroneously believe.  It is a word that means “filthy-pig-person”, and aimed at the Jews, it means “filthy Jew pig.” It is a word that must never be used as a noun, adjective, or anything else. For example, my mother and her brother used to jokingly call the kids puerco marrano―“pig-filthy-pig”, a unique Spanish hyperbole―whenever we did something considered dirty but not offensive.

This they felt they could do lightheartedly, because somewhere in their hearts they knew what it really meant. When matters were serious, they carefully scolded us by calling us cochino or cochina; in this context meaning a pig-like person, or slob. Note its resemblance to the Italian cucina, “kitchen”. It is never used in conjunction with marrano. Cochino and the diminutive cochinito has been used in Spanish since Medieval times, to denote a suckling pig. In other words, cochino means “pork”, “pig”, “suckling pig” and “slob”; puerco means “slob”, “pig” and “pig-like” as well as “pork”; but marrano means “filthy-pig-person.”  Marrano is never used in any other context by polite, decent society because it is an unvarnished, absolutely context-positive insult. I cannot believe my ears when I hear that marrano is now being proudly used by Sephardim, as if it were just another version of the term Chicano, which is a far cry from a filthy pig!

At home on Friday evenings, special things seemed to be in the air. We never knew why; even my grandmother and mother didn't seem to know. We were dressed up, very clean, the shades were always drawn, and my mother lit candles. My father would not remove his Fedora in the house, which always struck us as very odd. It was exactly like New Year's Eve on Fridays. We had a good meal and a festive spirit, but of course as the teen years arrived and then passed for us, fewer and fewer of us were at home.

My mother did not mind. The tradition just seemed to die a natural death as we kids left home. She, however, never stopped looking forward to Friday nights. She was forever relishing that cup of Manischewitz grape wine, the candle-lighting, the drawing of the blinds and shades. For her, and for my grandmother, it was just the way it had always been done. I recall the preparations for Friday night supper: there was much bustling, as though disaster might rain down on the kitchen after dark.

And no one knew why.

Even at this depth of ignorance, my family kept kosher as much as possible. Meat had to be drained of blood (preferably out-of-doors, in the back yard), washed, salted and so forth. It is a pitiable condition: the spirit and some traditions remain, but the knowledge, the consciousness, is gone. It is the ultimate in thievery. It is in this sense that the term “wandering Jew” takes on special meaning, and it is in this sense that the “Lost Tribes” takes on its most important, true meaning.  For me it took on a meaning of epic proportions. After my mother died in March of 2000, may her memory be blessed, I discovered the truth about our family. I discovered our heritage not long after her death as if a gift had come from the Eternal One, via her. “Suddenly Jewish” certainly describes me at that moment.

 What came to my memory after I had discovered the truth was the scene at my mother's deathbed, after she had passed. Exactly as I had read about traditional Jewish vigils and deaths. I personally covered or removed and turned over the mirrors except for the very large one. Everyone sat and looked miserable, certain items were placed on the deathbed, and my mother somehow ended up facing the wall to her left. Was it coincidence that this meant she was facing east? All are Jewish customs, from ancient times.

In accord with family tradition, I knew I had at least a 30 day mourning period ahead of me, during which I could not shave at all, could not have a haircut or take a bath. I knew I would not be able to go out for entertainment, get dressed up, or cease to wear black. I seem to recall a tradition we once had of giving charity in the name of the deceased, and I recall my relatives giving money and saying, “So-and-So would have liked this.” Why the Jewish connection did not occur to me at the time was very simple: as a Buddhist priest, I had obligations to the dead.

As a son of a “devout” Catholic, and former seminarian, I had the duty to administer emergency Last Rites. As her son, in spite of being over-the-hill as you can get, I was torn into pieces by grief. In my grief, I was tempted to rend my garments. Now I know why. There were no elder female relatives left to tend my mother's body in the traditional way. My father was in no condition to do anything. As Jews, well, no one was conscious of it at that time. That is the ugliest tragedy of all. “As Jews”... we didn't know what to do, we didn't know who we were!

A crypto-Jewish lady once commented that she has never called herself Jewish, because she was not raised as a Jew. I say the Torah is clear: once a Jew, always a Jew. The children of conversos or crypto Jews are Jews, whether anyone likes it or not. It is also clear that being a Jew is a state of mind. As one very important Jewish scholar, tells us, being truly Jewish is “more a choice” than anything else.

These sentiments helped me to take heart. I sought refuge in a new, highly moneyed Ashkenazic synagogue that called itself a “center.” It was full of old, well-off folks who had lost relatives in ha Shoah, the Holocaust. When I looked at them I could see and feel their loss. They also felt like instant kindred folk, like relatives previously unknown. They even looked and acted like all my relatives. What I wonder to this day is whether they saw the same in me.  I had no doubt that my rabbi was aware of my sense of pain and loss. He was keenly attuned to my grief over the loss of my dear mother, but at the same time I found him oddly disinterested in my Jewish heritage. He essentially ignored me. A bad memory. The memory I cherish the most is the time I chatted in Hebrew with him; he remarked that I “should be teaching the congregants Hebrew”. If anything reaffirmed me, made me feel whole again, it was that remark. Nonetheless, he was unmoved by my “Jewish plight,” seemed very nervous about the whole thing, and didn't want to encourage me. We discussed conversion in his office one day. What hurt me the most at the time was his insistence upon the conversion ritual in the first place.

I told him I already was a Jew, I was looking forward to fully joining the community. His reasoning was sound: a conversion has to be seen to be believed. The bath, the mikveh, must be performed. I then repeated, I had something of a problem with the very idea that I had to convert. He was telling me I was not Jewish until they said otherwise. The bet din, the “official commission”, had to gather and witness the conversion. It wasn't enough to say, “Here is a ba'al teshuva [returning one],” no, they had to rub it in all over again!  Finally I accepted the terms, and pledged I would “convert with all the faith and zeal that had been used to rob my ancestors of their Jewish heritage.” My exact words. It must have been at that moment that the rabbi was really wary of me. It is Jewish custom, as it is the Buddhist, to torture (they call it “testing”) a potential convert three times, prior to commencing the actual conversion process. The rabbi promised solemnly that he would not do that to me, due to my sincerity, spiritual background, and pre-existing training in Jewish theology and tradition.

There was no formal conversion. Perhaps the rabbi thought twice and saw there was no need in my case. My siblings, pleased to pieces about their “Jewish brother,” were looking forward to the ceremony. I even told them it would officially mark the beginning of my studies for the rabbinate. Today I wonder if that promise the rabbi made (not to test me) in itself was a sort of trap, to see if I would get proud and arrogant. I didn't.  I was too busy feeling happy and fulfilled. Somehow I feel that the rabbi laid the trap, was frustrated, and became a bit resentful. Then again, as I have always said, I harbor no ill will. This is all just a vague, bad memory of a suspicion. And to be scrupulously fair, my former rabbi had a truckload of real problems without having to worry about Das Pintele Yid Kid here.

Sadly, there was nothing else to be done. The community, well established in my hometown for over a century and a half, did not know how to take me, or what to do with me. That was perhaps the worst part of discovering who I am. Like an orphan: there I was, a ‘Jewish orphan' in an alien synagogue. And it seemed I was not even entitled to consider myself Jewish at all. After less than two years of strict observance, I returned to my Buddhist ministry with my rabbi's blessing― he no doubt elated at the prospect of ridding himself of my bothersome presence.

Perhaps that is the other sad thing: Jews are against Jews very much these days, and no one feels it like newly self-discovered Sephardim. The ugliest thing I notice is a Jew accusing another Jew of not being a Jew. Almost sounds like a joke. Until I remember that this very thing happened to me, and it was the rabbi who had said it. Well, he meant no harm or offense. Since that time, three other rabbis have said that to me.

  Don't they know how that hurts, do they not care? 

  In spite of this Semitic anti-Semitism, innumerable gifts have been imparted to me that cannot be taken away. Today I know that no matter what happens, I am a Jew. I know I have a Jewish soul: it made me respond to the call back to my people. The privilege to study the deepest Jewish teachings, to live and practice openly as a Jew, to retain certain Jewish vows to this day, is privilege indeed. No, I am not “a false Jew”, “of Jewish descent”, “of Jewish ancestry”, or an “apostate Jew.”

I am a Jew. Judio. Mosáico. Ebreo. Hebrew. Israelite. Zhid. Yid. Yu-tai. Yehudi. Couldn't be simpler.

On the street, old Jewish people who do not know me somehow recognize me immediately as kindred, and it is this recognition I most relish. All the people who come from far and wide, who lost everything in the Holocaust, some who even remember the pogroms recognize me! World War II veterans are always easy for me to spot, because they are the first to ask me if I am Jewish. Jews look at me once and don't ask.

I used to be perplexed by the question; today I immediately respond, “Why, yes I am a Jew!” The war vets tell me with pride that they know LOTS of Jewish people, they can always tell. Other types of singling out comes with the territory. I have suffered various communications accusing me of being “a traitor to my people,” “worse than Hitler” and so forth. They have told me to get with the program or they'll put some sort of Jewish jihad on me. Lovely people.  These messages always come from people who call themselves Jewish. Often when I am alone thinking, I ask myself why Jews flee their community and heritage. Why so many Jews leaving the faith, not practicing? Is it a message about the abovementioned jerks, about modern Orthodoxy, stringent Jewish expectations, shattered Jewish hopes? Or is it my people stretching forth their hands, groping, hoping, finding, accepting each other?

Isn't that what is supposed to herald the Messianic Age? Is the conversion of a Jew to Buddhism, or some other non-Christian religion, such a bad thing? Didn't certain kohanim stalk away from Israel 2,300 years ago because they quarrelled with the bone-headed leaders?  Isn't the Torah clear? Doesn't that mean anything? Once a Jew, always a Jew.            

Isaac Asimov, a Russian Jew, was once cornered by a friendly but persistent Orthodox rabbi. Asimov said boldly that he was an atheist, but the rabbi kept pressing him.  “Yes, yes,” the rabbi insisted, “but what kind of atheist?”  Asimov finally caught on, and said, “A Jewish atheist.” The rabbi was joyful and shouted, “Aha!” Recalling this story, I wrote to a rabbi and said that I think even atheism is ordained by the Eternal One. He wrote back, delighted, saying that it was undoubtedly true. There is a Jewish saying that atheism can be a birthplace for true faith. What is it in all these ideas and circumstances that is so deep, so meaningful?

Many scholars postulate that we all have some Jewish ancestry. Whatever the truth may be, one thing shines forth in my view: being Jewish has brought me closer to all peoples, to the world, to the Eternal One. At the end of the day, I believe that's all the Eternal One wants of any of us. Though I will not make teshuva again... though I must now consider myself, in practice, a Ben Noah gentile... though I can now only touch certain parts of Judaism in my imagination... guess what? I am still a Jew. It just feels so good to say that, to know that, to live it as best I can, and to write it.

 

ANTONIO AKIVA HERNANDEZ was born in Chicago and studied for the Catholic priesthood in his youth.  At present, he is a Judaeo-Buddhist priest and  anthropologist.