Hundreds of Hispanics return to Jewish roots

Posted on Sat, Sep. 27, 2003 - RELIGION - copyright by the Miami Herald

Hundreds of Christian Hispanics in South Florida are discovering they are descendants of Jews who hid their faith.


A few years after arriving in New Jersey from Cuba as a child, Olga Lea Pérez forged a friendship with a neighbor, a Jewish girl whose necklace carried a Star of David, who told Olga about the religious traditions of her family. That's when Olga felt her first link with the Jewish faith, though she didn't understand why.

''I wanted to be like her. It was my neshama (Jewish soul) calling me,'' she says.

Three decades later in Miami, Pérez, who was baptized a Christian but did not practice her religion, again experienced the feeling of belonging to Judaism. While investigating the origins of her family in Cuba, she learned that she was the descendant of Jews who had concealed their religion.

She chose to convert.

''Now I feel free because I know who I am,'' says Pérez, 38, who converted by Orthodox law. ``To realize that what I always felt was true is an incredible feeling.''

Dozens of Cubans in exile, and even on the island where they were born and raised with different beliefs and identities, are discovering what their subconscious mind has suggested to them for years: their Jewish roots. Through identity papers, records and genealogical studies, many have confirmed their Jewish origins and are returning to the religion, usually through conversion.

This weekend, many of them are celebrating the beginning of the Jewish New Year for the first time, but they note that some of the customs of the holiday -- known as Rosh Hashana -- somehow were present in the stories their grandparents told them.

This group of Cubans is not alone in its discovery. In South Florida and the rest of the Americas, hundreds of Christian Hispanic families are turning to Judaism in the belief that they are descendants of the marranos, the Jews who converted to Catholicism during the 15th Century Spanish Inquisition to avoid being burned at the stake, said Nathan Katz, head of Florida International University's Department of Religious Studies.

Centuries later, they arrived in the Caribbean and South America and kept their traditions secret until they became totally assimilated.

In Cuba, where they suffered discrimination, many Jews changed their surnames to conceal their identity and entered into mixed marriages.

After Fidel Castro's revolution, which advocated social homogeneity , the silence was even greater.

''Suddenly, when they investigate the past of their families, they discover that the rituals observed by their ancestors had a Jewish, not Christian, origin,'' explains Rabbi Edwin Farber, chief of the conversion unit of the Rabbinical Assembly of South Florida, a Conservative organization. ``They feel they are recapturing something that was taken away from them: their true identity.''

Because the conversions are held in strict privacy, there are no figures to show how many Hispanics convert. It is estimated that every year in the United States, about 4,000 to 7,000 people adopt Judaism as their religion through a Rabbinical authority, Rabbi Farber said.


Mariano Moshe Otero, a 42-year-old Cuban American and a former evangelical minister, knew he was a Jew but had no proof. His mother told stories about his grandparents' home in Cuba, when they would cover the mirrors when someone died, a practice among some Jews.

One day, Otero, who is Orthodox, received a document that confirmed what he had always known. It was the birth certificate of his maternal grandmother, Dolores Caraza Levi, stating that she was a Jew. According to Rabbinic law, Judaism is passed down from the maternal side, which made Otero a member of the faith.

''I always felt I had a special connection,'' said Otero, who is taking Rabbinic studies and helping a dozen Cuban families in Miami track their religious roots through his organization Los Caminos de Israel -- The Roads to Israel.

Rabbi Farber explained that those who have been separated from their Jewish lineage must convert formally to the religion. The requirements include the study and acceptance of the Judaic doctrine, an expression of desire to join the Hebrew faith, a ritual bath and -- for men -- circumcision, he added.

Although the requirements are the same for all converts, the three main Jewish movements -- Reform, Conservative and Orthodox -- have different processes, such as different levels of studies.


In Cuba, where the Jewish community is estimated to number 1,500, many young people who wish to return to the faith have converted or are in the process, especially if their grandparents and great-grandparents entered into mixed marriages, said Ruth Behar, a University of Michigan anthropologist who has studied the subject.

''After the revolution, people did not practice Judaism because religion in general was not practiced, especially by young people,'' Behar said. ``So the Jews said: We are Cuban and are not going to segregate from the rest of society.''

Now that there's more religious freedom on the island and a spiritual awakening has occurred in some circles in South Florida and other parts of the hemisphere, the return to one's roots has become more pressing.

Said Katz: ``Because these are people whose forefathers were forced to convert or did so for fear of anti-Semitism, they are welcomed anew, even after 500 years.''

Los Caminos de Israel -- The Roads to Israel -- helps Cuban families in Miami trace their religious heritage. For more information, call 786-306-8211.