It’s a word many Jews do not know — anusim. In Hebrew it is best translated as the “forced ones,” those who were coerced by threats of violence, psychological stress or economic pressure into leaving their Jewish faith and converting to, usually, Christianity.
In July, I was asked to speak at the Anusim Conference in El Paso, Texas, by Rabbi Stephen Leon of Congregation B’nai Zion, founded in 1900. The conference draws many from across the border in Juarez, Mexico, and other Texas cities too. I speak often about my novels, particularly the two about Sephardic Jews, but I had never been asked to address an audience of people returning to Judaism after hundreds of years. Who were these people? How were they finding their way through DNA tests, genealogy, genetic memory, family artifacts and stories to fulfill a desire to be Jews? What could I possibly offer them without a historical context?
As with most conferences there were speakers and panels. The sanctuary was filled with all kinds of people and it did not look like the congregations I’ve attended in many other places. The diversity looked like America! There were all shades and ethnic backgrounds, all ages, some who needed assistance, others who participated vigorously and those who sat in silence. Yet, all were hungry for knowledge and devout.
At the conference, I met a diverse group of people, including an Argentinian, Rabino Danny Mehlman, who does anusim work in California, a family that drove six hours from Amarillo to finish its conversion, and Alejandra, a mother of two little girls who chanted from the Torah with fervor.
I also attended a renewal of marriage vows for a young couple who was not married in a synagogue the first time around. The joy under the chuppah, with the stars overhead, was emotional for many of us.
Not everyone’s family was thrilled that there were judios among them. Some rejected the idea. Others eventually came to tolerate or join them. Every story was unique.
What I spoke about was how Hidden Ones, with their veil of memories from their ancestors, were able to live double lives as Catholics for the outside world and Jews for their interior one. How did these people not give up practicing the Law of Moses? They carried such a strong internal flame for one G-d that they risked their lives to teach it to their children.
Originally, there were inquisitions in Spain and Portugal that put people to death for their beliefs. In the 1570s, Spain expanded the Inquisition’s reach to the New World. Most of what we know as Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, parts of California and Colorado were once Spanish territory, which meant that the Inquisition was under our feet. Many disappeared deep into the desert, often losing their faith.
I explained how a beautiful culture was destroyed because of intolerance and jealousy. So many hid in closets or behind shuttered windows to light candles and say the Shema.
I am the only one following the faith among five first cousins and even more childhood friends who have, through silence and omission, not identified with the Jewish people. It was life-affirming to see what sacrifices people made to be part of the Jewish faith. For many it was like coming home. JN
Marcia Fine is the prize-winning author of seven novels about Jewish identity.