Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Some US Hispanics Trace Their Jewish Past

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Some US Hispanics Trace Their Jewish Past

Article excerpt

Wendy Martinez Canelones grew up Catholic and Seventh-day Adventist. But she always felt drawn to Judaism. She once had a vivid dream of herself embracing a blue volume of the Torah. She tears up recalling the dream.

Eventually, she found out why. While studying her family history, she found that she is a descendant of Jews who were killed during the Spanish Inquisition.

"It's been in my heart so many years that for me, it was not a surprise," says Ms. Canelones, who converted to Judaism and now worships at Beth Israel Messianic Synagogue, a congregation for Hispanic Jews in suburban Orlando.

So-called hidden or crypto-Jews, whose family histories have been shrouded in secrecy for centuries, can trace their ancestry back to the Sephardic Jews of Spain. Many of them are here in the former Spanish colonies of Florida, as well as the US Southwest, the Caribbean, and Central and South America.

Now, interest is growing in the United States among some Hispanics to probe what may be their Jewish heritage. Family Tree DNA, a Houston-based genetics genealogy company offering a comparative Jewish database, gets dozens of orders a week from Hispanics wanting to know whether they might be Jewish. Of those, two or three test positive, estimates Bennett Greenspan, founder and president of the company.

"What we started to notice in 2000 and particularly in 2001 was a bunch of Hispanics started with us and their DNA was matching to Jews," Mr. Greenspan says. "They were coming to me, saying, 'I knew it. I knew it all along'.... The earlier someone came to the New World as a Hispanic, the more likely they have Jewish ancestry."

No one is sure how Jews ended up on the Iberian Peninsula, but there is evidence supporting one story that they fled there as early as 587 BC during the destruction of the First Temple, says Stanley Hordes, adjunct research professor at the University of New Mexico's Latin American & Iberian Institute in Albuquerque.

During the Spanish Inquisition, Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism. Some did so disingenuously, some were killed, and some fled. When Christopher Columbus sailed for the New World in 1492, some Sephardic Jews joined him, perhaps believing they finally would be free of Spanish persecution.

"It's not a myth," says Dr. Matthias Lehmann, associate professor of history and Jewish studies at Indiana University in Bloomington. "It's certainly true there was a crypto-Jewish presence in the Spanish colonies."

Granted, it's virtually impossible to get an accurate count of Hispanic Jews in the US. "After keeping a secret for so many years, the secret has become part of the religion and part of the culture. I suspect there are many more people who don't know about it and probably will never know about it," says Dr. Hordes, who has written the book "To the End of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico. …

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