On this day I remember, not a memory of joy and gladness, but of pain and suffering, a collective recollection of a people, long lost in the trials of exile, the fires of inquisition and persecution, because we dared to be different. It was on this day that the so called “Holy Office” of the Inquisition was established independently in Spain, in the year 1478. Besides the fact that the Inquisition itself had begun well over a century before that, and continued for some 300 years afterwards, believe me when I say, there is nothing holy about the mass murder of innocent women and children, yes entire villages, all because of our ethnic and spiritual identity, and of any who dared profess views that differed from that of that bastard tyrant they call the vicar of their christ. Some say we are cursed because we murdered their god, others say we are cursed because we rejected their prophet. And so it was for hundreds of years that I and my ancestors before me were regarded as cursed outcasts of a long lost, ancient kingdom, once glorious in its time, blessed by the same G-d our persecutors claim to serve, while ignorant of the meaning of one of His most Biblical titles, Elokey Israel (the G-d of Israel), not the god of the Rome nor the god of Mecca, no, but the One and only Creator who rules over all existence, who when both these cities still worshiped idols and enslaved their fellow human beings, chose the Jewish people as His heritage, the Holy Book having been gifted to the nations by our legitimate and sacred Judean culture, none other. Indeed our ancestors did sin, and were cast out, but just as it was said that we would be cast out and scattered to all corners of the world, so too it is written that one day G-d would bring us back and restore us out of His love for us, His firstborn among nations, and upholding his word to our patriarchs Avraham, Yitzhak, and Ya’aqov. This miracle can be seen today with the rebirth of Israel and the return of our exiles, both of the House of Judah and the House of Israel from the four winds. My own story is one example of many that proves not only the existence of G-d, but of His living covenant with His people the Children of Israel.
My story begins not where most would expect, but in a mixed family of Hispanic Catholic and Arab Islamic heritage in Miami, Florida. My parents divorced when I was still an infant, and I was raised mostly with my mother and maternal grandparents from Cuba. I would also spend time with my father and his Sunni Muslim family from Lebanon. Growing up I always felt very different, like I didn’t fit in with most crowds, and for the life of me, I really tried. I tried to fit into my Islamic roots growing up, but that did not go very well for me. I tried fitting into my mother’s Evangelical Christian lifestyle, and that seemed to go well for some time, but those years were traumatic for me as I was bullied by both my fellow classmates and teachers, and later losing all of my “friends,” when I was led to discover a hidden part of my family’s past, a past that lay nearly forgotten by all but a few. One thing was certain, through all my trials, I instinctively turned to prayer, not because anyone taught me, but because I longed for G-d to help me, and guide me. And you know what? He did! I began to receive strange dreams and visions, things I saw and did not perceive yet, messages that foretold my life’s future and my ultimate destiny. Both my mother and grandmother also had similar dreams and visions, which led my mother to do some research. When I was 12 years old, she came to me and said, “We’re Sephardic Jews.” My grandmother later confirmed to us that in Cuba they were always Catholic by tradition, but in private the family always kept secret rituals passed down from their parents and grandparents, traditions like Shabbat and even some degree of Kashrut. I was fascinated because the one class I truly enjoyed in the private Christian school I went to was Bible class, and through my fond memories of the stories of Moshe and David that my mother even read to me as a child, one name stood out to me that for some reason resonated in my soul, Israel. Now to learn that I was somehow related to these people, I felt both humbled and proud. I understood that some of my ancestors were once Jewish and the sad reality that that identity was robbed of them by the religious fanaticism of the Inquisition era. I began to learn on my own and started to adopt some of the old customs. Then I began to realize how unpopular their descendants were to other cultures throughout history no matter how much blessing and prosperity they brought to those regions, how Jews too were the bullied child of the world, so to speak. I felt that their story not only resonated in my own life, but I understood why I was so different. The more I learned and embraced my Judean heritage, the more I was seen as an outsider by the people I once knew as friends and family, the more they would condemn and ridicule me, even going to great lengths to humiliate me because of my strong love and passion for Judaism.
The rabbis I sought guidance from taught me that I and my family are Crypto Jews, descendants of Jews who were either forcibly converted to another religion or chose to convert to survive among their Christian or Islamic cultural surroundings. After a long time of learning on my own, and going through a wilderness of religious ignorance and intolerance, I understood that where I once thought I had no identity, G-d showed me, that I had one of the greatest identities in the world, buried deep within my soul and flowing in my veins. I understood that I am Israel and Israel is me. So began my new resolution to break free from the shackles of exile and undertake a major responsibility, to repair what had been broken, to restore what had been lost for generations, to learn as much as I can and return to my Jewish identity and people. The rabbis told me I did not have to; they said I could live as a Noahide where I was only obligated to keep seven Biblical mandates, not 613 as it is the responsibility of Jews to keep and safeguard. Although I have great love and admiration for Noahides, I felt that path was not for me, I wanted more, I wanted to come home. Then, when I was 15 years old, my father wanted me to meet the family in Lebanon, and so I went with him. According to Torah, Lebanon is part of the Kingdom of Israel, and I already understood that. Although I wanted to go south and cross the border, my father would not allow it, not to mention worrying for my safety. Still, those 3 weeks I spent basking in the land of my roots, imagining all the stories I knew had happened there, and the prophets and kings who had passed through the ancient kingdom of Phoenicia, I felt such a connection that I could never let go of. Many years later I returned, but not to Lebanon, no. This time I visited Israel itself on a Birthright trip when I was just 26 years of age. It was a journey that truly changed my life, as when I touched the walls of the Kotel, I felt an intense weight of sadness and joy at the same time; I cried like a baby, wanting to pinch myself, not sure if I was dreaming or if I was finally here at long last. Long had I waited, long had I seen this place in my visions of the night, and I thought, “Lord, who am I to be the first of my family to return and stand in this place? Who am I after so many generations of exile and wandering?” I felt somehow connected to whoever was the last person among my ancestors to stand in that holy place, looking around as the walls of Yerushalayim surrounded me like a mother’s arms embracing her children and asking, “My child, where have you been?” I responded with a kiss on her cheeks, tears flowing down my face, “Never again will I let you go! Never again will I let you go!”
Then I unfortunately felt compelled to return to life in the United States, but I gave my word that year, that I would some-day make Aliyah and that my children will be born and raised in that land, in the land of my fathers and mothers, the land flowing with milk and honey. In the seven years that have passed since then I chose to change careers and go back to finish my education, earned two degrees and gained much knowledge and experience that I will need for my journey home, and once there, my responsibility to keep and protect it and seek ways to improve life for all the people now living there, both Jewish and Arab Israeli citizens alike, that I and my wife and children would become the future of Israel. But I also realize that this isn’t only my story, like me there are thousands around the world. In fact, among Hispanics alone it is estimated that 25% are descendants of Crypto Jews, and that means millions of us. However, most people choose to stay in the environment they were raised in, as is human nature. It is only a brave few who decide, like Avraham and Sarah, to leave everything behind, including their culture and families, to brave the unknown and follow the voice of G-d to a land He will show us, and there make of us a great people of renown. The story of both Ashkenazi and Sefardi Jews can trace their common heritage back to the ancient southern Kingdom of Judah. There are still, however, 10 other “lost” tribes from the ancient northern Kingdom of Israel, but even now careful research and exploration are revealing that they too, were never lost, none of us were ever lost! Today we are witnessing thousands of people raising communities all around the world, claiming a genetic lineage that can be traced all the way back to Israel, and we dare to believe that G-d has provided for science to develop the modern internet, so that we the long lost children of Israel can find each other no matter where we are in the world, connect, and organize, so that we can all begin the halachic and kosher process of coming home. Remember that all this was written long ago in the Torah, by Moshe rabbeinu and all the prophets, and how humbling and exciting that it is happening in our lifetimes, before our very eyes!
“Hashem will scatter you among the peoples, and only a scant few of you shall be left among the nations to which Hashem will drive you. There you will serve man-made gods of wood and stone that cannot see or hear or eat or smell. But if you search there for Hashem your G-d, you will find Him, if only you seek Him with all your heart and soul.” Devarim (Deuteronomy) 4: 27-29
Indeed our people were scattered, left few in number among the nations, and yet many of our people did indeed get converted to other religions and served strange gods of wood and stone. We Crypto Jews are descended of those who chose that fate for whatever reason, we cannot judge, but we have indeed resolved to search for Hashem with all our heart and soul.
2 thoughts on “This is Our Story”
Beautiful return story, I too have returned to Sephardic Judaism!
Raphael Gur-Aryeh Raul Rodríguez Gonzales
Beautiful story about returning to Judaism, many Hispanics are Jewish but simply do not know it!