Growing up in East Los Angeles, Mark Vasquez knew his family was a little different. The Spanish his father taught him had Ladino words mixed in, prompting friends to ask: "Why are you talking that garbage talk?" New moons were celebrated, Shabbat was recognized as sacred and male children circumcised. But the youngster thought all Mexicans did that, even though the family was sometimes ostracized for what neighbors termed "not acting right."
Meanwhile, Mark's wife Jodene was raised in Monterrey, California, an Italian Catholic, unaware there was more than just friendships that bound her family to the many Jewish friends her mom had while growing up in New York. When the pair met in Monterrey in 1984, Jodene didn't know they would be embarking on a trip back to their roots, and eventually to Israel as new immigrants.
For Mark, there were always clues of a special secret. Family lore told of centuries of harassment by priests, stories of Spanish and Portuguese sea-captain forebears forced to leave for Mexico, family eventually chased into Nebraska and Colorado. His grandmother would send a youth to stand watch for the priests on their ranch while the family's secret rites were practiced.
His father, Daniel, first visited Israel, a place the family had always venerated, in 1972 as a gift from his wife. That led to Mark's first visit at 18, in 1983 to Kibbutz Gvaram where he met Argentinean, Venezuelan and other Spanish-speaking Jews, sparking his curiosity about what they were doing in Israel.
On a European trip, Mark met with some clergy, including rabbis, who told him they suspected he was of Jewish descent. After finding similar clues in the library in Monterrey, where he was studying, "I started doing my genealogy, and the pieces came together." He and his family were Crypto-Jews, or Jews who maintained their traditions secretly, while publicly claiming to be of another faith, a widespread phenomenon in Mexico. The rest of his family began to get interested as well. "They all said: 'I knew it, I just knew it,'" Mark recalls, sitting in the living room of his Modi'in apartment. "Tears filled their eyes."
Jodene, still unaware of her own Jewishness, embraced Mark's request to put up a mezuza and keep certain Jewish customs. When he decided to do a DNA test, "I told her: Why don't you do yours - you're probably more Jewish than I am," he recalls with a smile. "When we got the DNA tests done, that's what came back - that I had kohen markers," says Jodene. "I told my family about it and my mom was so excited." Her family, it turned out, were the descendants of Italian anusim, or Jews forced to give up their faith.
"The only thing I can say is that my mother has never read a Bible of any sort, but it's funny, once I started studying Torah, [I realized] that everything she taught me growing up was what was the right thing, and that to me was an amazing thing - is it nature or nurture?" says Jodene. "Some experts say that your DNA always brings you home," adds Mark, whose test turned up Levite markers.
After moving to Portland, Oregon, the Vasquez family continued pursuing its Jewishness. With the help of local rabbi Joshua Stampfer - an expert on Crypto-Jews - Chabad and others they went through various ceremonies to become fully recognized as Jews, including a "return" and a conversion. Despite initial concerns about acceptance, Mark says, "at every step of the way we felt closer and more vindicated for the sufferings our forefathers endured, that the persecution was not for nothing."
"It's always been a vision for me to live in Israel, even though I had my dream job, my dream house," Mark explains. "I was making good money, having a good life, and we left it all behind."
During their conversion process, they had met other Sephardim, some anusim among them, and discussed reclaiming the Negev. The group still plans to build in the South, and Mark began modifying an idea of building homes out of shipping containers. Their own house in Portland didn't sell, and Mark had to return to the US to make some money and finish sending off their stuff, but with the help of the Jewish Agency and Nefesh B'Nefesh, they arrived in September.
The family settled in Modi'in because of the contractor opportunities for Mark and the large number of Anglos there.
Jodene admits there was initial culture shock. "When you're raised on the West Coast in Oregon, and everything is pristine and clean, it was just such a shock," she says. "It was like: 'Oh my God, people are throwing their bottles out of their cars!" Still, the adjustment has been smooth, with the couple's younger son Milo, 15, now "having more friends on his Israeli Facebook account than he has on his My Space in the US," Jodene laughs.
Mark hopes to begin building in Ashalim in the Negev by next summer, based on using shipping containers, but "completely finished so you don't see the container at all."
But the construction technique isn't all that's unique to the project. "You come and help build, you move into a house that's already done, except now when I start another house, you're going to help build it as a down payment, and you're building your own community," he explains.
The high-rise Modi'in apartment building the family lives in provides for a comfortable lifestyle, but the plan is definitely to trade it all in for the more rustic Negev. "I feel very connected to the Negev and that it's important to be there," says Mark, also noting the ability to build more cheaply there.
While some of their US friends think "we're nuts" for making aliya, Mark says: "I agree. We're nuts for Israel." They've replaced their old friends with some from South Africa, Britain and other places. "We get together and spend Shabbat... it's a nice little community we're building ourselves here. We've felt really comfortable, and have some Israeli friends whom we just love... We're here alone, but we don't feel alone."
He awaits the permits and investments to get the Ashalim project moving, and it's been "feast or famine" economically, but the family's positive attitude has helped them persevere. Mark has been doing home renovation and other work, while Jodene has been cleaning houses.
"We believe that whatever it takes is the attitude that every oleh should have," says Mark. "Don't look for handouts, you have to go work for it. You have to think: 'We're here, that's all that matters, we get to live here as Jews among Jews.' It's a privilege, it really is, and one that shouldn't be taken for granted."
"We've always considered ourselves modern Orthodox," says Mark, "We've been visiting some of the local synagogues, but what's kind of hard is that the synagogues we visited don't have rabbis. That's been the hardest part because we were so close to our rabbi back home. He was a friend, a fishing buddy and a traveling partner."
"It feels wonderful to be accepted, to be welcomed, to be equal," says Mark, whose Hebrew name is Moshe David. "Those are words that we haven't had the luxury of dealing with... We've had to deal with prejudice and dislike - you're not Mexican enough or Jewish enough."
Mark's family is also considering aliya, which might help him finally overcome the one thing he misses most - a really good Mexican restaurant, which he hopes his mom will open when she comes.
While both children are rapidly mastering the language, Mark and especially Jodene still feel challenged. "I was an administrative assistant [in America] and I need to have Hebrew to do that here, and it's going to be a while before I attain that level," she says. Jonathan, 18, attended an ulpan at Kibbutz Mashabei Sadeh, and made friends there he hopes to keep through his upcoming army service. Milo attends the local high school but also studies at an ulpan.
"Our goal is to live and give as much as we can to the land before we move on to the next life," says Mark. While he's still "trying to fit a square box into an odd-shaped hole" with his Negev project, he's confident it will happen. "I'm just here to help - whatever I can do," he says.
Jodene, looking back at the long road they've traveled to Israel, is sure things will work out. "I just think it's so amazing what God could do, that He knows the end from the beginning. So He knew this about us and that we would figure it out, and be able to come back to the land.
"There are different generations that He could have woken up to this, and I feel that He chose us. I don't know why but I'm so glad he did. I can't think of anything but gratitude, and that it's very humbling, and it's nice to know there are other people like us finding out the same kind of things and wanting to follow the same process. It's exciting to be pioneers, to... show them the way, and an awesome responsibility."
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