nice old people.
(photo credit: Ruth Eglash)
The entrance to Casa Shalom, the country's foremost center for Marrano-Anusim studies, is almost as well concealed as the secret Jews it researches. Located in the pastoral village of Gan Yavne, not far from Ashdod, the humble entrance - down several steps and behind one of the well-kept villas - gives little indication to the treasures it holds.
"This used to be a car port where I kept my washing machine," admits British-born Gloria Mound, who founded the center with her husband Leslie, when the two made aliya 24 years ago. "My son converted it into an office for us; we had no choice because our library just kept on growing and there were so many people requesting our research."
Mound is referring to the center's more than 2,000 books, 5,000 documents and hundreds of testimonies, artifacts and photographs all telling the story of the Jews who either converted to Christianity or fled from Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition more than 600 years ago. While some stayed in the Mediterranean area, others settled as far afield as Newfoundland, Cuba, Jamaica and the Philippines.
As we walk in through the narrow doorway, Mound, 79, points out some of the institute's highlights. Mainly the very valuable book collection that contains perhaps the best clues to the mysteries behind the world's secret Jews, who are referred to in a wide variety of ways from Marranos, Anusim and Conversos to Islanders, Chuetas and Cryptos, but in essence are the people who kept their Jewish identity so well hidden that even today it is a struggle for some of them to be open about who they really are.
As well as researching their origins, migratory paths, customs and practices for the past 45 years, Mound, who works on a strictly voluntary basis, is also tireless advocate for helping those "lost" Jews find their way back into the fold and navigate through Israel's secular and religious bureaucracy to make aliya.
"I really believe that there is a Jewish soul, though I'm not sure exactly what that it is," says Mound, who became a research fellow in the Department of Hispanics at the University of Glasgow in 1988. "It's something that makes an ordinary, even nonreligious Jew connect straight away with a complete stranger and know instinctively that he is Jewish."
As we sit down in the airy office, Mound points to the shelves at the side of her computer desk: "See down there? Those are the 40 or so files that I am actively working on, trying to help people from around the world who want to reclaim their Jewish heritage and come to Israel. Most of the time, however, it's the Interior Ministry that makes problems for us simply because it has no clue about this subject."
Mound's chagrin at those who know little about the history of Spain's secret Jews does not end with the Interior Ministry. As she begins to share her knowledge of the subject, it also becomes clear that she is angry in general at those who make key decisions but show so much ignorance.
"It really frightens me that we have so many people who know nothing about what they are doing and can cause others so much harm and misery," says Mound, pointing to a box of matza that she is planning to send ahead of Pessah to a man she believes is a Marrano living in the Philippines but who has been refused a visa.
"I've appeared several times before the rabbinic and supreme courts and in many of the cases have been really shocked when the judges turn around and admit they don't know anything about this subject," she says. "I'm happy to tell them everything they want to know, but I believe it's a terrible injustice for someone to pass a judgment when he doesn't know anything about it."
According to Mound, the acceptance of Marrano Jews by Israel is a "vital matter that affects Jews all over the world."
"This country is always complaining that the aliya figures are falling, but there are literally millions of Jews who want to come here," she says. "In fact, coming to Israel should be the easiest thing for them to do but it's so complicated and difficult that they don't even bother trying."
MOUND'S fascination with the Marranos started quite by accident.
"We were on holiday in [the Spanish resort] Benidorm; it was during the mid-1960s, and one Sunday we took a tour of a village in the hills," she begins. "They took us to a factory that made touron [a Spanish sweetmeat] and at the time my husband and I owned a kosher supermarket [in London] and were very interested in the intricacies of food preparation."
While the other British tourists were busy enjoying the free beer and wine, Gloria and Leslie wanted to take a closer look at how the touron, which some say is actually a Marrano delicacy, was made.
"The factory appeared to us to be kosher and we asked the owner to show us how everything worked," recalls Mound, adding that they soon became fast friends and in subsequent years visited him often.
It was not until 1973, however, when the Mound family vacationed on the Spanish island of Ibiza that their interest in Marrano culture and history deepened. Their factory owner friend in Benidorm put them in touch with a colleague on the island and he, in turn, introduced them to some of the Marrano families.
"At first they did not want to talk to us," admits Mound, who later sold the family business and, in 1985, went to live in Ibiza to further her research into the community. "But slowly we got to know them and they started to open up."
Mound's exploration into the Marrano community in Ibiza uncovered some rare treasures that had remained hidden from the outside world for centuries, including a secret synagogue underneath a convent and a 14th-century Megillat Esther that is currently being restored by the Spanish government.
The husband-and-wife team identified many of the community's customs, including the fact that they had continued to marry among themselves, refrained from eating pork at home, did not mix meat and milk in the same dish and followed the Sephardi custom of naming a child after a grandparent.
"We even noticed that when they baked bread, they would make a special blessing and throw a piece of dough back in the fire," says Mound, adding that many of them kept a form of Pessah and viewed Purim as a holiday of mourning in keeping with the Marrano tradition.
Even though Mound was impressed by the community's "tenacity," she says their willingness to embrace Judaism openly was not straightforward.
"To the outside world they completely denied that they knew anything about having a connection to Judaism," remembers Mound. "Under [Spanish dictator Francisco] Franco they had been quite cut off from the outside world, but after he died and the economy strengthened, people began to accept that outside the islands there was an open Jewish society."
IN 1988, Gloria and Leslie Mound moved here and started to create a new life in Gan Yavne.
"When we came here we thought our work was all done," says Mound. "We put all our research into the spare room and thought, 'If someone wants to ask us questions, then we have all the stuff but that's it now.'"
However, news had already spread about their research and the two were suddenly receiving requests for information from all over the world.
"There is a grapevine among Marranos that has been growing for many years, long before the Internet started," says Mound, who had already been invited to speak about her research at several international conferences and was making a name for herself as an expert in the field. "Little by little people heard about what I was studying and I began getting letters from all over the world, mostly from people asking me if their family name was Jewish."
In the years that followed, the Internet boosted Casa Shalom's success, allowing Mound to fill in the gaps in her research, to create a network of Marrano Jews worldwide and to reach out to many people who had only an inkling of their Jewish ancestry.
"The Internet has brought the Jewish people together in a way that nothing else could have done," says Mound, adding that she is always very cautious when dealing with Internet inquiries and stays well away from any possible missionaries.
Casa Shalom's success notwithstanding, Mound says that in the coming years the institute faces some serious challenges in continuing with its work. One of the main hurdles, she says, is the couple's advancing years - Leslie recently turned 87.
"I'm very worried that we have eaten ourselves up and we are already facing more work than we can handle," says Mound, who adds that the best-case scenario would be for a local university to take over the center's library and continue its work.
Of course, she points out the institute is constantly faced with a dilemma of whether to simply focus on the academic research or to use the knowledge in a more practical way.
"Some say we should just stick to the academic side, but if a person wants to get back to his roots or regain his Jewish identity and I have the means through my academic knowledge to help, I should do what I can," states Mound, highlighting her most recent success in persuading a panel of rabbinic court judges to accept the Jewish ancestry of a Mexican-born, Israeli-raised secret Jew.
"I just heard the gratifying news the other day," she exclaims, explaining that one of the most common problems facing the secret Jews is the complicated element of Jewish law that forbids a kohen to marry a convert.
"He is a kohen and the girl comes from a group of Crypto-Jews in Mexico," she says. "They kept their Jewish life all the way through after leaving Spain not long after 1492."
However, says Mound, when the family decided to make aliya, they were so frightened of not being allowed in that the father went to a rabbi in Mexico City and converted the entire family.
"Anyway, the girl, who grew up here, gave me photos of the family preparing for Shabbat in Mexico and I managed to collect other material about them, including photos of her ancestors' tombstones that had Hebrew writing on them. I was also able to show that this family had kept apart from non-Jewish groups and had held onto other Jewish traditions. I presented all this to the rabbinate and they finally agreed that she had not converted because she was Jewish all along. Now she can marry her fiancÃ©.
"This for me is one of the best examples of why I continue on with this work. Of course, if it had gone the other way, I would've been very upset but I suppose if you are proud of what you are and you can do something to enhance that, then you most certainly get that wonderful feeling of gratification."