Discovering their Jewish souls

Genie Milgrom was raised Catholic in Cuba, but found a way back to her roots.

AN ANCIENT Hebrew text is displayed at a museum. Was the patriarch Abraham one of the first Jewish lawyers, wonders the author. (photo credit: REUTERS)
AN ANCIENT Hebrew text is displayed at a museum. Was the patriarch Abraham one of the first Jewish lawyers, wonders the author.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
One woman was raised as a Catholic in Portugal. The other was raised as a Catholic in Cuba. Yet neither Hannah (originally Anna) Eyal nor Genie Milgrom ever felt comfortable in the Catholic faith. Each was drawn to Jews and Judaism, and neither could understand the reason for certain family secrets that they later discovered were part of Jewish tradition.
Without knowing it, each was part of the worldwide anusim community. Anusim, previously known by the pejorative title of Marranos, and also known as crypto-Jews, were people in the 15th and 16th centuries who were forced to convert to Catholicism or to face death or exile. Some fled. Others converted, but practiced their Judaism in secret, maintaining Jewish customs that were handed down from generation to generation.
Eyal and Milgrom told their stories in Jerusalem on Tuesday at the inaugural World Congress for Reconnection with Descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities. It was an emotional experience for each of the women, and each received a standing ovation and warm embraces when she finished speaking.
Three years ago, said Eyal in excellent Hebrew that sounded as if she had been born a Sabra, she knew little about Judaism or Israel and didn’t speak a word of Hebrew. There were certain traditions in her home that she didn’t understand: the house was cleaned from top to bottom before Easter, just as Jews engage in rigorous cleaning before Passover. Nightfall was determined by three stars in the sky, just as it is in Jewish tradition, and a special prayer was said over first fruits.
At age 13 she began questioning whether she believed in Catholicism. As she grew older and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology, her exploration of her identity increased. To clear her head, she did what so many young people do – she went trekking in Nepal and India. She met many Israelis there, including Shai, who is now her husband and the father of the halachically Jewish child that she is expecting.
While interacting with the Israelis, she felt instinctively that these were her people. Two-and-a-half years ago, she came to Israel, and wept nearly everywhere she went. She wept at the Western Wall. She wept in the synagogue and she wept in the street. These were tears of joy, because she knew that she had come home. When she returned to Portugal and told her mother that she was going to convert, her mother reminded her that as a small child she had worn a necklace with a star on it, which she had been given to her by her grandmother. The star was a Star of David, and now Eyal wears it all the time.
At age 26, she knew in her soul that she was Jewish, but she had so much to learn about what being Jewish entails. She came back to Israel to undergo an Orthodox study and conversion process, but because she was on a tourist visa, she was not allowed to work, and had to leave the country every three months.
“Today I am Jewish and Israeli.” said Eyal proudly. “I am married and expecting my first child in the chain of continuity. There are many people like me in the world who want to reconnect with their Jewish roots. Now, it’s up to Israel to welcome them with open arms and to bring them home.”
Milgrom, who now lives in Miami, had an even more emotional return to her roots. Twenty-five years ago, keenly interested in genealogy, she began tracing her maternal lineage. Going back 22 generations, she discovered that she had come from Jewish stock all the way down, which in effect made her halachically Jewish without conversion, but all the documented proof that she amassed was not good enough for the rabbis, so she duly underwent an Orthodox conversion to ensure that her status was kosher.
She initially took up an Ashkenazi lifestyle, learning to cook kugel and gefilte fish, but later that she discovered that she was actually Sephardi. Even as a young child she had suspected that she came from a Jewish background. Her grandmother had taught her to make dough and to burn some as is done with halla baking. She taught her to check eggs for blood spots and she passed on other traditions without explaining what they were.
When Milgrom told her that she was converting to Judaism, her grandmother’s response was that it was dangerous. At the time Milgrom thought that her grandmother was telling her that it was dangerous for her Catholic soul, when in fact she was carrying the fear of generations and saying that it was dangerous to be openly Jewish. Yet when she died, she left Milgrom a pair of Star of David earrings and a hamsa (traditional hand-shaped amulet).
Milgrom travels to Latin America every two weeks to speak to huge audiences of descendants of anusim. Some just want to be proud of their Jewish ancestry, others want to connect, but don’t know how Jews and Israel will relate to them. It’s not the same as the Russians who came to Israel as families, said Milgrom. With the anusim, it’s an individual thing, and each of them is completely alone. In her own family, she said, they are all Catholic, and they will remain Catholic. She is the only one whose Jewish soul rose to the surface.
She had used social media to make it known that she was coming to the congress, and was inundated with hundreds of emails and Facebook messages from all over the world asking her to be a voice for the anusim. One of the big problems, she said, is that while many want to be Jewish and are willing to undergo an Orthodox conversion, there is no beit din (religious court) in Latin America whose conversion would be approved by the Chief Rabbinate in Israel.
She estimates that there are literally millions of descendants of anusim in Latin America. If solutions could be found for conversion problems, she sees enormous potential for a dramatic increase in Jewish demography.