Secrets beneath the surface

AACI and the Israel Genealogy Research Association present the author of ‘My 15 Grandmothers,’ – a Cuban- American on a cryptic journey.

Secrets beneath the surface (photo credit: GENIE MILGROM)
Secrets beneath the surface
(photo credit: GENIE MILGROM)
I have been able to trace 22 grandmothers and great-grandmothers in an unbroken maternal lineage going all the way back to 1410. I was also able to successfully prove that my family had been converso Jews from before the Spanish Inquisition, living on both sides of the Duero River, which separates Spain from Portugal. My Jewish lineage was traced back to a small village called Fermoselle in the province of Zamora, Spain, where my family had lived for 521 years. In fact, my grandfather was the first one to leave the village. The village still exists, perched high above the granite hills of the Duero River across from Mogadouro in Portugal.
I was born in Havana, Cuba, into a Roman Catholic familyof Spanish origins. When I was five years old, my family left the island and moved to Miami. We were just one of thousands of families that went to Miami in 1960, leaving behind not only the Communist Revolution but also their homes and businesses. I was raised in Catholic schools, with grade school, high school and college all being in the strict ambience of the church with priests and nuns and all the Catholic doctrine.
Still, from a very young age, I knew I didn’t fit in. Inside there was something that did not quite connect with all the religion that was around me.
My parents were not religious, yet they chose that route for my sister and me. But I felt that I did not fit in. I was the perfect model Catholic child, complete with saddle shoes, Irish kilt style uniforms, prayers in Latin and mass every morning. I sang dutifully in the choir at the many funerals of nuns and priests.
I had some opportunities to meet Jewish people at different times in my life and was always drawn and felt attached to them. It was inexplicable. I felt very comfortable in a craft class with older Jewish women and any other Jew I would meet.
It was during my college years that I started to internalize some of these feelings and look toward theology, and then Judaism in particular. I was on a constant search for a Jewish connection that I just could not understand.
Life flowed, and I with it. I got married at a very young age to a Catholic Cuban, and we had two children. We were married for more than 18 years and eventually went our separate ways.
This left me to fully pursue my interest in Judaism.
After a long process, I converted to Judaism through an Orthodox beit din in Miami. For various reasons, I was unable to convert my children at the same time.
I began to search and study in earnest. Finally, I was putting my soul and my body in alignment. I felt comfortable in synagogues. I felt (and still feel) great nostalgia or perhaps a sort of déjà vu when I hear the prayers chanted in shul. I knew I was closer to home than I had ever been, yet farther than ever from the home and family I was raised in. They did not understand.
My soul had stirred from a young age, and all those around me had remained the same. Why was I so different ? I could not look back, and the road ahead seemed very lonely. The path was difficult. Keeping kosher in a home where the children craved what they had always eaten, not being able to eat in my parents’ home, having to make adjustments right and left for the children with their activities – it was not easy. But I was so happy and so at home in my own skin, that I persevered.
A couple of years later I met Michael, whose Jewish family was traditionally observant – originally from Romania – and we married. He completes my circle. Michael has the patience of a saint. He has always been the rock that helps me when the going gets tough and when my past life clashes with my current life. Together, we raised my daughter in the best way we could, given the unusual circumstances.
After living a full life in an observant community in Miami, I learned that I might have descended from converso Jewish roots. My search took me a decade, but I now have been able to document and obtain “return” certificates stating that I was born Jewish. Today, I am proud to know that I come from a long lineage of women and men who died in the Inquisition for wearing a clean shirt on Shabbat or for not eating bread on Passover or for not baptizing their children. It is this strong lineage of women that yanked me by the hair at a young age and pulled me out of the incense and the altars of the Catholic church.
As a proud Jew, I represent crypto-Jewry today as president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Miami, president of Tarbut Fermoselle in Spain and president-elect of the Society of Crypto Judaic Studies at Colorado Springs University, Colorado. I am also dedicated to field research in the northwestern part of Spain that includes the village of Fermoselle and its environs. My desire is to give my people – until now lost from Jewish history – their day.
The writer will speak on January 1 at 7 p.m. at the monthly meeting of the Israel Genealogy Research Association hosted by AACI at 37 Pierre Koenig St., Talpiot, 4th floor. Tickets cost NIS 20 (NIS for members). For more information, call (02) 566-1181 or email