Genie Milgrom’s 15 grandmothers

'My 15 Grandmothers' is invested with years of effort in the story of genealogical research it conveys, and begins with the author’s childhood and early life in Havana.

Genie Milgrom 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Genie Milgrom 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Cuban-American Genie Milgrom’s is a small book but a giant story. She is the poster child for countless people, particularly in Spain and in the Americas, who would be able, should they put their minds to it, to trace their ancestry through an unbroken chain of Jewish mothers.
Although the title of the book refers to only 15 grandmothers, by July this year when I met her at the Zamora Sephardi conference in the north of Spain, Milgrom had managed to tack on another eight grandmothers, bringing the total to 23. Her book is a tribute to her ancestors, who all hail from the northern Spanish village of Fermoselle, on the border with Portugal, and lead her all the way back to the 15th century.
My 15 Grandmothers is invested with years of effort in the story of genealogical research it conveys, and begins with the author’s childhood and early life in Havana.
She not only offers a vibrant snapshot into the Cuba of yesteryear, but also traces her own path from discovering discomfort in being a Catholic towards an interest in Judaism, her Orthodox conversion and her subsequent quest for her Jewish ancestry.
On the day Milgrom’s grandmother died, her mother gave her a box containing a hamsa as well as a Star of David earring, but offered no explanation. Upon receiving that inheritance, memories flowed back of a traditional shawl being placed over her shoulders during her first wedding in Cuba; of the custom of her family of throwing some of the dough used for baking into the back of the oven; of checking eggs for blood; of sweeping the floor towards the center of the room. Her grandmother was buried very quickly, with Milgrom being told it was a family tradition, even though she knew it was not a Catholic tradition.
Her grandmother had always told her it was dangerous that she had converted.
The fact that her maternal grandparents were second cousins from Fermoselle in the province of Zamora, was the start of her genealogical journey.
The book reads like a detective novel, a page turner in every sense. Milgrom combines logic and spirituality as she connects with the intervention of her ancestors in her life story.
Against all odds, the writer has managed to trace every single person on her extensive family tree and has discovered that all were undoubtedly anusim (Jews forcibly converted to Catholicism). The mere thought that Fermoselle could have had any connection to Jews or Judaism was almost laughable until Milgrom began her odyssey.
To highlight just one of the myriad of documents she uncovered, the village is referred to in 1491 as a Jewish settlement. The author is still in the process of documenting the history of Fermoselle, which she has twice visited.
The second time she traveled there, as she mentions in the book, was with historians and descendants of anusim husband and wife Jose Manuel Laureiro and Anun Bariuso, co-presidents of Tarbut Sefarad in Madrid, who are in the process of unearthing the past of other small Jewish villages in Spain and Portugal. I also had the honor of meeting them at the Zamora Sephardi: Encounters and Reencounters conference.
They told me that they consider themselves Jews, even if not “halachic Jews.”
To give too much information in this review would be to give all the excitement away.
Suffice it to say that I could not put the book down and only read it in two sittings in order to defer the climax for a little while. Still, I will give one thing away. Milgrom mentions carvings in Fermoselle whose hidden symbols would only show up at certain times of day when the sun hit the stone at certain angles.
Milgrom’s research has, to her delight, been authenticated by Dr. Stanley Hordes, former state historian of New Mexico as well as adjunct research professor at the Latin American and Iberian Institute at the University of New Mexico.