Back to the future

A guide for novice genealogists interested in finding their connections to Judaism.

GENIE MILGROM poses with her book in Miami, Florida.  (photo credit: Courtesy)
GENIE MILGROM poses with her book in Miami, Florida.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Genie Milgrom has become well-known recently for her book My 15 Grandmothers and for her real- life story that inspired it. Born to Cuban parents who emigrated to Miami after having lived the good life in Havana until the ’60s, Milgrom felt uncomfortable as a Catholic from an extremely young age and eventually converted to Judaism.
Thereafter, she began a journey of research that took her many years and led to her being able to prove her Sephardi origins in Spain and Portugal.
Although her book refers to 15 generations of grandmothers, she went on to discover a total of 22, including several from before the 1492 Edict of Expulsion from Spain that sent many to Portugal in search of safety. This haven was short-lived, and eventually all Portuguese Jews were expelled or massacred, or went underground. In Milgrom’s case they moved often between Spain and Portugal, many being caught and tried by the Inquisition in Coimbra. Being able to match Inquisition records to her family tree was crucial for the success of having it recognized as a Jewish tree.
Just as important was gathering hard-tocome- by evidence that there had in fact been a Jewish community in the small mountaintop village of Fermoselle, the family’s home until her grandparents emigrated to Cuba.
Due to the tremendous awakening in recent years of people whose anusim blood appears to be reaching the boiling point, a popular question on the lips of many of them is: How did she trace her ancestry? Many anusim, or crypto-Jews, feel Jewish and would prefer not to convert.
Thus, tracing their lineage would make them candidates for a certificate of return, and while this also necessitates circumcision – even a symbolic one, if already performed – and immersion in a mikve, it is not the classic conversion of those considered to have come from other nations. Add to this that Spain and Portugal are offering citizenship to anyone who can prove their Sephardi origins, and this question becomes even more relevant.
Milgrom has the answer and is happy to share it. Her latest book, How I Found My 15 Grandmothers: A Step by Step Guide is a gift from the heavens to people fumbling around with a few last names, some family customs or stories, and perhaps an heirloom. Among those who suspect they are descended from anusim are ample accounts of grandmothers offering deathbed evidence that their families were not what they seemed, and whether Mexican, Brazilian, North or South American or even German, to name just a few, people are beginning to realize that there are more than a few Jewish skeletons in their generational closets.
Milgrom writes that she gets letters from “all over the world” from those “in search of their pre-Spanish-Inquisition Jewish roots.” Most of them, she says, “are from Catholic families,” while the remainder are Jews whose families emigrated from Spain to the Ottoman Empire, and others are “just curious.”
Many, she says, are looking for “a deep spiritual connection to Judaism that they feel would come about by knowing if their family was truly Jewish in medieval times.”
The majority of emails she gets are, she writes, “heart wrenching.” She continues to tell how “people pour out their souls to [her] in search of their elusive Jewish lineage. Most of them tell [her] they feel Jewish in their hearts without having a plausible explanation. They all talk about the sentimentality or nostalgia they feel when the Jewish holidays roll around or when they meet a Jewish person or even when they see candles being lit for Shabbat.”
This “manual,” as she refers to her second book, is written for “these souls that are awakening, and who are yearning for the truth about their past,” she says.
Regarding crypto-Jewish traditions, she chooses one in particular to highlight at the start of the book, the custom of sweeping a room toward the middle, away from the direction of the door.
This appears to be in order to honor the place where the mezuza would have been set. The mezuza is a symbol that has been preserved in anusim tradition in many secret ways, one of them being to turn the straight up-and-down incision made to accommodate the Sephardi mezuza (as opposed to the Ashkenazi custom of affixing it so that it is slightly slanted) into a cross by carving out another line to intersect it near the top.
Milgrom advises beginning with one’s own name and birth certificate and working backward, since, when presenting the final research for full approval, every single generation must be accounted for. She encourages talking to older members of one’s family, but not necessarily mentioning that the goal is a search for Jewish roots if the family is particularly Christian, as this may upset people and they may clam up and sabotage the quest from the outset.
Suspicion and mistrust are classic earmarks of families descended from anusim.
She also shares with the reader some fascinating information she uncovered along the way. For instance, in 1955, her grandparents, who lived in Cuba at the time, returned to Spain and gathered together the remains of a dozen of their ancestors and had them buried together in a large communal grave in Fermoselle.
In How I Found My 15 Grandmothers, Milgrom shares all the information necessary to complete the search. It is not always easy, and it can often take the researcher on detours, but with three keys – planning, patience and perseverance – she believes that if it is there, anyone who wants to can find it.
The book includes a Spanish translation and is available on