Letter to God

A descendant of Crypto Jews who – after questioning his Catholic identity – embarked on a seven-year search, speaks of his odyssey and of those who don’t even know how to ask.

A descendant of Crypto Jews who – after questioning his Catholic identity – embarked on a seven-year search (photo credit: Courtesy)
A descendant of Crypto Jews who – after questioning his Catholic identity – embarked on a seven-year search
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Once again, sitting under my tallit, I feel the need to write to You.
I have questions that spring up from the depths of my soul, and burst out like the cries from the prophets of old.
I am no longer able to keep this to myself.
But first, I want to thank You.
It is already a year since I made aliya, and from the moment I set foot in Israel, I felt, after having lived in four other countries and always feeling like a foreigner, that I was finally home, that I was with my people.
When I was in Haifa traveling by bus to ulpan everyday, tears would sometimes run down my face, asking You to please keep me in this land, even if it were under a bridge. Never in my life have I felt so much love for a place, not even for Spain, where I was born.
This feeling is even stronger now that I have moved to Jerusalem. I still cannot believe I am living in the Holy City, and that its name is on my identity card.
I also want to thank You for all the help and love the people in Israel have given me.
At this time of the year, between Purim and Passover, I want to thank You for all the miracles you have made for our people, for Am Yisrael, and especially for the ones you made for me. For showing me the way back, along a 500-year-long path which many have tried to erase.
It took me almost seven years to find all the documents that proved my Jewishness, reaching back 16 generations in an unbroken maternal lineage, that began in the Jewish communities of Toledo. My great-great-grandparents were Yosef Caro’s neighbors.
After collecting the documents and teaching myself paleography to be able to read them, a second fight started. This was a fight with the bureaucracy of Israel: the Chief Rabbinate and the Interior Ministry.
Once I had completed the research, and I had no doubt that I am descended from an unbroken maternal line of the Jews that left Toledo, then came the strangest part of the entire process.
I was alone, no one had trodden this path, in this way, before me. I thought that more people would have been able to achieve something similar to what I was doing. I thought the difficult part was to find all the documents, but I always believed that I would find someone else who had already walked this path.
I met Genie Milgrom [see page 21] on the Internet when I was doing my genealogical work, and she was already advancing in hers. For years we encouraged each other. But she had already converted, years before not knowing that she was really a Jew.
Once I knew I was Jewish, I needed some legal halachic document that allowed me to return to Judaism publicly.
I was seeking a rabbinical court that could give me a document of return to the religion of my forefathers.
This would allow me to be counted in a minyan.
This was the time when I was required to write a 70-page document explaining how I was the offspring of a line of 15 maternal grandmothers, without breaks that descended directly from the Jewish communities of Toledo.
The time arrived to meet the rabbis. All of them were very happy to help in the conversion, but nobody wanted to help me return. [A “return” is like a conversion but there is no need for a blessing to be said upon immersion in the mikve, in recognition of the true Jewish status of the individual all along.] It was a bit like the game of hot potato, passing me from hand to hand, but nobody was really brave enough to take a decision regarding me.
I did not understand anything. If I was Jewish, I was Jewish; and if I was not, then I did not want to convert. Once, in a meeting with a judge of a rabbinic court, sick and tired of spinning tribunals, I suggested to him: If you are not able to give me a paper saying that I am a Jew, give me a paper saying I am not one. If you say I am a gentile, I will burn all the genealogical documents and you will have let the Inquisition win once again the battle against the Jews.
I will return to Spain and never speak of this again, and live a life as a gentile. The rabbi answered me: “You cannot do that! You have to keep all mitzvot.”
I answered him. “If I am not Jewish enough for you to give me a document of return, why should I be Jewish enough to keep the mitzvot? You leave me in a very strange place. I’ll never be able to marry a Jewish girl.”
His answer was simple: “There are 613 mitzvot, you can fulfill 612. All but the one of getting married.”
My soul was shattered that day, and I prayed to You with all my strength, I asked You for a way out. It was impossible that You would have made the miracle of allowing me to find all the documents that proved my Jewish identity, and then just leave it at that.
Help me to return to my people, I prayed.
It was then that I met a person who over time became a very good friend, who helped me contact a Sephardi Orthodox rabbinical court. And after fulfilling all their requirements, I finally got what I wanted: a “return document.”
However, the rabbi told me that if I ever wanted to make aliya the document would be problematic. At the time I didn’t see this as a problem. I was not particularly interested in moving to Israel, I had a good job in Spain, and finally with the return document I was accepted by the chief rabbi of Spain and therefore could participate in a minyan.
Everything was wonderful, until You decided to test me, and to make me realize that my place was not in Spain.
I lost my job. With the economic crisis in Spain, it was almost impossible to find something without having to move abroad. I needed to find a job outside my country of birth. I knew the Jewish Community of Gibraltar – a British colony – not far from where I lived in Andalusia. The rabbi there had shown much interest in my story, so I asked whether, if I were to move to live to Gibraltar, I would be counted in a minyan.
His response was: “If you want I can help you convert.”
That put me in a bizarre position once again. I was a Jew in Spain, but not in the UK. If I were go to France, Belgium or anywhere else, I would need to start different processes of recognition again in each country. It was exhausting. I did not know what to do. I heard You telling to me that the time had come for me to make aliya. Once I had an Israeli identity card no one would question my Jewishness.
Then I started to deal with the Jewish Agency. I explained that I had not undergone a conversion, but had a “return to Judaism” document based on genealogical research. At first they said it would not be a problem. I started to gather together all the documents they requested for my aliya. But just when I was about to come to Israel, I received an email saying that the Interior Ministry had rejected my aliya application. I asked for more information and received a short email saying, “You are 100 percent Jewish, but the State of Israel only allows those to make to aliya who have at least one Jewish grandparent and your grandmother is very distant in time.”
I tried to argue that according to the maternal line, my mother was also Jewish. It did not help. There I was – once again – the only Jew in the history of Israel praying in an Orthodox minyan who was denied the right to make aliya.
What came next, I’m not able to talk about. So much humiliation in front of rabbis who did not understand very well who I was. The folder with my information got lost so many times that it started to feel like it was a joke.
It really felt once more as if they did not want to deal with me.
I had to answer such stupid questions, it was better to forget.
After dealing with them I only felt dirty, and my soul was torn apart once more. And when all the bureaucracy was over, I felt in need of going to the sea, to a solitary place, where I could dive into the immensity of water, to wipe off the dirt and the hypocrisy that had I needed to go through.
I still feel pain in my soul because of all that, and I do not think the scar will ever fully heal. Before, I considered rabbis to be wise people, with a lot of Torah knowledge that my soul was thirsty for. But after dealing with them, I discovered they were only focused on their own world and unable to empathize with me.
Who am I, God? At school in Spain they taught us that all the Jews were expelled in 1492. In Israel they keep on saying that all the Jews that remained in Spain were happy to convert to Christianity. Among the papers of the Inquisition that I researched, I understood how my forefathers tried to keep mitzvot, and how they even died to keep them.
But with the passage of the time, in order to save their lives, they kept the secret of their Jewish identity as the only way to stay alive. That issue is always on my mind. If I have to die to keep the mitzvot, I am ready to do so, but if it is about the life of my son, I would do anything to save his life, even hide his Jewish identity.
In the Tanach, there is a very similar story to ours.
Jochebed too, preferred to raise her child in a foreign cult, rather than give up his life. That child became the leader of our freedom. In the dark days of the Spanish Inquisition, many mothers in Sepharad took a very similar decision. And probably they cried in silence for having to choose such a difficult way.
At the same time that I saw that Israel, as a state, would not recognize my story, Spain began a process of returning Spanish citizenship to Sephardi Jews. A much easier process than the one I needed to go through, requiring only documents that were relatively simple to put together. The same Jews with whom I spoke, who refused to believe my story, were now running to get back their Spanish nationality. The same rabbis who had previously rejected me were suddenly worried about those who wanted to reconnect with Spain. Such hypocrisy.
Certainly there are many new movements in Israel trying to help the Anusim. But I only see a lot of struggles of personal egos, and find that very few worry about the real feelings of the Anusim. To me, it is as if they are more concerned about recognition than about us. Sometimes I feel they are really more interested in being in the news than in helping people to find the way back. I am very disappointed.
It seems as though the State of Israel does not know who we are. The country is not ready to help. A lot of education is needed to explain many things relating to the children of the Inquisition, as was done with the Shoah.
Among them is that at the time of the Expulsion, only those with economic means were able to escape.
Many poor people did not have the luxury of choice.
And eventually we were forced to forget. Also in Spain, a lot of work needs to be done.
We need to do something to at least sow the seeds of doubt among the Spanish population. To at least give them the opportunity to question whether perhaps they are also descendants of the Hebrew people.
And these are my questions that I address to You today.
Have You forgotten the part of Am Yisrael I come from? Have You forgotten us? Have You forgotten those who do not even remember that they are Jews? Do You even keep us in mind? You did not forget us when we were slaves in Egypt, have You forgotten us now? Perhaps it is better to do nothing? Is it best to leave the Anusim to live in blissful ignorance, to continue this lie in Spain? Truthfully, I do not wish upon anyone as much pain as I have gone through to be here. If my help is needed, I need to understand that there is a way to bring people back to the consciousness of being Am Israel, without humiliation.
Do You need us? Do You need the Anusim to be back in Israel before the Messiah comes? Do we need to discover our past and return here? Are we part of the prophesies of the ingathering of the exiles? Or is it easier to forget us? To try to keep on looking in other directions? The State of Israel has so many problems that perhaps it feels it has no need to dust off the story of the Anusim. It has many problems with the Arabs, with Russian aliya, with the Ethiopians. Everything would be easier without us.
Answer me, what is the way forward? To forget and to look away or to start working? If Your answer is to work, where do we start? The archives of the Inquisition are fundamental to restoring our identity. And they are not scanned. All the information is still kept on old manuscripts in the historical archives of Madrid. They are the key that will help us to return to our Jewish identity. We are in a need of something like Yad Vashem, but that focuses on the history of the Inquisition. Who will do this work? Who will educate Israel that not everyone wanted to convert, and that most of them only did so in order to save their lives? Who will explain that not everyone had money to buy a boat ticket and cross the Mediterranean? Who will speak in Spain? And sow the doubt in the hearts of the descendants of the Spanish Jews? Who will bring them back? Will You show them the way back home, as You did with me? Is there any way to facilitate this work? I can only speak from the truth of my heart, and I know that I would not have been happy, except for living in Israel. But that is something I have only discovered now. It has been a very long process of changing my consciousness first, understanding that I was a real Jew, then getting into the synagogue in Spain, and only later comprehending that I needed to move to Israel.
I want to finish by thanking You for all You have done for me, for this wonderful year that I have been able to live here. I hope You help me find a good job here, and allow me to get married and settle in Jerusalem.
If you need me to do anything, with all my heart I am here for You.
Thank You for making me happy and showing me the way back to Am Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael. 
The writer can be contacted at venturamohato@gmail.com