Queen Esther's 'hijos'

Uncovering the history behind Israel’s growing wave of Latin American immigrants.

A model in festive costume at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A model in festive costume at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Motzei Shabbat, the first night of November – outside the streets of Tel Aviv buzzed, as lights went on and shops opened up for the after-sunset crowd. Crowds filled Rabin Square for the memorial ceremony marking the 19th anniversary of the former prime minister’s assassination. Autumn winds brought a crisp breeze with gentle rains from the Mediterranean coast.
Inside her apartment in the Old North, 23-year-old Nikol Wolpert lit a skullshaped candle while her guests put the finishing touches on their painted faces.
Then the group gathered to read their calaveras, skull poems.
In Mexico, skull poems are a tradition during the holiday Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead; its a time when family and friends gather to honor those who have died. It has evolved to the point where people write funny poems about their friends dying, and death-themed political satire.
For Wolpert, who spent 15 years in Mexico, the poems read at her gathering were of a unique literary style. They combined calaveras’ trademark lullaby rhymes and raunchy humor with Jewish imagery and language.
The group of two dozen Tel Avivians gathered in the living room and turned off the lights. Wolpert handed the red skull candle to Gideon Falter of London.
He read a poem for his friend Boris:
“Poor old Boris, I knew him well,
A heimish face in Israel.
He walked out of the shtetl.
Out of the pale,
Out unto Zion,
Pioneers do not fail.
Recognizable by his beady eyes and cap,
He wasn’t always the most talkative chap.
But still waters run deep,
What he spake was true,
He was the last of his kind, a philosopher Jew.
His death was a shock,
It chilled us through.
He choked on his cholent,
That treacherous stew…”
The group clapped and laughed. The next poem claimed the friend died during a masochistic sex experiment.
“I think this tradition of sarcastic poetry is also very Jewish,” laughed Wolpert, who comes from a family of secular Russian immigrants.
Born in Israel and raised on a kibbutz until she was six years old, her family moved to Mexico for business. “I came back to Israel because I was looking for my identity,” said Wolpert. “This past summer I saw another way Israeli culture deals with death.”
She felt that during the summer war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli media focused exclusively on the Israeli casualties, leaving her disillusioned with Zionism. When autumn rolled around, Wolpert looked forward to an opportunity to laugh at her own feelings of tragic confusion. “I find peace in the Day of the Dead, a holiday that lets us laugh about the inevitability of death,” said Wolpert. “Death is a part of life. I love Dia de los Muertos; it’s a chance to play with death, joke with it, dance with it and write poems about it.”
Before the party, Wolpert decorated her apartment with a traditional altar, including candles, photos of deceased loved ones, flowers, alcohol and vibrant paper flags with cut designs, called papel picado.
After all the poems were read, a Peruvian-born immigrant named Deborah Laks turned on Latin music and started twirling up a storm with her own carefree fusion of salsa moves. Friends joined in; they are just a few of the thousands of young, secular Latinos immigrating to Israel.
Hispanic immigrants are a steadily growing sector of the Israeli population. “I feel that being Latina, my Hispanic culture, is part of my Jewish identity,” said Laks.
According to the Jewish Agency’s 2013 report, over 1,240 immigrants came from Latin America last year, a 34-percent increase since 2012. Mexican Ambassador Federico Salas noticed that Mexican olim are predominantly young and secular. “Some religious immigrants come, but the majority are secular,” he said. “We estimate that an additional 600 to 800 Mexican students and volunteers come to Israel through exchange programs every year.”
While Wolpert and her friends celebrated, Argentina-born Haim Yellin, head of the Eshkol Regional Council, addressed the crowd in Rabin Square and spoke about what his community had experienced during Operation Protective Edge.
Many kibbutzim such as Kissufim, Nir Am, Nirim and Bror Hayil were founded by South American Jews along the border with the Gaza Strip; they are especially vulnerable to attacks from Hamas. Four-year-old Daniel Tregerman, son of an Argentine immigrant, was killed in August by a Hamas rocket.
The Immigrant Absorption Ministry estimates that over 110,000 Latin American Jews immigrated to Israel between 1948 and 2008; many came through Zionist youth movements in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. The Jewish People Policy Institute reports that 35% of Argentina’s Jewish population migrated between 1970 and 2009. Then, in 2010, the government launched a program to promote immigration from broader Latin America, encouraging settlement in both the Negev and Galilee. Most immigrants still prefer to live in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv; Tel Aviv alone received over 1,650 immigrants in 2013, 20% more than in 2012.
While hundreds of Argentine immigrants still come to Israel every year, a rising percentage of olim come from Venezuela, Mexico and Peru. The Immigration Absorption Ministry reports 802 immigrants from Latin America so far in 2014. “Now there are Hispanic immigrants from the whole variety of the spectrum,” said Dr. Ruth Fine, professor of contemporary Spanish and Latin American studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “They are well-integrated across all different levels of Israeli society.”
In 1981, Dr. Fine immigrated from a Zionist community in Buenos Aires. In 2007, she became founder and president of the Israeli Association of Hispanics and in 2012, she received a prestigious award from King Juan Carlos I of Spain for her work promoting cultural relations between Israel and Spain. “The Jewish relationship to Hispanic culture and literature is very old,” she said.
“The first poem ever written in Spanish was by the Jewish philosopher Yehuda Halevi.”
Fine says Spanish is quickly becoming one of Israel’s most prominent languages. Despite political tensions, thousands of Israelis travel to Latin America every year; many study Spanish at Israeli universities after they return home. In 2005, the Instituto Cervantes estimated that over 90,000 Israelis were native Spanish-speakers, while 85,000 more Israelis spoke conversational Spanish.
Most of the partygoers in Tel Aviv that night were immigrants, both Anglo and Latin American. Wolpert’s longtime boyfriend, Nathan Lyons, has an unabashedly British accent, making even the goofiest skull poem sound posh and charming.
Anglos are also a part of the Hispanic community in Israel.
In London alone, there are over 10 Sephardi synagogues for Hispanic Jewish communities.
Meanwhile, 2013 reports by the Israel Project suggest 10%- 15% of Hispanics from the American Southwest have Sephardi Jewish ancestry. According to Fine, the imprints of a Jewish past expressed itself in many distinct styles of hybrid literature from writers scattered around the world by the Spanish Inquisition. Many of these communities fled to the Americas.
“Crypto-Jews lived a double life and tried to secretly maintain some forms of Jewish practice,” affirmed Fine. “Conversos were converted Catholics with Jewish heritage; these descendants wrote literature that was often a dialogue between Catholicism and Judaism.”
British historian Tudor Parfitt estimates there are over 13 million new identifiers in Latin America who form a “shadow community of Jews.” They see themselves as descendants of Jews forced to hide or convert during the Spanish Inquisition 500 years ago. One Hebrew University demographer, Dr. Sergio DellaPergola, who holds the Shlomo Argov Chair in Israel-Diaspora Relations, estimates there could be as many as 20 million Jews in the world today, if we include populations in the Americas who identify themselves as “of some Jewish origin, background or affinity.”
Over the past two decades, digital publishing and networks bolstered these searches for the long-lost origins of unusual family traditions. Dozens of Hispanic women in America started publishing books exploring the Jewish history of the Southwest. “Today, more and more of these descendants are returning to their Jewish roots,” said Fine. “Some want to make aliya.”
Full Disclosure: As a Mexican- American and now Israeli, exploring my own Spanish heritage led to some surprising discoveries.
A trail of books led me to this history of pioneer women. Before I came to Israel, I never imagined that I might have Converso or Crypto-Jewish ancestors. My mother is of Ashkenazi heritage, by way of New York, of course. She and my Mexican- American father didn’t seem to share any common history.
I first traveled to Israel as a university student.
When I met with my Mexican-American family in Los Angeles for a goodbye meal, we ate enchiladas, beans, fresh, warm tortillas, horchata, guacamole and spicy salsa – foods I would miss when I left California. Before I left, my great aunt slipped a small, thin book into my bag – La Conquistadora, The Lady Conqueror.
The first page of the book displayed a family tree: “The Guardians of an Ancient Shrine.” At the bottom of the tree, my aunt had scrawled a direct line from a pioneer named Francisco Gomez Robledo through his descendants.
She stretched the line down, adding two modern women’s names to the list, including my deceased grandmother from an old Hispanic community in the Southwest: Candelaria Maria Concepción Roybal.
La Conquistadora is America’s oldest Madonna, often affectionately called “Our Lady,” which is now in St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The figurine’s body is made mostly of olivewood that dates back to the 16th century, with some dendrology dating her as far back as 1448. I flipped through old photographs of La Conquistadora surrounded by flowers, wearing elaborate robes made of lace, velvet and silk, adorned with jade, silver, gold and rubies.
Afterwards, I looked for more books by the same author, Angelico Chavez. In his memoir about the Southwest, My Penitente Land, he wrote that the early communities of Santa Fe enjoyed “the pastoral life of their remotest Hebrew forebears… the native Hispanic hosts can be seen feting their dear Conquistadora with lights around the feast of Purim.”
I wondered if my ancestors were really part of a secret community of Hispanic Crypto-Jews. Or was it that, as a secular Jew myself, I’m plagued with a “chosen complex,” seeking a Jewish connection in every story? I went hunting for more books. Santa Fe writer Mona Hernandez contributed an essay about La Conquistadora to New Mexico’s Crypto-Jews: Image and Memory, published by the University of New Mexico Press in December 2007. Hernandez believes that La Conquistadora became a symbol of Queen Esther, called Saint Esther. This essay recounts the history of La Conquistadora’s religious confraternity, including rumors of the founders’ secret Jewish practices.
Those men included Francisco Gomez Robledo, both junior and senior. Their familiar names jumped off the page and splashed against my face like cold water: the Inquisition in “New Spain” tried both for “Judaizing.’” Horrific records of these trials included descriptions of their circumcised genitals.
After several visits over three years, I finally made aliya.
During the long months between my last visit and the big move, I spent hours in the library, reading volumes about history and pilgrimage, colonialism, anti-Semitism, devotion, faith and art. Death hung over my ancestors’ heads.
The first Jewish author in America was the pioneer Luis de Carabajal from a community of Crypto-Jews in New Mexico; he was tortured and killed. His autobiographical book began with a Spanish a translation of the Hebrew invocation “B’shem Adonai tzevaot,” or “In the name of our Lord.” The first Jewish writer in North America was murdered for the act of writing a book.
I called dozens of aunts and cousins. Eventually, I found a sweet elderly cousin who grew up with my grandmother. She answered: “Yes, our matriarch from New Mexico, Doña Irene, had Jewish ancestors.” Women of the family seemed to know more about this heritage than the men.
According to Prof. Janet Liebman Jacobs, who made an ethnographic study of descendants of the Crypto-Jews in the American Southwest, the Festival of Saint Esther was a women’s holiday where mothers taught daughters how to run a home according to their unique customs. Jacobs believes Queen Esther was the most potent symbol for this community because, as the story goes, Esther also had to keep her Jewish identity a secret; her life was in great danger. Esther then used her secret identity to save the Jewish people.
This past summer Dr. Marie-Theresa Hernández, professor of world cultures and literatures and director of Jewish studies at the University of Houston, published a book with new complementary research, The Virgin of Guadalupe and the Conversos.
She studied the history of Mexican priests who “wrote about the Virgin’s relationship to Jews and how she would bring the Jewish nation to its previous glory,” referring to Mary in Spanish as the Mother of Zion and Mother of Jerusalem. Hernández wrote about historic personal letters that called America a “potential home for a new Jewish nation,” using phrases like “the Israelites will again exist as a sovereign nation.”
Wherever they traveled, from Santa Fe to Buenos Aires, the descendants of Iberian Jews were the first people to experiment with Zionist ambitions. In 1891, Baron Maurice de Hirsch created the Jewish Colonization Association to facilitate mass Jewish emigration from Russia and establish agricultural colonies in Argentina.
More than 120 years later, many of these descendants now live in Israel.
Today, I live on Ibn Gvirol Street, named for the legendary Judeo-Spanish poet, one of many itinerant writers experimenting with hybrid literature. On the first night of November, I shared a skull poem with fellow immigrants at the Day of the Dead party in Tel Aviv.