Tuesday, December 31, 2013

15 Grandmothers

On Sunday we went to a lecture at Netanya Academic College given by Genie Milgrom from Miami, Florida, sponsored by Casa Shalom (the Inst. for Marrano-Anusim Studies) and the Intl. Inst for the Study of Secret Jews (Bnei Anusim) at the College. Genie's story is amazing, yet is now part of a world-wide movement of people of Spanish or Portuguese ancestry who are discovering their Jewish roots.

Genie described how she had a conventional Catholic upbringing and she and her whole family were quintessentially Catholic. But, Genie felt an affinity with Jews and at College started to learn about Judaism, her teacher was ironically a nun who specialized in the Old Testament. Genie was married and had two children, yet this desire to know about Judaism persisted, and at the age of 30 she made the decision to convert. She separated from her husband, and none of her siblings nor her children felt any such interest. She received an Orthodox conversion and then married an Orthodox Jew.

It was when her grandmother died that she received a shock. Her grandmother, who had never said anything to her about having Jewish origins, left her a small box and in it was a gold Magen David (Star of David) and a chamsa (good luck charm). This led her to start investigating her origins, and she soon followed her family tree back from Cuba to northern Spain, to a small isolated village near the Portuguese border named Fermoselle from which her grandparents had emigrated. With the help of a Spanish genealogist she was able to trace her family tree back over 500 years, to before the Jewish expulsion from Spain.

This extensive family tree went back 15 generations, and since she could trace a maternal ancestry that far, and the original family names were typical Sephardic Jewish ones, she decided to go to Israel and request from the Rabbinate a "certificate of return" showing that she had been Jewish by birth and actually did not need to convert. She went to Jerusalem with all her evidence, but the Rabbi rejected her request because he said that merely having the names and the family tree did not prove that she was Jewish. She had to prove that her family had been Jewish at some point and that Jews did indeed live in Fermoselle.

When she went to Fermoselle, everyone she met there denied that there had ever been Jews in Fermoselle and she could find no evidence of any Jewish presence. Also, her searching of the records of the Inquistiion produced no evidence of Jewsh practices in her family or in Fermoselle, since those records (usually controlled by the Church) meticulously document all evidence of forbidden Jewish practices in Spain during the years 1478-1834. However, she did discover that there were a warren of tunnels under the village of Fermoselle, that could have been used for secret meetings, and that these tunnels connected to others submerged under the River Duero that forms the nearby border between Spain and Portugal. It was rumored that Secret Jews (descendents of conversos, who had been forced to convert to Christianity) used these tunnels to escape from the Inquisition in Spain into Portugal.

Genie was able to trace her descendents to villages where they had settled in Portugal, and further when she examined the separate archives of the Inquisition there (held in Lisbon) that started later in Portugal (in 1536), she discovered that many of her ancestors had been investigated by the Inquisition there for carrying out practices recognized as Jewish, such as wearing clean shirts on Saturday (Shabbat), or not eating pork, etc. She also went back to Fermoselle and this time a woman she met in the Church took her to see "the synagogue" which turned out to be a private home that had many centuries before housed a synagogue and had a mikve in the basement. As she came to know people and they trusted her she was taken to see another synagogue, which this time had a clear hollow cut out of the stone to house the torah. She also found some inscriptions carved into the stones of houses which delineated the region of the ancient Juderia.

She took this evidence back to the Rabbi in Jerusalem and he issued her a certificate of return, accepting her as being Jewish from birth. This also included her own children, even though they remain practising Catholics. She has returned to Fermoselle with experts from Madrid, who are now documenting her finds and scouring the nearby villages for similar evidence of former Jewish presence. Genie Milgrom showed a short video of her experiences in Fermoselle and has self-published a book entitled "My 15 Grandmothers, the journey of my soul from the Spanish Inquisition to the present" (more details can be found at www.geniemilgrom.com).


Post a Comment

<< Home