There is an interesting phenomenon occurring in El Paso, Texas. Rabbi Stephen A. Leon of Congregation B’nai Zion in El Paso has documented the many Mexican immigrants in El Paso who have come to him over the years to ask him to explain certain bewildering actions of family elders that turn out to be connected with Jewish rituals.
For example, a woman brought her elderly mother to Rabbi Leon because the elder was dying and she demanded to see a rabbi. The elderly woman spoke only Spanish and she had emigrated many years before from Mexico. The family was Catholic. The elderly woman produced a set of tefilin from her purse and explained that her grandfather would put on the tefilin every morning when she was growing up. He did this in secret and the elderly woman’s parents did not know about it. Only she, the little granddaughter knew. When he was dying, he gave her the tefilin and instructed her to put them (there are two pieces to it) in his coffin with him. He told her to find a rabbi and ask about the tefilin. He said the rabbi would explain. She put one piece of the tefilin in his coffin with him, but she kept the other. Now she was dying and she needed to unburden herself. She gave the tefilin to Rabbi Leon. The elderly woman’s family asked the rabbi what this meant.
Rabbi Leon explained to the family what the tefilin is (a ritual Jewish object used for prayer) and that during the Spanish Inquisition, Jews were forcibly converted to Catholicism. Many of these Jews would continue to secretly practice their Jewish customs and they are termed “crypto-Jews,” or Jews who practiced their rituals in hiding. Jews had already been fleeing Spain for years when they were formally expelled under the Inquisition in 1492. The grandfather of the elderly woman with the tefilin was most likely one of these crypto-Jews who fled or was expelled. His children and grandchildren were Catholics, but he continued to secretly pray every morning in the Jewish tradition. The elderly woman and her daughter had not previously known that their family descended from Sephardic-Hispanic Jews.
El Paso is one of the places where many of the descendants of Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition ultimately found refuge. (Another is Juarez, Mexico.) Rabbi Leon has encountered hundreds of Jews who came to El Paso through Mexico, and a surprising number of them did not realize that their family was Jewish until some event revealed the truth to them, as it did for the family of the elderly woman with the tefilin.
Rabbi Leon has had Catholic Mexican immigrants come to him to ask the meaning of tefilin or of a magen david (Star of David) necklace or of a tallis (prayer shawl) that they inherited and they are shocked when they put the pieces together and realize that their grandparents or great-grandparents were forcibly converted and that they are, in fact, of Jewish heritage. He has had Catholic Mexican immigrants come to him after the death of an elderly grandmother to ask if he can explain why she lit candles every Friday night. (This has happened rather frequently. It seems that lighting Sabbath candles was one of the last vestiges of the religion to which these crypto-Jews clung.)
Rabbi Leon has found that when these descendants of forcibly converted Jews discover their true heritage, they are eager to learn more about Judaism. The rabbi writes “The enormous number of those with Hispanic background who have Jewish roots is apparent. Imagine if a fraction of that Hispanic community, the fastest growing population today, began to explore its roots…. Should this happen, the impact on the world would be astounding.” Surprisingly, many of these Sephardic-Hispanic Jews actually return to Judaism. One would think that they would not be prepared to give up their religious beliefs and become practicing Jews, yet many of them do just that. At the very least, they are interested in learning more about the heritage that was lost.
This entire phenomenon fascinates me. I am reminded of the ritual on Passover when we hide the Afikomen, a piece of matzah, and the children must look for it. This is a symbol that reminds us that what is lost will be found and returned by our children.