The day of my conversion to Judaism was the ultimate cosmic link between my past, my present and my future. Although it was 12 years ago, I remember it as if it happened a few hours ago. I can still feel the acceleration in my heart, the knot of tears trapped in my throat, along with the nervous breathing from the overwhelming commitment I was undertaking. I can still hear the words “kosher, kosher, kosher” echoing in my mind and the warm waters of the mikvah embracing my body, transforming me into a new being.
Sometimes reality is stranger than fiction. I grew up in the city of Caracas, Venezuela, in a wonderful, close-knit family surrounded by cousins, aunts and uncles. We spent more time with my mother’s side of the family, perhaps because we lived right next door to my maternal grandmother, a woman of great stamina and control over every little detail of her family. I was raised with excellent family values, tremendous respect for authority and a great fear of heaven. I was also raised as a Catholic.
My parents sent me to Catholic school for almost my entire life. But I knew there were people of other faiths because I had a neighbor that was an Evangelical Christian.
Questioning the faith was seen as an act of defiance.
I was always a deeply religious person. At school I gladly participated in mass and prayed fervently every night with the only tools I was taught by my mentors. But many questions hovered in my mind as I was growing up. Catholic school was a great place for the complacent soul; it turned into a nightmare for my seeking soul. Whenever I had a question in the class, if I dared to ask, I was looked down upon because I was to accept what I was being taught with my heart, not with my mind. For the most part questioning the faith was seen as an act of defiance.
Some nuns were very nice; others were incredibly unreachable and scary. There was a huge focus on dressing “modestly” in the school. We could not wear make up, nail polish, or dye our hair. We had to wear a very modest uniform. But at home we were allowed to wear whatever we wanted, as short as we wanted. In fact, the motto was “if you got it, flaunt it.” Venezuela is known for its beauty pageants and beautiful women. It is the dream of every young girl to be considered pretty enough to participate in the Miss Venezuela pageant. I was no exception to the rule and gave my parents much “pride” by winning various beauty pageants, from first grade to being the homecoming queen in high school.
This mixed message made me more confused. Why would any of us want to ever wear the nun’s example of modesty if we got so much more attention being immodest? Why did the nuns preach modesty and then organized beauty pageants to celebrate the culmination of the school year? Why would I strive to be modest when there was never an explanation given for it?
Growing up in this bewildering environment made me question authority even more. Sometimes I would stare at the nuns at school and ask myself, Why are you dressed like this? What do you have that makes you spiritually closer to God than me? How do you know what God wants from you? What kind of mother would you have been? I needed answers to my questions. I needed to know there was a way to reach closeness to God without having to become like them. I needed freedom to talk to God directly. I needed truth.
So I started searching for more. Somehow I was always fascinated with Judaism. I didn’t know anything about it, but I wanted desperately to know more. I only knew about the Jews from the Old Testament but I knew these people still existed. I started reading and learning about Jews on my own, convinced they would have an answer. Little did I know that this search would take me so far – all the way back home.
My Converso Family
The first time I saw a Jew was one Saturday as we were driving to see my paternal grandparents. We saw several men with black hats, black coats, and beards walking in the streets of my grandfather’s neighborhood. “Who are these men?” I asked my father. “They’re Jews.” He then mentioned that my grandfather’s house was in the Jewish community. I always felt apprehensive around my paternal grandparents. There were very old and strict, especially my grandfather, who jut sat in his “special” chair where no one else was allowed to sit. My sisters and I were not allowed to get up from the couch and run around like normal kids.
“What do you mean our family is Jewish? I have never heard of this!”
One day I asked my Aunt Sarah who lived with my grandparents, if she knew their house was located in a Jewish Community. Her answer changed my life forever. She said in a whisper, making sure my grandfather would not hear, “Of course I know our home is in a Jewish community. After all, our family is of Jewish origin. Our last name had been changed from Peres to Perez.”
I could not believe my ears. “What do you mean our family is Jewish? What are you talking about? I have never heard of this!”
She told me that the family had come from Spain a few hundred years after the Spanish Inquisition and settled in Venezuela. They changed their name to blend in and avoid persecution. “You mean you never wondered why all of our names are Jewish names?”
I had to sit down to recover. Hundreds of images and situations flashed in front of my eyes. All the strange things my father’s family did were not idiosyncrasies; they were mere family traditions dating back to the time of the Inquisition. I had found the lost piece of the puzzle. I was closer to the truth than I had ever been. I had a reason to embrace the fascinating religion with which I had become obsessed. I was going in the direction of truth. After all my family was Jewish, or was it?
I immediately started researching and reading about the Inquisition. I learned that the Jews in Spain had been tremendously affluent and relatively accepted in the early years, under the Muslim rulers-early 10th century, but suffered during persecutions by Iberian Christians such as the pogroms in Cordoba (1011) and Granada (1066). These attacks continued as the “Reconquista” took full blow, and by the 14th century the Christians had taken most of Spain from the Muslims. Many Jews decided to escape these attacks by converting to Catholicism. These Jews were the most affluent and did not want to give up their social and commercial status. They were called “conversos.”
Many of these conversos practiced Judaism in hiding, pretending to be Catholics on the outside. They lived side-by-side with their Jewish brethren and some even remained active in the Jewish communities. At first this solution proved beneficial and many conversos became very successful. But inevitably, this very success sprouted jealousy within Catholic Spaniards who reported unfaithful conversos to the authorities. At the time many conversos practiced several Jewish customs that, for the Catholics, were definite signs that these people were not true converts and were still spiritually linked to their Jewish past. These conversos were then called marranos (pig in Spanish), or crypto-Jews, and were to become the main focus of the Inquisition’s agenda.
My research about “marranos” made me realize that my family was one of them. I always wondered about the rare customs of my father’s family. The earliest anecdotes I can remember were all linked to food. Unlike most Venezuelans, my grandmother was keen for making all kind of eggplant dishes, in particular fried eggplants. Although the Arabs introduced eggplants to Spain, it was the Jews of Spain that became exceptionally fond of it and later brought this vegetable to South America after the expulsion (around 1650.) Spanish Jews were so fond of eggplants that even the satirical poetry of the day made reference of this preference.* She also made a dessert called “Cabello de Angel” that I later found out is of marrano descent, and a dessert called “Marzipan,” a staple for converso families. Sadly, thousands of marranos were murdered because of adhering to their culinary customs. In fact, the Inquisition Trial Documents (still available after all these years) are crammed with testimonies from maids or neighbors testifying in court against conversos making these dishes. Sadly, the Inquisition used cultural information to build cases against conversos that were under examination for heresy.
Speaking to my relatives, I discovered more information. My grandfather had a house in the town of Zaraza, Guarico State, the first town in which my family settled. They came by boat in the 1700s from the River Unare that leads into the Caribbean Sea. I have in my possession today one of the family’s precious pieces of fine China, which they brought with them to the New World. It is a sauce dish dating back to 1767. My father recalls that in the house of Zaraza there were two paintings that always puzzled him. It was a painting of Queen Esther pointing at Mordechai and another called “La Plegaria de Esther” (Queen Esther’s plea). The story of Purim has no real relevance in the Catholic religion. I didn’t even know this story existed until I became Jewish! I discovered that Queen Esther was the heroine of the converso Jews because she was the quintessential hidden Jew.
Queen Esther was the heroine of the converso Jews because she was the quintessential hidden Jew.
I also have my grandmother’s precious candelabras, extremely old baccarat crystal, that sit next to my Shabbat candles. Every Friday I get goose bumps just imagining my relatives lighting these old candelabras with a hope that one day they could practice Judaism in public.
One uncle remembers seeing a Chanukah menorah and even kippot in the Zaraza home. Many people recall how my grandfather had a midnight private wedding ceremony where only a few were invited, perhaps because this ceremony was to remain a secret for the rest of eternity. Many converso Jews “sacrificed” a family member to the church to become a priest in order to not bring any doubt the family was indeed devoted to Christianity. And many celebrated “Mass” in their home, lead by the alleged family priest. One of my father’s uncles was a priest who later in life gave up priesthood, and many times there was a private “Mass” held at my grandmother’s house.
It wasn’t until my grandfather passed away when I was 15 that many other “secrets” came to light. My grandfather kept locked in his room many pictures and documents that helped the family reconstruct the past. The names of my ancestors and even of family members today are mostly Jewish names. We not only have converso family in our genealogy but also European Jewry (my great great grandfather’s first wife was Carmen Martin Rosenberg). My grandfather was General Guillermo Isaac Perez Telleria. He was given the honorary title of General for financing part of the Venezuelan independence war (Venezuela used to be a Spanish colony).
One of the most amazing yet macabre findings was several art works made with hair from the deceased. My family was always obsessed with keeping a lock of hair from a loved one. I still remember a lock of my grandmother’s hair framed and hung in the wall of my uncle’s home. My cousin and I both own one of these art works, which date back to the early 1800s. They are depictions of the burial of a family member, without any Christian devotional object. (In fact, I recently discovered that the family’s mausoleum in Zaraza was originally built without any Christian symbols; only an open book and the names of the deceased.) The depictions in the art are incredibly delicate, made with the strands of hair of the departed. This was perhaps done with the view that a woman’s hair, usually covered, holds the essence of holiness of that person. The date of birth of the family member in the artwork is 1802. Considering the Inquisition was abolished in 1834, it is possible her family felt she could not have a public Jewish burial.
I remember going to the cemetery with my father to visit our late relatives. Instead of bringing flowers we would search for little rocks to put on the top of the graves. I always wondered why we did this; I don’t think my father even knew. I now know this is a Jewish custom.
These secret customs were the catalyst for the Spanish Inquisition, which began in 1480 to spy on the conversos. In the course of 12 years, thousands of conversos were tortured and burned at the stake. In the year 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, aided by the Catholic Church, decided that as long as there were Jews remaining in Spain there would be conversos trying to keep Judaism in secret. Therefore, they determined that all Jews must leave Spain or convert. The Alhambra Decree (also known as the Edict of Expulsion) was issued on March 31, 1492 ordering the expulsion of Jews from the Kingdom of Spain and its territories by July 31, 1492. The punishment for any Jew who did not leave or convert by the deadline was death.
The only Jew permitted to stay under any circumstances was Don Isaac Abarbanel, a leading Torah sage who served as the Finance Minister of Spain. He was too valuable to the kingdom to spare. Abarbanel used his clout and money to try to convince the monarchs to revoke the edict, offering them so much money that the King actually hesitated. However, the evil Torquemada (Inquisitor general of Spain) convinced the monarchs otherwise. Abarbanel only managed to get the deadline extended for two more days. Hence, the date of expulsion fell on August 2, 1492 (the ninth of Av, 1492) the most horrific date in the history of the Jews.
Unfortunately, many conversos were lost and ultimately embraced the religion which oppressed them.
There is disagreement regarding the exact numbers of Jews who left Spain, but the figures vary between 130,000 to 800,000. A primary source, the Me’am Lo’ez (written in Ladino, the language of the Jews of Spain) in its section on Tisha B’av mentions that a third of the Spanish Jewish population died for their faith, a third converted and a third went into exile. It is said that the Jews that left Spain that day, including Don Isaac Abarbanel, departed singing songs of joy and uttering prayers of thanksgiving to their Creator for having withstood the test and not submitting to conversion. They were allowed to take their belongings except gold, silver and money. The crown and the inquisitors confiscated all their properties.
At the date of expulsion, 50,000 to 70,000 Jews converted to Catholicism and remained in Spain. Historians estimate a cumulative 100,000 to 200,000 Jews converted during the Inquisition. But conversion was not guaranteed protection. My family tried very hard to keep living as Catholics while keeping many Jewish customs in the privacy of their home. It was never safe because many Spaniards turned in conversos to the authorities. My family practiced Judaism in secret for more than 100 years before leaving Spain to Venezuela. Many conversos felt they would be able to live a full Jewish life by leaving, but the Inquisition followed them to the Americas. It was not until the year 1834 that the Spanish Inquisition was finally relinquished. Unfortunately, many conversos were lost and ultimately embraced the religion which oppressed them.
Tisha B’Av and Me
After so many years, whatever was left of the “spark” of Judaism in my soul has risen from the ashes and embraced the Torah. There are times I wish my family had fled Spain, leaving everything behind. How I wish they had not “given up.” How I wish I had Ladino in my lips instead of only Spanish! After all, what kind of message did they give their children when they submitted to conversion? With what authority could they have expected their children to observe Judaism when they were not strong enough to give up wealth and status for Torah? They paid a high price for trying to make the Torah “fit” their lifestyles instead of embracing their heritage and trusting that God would ultimately take care of all the details.
From my family I am the only one who “returned” to embrace Judaism.
But I choose to focus on the positive things my ancestors did accomplish. I feel the very reason I am today a Jew must be because ultimately they did something right. I have no doubt that it was because of the merit of my ancestors dying “al Kiddush Hashem,” sanctifying God’s name, that I have the privilege to become a full-fledged Jew.
I can never judge my ancestors decision for converting to Catholicism or even question what my ancestors had to go through to hide their Jewish identity. But the fact is that many of their descendants ended up not being Jewish. From my family I am the only one who “returned” to embrace Judaism. This leaves me with a great responsibility to make sure my descendants remain strong, proud Jews. Whenever I make of my grandmother’s marrano dishes I feel I am performing an act of defiance and triumph. When I eat this food on Shabbat I rejoice; the Inquisition is gone, but I remain! There is nothing better than seeing my children with tzitzit and kippot, indulging in marzipan!
I feel proud that even though many of my family members died “al Kiddush Hashem,” today my children are living “al Kiddush Hashem.”