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(UNDATED) Growing up in Wyoming to Catholic and Protestant parents, Isabelle Medina-Sandoval watched the women in her family practice strange customs — washing off babies’ baptismal water and setting aside some dough when they made tortillas.
“As a teenager, I always had so many questions about spirituality, I always wanted to figure out the puzzle,” she said from her home in Santa Fe, N.M.
But it wasn’t until she was in her 20s that she heard the word “Marrano,” one of the terms referring to Jews who were forced to convert after the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 and their descendants. They were Catholics who often secretly practiced Jewish customs for generations.
Medina-Sandoval’s family’s quirky practices suddenly made a lot more sense.
“Once I started looking, there was never any question,” said Medina-Sandoval, a poet and writer. She finally understood why she had an uncle who raised hogs but didn’t eat them; why her aunts left aside some dough as with the Sabbath challah bread; why she never really felt like she belonged in the Christian faith.
She was, she discovered, Jewish.
Or at least her family had been Jewish, back in Spain, more than 500 years ago. Through her great grandfather’s journals and other genealogical research, she discovered her Jewish roots and eventually decided to return to the faith of her ancestors.
This year on the Jewish festival of Shavuot (which begins Thursday, May 28), as Jews celebrate the giving of the Torah and honor their most famous convert, Ruth, many Hispanic Christians around the Southwest are rediscovering their own Jewish roots.
Some of these so-called “Crypto-Jews” are interested in the genealogical knowledge but are not planning on leaving Christianity; others practice a dual Messianic faith with both Judaism and Jesus; a few give up their faith of origin and convert — they prefer the word “return” — to Judaism.
“Chances are really good that many people have Jewish ancestors going back 500 years,” said Stanley Hordes, author of last year’s “To the End of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico.”
Hordes estimates there were several hundred thousand Jews when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel decreed all non-Christians must convert. Half fled the country; of those who stayed, half converted willingly, assimilating and eventually blending into Catholic society, he said.
“There were certain families that held onto ancestral Jewish faith and continued to practice,” he said.
Today only a “handful” of people return to Judaism, but hundreds more are investigating their backgrounds. They are people like Blanca Carrasco, who grew up Catholic in Juarez, Mexico, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. But by the time she reached her 20s, the doctrines seemed lacking and she became an evangelical. It wasn’t until she was invited to a Passover Seder at a Messianic Center in El Paso that she really felt connected to God.
“We felt it was familiar — it felt like home,” she said about herself and her husband, Cesar. “Right in that instance, our life changed. I needed to know more.”
That led her to a decade at the El Paso Messianic Center, where the couple learned about Jewish history, holidays and Crypto-Jews.
“The `anusim’ feel maybe there’s something Jewish in their family,” she said, using the Hebrew word for forced converts and their descendants. Carrasco, 43, researched her family and found names like Espinoza, Israel, Salinas, and a great aunt who said her grandmother spoke Ladino, the hybrid Spanish-Hebrew dialect.
Three years ago, Carrasco and her husband decided to leave the Messianic congregation; last year, they formally converted to Judaism in what they called a “return ceremony.”
“People would tell us, `You don’t have to do it,’ but we just love it and want to learn and want to do it,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you call it a conversion or a return. What matters is once you go in the (conversion) water, you’re going to come out a different person.”
Others, like Rabbi Stephen Leon of (Conservative) Congregation B’nai Zion in El Paso, see helping people like the Carrascos as a kind of divine mission.
“God said to me, `I cannot bring back the 6 million who were killed in the Holocaust. But there was another group before that who are alive in much larger numbers than Holocaust survivors because it’s been 500 years, generation after generation after generation. Their souls are still alive,” he said. “God told me, `You have to do something about it.”‘
Many, however, who discover some trace of Judaism in their past do not plan to make the leap of faith.
Elay Romero, a retired pipe-fitter from Espanola, N.M., about 25 miles north of Santa Fe, attended a recent “brunch and genealogy” session at the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society to hear Hordes talk about how to trace your family’s Jewish roots.
“I’ve been a practicing Catholic all my life, and the research I’ve done on my family has gone back 400 years or more in New Mexico,” he said. “I’m just curious. I won’t change my affiliation with my church, but it’s nice to know where you come from.”
Medina-Sandoval, whose written a new novel, “Guardians of Hidden Traditions,” based on the information she learned about her maternal grandmothers, says she had no choice but to embrace her Jewish roots.
Others, she acknowledged, make different choices.
“It’s very individual,” she said. “For some Hispanics, (a messianic church is) a happy medium. If that works, great. I couldn’t do that for myself.”
By AMY KLEIN
c. 2009 Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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