This past July, Daisy, a 66 year old retired teacher and Boulder resident, flew from Colorado to Spain, the land of Cervantes, Rioja and Sevilla. On the flight, Daisy felt awkward anticipation. It was the first time in 519 years, that anyone in Daisy’s extended family had been to Spain. Or rather, I should say it was the first time in 519 years anyone in Daisy’s extended family had returned to Spain.
Daisy’s family, like all Jews living in Spain in 1492, were given a choice by the Spanish Monarchy: convert to Catholicism or leave Spain, your country, your homeland. Death awaited those who refused to leave or convert. Daisy’s ancestors chose to leave Spain. They fled to Greece, a welcoming land in which they could continue to be Jews and practice Judaism. To this day, those who fled Spain, like Daisy’s family, often eat rice on Passover, make sweet donuts at Hannukah and speak the language Ladino. These Jews of Spanish descent became known as Sephardic Jews.
Yet, not all Spanish Jews chose to leave Spain. In fact, the majority stayed in Spain. Why? Jews had been living comfortably and successfully in Spain for centuries. It was their homeland. In an age before planes and cellphones, it was not easy to move one’s extended family to a new country –to a new language to a new way of life. So, many Jewish families, understandably, chose to remain in Spain. Of those who remained in Spain, the majority converted to Catholicism and became practicing Catholics. It was the easier choice. They were the so-called New Christians and they are, for the most part, lost to our Jewish community. Still other Jews, “converted” but in secrecy retained their Jewish practice and faith. Yes, at threat of death, they secretly lit Shabbat Candles, ate matzah at Passover and refused to eat pork, a biblically prohibited food.
These folks, the ones who kept on practicing Judaism secretly and to the best of their abilities became known as Crypto-Jews. In the past they were also referred to as Marranos/Anusim. Eventually, many of the “Crypto-Jews” made it to the New World – to Mexico, to Brazil and then up the Rio Grande into New Mexico and Southern Colorado. By escaping to the New World, they had hoped to escape the arms of the Inquisition and its Inquisitors. Some Crypto-Jews did escape hands of the Inquisition and some didn’t. But that is a story for another day.
Many of these Crypto Jews continued to lite shabbat candles in secret. Some tell stories of keeping a boiling pot of pork on their front porches so their neighbors would think they ate pork. Many hung crucifixes in their homes, not far from their front doors. Yet, many of these crucifixes had a special back. A back with a latch. When you opened the latch, there was a secret compartment inside that held a parchment, on the parchment were the words Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad.
Crypto-Jews married certain other families who like them were publicly Catholic but kept these “strange” secret practices. In time, over generations and centuries, many could not say, why they hador did certain practices –- but their grandmothers and grandfathers insisted that they keep these strange practices.
In the past 8 years while serving as a congregational rabbi here in Colorado, I have been approached multiple times by people who asked to meet with me because they felt “different,” different from the rest of their families. Their last names were not Cohen or Epstein. Rather their last names with Delgado and Alvarez. These folks told me that they just didn’t “jive” with the teachings they learned in their Catholic school or homes. For some unexplained reason, they felt drawn to Judaism. One woman shared how her mother and aunts had all had suffered from breast cancer and that she and her cousins were found to have the BRCA Gene. (A gene found disproportionately among Jewish women.) It got her thinking and questioning. Two others, upon doing genealogical research, were able to trace their ancestry back to at least one Jewish relative. These folks wanted to meet with me as they wanted to explore or perhaps reclaim their lost or as, Elena put it, stolen heritage. Now, they are studying and learning to be knowledgeable, modern and practicing Jews.
In October 2015, just 4 years ago, in an effort to correct a historical “wrong,” the Spanish government offered Jews with Spanish heritage or those with Sephardic Jewish ancestry the opportunity to seek and reclaim Spanish citizenship. Some folks, like Maria, whom I met this past June in Denver at the annual International Crypto Judaism conference, wants nothing to do with Spain. About 15 years ago, Maria researched her family. She discovered that her ancestors left Spain in 1492 and move to Portugal. As the inquisition came to Portugal in the early 1500s, Maria’s family was forced to leave their home a second time. Eventually Maria’s family moved to Cuba and lived there for hundreds of years. A published author, Maria now lives in Miami and is a practicing Orthodox Jew. She does not want to reclaim her lost Spanish citizenship. In contrast, Daisy has gone thru the application process and now en route to having dual citizenship – American and Spanish. Choosing whether or not to apply and reclaim Spanish citizenship is not an easy decision and there is no one right answer for all!
But what does this all have to do with tonight, Erev Yom Kippur and Kol Nidre?
On Erev Yom Kippur, we chant the Kol Nidre. It is a most haunting and beautiful tune. Some Jews who only come to synagogue once a year, come on Erev Yom Kippur, the eve of YK. They come to hear the Kol Nidre prayer. As a child, my parents and their friends would flock to the synagogue to hear the cantor chant the words.
Kol Nidre- All Vows. May all who have made vows be forgiven. May all who have made vows be forgiven. But what vows? Originally, it was the vows that the Spanish Jewish took to becomeChristians. A vow madebut not meant. Facing horrible alternatives, they made the difficult, gut wrenching choice to become Christian. Yet, they became Christian in public, “in name” and “in external form.” But, not in their hearts or in their homes. Many of these Jews, the Crypto Jews, would gather in underground rooms dressed in white clothing on Erev Yom Kippur. Like we are dressed tonight. They would chant the Kol Nidre, asking God to forgive them for the vows they took. A vow to be Catholic. A vow taken to save their lives. Yet on Erev Yom Kippur, on penalty of death, they bravely chanted the Kol Nidre and they connected to their Jewish hearts, souls and community.
And so, we too some 500 years later still gather to hear and to recite the Kol Nidre, a way to reconnect with our hearts and souls, with our community, our heritage, our history, our birthright, and our people’s ancient sacred wisdom. We are a part of this small people. A chosen people. Yisrael. A people who wrestles with the Eternal and the Eternal Questions: What is the purpose and meaning of our lives? How do we make our lives for a blessing?
I believe with all my heart, soul and might that we all carry that emotional history in our kishkes. We show up. We may not know why we do or why we do all the things we do. We may not know why it is so important that our children and grandchildren continue these ancient rituals and practices. Yet, it matters. We come here to say, “Ani Yehudi. Hineni” I am a Jew. I am Here!!! I am a Jew. I am here. WE ARE STILL HERE!