The Paradoxes of Authenticity: A Latino-Jewish Casebook

Rabbi Juan Mejia
December 12, 2011
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My Jewish journey started in the most unusual of places: an Anti-Semitic quip at a family Christmas dinner.  Fueled by the festive mirth, one of my family members of my traditional Colombian Catholic family made a rather mild anti-Semitic comment in the presence of my grandfather.  His response astonished all of us: “We don’t joke about Jews in this house.” When pressed for more information about this strange prohibition, he volunteered that his grandfather was Jewish and that the men in the family had the strange custom of praying with towels on their heads hidden from the prying eyes of the outside world and of the hired help.

This seemingly innocuous bit of family trivia spiraled into an adolescent quest to find out more about the Jewish roots of the family and about the experiences of similar Sephardic bnai anusim (“sons of the forced ones”) who held on to their Jewish identities for centuries braving forced conversion, Inquisition, and the tension of living with two self contradicting religious identities.  Further inquiries led me to Jerusalem, to a return to my Jewish roots via conversion, and eventually to the rabbinate in order to help people with similar life journeys to mine.

In the almost two decades of my Jewish journey since that fateful Christmas Eve, my relationship to the question of authenticity has varied immensely, in ways echoed by many of the contributors to this number of Sh’ma. In the beginning there was an obsession with “proving” the historical correctness of my genetical claim to Judaism.  Paradoxically, the descendant of anusim was retracing his family tree to find “impureza de sangre”, impurity of blood, that hated Hebrew blood that would disqualify my ancestors from many colonial privileges and that probably they tried so hard to hide.  I was quite proud of my “Jewish looks”, from my olive skin to my “rabbinic” curls.  My Jewish identity, not anchored in community or religious observance, was founded in projected images of a romantic past that , if factual, my ancestors would have denied or, more probably, would not have fully recognized as theirs.

When I moved to Jerusalem to pursue a graduate degree in Jewish Civilization and finish my conversion to Judaism, the obsession with genetic authenticity was replaced with an equally restrictive notion of my own self worth as a Jew but based on religious and cultural ideal of what I thought it meant to be “Sephardic”.  No less naïve than my original genetic definitions, I projected onto my ancestors and therefore to myself a Judaism (Israeli Mizrachi ultra-ortodoxy) that they would not have recognized as theirs.  It was in the painful adoptation of this lifestyle that I realized that what I was doing was not only historically incorrect, but also personally dishonest.  I was trying to live Judaism for my ancestors when, in all probability, they would not have wanted to live in any kind of existent Judaism that I could adopt from them.  In the same way that I could not turn the clock back to 1492, it was impossible for them to live in the Judaism circa 2000.

Fortunately for myself, my notions of authenticity have changed radically since then.  From a backward facing, fact-checking sense of complying with the past, I have now a sense of Judaism that is oriented towards the present and the future.  More important to live a Judaism that will satisfy the fantasies about my ancestors’ wishes is to live a Judaism that will be appealing to my daughter.  I am now more invested in finding Jewish ways of being who I am: a middle-aged Latino immigrant living in the Bible belt, committed to Jewish living and learning, and, as a rabbinic leader, invested in the building of a Jewish future for interested seekers in Latin America.  These ways are nurtured by my family story more than by their history, and they draw deeply from the Sephardic tradition without being fully determined or limited by it.  They are projections of my Jewish self towards the future, than impositions of my imagination to my Jewish past.

Curiously, these three stages of development in my Jewish journey seem to be emulated by the collective corpus of the people that I became a rabbi to assist: the descendants (real or imaginary) of Latin America’s Sephardic bnai anusim.  Currently there is an enormous group of people all across Latin America, the American Southwest and the Iberian Peninsula who are “discovering” and “defining” their Jewish identities based on genetic and romantic ideas of a lost Sephardic past.  Daily I receive emails and phone calls from individuals that tell me that they want to find out more about their “Sephardic last names”. Genetic testing has created similar situations in the American Southwest where people find out that they are of “Jewish blood”.  Virtual fora abound in which people all loudly claim to be “more Sephardic” than the other, often not really understanding what this means.

Regardless of the historical accuracy of these claims, which in some cases can be backed up with serious genealogical research, family customs and even some Judaica heirlooms and in some others are based on outright fallacies (like the well publicized mistake that all Spanish names that end in –ez or –es are Jewish), this is the most confusing and chaotic of the layers of Jewish identity.  Given that their Jewish identity is predicated not on their personal conduct or belief system but on someone else in their distant past being Jewish: this stage of their Jewish journey is filled with contradictions between what the descendants perceive themselves to be and what they really are.  It is not uncommon to find many people in this stage of genetic authentication who are still believing Christians (and even members of the clergy) and see no contradiction with their Jewish selves.  What’s more, given that their religious understanding of Judaism is mediated by their Christian upbringing, some of them see their belief in Christianity as a fulfillment of their “racial” Judaism.   Such beliefs are not only outside the pale of any definition of Judaism (religious or secular) held in America, but it also tends to be the least fecund: since it is predicated on ancestral fetichism, it fails to create viable options for the individual to apply in his or her own life.

Most of the people that transcend this genetic stage follow up with a religious and ethnic determination of their Jewish identity.  That is, they begin to actualize their “genetic Jewishness” by the exclusive practice of Jewish religion and the participation in Jewish life.  This stage is often complicated by the fact that most bnai anusim live in places where Jewish communities are non-existent or exclusionary.  Without a real community to emulate and ground their Jewish identity, some of these bnai anusim create their religious definitions of what it means to be Jewish from the hodgepodge of information available on the internet and other media.  The results can be as varied as communities that try to simultaneously adopt the often contradictory customs of every “Sephardic” community they find on the web (whether they be Iraqi, Marroccan, Yemenite or Spanish-Portuguese) to communities that adopt Chasidic lifestyles in isolation together with the introduction of yiddishisms into their colloquial language and changing their legal names from “Antonio Fernandez” and “Pedro Guzmán” to what they perceive are the more Jewish sounding names of  “Hershel Rabinovich” or “Pinchas Gutterman”.  The norm in this stage of Jewish identity building is blind imitation.   Judaism is seen as a monolithic corpus that contradicts their Latino identities and which needs to replace them altogether.  Such ideas are natural for people who are seeking reintegration to their Jewishness, but –without the proper community or context- they can also become a paralyzing force that prevents people from developing viable, sustainable Jewish identities.

It is my opinion that if the emergent community of sincere bnai anusim is to successfully integrate to the Jewish world and not fizzle out like another fad, it needs to move beyond these two stages of identity and articulate a creative and forward facing relationship to Judaism.  This is, to find the courage to mold and adapt the ideas of their past to their current geographical and social conditions.  In other words, to imbue their Latino identities with Jewish values and, conversely, imbue their Jewish practice and institutions with the sounds, tastes, style, and looks of their Latinoness. This will not only be a blessing for the bnai anusim, who will finally find a Judaism that is rooted in their own experience and not in the experience of an imagined or real past, but it will also be a worthwhile addition to the patchwork quilt of global Jewish identities that enrich and strengthen our people.

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Rabbi Juan Mejia was born in Bogotá, Colombia. After discovering the Jewish roots of his family, he embarked on a spiritual journey that lead him back to the religion and the people of his ancestors. He holds an undergraduate degree in Philosophy from the National University of Colombia and a summa cum laude Master´s Degree in Jewish Civilization from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He received rabbinic ordination from the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in NY. He plans to devote his life to the Torah education of both Jews and descendants of anusim wherever they may be. He lives with his wife and daughter in Oklahoma City, OK. He was recently appointed as the coordinator for the Southwest for the Jewish non-profit organization Bechol Lashon.

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