They went to church regularly, worshipped and prayed to Jesus and celebrated Christmas and Easter like any good Christian family. Except they were different. In an interview with Israel News Talk Radio, Esther recalls that her family practiced customs that she couldn’t find in any of the churches they attended or books they read. “We were not like everyone else,” she said.
Esther figured that her family was just a little bit different than other Christians until one day a friend suggested that the unique customs Esther and her family practiced were Jewish traditions going back thousands of years. Esther needed to find out and after researching discovered that she and her family were descendants of Crypto Jews, hidden Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition over 500 years ago.
The story of the Crypto Jews is a fascinating journey of how Jews were forced to become Christians, yet never fully abandoned their Judaism. For hundreds of years they practiced and lived as Christians in nations around the world in order to survive antisemitism, but preserved many Jewish rituals like keeping the Sabbath, circumcising their children and many other customs that could only be known to those familiar with the rabbinical texts like Talmud and Mishnah. “It is fascinating the ways we found to hide our Judaism,” Esther says. “One of our family members used the name Ivel, which is actually Levi written backwards in order to hide their identity.”
Esther, and her generation,who grow up as Christians without any knowledge of their Jewish heritage find it difficult to return to Judaism. “After being raised in the Church,and then finding out that I am Jewish, has not been simple,” Esther says. “I never wanted to be Jewish. I had completely accepted that I was a Christian. Imagine how hard it was to break with all those things,” she says.
Esther has had to unlearn Christian ideologies and customs and return and learn to think and act according to an OrthodoxJewish culture and worldview. “Breaking with the past and changing the way you think is a long process,” Esther admits.
Returning to the community of the people of Israel has not been easy either. “Once the Crypto Jews needed to prove that they are Christians, now they are trying to prove that they are Jewish to the Israeli authorities and it is not easy,” Esther says. “We are kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place.” Rabbis are typically suspicious of Crypto Jews and require documentation of an unbroken Jewish line of parentage. “I came back to Judaism through a Haredi Orthodox rabbi,” Esther says. “He knew that we were Jewish because of the very specific, detailed Jewish customs that we have kept in our family over these past 500 years.”
Esther is thankful she was able to convert hoping that no one will question her Judaism or the Jewish identity of her children. “I wanted to be back with the People of Israel, and I didn’t care what they called me –a convert or “anusah” – I just wanted to be back,” Esther says. Anusa is the Hebrew term for Crypto Jews meaning those who were forced to abandon their Jewish identity. The more popular term is Moranos – which in Spanish means swine – and was used to call the Jews who became Christians but held on to their Jewish customs.
There has been a lot of scholarship suggesting that Christopher Columbus was a Crypto Jew. See Israel Today’s Was Christopher Columbus a Secret Jew? “He is my 14th great grandfather,” Esther says of the Spaniard who “discovered” America. “It has been proven that his mother was of Jewish origin.”
Esther says that she is back now where she belongs within the Jewish community. “I keep looking to the Lord,” she says. “Many (Crypto Jews) are fearful of coming out with their stories, though these people have never forsaken the Lord. However many feel that He has forgotten them,” she fears.