The Jews of Medellín – Part III

This Shabat we had the visit in our Synagogue of a Rabbi, Rafael Cohen, author of twelve books in Jewish law in Spanish, where he discusses between others, the law of monogamy instituted by Rabbi Gershom of the tenth century, which according to Cohen does not apply to Sephardic communities, the rabbi was questioned by my wife in one of the statements in his book about marriage,  as f.ex. the right to divorce a wife that earns more than her husband or is praised at her job. Rabbi Cohen stayed in our city on his way to Baranquilla, a coastal city where the sea is to be used  to immerse on Sunday a group of 35 new converts to Judaism, a new Jewish community in Medellin,  called Derej Torah, supported by the chief Ashkenazic Rabbi  in Bogotá Alfredo Goldshmitd but whose community would not allow to perform the conversions himself.

This story sort of starts with Boaz Fariñas, who broke with his original  community and runs now his own, Derej Torah in Prado Centro, downtown, Medellin.  Boaz Fariñas—who runs a blog and Internet radio station Yeshiva Virtual Latinoamericano, is writing a history of the Marranos in Colombia—with the idea that all of the geographically isolated region of Antioquia, which is roughly the size and population of Israel, is one big crypto-Jewish state.

According to Fariñas: “Antioquia was colonized by Sephardic conversos fleeing the Inquisition. These colonizers. were the early adopters of marranism.

This would explain, the theory goes, and sorry if I repeat myself,  why the typical dish of the region, the bandeja paisa, or paisa platter, includes a white arepa, unleavened like matza. The platter also features a deep-fried pork rind, known as chicharrón. Its prominent display on top of the other food elements in the platter, make plain to even casual passers-by that the diner couldn’t possibly be Jewish, as would the surnames Santa Maria, Santo Domingo or Cruz do as well. The long cooking bean dish which also could originate from the well-known Jewish platter “Cholent”, from the French slow cooking or shul-end from the German and basically composed of beans, where evidence doesn’t stop there since the pot of beans, translated to “judías,” or “Jews” in Spanish. Antioquia’s colonial towns have biblical names like Belén and Jericó. Village churches, including the colonial chapel in Bello, point east and sometimes segregate the sexes. The paisa’s typical cloth poncho is striped and flecked with untied ends: crypto-tzit-tzit. Inquisition-style marranadas, the ritual public slaughtering of pigs by machete following show “trials” in which the animals were found guilty of any number of human sins, continue to be celebrated around Christmas in lower-class Medellín despite having been outlawed recently and are similar to the ceremonies carried out before the day of atonement called Kaparot. And in Antioquia, unlike elsewhere in Colombia, statues of the Virgin Mary stand to the right of the entrance to houses, and locals would brush their hand against her on their way in and out. Break the Virgins open, the crypto-Judaists say, and you would have found a mezuzah hidden inside.”

Paisas refer to themselves as a nation and a race, even though they have only an accent and geography to distinguish themselves from other Colombians, who are descendants of Europeans Africans, and Native Americans and all mestizaje in between. Still, paisas prefer to marry within themselves.

Recently, Juan Forrero,  the local reporter  for  the Washington Post  contacted me, he is writing an article on the Jewish origins of the Antioqueños, which seems more than a myth. We will wait patiently with lots of expectation for his article, which also  has interesting scientific data of DNA coincidences, that trace the link between these returnees and their 500 year back ancestors, which I am not familiar with.

As I learned from M.Fishbane in Tablet Magazine:  “So, how Jewish were the Antioqueños?  The answer depends on whether you view conversos as crypto-Jews, secretly practicing and nurturing something in the soul that is anathema to everything they do in public, or as sincere, assimilated Christian converts.  Or as behind Benzion Netanyahu’s, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain, which asks, “How Jewish were the Marranos?” and explains:  The conversos were in no way secret Jews, but instead real Christians, assimilated over several generations. They were not hated for their hypocrisy or conspiracy, for they had none. Instead, they were new Christians whose success in public life threatened the old order, which invented the notion of “blood purity”. Which originated, Netanyahu says, in racism against Jews, in other words, the Marranos—an alleged widespread crypto-Jewish movement—didn’t cause the Inquisition, instead, the Inquisition invented the idea of the converso as a crypto-Jew”.

Interesting theory in a way, but the question still remains what made these crypto-Jews maintain, mikvaot, ponchos disguising a tallit or ritual garment, bean soups that would make up for their Shabbat meal, and to put names to villages that would remind them of where their real heart longed to be, as their predecessor and poet Jehuda Halevy wrote “ My body is in the West but my heart is in Jerusalem”. Or forge communities as we read in various of Dr.RS Lissak´s  works.  “From Inquisition and other documents it emerges that the New Christians (not all New Christians were Marranos) who remained faithful to Judaism, managed to preserve Jewish life in secret for over 200 years, in the framework of communities which gathered in private houses.

The Inquisition archives in the New World, in Spain and Portugal, shed light on the efforts by Marranos to preserve their Judaism in secret. The Inquisition kept precise records regarding the confessions of Marranos from which one can deduce this. It’s important to note, that not only New Christians from Spain and Portugal immigrated to the New World. There were New Christians who originally immigrated to Europe, returned to Judaism, and subsequently immigrated to the New World. The New Christians in Portugal possessed inner Jewish resilience and were proficient in Jewish customs, because their adoption of Christianity took place on a single and collective basis, in October 1497. They not only continued to live in Jewish quarters, but the Portuguese king gave them a respite of 20 years during which they would not be sued for observing Jewish customs. The arrests only began in 1536, when the Inquisition was established in Portugal. The New Christians of Spain, in contradistinction, converted to Christianity, most of them under duress, but the act was a personal one, and the process continued over a hundred years. It was also accompanied by the terror of Christian gangs and pogroms, which led to a gradual weakening among the New Christians and made it difficult for them to observe their Judaism, especially after the expulsion of Spanish Jewry in 1492, and the severance of all contacts with Jews and Judaism. In short, there were various levels of knowledge and proficiency in Jewish customs among the emigrants.

New Christians established secret synagogues in private houses, and their congregations were organized in communities throughout the Spanish and Portuguese empires”.

Religious Leader,  Moré Elad Villegas, of the Jewish Community of Bello nowadays called  “The Orthodox Community of Antioquia”, tells us that they are  more returnees than converts. Back to 1998, Elad Villegas followed a group of 20 French evangelical Christians to Jerusalem, where in various organized activities that included visits to rabbis, and Elad began to have doubts about his spiritual path as a Christian. Two years later, Villegas again returned to Israel for 15 days. Villegas’ spiritual doubts, which were planted on his first trip to Israel, had germinated. This time, Villegas made plain his dissatisfaction with the answers he was hearing to his persistent questions of faith. How can God be both man and spirit at the same time? He decided to be Jewish and that he should lead the congregants of his evangelical mega church to Judaism, too, his colleague I understand from several of the congregants who do not want to speak about him Pastor Puerta fled to Brooklyn N.Y. and lives as an orthodox Jew. Back in Bello, Villegas stood in front of his church of 2,600 people and declared that he had made a mistake. He had led them astray —he explained that in Israel he had realized that Jesus wasn’t the messiah. He asked for forgiveness and sat with parishioners one by one, answering their questions as humbly as he could.

Interesting, but I haven’t  come across serious academic studies to explain this phenomena,  further than articles here and there as Fishbane’s more political approach, (trying to find similarities in the violent Colombia with the crypto-jews process)  and excuse my ignorance, hopefully someone will  give us more light on this, but I could not let be, to express my surprise and write about it as to  see how after a year and a half in my post at the community that stands for traditional Judaism and 80 years of generations of Jews originally coming from devastating Europe as my parents did, has to deal with these newcomers,  more than a challenge, a spiritual trip .

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