This article first appeared in the Jewish Historical Seminars Bulletin

In 1948, Raphael Patai went to Mexico to investigate recent reports by English-speaking visitors to Mexico of encounters with so-called “Indian Jews.” Although he did not a priori rule out a possible connection to descendents of anousim (crypto-Jewish descendents of the forced converts of Spain and Portugal), Patai was left unconvinced. He based his conclusions on interviews he conducted with members of a group from Venta Prieta, Pachuca, and with some members of the Iglesia de Dios Israelita in Mexico City and in Puebla, a philo-semitic, Sabbath observing, biblical church, related to a branch of Seventh-Day Adventists.

When I first read Patai’s two papers reporting on these groups, I was troubled by the author’s unawareness of the culture of crypto-Judaism as reflected in records of the Inquisition and other sources. In his analysis, Patai relied entirely on his own ability to corroborate and authenticate oral testimony. For example, one informant, “Mr. Manzanares,” told Patai that he was a Jew, as were both his parents, and that he believed that Jesus was a good philosopher and a prophet, but that he was neither Son of God nor Messiah. Patai did not recognize that every part of the reported statement is standard crypto-Jewish creed: The approach to Jesus as prophet or sage is commonly found in the processos of victims of the Inquisition in Mexico and elsewhere. Saying that one’s parents or grandparents are Jews, asserting descent from Jews—as opposed to a spiritual connection such as perceived by fundamentalist Christian groups—is also a standard feature of crypto-Jewish transmission. It seemed to me that this “Mr. Manzanares,” who had expected to be understood but found no resonance, despaired and retreated from communication with the scholar from Jerusalem. I wish I had met the poor man, I thought to myself, and could tell him that I understood.

I never dreamed this wish would be granted me.

This is the story of one tortured soul, a man who tried his best to be recognized by other Jews for what he was. But there was no context for the modern Jews and scholars he was in touch with to interpret his message which was couched in a language and culture that stem from a legacy of secrecy and have been adapted to life in the shadow of the Inquisition. Indeed, it has taken more than half a century, as well as boundless effort on the part of his children, for this man to die in hope and peace.

I first met his son and daughter one year ago. They were both in various stages of conversion to Judaism, having had reason to suspect for many years that they were descended from the anousim. They sought my help in trying to identify traces of Jewish heritage that they might not have recognized as such themselves. I found relatively little, largely because they were raised in a branch of the Iglesia de Dios Israelita founded by their father, a church which observes many biblical practices. In my experience with anousim who join such churches, the adoption of such pro-Israel, pro-Jewish Christianity obliterates virtually all traces of specifically Jewish customs in the space of only one generation. But there were some oddities that left me thinking there was more here than met my eye, so I kept in touch.

When I returned to Mexico this past summer, I offered to spend a Shabbat with the family. The daughter picked me up from the airport and on the way to town told me that her father has been lying on his deathbed for thirteen years already, unable to talk, though alert. His doctors could not understand what was keeping him alive. She felt that her father awaited some closure which she hoped I could help bring.

I came to the family home in a neighborhood that has earned itself a reputation as one of the most dangerous in the enormous city of Mexico. We were in a rush to set up, get everything ready and then welcome the Shabbat. We lit the candles; the mother and daughter had been doing this together for a very long time. I was praying from my siddur and the family — mother, daughter and grandson — were praying from a transliteration they shared. Then we recited kiddush, and over dinner discussed various family customs the mother remembered from her childhood in rural Zacatecas. I mentioned Patai’s articles where his interview with her father is reported. They had never seen it, so I took it out and read to them. At the first words the daughter froze; a mix of excitement and rage washed over her. Here she had been asking her father for all these years whether they were Jews, sensing that he was hiding things from her, but he had never answered. Instead he would distract her, stare her in the eye and not respond, ignore her, but he never said yes or no. Yet to that stranger he had said that he was a Jew so simply and so fully, long before she was born. She did not know how to react. I tried to explain that her father’s silence was a confirmation of sorts, that being too clear would commit her to seek a goal which he himself had failed to attain, and that, in general, anousim mostly speak in hints and hidden messages.

We went back to exploring family customs. I remembered that both son and daughter had said to me they did not recall eating milk and meat in the same meal, but also did not remember being told not to. So I asked the mother about the typical diet in her childhood home in the state of Zacatecas, where she had been raised Catholic, and when we got to milk or cafe-aux-lait at the end of lunch, which was the only meal containing meat, she explained it was not included because “milk is for breakfast and supper, not for lunch,” while meat was only eaten at the main (midday) meal. This is one of the two most common reasons given to me by anousim who separate dairy and meat products in their diet.

We talked about the killing and preparation of animals, and I learned that many Jewish practices survived in the mother’s family. We were told about her uncle and brothers who were heckled by neighbors and called Judíos, and much more that never came up in any conversation in the past, simply because the questions never came up. Moreover, these matters were either ones that involved bad memories not easily repeated or, because they were so natural to the informant and not deemed of interest they just lay as dormant memories. When I asked about death and burial the mother first talked about the white sheet with which the dead was to be covered, then began to cry, saying that her husband had asked of her that he be buried in a specific direction but she could not remember which it was, and could I please help her. The daughter did not understand that the mother was thus acknowledging her awareness of the Jewish identity of her husband.

We went to visit the father who was staying in an nearby apartment cared for by a nurse. I introduced myself and explained why I had come. When I mentioned Patai he winced. I said we needed to know the truth at last, that his daughter needed to know. I asked him, “Is it true, what you said to Patai, that you, your mother and your father are Jews?” He looked at me with eyes I will never forget and nodded his head clearly in the affirmative. His daughter burst into tears and, for the first time since he had fallen ill, years ago, her father squeezed her hand back. Asked if his wife was also a Jew, he responded with the same affirmative. I said I was sorry for all the years of solitude and held his hand as he wept.

It is not possible for me to share with the world the intimacy of discovery and confirmation and its impact on the family. There are no words either for the expression and gestures of this man who lost his voice, but never his hope. They are forever embedded in my soul.

Meanwhile, his wife and daughter prepared burial shrouds for him, and my husband brought earth from Jerusalem. His wife became driven to uncover everything. She wanted me to ask more questions, asked what else I wanted to know, desperate to drag the memories out now. It turns out that her husband had discussed conversion to Judaism with her, and that he had done so with his son as well. He had visited synagogues, and tried to send his children to a Jewish school. Indeed his daughter from his first marriage attended a Jewish school for a while.

I visited Roberto as often as I could while I was in Mexico. Now that everything was in the open, and he knew that his family was united in its true identity, he stopped eating and began getting weaker. The last time I saw him, he was in the hospital again, and we both knew it was the end. I said goodbye, and made a few promises to him. Outside, his wife asked that I also bring some earth from Jerusalem for her next time I came. Two days afterwards he left us.