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Hidden Heritage

The Legacy of the Crypto-Jews

Janet Jacobs (Author)

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This study of contemporary crypto-Jews—descendants of European Jews forced to convert to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition—traces the group's history of clandestinely conducting their faith and their present-day efforts to reclaim their past. Janet Liebman Jacobs masterfully combines historical and social scientific theory to fashion a brilliant analysis of hidden ancestry and the transformation of religious and ethnic identity.
Acknowledgements

Introduction. Crypto-Jewish Descent: An Ethnographic Study in Historical Perspective

1. Secrecy, Antisemitism, and the Dangers of Jewishness
2. Women and the Persistence of Culture: Ritual, Custom, and the Recovery of Sephardic Ancestry
3. The Self-in-Relation and the Transformation of Religious Consciousness
4. Syncretism and Faith Blending in Modern Crypto-Judaism
5. Conversion and the Rekindling of the Jewish Soul
6. Jewish Ancestry and the Social Construction of Ethnic Identity

Conclusion. Ethnic Loss and the Future of Crypto-Jewish Culture
Janet Liebman Jacobs is Professor of Sociology and Women's Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She is the author of Divine Disenchantment: Deconverting from New Religions (1989) and Victimized Daughters: Incest and the Development of the Female Self (1994), and editor of Religion, Society, and Psychoanalysis: Readings in Contemporary Theory (1997).
"Janet Jacobs enters fearlessly into the house of mirrors that is Jewish-Hispanic identity, where nothing is what it appears to be. Her ethnography is about the uses of silence and the excuses of memory."—Ilan Stavans, author of On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language

"Janet Jacobs's book is a beautifully written, compelling account of the experiences of contemporary crypto-Jews who are struggling to locate the meanings of their various identities. I know of no other works that cover this material, and Jacobs does so in a rich finely nuanced way in which she deals with issues of family, memory, community, and belonging. I love the way she draws on such a wide variety of materials to explore this topic in a wide-ranging and impressive way."—Lynn Davidman, author of Tradition in a Rootless World

Distinguished Book Award, Society for the Scientific Study of Religion

Chapter Five

Conversion and the Rekindling of the Jewish Soul

  For a little more than half the descendants who participated in this study, the discovery and exploration of their Jewish ancestry resulted in conversion and the adoption of a Jewish religious worldview. These descendants identify both spiritually and culturally with modern Judaism and with the religious heritage of their Sephardic ancestors. While attachment to crypto-Jewish family members is an important part of nurturing an emotional connection to Judaism (see chapter 4), the decision to convert is informed by a diverse set of circumstances that the descendant brings to the conversion experience. For some descendants, converting to Judaism marks the end of a long search for a meaningful spiritual tradition, while for others, Judaism is appealing because it resonates with the descendant's prior religious orientation. Thus, one descendant chose Judaism after experimenting with Buddhism and Hinduism and another because the study of Torah was similar to her study of scripture in the Assemblies of God Church. In the latter case, the descendant recalled:

In my growing up as a Protestant, we read what I now know to be the Torah. And with such love for Israel, you know, it sounded like there's this love for the community and God's special relationship to Israel. . . . the fundamentalist element in Mexico and Latin America is what I've now come to understand as the survival of the essence of the Torah.
Because the descendants come to Judaism from widely different backgrounds and spiritual paths, their varied encounters both with the religion and with the conversion process illuminates the multifaceted nature of Jewish conversion in contemporary society. The narratives therefore reveal the intersecting and dynamic relationship among law, history, and theology in the modern construction of Jewish religious identity. Accordingly, a discussion of the legal issues affecting conversion provides a good starting point from which to consider the religious response to ancestral Judaism among modern crypto-Jewish descendants.

 

MODES OF CONVERSION AND THE POLITICS OF JEWISHNESS

Within the contemporary discourse on Jewish conversion, the questions surrounding birthright and Jewish legal status are especially salient for crypto-Jewish descendants, since ancestral attachments have different meanings within the spectrum of religious orientations that comprise Jewish thought and practice. According to Jewish law, the most important signifier of Jewishness is being born of a Jewish mother.1 Thus, in Orthodox and Conservative traditions, conversion is required of all those who cannot trace matrilineal descent, even if the father is Jewish by birth.2 The legal definition of Jewishness stipulates that any child born of a Jewish mother is by law Jewish, regardless of what future religious paths the mother, father, or child may take.3

The emphasis on maternal religious inheritance can be explained from a social and political perspective that locates concerns about Jewish lineage within a biblical and historical framework. The religious rationale for matrilineal descent is derived from a passage in Deuteronomy that prohibits a Jewish father from arranging a marriage between his child and a gentile. The directive from God is contained within a series of commands that God gives to the Jews as they are about to enter the land of Israel after exile in Egypt. In these Torah passages, God directs the Jews to cast out all other nations and expressly prohibits intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews:

2. and when the Lord thy God shall deliver them [the Hittites, Girgashites, and Cannanites] up before thee, and thou shall smite them: then thou shalt utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor show mercy unto them; 3. neither shalt thou make marriages with them: thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son. 4. For he will turn away thy son from following Me."4
The prohibition on intermarriage reflects anxiety about Jewish constancy, since it is feared that the child born of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father will reject the Jewish faith and, more significantly, the God of Israel. Talmudic interpretation of this passage concluded that a child born of a union between a gentile father and Jewish mother is, by law, a Jew, because the child in the Deuteronomy passage is considered the child of the mother's father, the Jewish patriarch to whom this commandment is directed.5 Through this reasoning, it is the maternal grandfather through whom Jewish lineage is actually inherited. Modern Jewish commentary on the Talmud's view of the Deuteronomy passage thus explains matrilineal descent in the following manner:

Since the Torah, on this interpretation, calls the child of an Israelite mother and gentile father the "son" of an Israelite grandfather, it was deduced therefrom that the child is to be regarded as being of the same race and faith as the mother. Consequently, the child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother follows in Jewish Law the religious status of the mother.6
While the religious rationale for matrilineal descent offered by Talmudic scholars reinforced the primacy of the Jewish patriarch and his legal authority over his daughter's child,7 other explanations maintain that matrilineal descent developed in response to concerns over paternity.8 Within this interpretive framework, the importance of the mother's Jewishness in religious law can be explained in terms of the effects of rape and foreign acculturation on Jewish survival. According to this perspective, historically the survival of Jewish culture was at risk because of both intermarriage and sexual violation among a people who were constantly at war and under foreign domination. Religious inheritance through the mother therefore sustained the Jewishness of the child, regardless of the religion or nationality of the father.

Whether the religious laws were intended to establish the primacy of the Jewish patriarch or to deflect fears surrounding unknown or non-Jewish paternity, the result of matriarchal descent has been the development and maintenance of legal codes that today perpetuate a biological definition of Jewishness linking blood to religiosity and race to beliefs. As a legal construct, the transmission of Jewishness through the mother has grown in importance in recent decades, placing crypto-Jewish descendants in a contested arena of Jewish identity where traditional laws governing conversion limit access to membership in the religious community. Thus, Marc Angel, a leading Sephardic rabbi in the United States, while expressing kinship with Spanish crypto-Jewish descendants, nonetheless maintains that unless matrilineal descent can be established, conversion is required before they can be recognized as Jews:

When Jewish spokesmen tell the people in New Mexico that they are accepted as Jews because they have gone through a lot, because they love Judaism, because they have ancestors who were Jews several hundred years ago—they are misleading these individuals . . . a compassionate and wise guide would tell them that he is glad of their interest in embracing Judaism, and that to be accepted as Jews they should follow the necessary procedure: halakhic conversion.9 In this way these individuals can achieve a genuine and universal acceptance among the Jewish people.10
Within the boundaries set by Angel and other Orthodox religious authorities, only one descendant in this study was recognized as Jewish through blood ties to the mother. In this case, the descendant's mother suffered from Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, a degenerative disease of the central nervous system that has been linked specifically to Sephardic ancestry.11 When the descendant approached a rabbi in Colorado, she was told that because of her mother's illness, she would not have to go through a formal conversion before beginning the practice of Judaism:

The rabbi said, "You're Jewish. It doesn't make any difference if you are an atheist, you are Jewish. You don't have to convert. You can just start practicing the laws if that's what you want to do."
In recalling this aspect of her search for Jewish roots, she spoke of both the relief and sadness that accompanied her mother's diagnosis and the rabbi's affirmation of her Jewish lineage:

It was great to find out positively that I was Jewish. I had already been researching it, so I was pretty sure that we were Jewish. So I was relieved that I didn't have to research my mother's side anymore. We knew my mother was ill. We knew she had a condition that wasn't getting any better. You know, it was hard knowing that my mother was ill in the first place. That was pretty tough. So the emotions were kind of mixed, because I was relieved that we were Jewish, but, you know, it's heartbreaking to see your mother go through that.
For the vast majority of descendants whose "birthright" remains a more complicated and disputed area of religious identity, decisions to convert invited a wide array of responses from others. For some descendants, external recognition of Sephardic ancestry lies at the heart of their conversion dilemma. A woman of Mexican descent recounted a trip to Israel in which she brought along her genealogical documents with the hope that the rabbinic authority would recognize her blood ties to Judaism:

I went to the chief rabbi, and I brought him a write-up of my whole story. I demanded to be heard, to be accepted, and I never even saw him. They would not even allow me to present my case to him. The deep pain, the deep rejection, that I felt when I left there. But then I recovered. I remembered that Hashem [God] knows all that counts. I did not need this rabbi to make me a Jew.
Other descendants voiced similar feelings of disappointment and anger when their Jewishness was called into question:

When I was twelve or thirteen, my dad took me to see a rabbi, and he was a Conservative rabbi, and he starts asking me about my mother and her family. I wanted a bar mitzvah. I wanted to read Hebrew, but that's not what happened. To me, I made the commitment when I was thirteen. I've lived it as much as I can every day. I've done everything to educate myself in my own way. When rabbis would talk to me I would listen. . . . When I lived in Venezuela, I went to a synagogue. I went to the rabbi's office and told them that I would be there for a year and that I wanted to join the synagogue. So I went to see the rabbi, and the first thing he says is, "You don't have a Jewish name." He wanted me to get a letter from my rabbi here and send it to him verifying who and what I was. The entire year I was down there, I never once went to that temple. I didn't bother. . . . I walked by there every day. It really upset me. It was a beautiful temple. I was miserable.
In response to his rejection by mainstream Judaism, this descendant started attending a Lubavitcher synagogue in the United States, where he is permitted to read from the Torah and where his Jewish authenticity has not been challenged.12 Other descendants have found similar affirmation in synagogues in Europe. A descendant who was raised in South America took her family genealogy to a rabbi in Portugal who without question accepted her as a Jew:

I went to the rabbi and I explained to him about my history. I took all the papers and pictures of my family, and they believed me! The synagogue and the people over there—it was like being in your own land, and you come to them and tell them you are here, and they accept you.
As exemplified by these diverse accounts, the indeterminate status of crypto-Jewish descendants has raised difficult and troubling issues within Jewish legal circles, since rabbis from different sectors of the Jewish community have taken various approaches to the question of conversion. Within the liberal sector of Reform Judaism, a small number of rabbis in the United States have created special ceremonies welcoming the descendants into Judaism. One such ceremony at a Reform synagogue in the Southwest brought a number of descendants together in a rite of return. In this special service, participants held the Torah as they recited prayers, publicly declaring their commitment to Judaism. Although a portion of the descendants have embraced rites of return such as these, the majority of participants who identify as Jewish have chosen to undergo a more traditional conversion. As one male descendant explained:

The fact that I was Jewish once upon a time, I mean by ancestry and blood, is not enough, because I never practiced Judaism. I never studied Judaism. So how could I say that I was a Jew?. . .  My personal opinion, in my case, was that, yes, my ancestors were Jews, but I was not. And maybe I wasn't a Christian, either, so I was nothing. But in order to become a Jew, I thought the first thing I had to do was to study Judaism and then I have to be circumcised, which is what I did.
Once an individual decides to convert, she or he must then decide which denomination of Judaism to pursue. Depending on whether a descendant seeks membership in an Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform synagogue and whether the congregation is Sephardic or Ashkenazic, the conversion experience will vary greatly. Although all forms of Jewish conversion require the convert to make a commitment to follow the commandments of the Torah, the extent to which the commandments are studied and observed will differ according to the orthodoxy of the congregation and the prerogatives of the supervising rabbi. Differences also exist in conversion policies over the requirements of circumcision (for the uncircumcised) and ritual immersion.

Among the Orthodox, conversion requires intensified instruction in Torah, circumcision for males, and ritual immersion, all of which are overseen by a bet din, a rabbinic court made up of three Orthodox rabbis.13 The Conservative Movement, which takes a more moderate yet traditional approach, also requires instruction in Torah, circumcision, and ritual immersion. Here, however, the rabbinic court need not be composed of Orthodox rabbis. The Reform Movement, the most liberal of the three approaches, involves some religious training and education but does not usually require circumcision and ritual immersion.14 These variations within Judaism are further complicated by the dilemma posed by the Orthodox authorities, who will only accept a Jewish convert whose bet din is comprised of Orthodox rabbis. Finally, because Sephardic Judaism has no Reform or Conservative dimension, a descendant who wishes to become part of the Spanish Jewish tradition will have no choice but to become Orthodox.

Against this backdrop of diversity and disagreement, the descendants have chosen different modes of conversion. Some have selected orthodoxy because of its emphasis on tradition and the fear that they or their children might be denied Israeli citizenship if their conversion were contested. Others have chosen Reform and Conservative approaches, finding an openness and flexibility that provides a needed bridge between their non-Jewish past and their desire for a Jewish future. Still others specifically seek out Sephardic congregations, where the culture of Spanish Judaism prevails. Finally, in choosing a congregation, how their motivation to convert is interpreted may also influence the descendant's decision.

Beginning with the earliest history of Jewish conversion, rabbinic authorities expressed concern about the sincerity of converts. In the twelfth century, the rabbi and scholar Maimonides established criteria for judging the convert who might be motivated by money or love rather than by belief in God:

When a man or woman comes to be converted, one makes enquiries lest it be for the sake of money they will come to possess, power they will gain or out of fear, that they have come to seek entry into the religion. If it is a man one makes enquiries lest he has set his eye upon a Jewish woman. If it is a woman one makes enquiries lest she has set her eye upon a young man of the young men of Israel. If no such cause is found, one informs them of the weight of the yoke of the Torah and the difficulty involved in observing it for those who come from other nations, in order that they may depart. If they accept and do not depart and one can observe that they are returning out of love, then one accepts them.15
Maimonides's cautious stance on conversion remains part of Jewish rabbinic attitudes today, and it is not uncommon for some test of faith to be given someone requesting conversion. One woman from Mexico described her struggle to find a rabbi who would agree to convert her after she had emigrated to the United States:

When I came to this country, there were so many things I experienced. I mean, I went to one rabbi, and he threw me out of his office, literally. I went to another rabbi, and this rabbi would not hear of it. He heard my story and then he said, "I'm sorry, I don't even want to talk to you about it." And then I went to another place, I called another synagogue and I asked if I could convert, and the rabbi said he would talk to me. He gave me about two weeks before I could talk to him. And then he said, "What do you want to talk to me about?" Of course he had written down that I wanted to convert and that I would be seeking somebody to convert me. He said, "We don't do that. Just forget it, we have enough problems, you have enough problems without being Jewish." But I said, "I already go to temple." And he said, "You have to be certain. You have to be willing to learn all these rituals and laws." I said I was willing and that I knew some of it already. Finally, he agreed. I find out at the end that they are supposed to do that, discourage you, to see if you come back.
The case cited above was among the more extreme instances of faith testing. While other respondents also reported that they had been treated with skepticism in their initial enquiries, many explained that, within time, the rabbi with whom they first spoke became increasingly open to the possibility of conversion.

Still other descendants reported that they were encouraged to pursue their interest in Judaism from the outset. In Texas, for example, two small and relatively new congregations, one Orthodox and the other Reform, offered descendants two very different but receptive environments in which to undergo conversion. A more in-depth look at each of these congregations will help to characterize the varied conversion venues that the descendants encountered as they sought a Jewish religious identity.

 

RELIGIOUS CONVERSION AND THE SYNAGOGUE EXPERIENCE

On the outskirts of Dallas sits a comparatively new Reform synagogue with a recently established congregation that embraces a wide range of converts from varied ethnic and cultural backgrounds. The rabbi, who welcomes converts into his growing and diverse congregation, is especially open to those with crypto-Jewish heritage and to others who may have ancestral connections to Judaism. Lodged in a recently renovated warehouse, the synagogue has a unique and eclectic quality. Among the newly converted congregants are crypto-Jewish descendants and Europeans whose families have ties to the Holocaust.

During one Friday-night service, two European congregants described keeping their own Judaism hidden in response to growing up in Europe in the aftermath of World War II. In the years following the Holocaust, fears associated with antisemitism had kept them from identifying as Jews, although in both cases, the congregant's mother had been Jewish. In the last few years, as "their roots began to pull" at them, both of these European congregants choose to convert, having been drawn to this Reform synagogue where individuals like them were engaged in a return to Judaism. Along with the crypto-Jewish descendants, the European converts have created a spiritual home in this small yet inclusive congregation. The prayers and rituals are mostly in English, and there is a focus on the study of Torah as a guiding text for both the secular and religious realms of life. One crypto-Jewish descendant who attended this congregation described the importance of Torah and prayer within the context of the religious community:

Even before I converted, I always felt that there was one God and I would pray to him and talk to him. And I always felt that but this experience of conversion has opened up other things, becoming part of this intellectual Jewish community. Through the study of Torah, it's like experiencing life in a different way. I have become more meditative. I understand why we act the way we act. And we're really blessed with this rabbi. He is very intellectual, a man of learning. He interacts with the congregation and he is very helpful. Learning from him and being part of this congregation, you understand that Judaism is a way of life and that you have to keep studying.
As described above, community, prayer, and Torah are also at the center of religious life in another small congregation that, like the Reform synagogue, exists on the margins of Dallas's mainstream Jewish community. The members of this congregation, however, are Orthodox, having recently immigrated to the United States from countries such as Iraq, Yemen, Tunisia, and Morroco. This largely Middle Eastern community holds services in a house that has been transformed into a Sephardic synagogue. The living room serves as a sanctuary and is divided by a mechitzah (a latticed wooden partition) so that men and women can worship separately. Although the ark holding the Torah is on the men's side, the women are able to view the scrolls at designated times during the service when the Torahs are lifted above the partition by the male congregants.16

A female descendant who was raised in Mexico attends this synagogue every Saturday. It is here that she feels most at home in her Judaism, the Sephardic melodies and customs having greater resonance for her than the liturgies and rituals of the Ashkenazic service:

I remember the first day I walked into this little congregation. I wept as the Torah was being read. Oh, the Torahs are so gorgeous. They have this gold, this beautiful crown; the velvet is red, and the cover has royal blue velvet and gold. And the men were such an inspiration, reading the Torah, and I thought, how come I have not found a place like this in all these years? The men and the women really come to pray. I mean they close their eyes when they pray, and I love it because that's what I do. For the first time, I truly felt at home. I have been to Israel and I went to Israeli congregations, and I thought this place is just like a neighborhood Sephardic synagogue in the middle of Jerusalem. But it's right in the middle of Dallas! It's a very special place.
This narrative speaks to the affinity for Sephardic Judaism that the respondents frequently express, and yet this descendant was among the very few who were attracted to the Orthodox movement. The vast majority of respondents joined Ashkenazic Conservative and Reform congregations, which along with being more liberal in their approach also exist in far greater numbers in the United States. In becoming members of Reform synagogues, however, some of the descendants reported that, unlike in the Dallas Ashkenazic congregation described above, they did not always feel welcomed by the religious community. In recalling the difficulties one descendant encountered in attending services, he provided this account of his experience in a Reform synagogue in the Southwest:

When I came out as a Jew, I began to go to synagogue. I put on the tefillin and the talit [prayer shawl] and would pray and chant in Spanish. So we would come in and there would be three or four rows vacant where the Marranos would always sit. We were segregated within the synagogue, and the more we held to tradition, the more we were rejected. Finally, when we would begin to pray, they would turn their faces away from us. I stopped going. It was a very painful experience. We were not accepted by these Ashekanzic Jews. We had been in hiding hundreds of years, and when we finally came out, we were not accepted.
The rejection that this descendant experienced in part reflects the marginalization of Spanish Jewish culture within Judaism more generally, since the relationship between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews has historically been fraught with tensions. Up until the eighteenth century, Sephardic Jews outnumbered those of Ashkenazi origin, and the first Jewish immigrants to the Americas were Spanish Portuguese Sephardim whose religious and social culture predominated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in North America. By the early nineteenth century, however, mass emigration of German Jews created a demographic shift, giving prominence to the German Jewish community in North America. During this time, the descendants of the colonial Spanish Portuguese populations retained a certain status and respect because of their historical link to the Spanish Golden Age, when Jewish culture flourished on the Iberian peninsula. Ashkenazic attitudes toward the Sephardic immigrants who emigrated from Turkey in the early 1900s, however, were quite different.17 As discussed in chapter 1, early-twentieth-century concerns about Jewish assimilation among Ashkenazic populations in the United States led to the rejection and devaluation of the Turkish Sephardic refugees, whose dress, custom, language and general appearance presented a less European image of the Jewish immigrant.18

As a minority population among European Jews, the Sephardim were marginalized by the predominant Ashkenazic communities, which were larger and had greater visibility. By the mid-twentieth century, Sephardic Judaism in the United States had effectively been silenced and rendered invisible within the larger German Jewish population. Debra Regina, a writer of both Sephardic and Ashkenazic ancestry, describes the gradual suppression of her Spanish Jewish heritage:

I grew up with the best of both Jewish worlds: half Sephardic/half Ashkenazic, yet most of what I felt as a Jew was influenced by Sephardic culture, food, tradition, memory. Growing up, my family exclusively attended Sephardic services during the High Holy Days. . . . Trying to meld that knowledge of Sephardic culture within an Ashkenazic-based Jewish community was often confusing, painful and alienating . . . There were big gaps; I truly felt like a minority within a minority.19
Despite or perhaps because of the tensions that have surfaced over the treatment of the Sephardim generally and descendants of crypto-Jews more specifically, the descendants in this study speak of a desire to return to an imagined Jewish community where ethnic and racial boundaries dissolve in the re-creation of a universal Jewish religious identity.20 Accordingly, they seek out welcoming congregations where participating in Jewish ritual and prayer provides the spiritual context for the realization of the idealized Jewish community. A descendant thus explained:

Going to synagogue is such a treat. I mean, you are hearing the chants. They echo the prayers to each other. It feels so ancient. I don't read Hebrew or speak Hebrew, but in that congregation, it's always right. My soul hears the Hebrew, feels the Hebrew, and then my brain and my mouth utter the prayers in Spanish. The prayers in English don't mean the same thing. This place is really special.
For creating a spiritual resonance with Jewish ritual and prayer, the Hebrew language is especially significant in fostering a universal sense of Jewishness that is experienced through the sounds and chants of Hebraic songs and prayers. The cadence and rhythm of the religious language establishes a milieu in which the convert experiences a connection to Jewish spiritual traditions, as another descendant stated:

When I go to services, I feel a very spiritual connection to the whole process. I don't understand a thing that is being said. I hear the Hebrew chanting and the prayers, and then I read it in English and I get a very emotional connection. So although I'm not reading the prayers in Hebrew, I still have this really deep connection with what's going on. I see the eternal light there and the Star of David behind the rabbi, and I feel like I've come home and it is really spiritual.
In seeking to reclaim a Jewish spiritual self, the descendants voice a longing to return to God and to Torah, since both these aspects of Judaism are understood through a deep and lasting bond to the descendants' Spanish Jewish ancestors. As such, conversion, whether in Sephardic or Ashkenazic communities, incorporates a theology of return that has become part of the contemporary discourse on Jewish religious experience.

 

ANCESTRAL TIES AND THE MEANING OF TESHUVAH

Jewish thought conceptualizes conversion as both answering the call of God and returning to God though a fundamental change in inner beliefs and spiritual understanding. As such, the Jew who has fallen away from God and who returns to Judaism is the baal teshuvah, an individual who responds to the calling and who has "truly returned."21 Within the theology of exile that has characterized Jewish thought since the Diaspora, the concept of teshuvah ("return") has had varied interpretations. A modern-day perspective on this concept is articulated in the writings of Adin Steinsaltz, a rabbi and scholar, who explains the meaning of teshuvah this way:

Teshuvah occupies a central place in Judaism and has many facets. As individuals differ from one another, so too do their modes of teshuvah, in both motive and form of expression. Broadly defined, teshuvah is more than just repentance from sin: it is a spiritual reawakening, a desire to strengthen the connection between oneself and the sacred. . . . For at the root of the notion of teshuvah lies the concept of return (shivah)—return, not only to the past (one's own, or one's ancestors), but to the Divine source of all being: "You shall return (shavta) to the Lord your God."22

Steinsaltz's perspective illuminates the varied layers of meaning that the notion of return may have for ancestral Jews who feel that they have been separated both from their Jewish roots and from God. This understanding of teshuvah therefore provides a useful context for exploring the spiritual meaning of conversion and return for crypto-Jewish descendants, who describe their initial experience of Jewish spirituality as an emotional return to the religion of their Jewish ancestors. This return is frequently signified by a public rendering of the Shema, the prayer that gives testimony to the belief in a unitary notion of the divine.23 Here a male descendant conveys the feelings he experienced when, as a newly converted Jew, he recited the Shema for the first time:

When I uttered the Shema in front of the Torah and witnesses—"Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One"—that was enough. I mean, it's a powerful experience. The Shema means something to me. It's my vow, my return.
Within the history of crypto-Judaism, the acknowledgment of a unitary God posed certain dangers for the forced converts. During the Inquisition, the belief in a unitary God was often used as evidence of blasphemy for those accused of Judaizing, especially among converts who referred to God in the Spanish singular, El Dio, rather that the Christianized term, Dios, since the latter nomenclature carried with it the implication of a tripartite divinity.24 The survival of the concept of El Dio has been found among contemporary descendants; a number of respondents reported that their mothers and grandmothers refer to God only as El Dio, in contrast to what they had been taught in church.

Within present-day crypto-Judaism, the importance of a unitary concept of God underlies the emotional attachment to Judaism that becomes evident in the conversion process, especially in the symbolic recitation of the Shema. One descendant explained her acceptance of the Jewish concept of a unitary God as a "lifting of the veil" from her eyes:

I believe God is the hope. And it is like there is one God, and he did these things. . . . I find that as I take the veil off of my eyes and look at the symbolism here, I find there are so many opportunities out there. And that to me is the exciting part. ÖAnd I remember the first time even thinking that I was Jewish, I guess deep down knowing that I came from a crypto-Jewish family. I had always been proud of my Hispanic tradition, but when I realized what a Sabbath meant on a Friday night, it was like, how many thousands of years have my people done this? . . . It's about returning, it's a return to everything. It's a return to Judaism, to my roots and to who I am.
In keeping with Steinsaltz's view on teshuvah, the concept of return as expressed by this descendant embraces a notion of one God that is given meaning through her connection to her Jewish ancestors. The reclamation of a Jewish spiritual perspective is deeply rooted in ancestral attachments that frame the emotional context through which contemporary conversion takes place. The significance of ancestral ties for descendants represents a deepening of the spiritual self-in-relation, since the descendants' affective ties to Judaism extend beyond the boundaries of childhood familial attachments to the historical community of Jews in ancient Israel and in medieval Spain. This affective link to Jewish ancestry thus represents a tie to the Jewish people and to God, through which the spirit of Judaism becomes manifest in the rituals of return that signify the descendant's reentry into an ancestral faith. This phenomenon is evident in rituals such as the bar and bat mitzvah that serve as adult rites of passage among crypto-Jewish converts. In one case, a male descendant shared his bar mitzvah with his wife and thirteen other adults, some of whom had also recently converted to Reform Judaism. In describing his feelings as he read from the Torah for the first time, he emphasized the suffering of his ancestors in Spain:

When I had my bar mitzvah, I felt like I was a bridge between the old generations and the new ones. I really feel that way. My part in the service was the Shema, and I told the rabbi when I read it out loud that these words were the last words of Jews that were killed and burned by the Inquisition. And so, I said that I felt that some of my ancestors or relatives had been subject to that and then here I have an opportunity to proclaim my faith openly, and I was hoping that I was going to be a bridge between my ancestors and the new generations. I hope I live to one hundred, but if I die tomorrow, I'll be happy. I'll be in peace.
As a descendant who returned to Judaism, this respondent identified with the interconnection between family lineage and cultural survival. His bar mitzvah therefore symbolized a ritualized reentry into Judaism that was done both for him and on behalf of his Sephardic ancestors. This relational aspect of teshuvah was especially apparent among women who chose ritual immersion as their rite of return. In entering the mikveh for the first time, female descendants reported that they performed this ritual both for themselves and for their Spanish Jewish foremothers who secretly retained the traditions of Judaism in the face of danger and religious persecution.

 

MIKVEH AS A WOMEN'S RITE OF RETURN

In modern Jewish society, the mikveh remains a somewhat controversial immersion ritual required of Orthodox women who are designated as niddah (ostracized or excluded) because of menstruation or childbirth25 and of the convert (male or female) who undergoes an Orthodox or Conservative conversion.26 In this regard, Orthodox Jewish law stipulates that the convert finalize her or his conversion to Judaism with a ceremony involving immersion.27 A number of women in this study thus chose this ritual of purification as their reentry into Judaism, explaining that for them the mikveh provided passage into the world of their female ancestors. In one case, a Latin American woman living in Texas explained that she wished to perform this ritual for past generations of crypto-Jewish women:

The rabbi asked me, "Why do you want to do this?" And I say, "I want to do this for the old people, for the ones who had to hide, for the last person who could be cleansed and say Shema Yisrael in public. After that, they had to go underground. Let me do this wonderful thing for them." I don't think I even knew what I was doing exactly. But I wanted to do it, to make it official in some way, for the old people. And then I went to the mikveh, and they gave me a lady to be with me and when I was getting undressed, I told the lady, "I have waited five hundred years, I cannot wait one more minute. Let's do it". . . . The feeling was indescribable. It was like putting a puzzle of five hundred years together, like pieces of all the souls came together. I was looking up at Hashem [God] and I said, "This is not for me. I am doing this for that day that you came to the desert and talked with Moses. You were the burning tree. I am Jewish, and I want to be part of that story. For me and for all of the Marranos, I want to come back." And that is what I did.
In this poignant narrative of ritual immersion, the descendant speaks of her longing to be part of the Jewish people. The imagery she invokes is that of her soul coming together with other Jewish souls to end their spiritual separation and exile. As a ritual of return, the mikveh provides the connection between past and present lives, between the fate of the persecuted Spanish Jews of medieval Europe and the survival of the hidden Jews of modern Western culture. As such, the mikveh offers a ritualized context for the "birth" of the Jewish self.

The notion that ritual immersion signifies the convert's rebirth has Talmudic origins. Ancient Jewish law maintained that through immersion, "One who has become a proselyte is like a child newly born."28 In adapting this Talmudic interpretation to a modern-day view of conversion, Steinsaltz maintains that ritual immersion thus provides entry into a new faith through a rite of purification that

represents a symbolic return to the primal state—of the individual, of life, and of the world as a whole. One who immerses himself sinks back into the primordial reality and emerges as a new creature. His previous life is then of no consequence. It is both renewal and rebirth.29
The themes of renewal and rebirth are especially evident in the narrative of a Mexican descendant who offered this perspective on her mikveh experience during her conversion to Judaism in the United States:

What I found was that conversion was a very, very deep experience for me. It was that I was finding my identity totally. I did all the reading and I knew, to be Jewish and to convert, you have to do it all the way or not go through it at all. So when I had the mikveh, they cut my hair very, very short. And having a mikveh really strengthens you; it strengthens your self. It's water from the rain. They explain to you that it is natural water that they store and fill up with this huge pan, and thank God I knew how to swim. . . . You have to immerse yourself and say these prayers under the water, you know. Open your toes, your eyes, your hands, and everything. They gave me dental floss, toothbrush, a clean towel, and this lady was there. She was an Orthodox Polish lady, and she didn't speak English. After all the cleaning, then I was ready. The rabbis were there, Orthodox rabbis with beards all the way to their knees. They stood behind these sheets so they couldn't see me. They said prayers and chanted. I memorized the prayers, and it was very spiritual at the end. . . . For my identity, for my own spiritual being, I wanted to do it.
As a rite of spiritual reclamation, the mikveh ceremony creates feeling states in which connection to both the past (forced conversion) and to the group (Jewish community) become possible.

Among some female descendants, the mikveh is particularly significant because it is a custom specifically identified with women's ritual lives in traditional and medieval Sephardic culture. The modern descendants, however, give the act of ritual immersion new meaning. In entering the mikveh for the first time, the women experience a sense of inclusion in both the present-day Jewish community and the lost Jewish world of their female ancestors. For these women, ritual immersion signifies an end to the legacy of forced conversion and the prohibition on their Jewish religious roots. In this interpretative framework, traditional concepts of niddah and female bodily impurity remain somewhat obscured.

Within the discourse on ritual purification and conversion, it is interesting to note that in comparison to the modern crypto-Jewish perspective on ritual immersion, Ethiopian Jews who have recently immigrated to Israel take a more political view of cleansing rituals. Until 1975, Ethiopian Jews entering Israel were required to undergo ritual conversion, despite the fact that they had been part of a practicing Jewish community in Ethiopia. As the number of immigrants increased in the 1960s and 1970s, the Sephardic rabbinate ruled that Ethiopian Jews were by law Jewish and thus were not required to undergo conversion in order to participate in Jewish life and custom. Although the Ashkenazic authorities agreed with the Sephardic position, in 1988 the chief rabbi of the ruling Ashkenazi rabbinate initiated a policy that required all Ethiopian Jews to undergo a symbolic conversion if they wished to be considered religious rather than secular Jewish citizens in Israel. The Ashkenazic authorities maintained that although the Ethiopians were conversant with the Torah, they had no contact with Talmudic texts. This ruling, which primarily affected marriage laws, led to charges of discrimination and demonstrations by the Ethiopian community.30

Amid this controversy, the mikveh became a site of resistance as ritual immersion grew to be symbolic of the Ethiopian Jew's religious and political denigration. Since no other immigrant Jewish community is required to engage in a symbolic conversion, recent Ethiopian immigrant women have refused to observe family purity laws in Israel, though they had done so in Ethiopia, in protest over the ruling. Additionally, studies of Ethiopian ethnicity found that some women rejected the mikveh on other political grounds, refusing to adhere to the immersion ritual as it is practiced in Israel because it is reminiscent of baptismal rites that Ethiopian Jews were forced to undergo in Ethiopia in prior historical periods.31 Among the crypto-Jewish women, one descendant held similar views, refusing to undergo ritual immersion as a part of her conversion because of the rite's association with Christian forms of baptism.

For the most part, however, crypto-Jewish women who visited the mikveh embraced ritual immersion as a rite of return that signified cultural continuity and their inclusion in a transnational and transhistorical Jewish community. This perspective on immersion, which contrasts sharply with the Ethiopian women's position, is more likely to develop under historical conditions in which ethnic groups have been denied knowledge and access to ancestral tradition. Unlike the Ethiopian women, crypto-Jewish descendants do not have ties to a living Jewish community. Accordingly, the mikveh is experienced as a sacred custom through which attachment to female ancestors and cultural tradition become possible and through which traditional patriarchal interpretations of pollution and female impurity are replaced by values of connection and relatedness.32

Amitiyah Elayne Hyman, a scholar whose work focuses on the African diaspora, explains this approach to traditional religious practice as the power of ritual to reclaim a lost heritage:

Ritual is a bridge by which those of us who have almost forgotten and those of us who know can cross over into remembering who we were, whose we are, and who we are intended to become. Ritual can assist us by naming and validating the essential worth of our experience. In our collective search for meaning, relatedness, worth, and assurance, we are anchored by ritual. . . . We choose those rituals that come out of the past and our common life together in another place and time.33
The practice of traditional ritual, as described by Hyman, is especially significant to those individuals, such as the descendants of the crypto-Jews, for whom almost all traces of ancestral culture have disappeared.

An importantelement of the women's ritual reentry into Judaism is the role that the body plays as the medium through which Jewishness is felt, apprehended, and remembered. As the narratives of the descendants reveal, it is the female body that holds the memory of familial bonds and ancestral ties through which the individual feels the deep and lasting connections to Jewish culture and to God. As the site of ritual return, the mikveh therefore creates a sacred space where spirituality becomes embodied, as the feelings and sensations of religious emotion are experienced in the intermingling of body and spirit in the liminal world of Jewish custom.

The importance of the body, the physiological domain through which religious emotions are apprehended, was first articulated by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience.34As an innovative approach to the study of religion in the nineteenth century, James's work challenged the traditional notions of the mind/body split, suggesting that religious experience cannot and should not be understood solely through the articulation of theology and philosophy. Rather, James maintained that the study of emotions and feelings, as they relate to the body, is essential to a complete understanding of spiritual awareness. Drawing on James's theory of embodied spirituality, recent research has focused on the importance of the body in contemporary healing movements in the United States. Wade Clark Roof and Sarah McFarland Taylor thus observe:

We see a reorientation of spirituality toward the primacy of the body. We see that, for these groups [healing movements], religion is not so much about creed and philosophy as it is about emotion and performance, an immediacy between bodily experience and religious emotion. We see, therefore, that the movement toward centering religion in the space of the body becomes linked to a movement toward "spirituality"or rather a movement toward James's redefinition of "religion."Religion, in the body-centered context, draws the focus away from ecclesiastic institutions and theology and toward a more autonomous, more personal, more immediate "spirituality."35
James's redefinition of religion, as elaborated by Roof and Taylor, provides a conceptual framework for the emotional conversion experiences described by the crypto-Jewish descendants. For many of the respondents, the relationship between body and spirit is of particular significance, since descendants believe that their bodies hold the memory of their Jewish heritage.36 This sensory connection to Judaism was frequently articulated by David Kazzaz, an Iraqi-born Jewish psychiatrist and founder of the Hispano Crypto-Jewish Resource Center in Denver. Speaking to the notion that Jewishness is a feeling that runs deep in the physical as well as spiritual being of the descendant, Kazzaz maintains that knowledge of Jewish ancestry is in the "bones" and thus cannot be denied. As feeling states become an affirmation of Jewish heritage, the body becomes the medium through which spiritual awareness and connection to Judaism converge. Within this sensory understanding of Jewish spirituality, the mikveh provides a religious milieu where cultural memory is engendered and emotional ties to Jewish ancestors are given meaning and expression.

 

EMBODIED SPIRITUALITY AND THE CONVERT'S "RETURN" AT THE WESTERN WALL

In a further illustration of this sensory-oriented spiritual phenomenon, the Western Wall in Jerusalem has become another site of ritual return where the relationship between body and spirit figures prominently in the cultural memory of the crypto-Jewish descendants. The Western Wall of the Second Temple stands at the southeastern corner of the old city of Jerusalem. It is part of the sacred shrines of the Temple Mount, the ancient hill site of the biblical Mount Moriah, where it is believed that Abraham brought his son Isaac to be sacrificed to God. The first Temple was built by King Solomon during the tenth century b.c.e and was destroyed by the Babylonians. The second Temple, which was constructed by King Herod on the same site (first century b.c.e.), was demolished by the occupying Roman forces in 70 c.e. As the original site of the First and Second Temples, the Temple Mount is a sacred area for Jews where the past is revered in the remnants of the Second Temple that remain standing.37 These remnants are composed of three portions of the original retaining walls built by King Herod. Of these, the Western Wall of Kotel is considered the most holy of the temple walls, because it is believed that the ancient ark was situated closest to this outer temple structure.

Since 1967, the Wall has been within Israeli territory. As a religious archeological monument, the Wall, although not a synagogue per se, is under the supervision of Orthodox rabbinic authorities and is subject to Orthodox rules of prayer and behavior. Because the Western Wall falls under the jurisdiction of the Orthodox rabbinate, this site, like the mikveh, has become an arena for dissension and conflict. Governed by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the Wall is a sex-segregated area where, until very recently, women were prohibited from praying in groups, from praying audibly, and from carrying the Torah. For the last decade, protests at the Wall have been met with violent responses by the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel.38

According to Jewish beliefs, the spiritual power of the Wall is found in the ancient stones that retain the presence of God and that embody the spiritual essence of Judaism. Today these stones have become the medium through which visitors to the Wall communicate with God, often by placing written messages in between the nooks and crannies of those parts of the stone edifice that remain accessible to the public. Amid the thousands of tourists and pious who visit the Wall each year, the descendants of the crypto-Jews have found special meaning in the Temple ruins, a monument to Jewish survival that provides a visible connection to a heritage that is both felt and desired. While Israel may be the homeland to which the descendants return in their search for Sephardic roots, the Western Wall is the sacred shrine where Jewish history, the Jewish people, and God can be experienced through a sense of touch that connects the body to the materiality of the sacred. A woman whose family originated in Mexico described this dynamic between spirit and body when she visited the Wall of the ancient Temple for the first time:

Most people ask me, "What did you really feel when you got to the Wailing Wall?"39 I said there was no doubt in my mind that the power still exists in there, that Abraham and my ancestors did not imagine anything. As I got closer to the wall and I put my hands out, there was this feeling like gravity or electricity, energy pure energy. In Spanish there is a word for what I felt, like a person crying in pain when you are so deep in sadness because you have lost someone and you are very emotional. I felt that definitely. I could not say anything; not one word came from my mouth. There were no words, but tears, all tears. I just wept for what I felt now and for what had been lost. I asked a rabbi who was standing close by why I felt so overwhelmed, and he said it was because this is where the spirit of God has spread itself so we can feel it.
As a sacred site of return, the Western Wall engenders feelings both of overwhelming sadness and of awe among descendants for whom a return to Judaism simultaneously creates feeling states associated with loss and godliness. The emotional pilgrimage to the Temple site captures many threads of teshuvah as the descendants mourn a lost tradition, while, at the same time, they celebrate the power of God to bring them back to the spiritual home of their religious ancestors. In this regard, the Western Wall is an especially powerful symbol of return and cultural survival, a sacred place that engaged the descendant in an act of spiritual reunification, as the following account suggests:

I went to the Wall, and the first time I was there, I just stood there. I mean, you can't describe it. For me it was like I found it, I made my full journey, because it was for ancient Jewry—my family who thousands of years ago were in Israel. And that was very spiritual and mystical. And no matter how many times I went and for how long—I think one time I just stood there for three hours—it was just this cleansing weeping. That's a special place.
Like the hidden rituals in the descendant's life, the Western Wall holds the spiritual memory of Jewish lineage. A respondent of Cuban Jewish ancestry spoke of the Western Wall as a holy monument where he could actually touch God and where the pride of his Jewish heritage resides:

The Wall is a connection to Judaism. Growing up you learned to say the Hail Mary and Our Father and all that. Now, it has just become words. I learned those prayers for protection. It was my family's plan for these hundreds of years to have papers saying you are Christian or Catholic, untouchable by the Inquisition or any other faction like the Nazis. But going to Israel is like breaking away and actually going somewhere, to touch the stone of the Wailing Wall is like touching God. It is a connection to who you are, what we fought for, and where we are going. . . . The Temple is the only thing left of our grandeur, of who we were as a people.
Like the mikveh, the Western Wall provides a sacred venue for the descendant's emotional reconnection to Jewish ancestry and to the Jewish religion. The accounts of the descendants, in fact, suggest that these two forms of emotional attachment are inseparable from each other in that the descendant understands him- or herself as a Jew who has returned both to a faith tradition and to an ancestral history. As such, the experience of teshuvah among crypto-Jewish descendants is characterized by an embodied spirituality. As the mystical and the familial merge, the historical frame through which the converting Jew approaches her or his new newfound religion is elaborated through a theology of suffering that comes to define the Jewish worldview of the descendants.

 

ANCESTRAL ATTACHMENT, REMEMBRANCE, AND THE JEWISH THEOLOGY OF SUFFERING

In her thoughtful and provocative book on Chinese and Jewish cultural memory, Vera Schwarcz discusses the relationship between Jewish attachment to history and theological practice.40 In this work, she elaborates the biblical injunctions that command the Jews to remember their past transgressions against God and to recall God's acts of redemption for the faithful. According to Schwarcz, the religious laws surrounding the observance of holy days such as Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), and Passover represent the fusion of ritual and remembrance:

Another side of the attachment to history is embodied in the commandment to remember on Passover. This is a celebration of freedom that every Jew is enjoined to reenact personally. "I left Egypt," the phrase that is the center of the Seder ritual and of the Haggadah, the story we tell, is oriented toward the present. Then, as we raise the matzah, we recite, "Ha lachma anya. This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt." Both the words and the gesture are meant to awaken memory. . . . This bond of memory is also at the heart of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy—a holy day known in Hebrew as Yom Hazikaron (Day of Remembrance). On this occasion, which marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year and recalls the birth of the world at the same time, we sound the shofar in order to inspire the full range of emotions associated with memory41
. Schwarcz concludes that Judaism is a religion founded on memory, since Jewish prayers connect the worshiper to the past through the practice of emotion-filled rituals that recall the lives and deeds of the matriarchs and patriarchs of Jewish culture.

The narratives of the crypto-Jewish descendants suggest that Schwarcz is indeed right, that Judaism is in part a religion of remembrance encoded in the ritual life of the descendants who become bar and bat mitzvahed, who immerse themselves in the ritual waters of the mikvah, and who pray before the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Yet, it is not remembrance alone that distinguishes Jewish theology. Underlying the act of remembrance is a belief system that embraces a history of suffering and loss. Through the recollections of slavery in Egypt, exile from Jerusalem, the persecutions of the Inquisition, and the horrors of the Holocaust, Jewish scripture and ritual provide constant reminders of the persecution and suffering of the Jewish people. On Passover, for example, it is not only the eating of matzo that links contemporary Jewish life to the oppression of one's ancestors. Suffering is also emphasized in the readings of the Haggadah (the book containing the Passover service) that recount the history of Jewish slavery and the seder rituals that commemorate the oppression of the enslaved Jews.

Among the ritual practices of Passover is dipping green vegetables such as celery or parsley into salt water, the greens representing the fruit of the earth and the salt water representing the tears of the Jewish slaves in Egypt. During the seder (the Passover service), the participants also eat charoseth, a mixture of apple, wine, and nuts that symbolizes the mortar the slaves used in brick making. To invoke the pain of slavery, bitter herbs, typically in the form of horseradish, are to be consumed. As the herbs are eaten, the traditional Haggadah explains:

These bitter herbs which we eat, what is their meaning? They are eaten to recall that the Egyptians embittered the lives of our forefathers in Egypt; as it is written: "And they embittered their lives with hard labor: with mortar and bricks, with every kind of work in the fields; all the work which they made them do was rigorous. In every generation one must look upon himself as if he personally had come out from Egypt, as the Bible says: And thou shalt tell thy son on that day, saying, it is because of that which the Eternal did to me when I went from Egypt."42

In this ritual of consumption, the body is once again the medium through which a connection to Judaism is maintained. During the Passover seder, the boundaries between the modern Jew and the enslaved ancestor become merged, since the liturgy requires the seder participant to identify with the slaves who God brought out of Egypt. This ritualized ceremony reinforces the notion that the twentieth-century Jew must never forget the suffering of the biblical Jew or God's role in the salvation of the Jewish people. Such sentiments give rise to a spiritual sufferance that underlies the celebration of the Passover liberation story. In some modern and less traditional Haggadic texts, this theme of suffering is given a wider emphasis as references to the Inquisition are included in the narrative of remembrance that accompanies the storytelling of the liberation of the Jews from Egypt. In a revised version of the Haggadah created by Aviva Cantor, the Inquisition is recalled with a poem by the Yiddish poet Avrom Reisen:

Tell me, Marrano, my brother, where have you prepared your seder? —In a room in a deep cellar, there my seder is ready.

Tell me, Marrano, my [sister], where will you get white matzot?

—In the cellar, under God's protection, [I] kneaded the dough.

Tell me, Marrano, how will you manage to get a hagada?

—In the cellar, in a deep crevice, I hid a hagada long ago.

Tell me, Marrano, if your voice is heard, what will you do then?

—When the enemy captures me, I will die singing.43

P>While Cantor's Passover service contains one of the few references to the Inquisition found in modern Jewish observance, the Holocaust is more frequently remembered through a variety of liturgy and practice. Since World War II, the memorial service for the Jewish Day of Atonement, traditionally recited in memory of deceased family members, has been expanded to include a communal prayer for the six million Jews who died in the concentration camps. Typical of the Holocaust prayers is the memorial liturgy (mourner's kaddish) of the Conservative Movement:
Extolled, compassionate God, grant perfect peace in Your sheltering Presence, among the holy and pure, to the souls of all our brethren, men women and children of the House of Israel who were slaughtered and burned. May their memory endure, inspiring truth and loyalty to our lives. May their souls thus be bound up in the bond of life. May they rest in peace. And let us say: Amen.\1
With the inclusion of the mourner's kaddish for the victims of the Holocaust, contemporary Jewish practice has continued the tradition of linking religious ritual with Jewish history and Jewish cultural identity. Because the death and suffering of the historical Jew is remembered alongside the death of a parent, sibling, or child, cultural suffering and personal loss become merged within the theology of atonement and forgiveness that pervades the prayers and supplications of the Yom Kippur service.

Since the historical suffering of the Jews defines important aspects of the religious culture, Jewish ritual has been a site of commemoration first for the enslaved Jews of ancient Israel and more recently for the victims and survivors of the Holocaust. To this dynamic of history, remembrance, and ritualization, the descendants of the crypto-Jews bring their own culture of exile, loss, and mourning, a culture in which the ritual life of the contemporary convert is informed by the suffering of the medieval Spanish Jews. The memory of the Inquisition, like that of the Holocaust, becomes part of a theology of remembrance that underlies the descendant's return to Judaism, as attachment to the suffering of persecuted ancestors is reflected in the Jewish spirituality that emerges from the descendants' ritual experience.

The theological themes characterizing the conversion experience of the returning descendants—ancestral attachment, embodied spirituality, remembrance, and suffering—all contribute to the development of an emotional connection to Judaism that expressed through the language of relationship. To be Jewish is to know and acknowledge the lives and suffering of one's ancestors, to feel that connection in one's body and one's soul, and to experience God through the history of oppression that is inseparable from the history of the Spanish crypto-Jews. In choosing to adopt a Jewish worldview that includes a spiritual orientation toward ancestors, memory, and religious persecution, descendants choose to become a part of a Jewish cultural community that is defined both by collective religious worship and by a shared history of suffering.


Notes

1Marc D. Angel, Seeking Good, Speaking Peace: Collected Essays of Rabbi Marc D. Angel (Hoboken, N.J.: KTAV Publishing House, 1994); Michael Asheri, Living Jewish: The Lore and the Law of the Practicing Jew (New York: Everest House, 1978).

2Since 1983 the Reform Movement has recognized patrilineal descent. A child born of a non-Jewish mother and Jewish father will be considered a Jew, provided he or she was brought up as a Jew.

3Asheri, Living Jewish; Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes Flohr, eds., Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought: Original Essays on Critical Concepts, Movements, and Beliefs (New York: Scribner, 1987).

4Deuteronomy 7:2-4.

5Asheri, Living Jewish.

6J. H. Hertz, ed., The Pentateuch and Haftorahs: Hebrew Text, English Translation and Commentary (London: Soncino Press, 1969), 775.

7For a discussion of fathers and their control over daughters in Jewish biblical and Talmudic law, see Judith Romney Wegner, Chattel or Person?: The Status of Women in the Mishnah (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

8Dan Ross, Acts of Faith: A Journey to the Fringes of Jewish Identity (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982).

9 Halakah is the body of Jewish law that governs Jewish practice and belief.

10Angel, Seeking Good, Speaking Peace, 277.

11Richard M. Goodman, Genetic Disorders Among the Jewish People (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979).

12The Lubavitchers are a modern Hasidic Orthodox sect that proselytizes.

13The Orthodox position is grounded in the belief that a person undergoing a non-Orthodox conversion will not be required to make a formal promise to observe all 613 commandments in the Torah, the full Kabbat mitzvot (acceptance of the commandments). See Walter Homolka, Walter Jacob, and Esther Seidel, eds., Not By Birth Alone: Conversion to Judaism (London: Cassell, 1997).

14Jochanan H. A. Wijnhoven, "Convert and Conversion," in Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, ed. Cohen and Flor, 100-106.

15As quoted in Jonathan Wittenberg, "The Significance of Motivation in the Halachah Conversion," in Not By Birth Alone, ed. Homolka, Jacob, and Seidel, 91.

16The ark is the sanctified structure in the synagogue that houses the Torah.

17For a discussion of the Sephardim in the Americas, see Martin A. Cohen and Abraham Peck, eds., Sephardim in the Americas: Studies in Culture and History (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993).

18Aviva Ben-Ur, "Sephardim or Oriental Jews?: The Ethnic/acial Debate Between the 'Grandees' and the 'Turkish Jews,' in the Early 20th Century New York City," (paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Boston, 1999); Joseph M. Papo, "The Sephardim in North America in the Twentieth Century," in Sephardim in the Americas, ed. Cohen and Peck, 267-308.

19Debra Regina Crespin and Sarah Jacobus, "Sephardi and Mizrahi Women Write About Their Lives: Editors' Introduction," Bridges: A Journal for Jewish Feminists and Our Friends 7, no. 1 (1988): 7.

20The concept of "imagined community" is taken from Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983).

21Wijnhoven, "Convert and Conversion," 101.

22Adin Steinsaltz, Teshuvah: A Guide for the Newly Observant Jew (New York: Free Press, 1987), 3.

23This prayer is derived from Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and other verses and is recited at every religious service and in daily prayers. The English translation for the prayer is "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One."

24David M. Gitlitz, Secrecy and Deceit: The Religion of the Crypto-Jews (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996).

25Jewish feminist discourse has tended to view the tradition of family purity as demeaning to women, whose bodies are deemed impure and polluting by this aspect of Jewish law. For a feminist discussion of the monthly ritual of the mikveh, see Rachel Adler, "In Your Blood, Live: Re-visions of a Theology of Purity," Tikkun 8 (1993): 38-41; Rachel Biale, Women and Jewish Law: An Exploration of Women's Halakhic Sources (New York: Schocken Books, 1984); and Laura Levitt and Sue Ann Wasserman, "Mikveh Ceremony for Laura (1989)," in Four Centuries of Jewish Women's Spirituality, ed. Ellen Umansky and Diane Ashton (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 321-26.

26Ultra-Orthodox men also use the mikveh before the Sabbath and before holy days.

27Depending on the presiding rabbi, the convert may or may not be required to perform a ritual of immersion as part of her or his conversion to Judaism. A mikveh, however, is required in all Orthodox conversions.

28Yebamot 22a, as cited in Dirk Herweg and Rachel Monika Herweg, "Over Land and Sea for a Proselyte?: Conversion in Antiquity and the Talmudic Period," in Not By Birth Alone, ed. Homolka, Jacob, and Seidel, 17.

29Steinsaltz, Teshuvah, 153.

30Linda Begley Soroff, The Maintenance and Transmission of Ethnic Identity: A Study of Four Ethnic Groups of Religious Jews in Israel (New York: University Press of America, 1995).

31Lisa Anteby's research on Ethiopian Jewish immigrant women in Israel suggests that language has exacerbated the conflicts with the Israeli rabbinate. According to Anteby, Amharic, the language of Ethiopian Jews, distinguishes between flowing and stagnant water. The ritual baths in Israel are viewed as stagnant by the Ethiopians and therefore as unsuitable for purification. For a more detailed discussion of the experience of Ethiopian Jews in Israel, see Lisa Anteby, " 'There's Blood in the House': Negotiating Female Rituals of Purity Among Ethiopian Jews of Israel," in Women and Water: Menstruation in Jewish Law and Life, ed. Rahel R. Wasserfall (Hanover, Mass., and London: Brandeis University Press, 1999) 166-86; and Soroff, The Maintenance and Transmission of Ethnic Identity.

32Popular writings by non-Orthodox Jewish women in the United States who have visited the mikveh for the first time also stress themes of relationship and connection. See Shira Dicker, "Mikveh," Tikkun 7 (1992): 62-64; Lis Harris, Holy Days: The World of a Hasidic Family (New York: Summit Books, 1985); and Lisa Shiffman, Generation J (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1999), chap. 7.

33Amitiyah Elayne Hyman, "Womanist Ritual," in Women and Religious Ritual, ed. Lesley A. Northup (Washington, D.C.: Pastoral Press), 174-75.

34William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985).

35Wade Clark Roof and Sarah McFarland Taylor, "The Force of Emotion: James's Reorientation of Religion and the Contemporary Rediscovery of the Body, Spirituality, and the 'Feeling Self,' in The Struggle For Life: A Companion to William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience, ed. Donald Capps and Janet L. Jacobs (Newton, Kans.: Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and Princeton Theological Seminary, 1995), 205.

36For a discussion of the role of the body in biblical Judaism, see Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, The Savage in Judaism: An Anthropology of Israelite Religion and Ancient Judaism (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1990); and Michael Wyschogrod, The Body of Faith: Judaism as Corporeal Election (New York: Seabury Press, 1983).

37Since 691, the Temple Mount has also been a sacred area for Muslims. On the remains of the Temple site stands the El Aqsa mosque, among the most holy of Muslim shrines. The Dome of the Rock, another significant Islamic religious site, is adjacent to the mosque. The shared scared space remains a strong source of contention between Muslims and Jews living in the Middle East.

38In 2000, Israel's High Court of Justice ended an eleven-year legal battle over women's right to pray at the Western Wall. The court ruled that women be allowed to hold prayer services with the Torah and to wear prayer shawls. This ruling was in opposition to the Orthodox position. For a discussion of women and the Wall before this ruling, see Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Deborah, Golda, and Me: Being Female and Jewish in America (New York: Doubleday, 1991).

39The Western Wall is also known as the Wailing Wall because of the lamentations over loss that have historically been associated with this ritual space.

40Vera Schwarcz, Bridge Across Broken Time: Chinese and Jewish Cultural Memory (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

41Schwarcz, Bridge Across Broken Time, 59, 65.

42Z. Harry Gutstein, Passover Haggadah, trans., Nathan Goldberg (New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1966), 23-24.

43Aviva Cantor, "An Egalitarian Hagada," Lilith 9 (1982): 16.

44Jules Harlow, ed., Mahzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: A Prayer Book for the Days of Awe (New York: Rabbinical Assembly, 1988), 691.

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