The Institute of Sefardi and Anousim Studies (ISAS) of Netanya Academic College (NAC) organized a Conference entitled “Reconnecting 2016: Reinvigorating Shared Latino-Jewish Roots and Heritage,” at The Trump International Resort Hotel at Sunny Isles Beach, FL, on Sept 7, 8. The Conference was intended to bring together groups with Spanish and Portuguese heritage, both Christians and Jews, including Sefardim and Bnei Anousim, (descendants of those coerced to convert to Christianity) as well as other interested parties. This was a historic event and a significant undertaking for the ISAS and NAC. Here is my summary of the event.
Prof. Zvi Arad, President of NAC welcomed the Conference participants on behalf of the College, and was followed by Ms. Betty Ehrenberg, Executive Director, WJC and Honorary Co-Chair of the conference. There were about 235 registrants from all over the world and all over the USA. There were US Hispanics and Latin Americans and Jewish Hispanics (Sefardim), as well as Bnei Anousim. There were also Christian evangelicals who strongly support Israel and the ingathering of all the exiles. Prof. Avi Gross, of the ISAS, introduced the main themes of the Conference, that of reconnecting between Hispanics and Sefardim and the fate of the Bnei Anousim.
The First Session of the Conference was Chaired by Marc Gueron, American Sefardi Federation, and was devoted to “Demography, Genetics, Genealogy.” The first speaker was world-renowned Israeli demographer of the Jewish world, Prof. Sergio DellaPergola, Hebrew University. His title was “Latino-Jewish Demography: present and future.” He presented a masterful analysis of the history and trends of distribution of the Sefardim (space does not allow a full description of each presentation). Based on a recent genetic study he suggested as an opening figure for scientific discussion ca. 35 million of Jewish origin among Latinos in the Americas today.
The next speaker was Prof. Schulamith Halevy, Hebrew University, on “Modern Aspects of Latino-Jewish Heritage Research,” in which she presented examples from her many years of pioneering field research in this area. Max Blankfeld, a founder of the company “Family Tree DNA,” then presented a talk on “Iberian-Jewish Common Roots: a DNA perspective,” based on a detailed analysis of DNA data collected over many years from different population groups. This session ended with a talk by Prof. Tudor Parfitt, Florida International University, on “Portuguese and Spanish Anousim: the Problem of Hybridity,” in which he pointed out how difficult it is to draw clear-cut conclusions based on genealogical research.
The Second Session was entitled “500 Years of New Christian History” Chaired by Prof. Gross, and was led off by Prof. Anita Waingort Novinsky, Sao Paulo University, the doyen of Brazilian Anousim research, with a talk entitled “The Jews Who Built Brazil” in which she showed how a group of Bnei Anousim founded the city of Sao Paulo as well as other major cities in Brazil, as they escaped from the Inquisition in Portugal. Nathan Wachtel of the College de France-Paris, spoke about “A Marrano Memory in Peru?” based on his many years of living with natives in specific isolated towns and villages in Peru. Then David Gitlitz, Univ. of Rhode Island, presented a talk on “Spanish Inquisition Procesos: a Genealogical Tool,” in which he critically reviewed dependence of genealogical research on inquisitorial records. This theme continued with Seth Kunin, Curtin Univ. Australia, who spoke on “Modern Expressions of Identity Among the Crypto-Jews of the American Southwest.” Not many Americans realize that a large proportion of the Hispanics of New Mexico are descended from Crypto-Jews who fled to what was then the “ends of the earth” to escape the cruelty and murder of the Inquisition.
The next Session had the most emotional impact; the “Personal Stories,” of three “returning” Bnei Anousim, all brought up as Christians, realized in later life that they were of Jewish descent and decided to return to their Jewish roots. Fabio Fonseca is from Brazil, Joe Maldonado from New York/Puerto Rico and Lissette Valdes-Valle from Miami/Cuba. Fabio described how when he was 4 or 5 his grandmother took him into a dark room and lit candles and told him it was a secret he must keep. By the time he was 18 he had discovered that his family had Jewish origins and he regards himself as a Jew and is a strong supporter of Israel. Joe Maldonado (a personal friend, see IsBlog, March 25, 2015), discovered thru genealogical research that many of his ancestors had perished at the hands of the Inquisition and this started him on a journey that led him eventually to become an Orthodox Jew, as recognized by the Rabbinate of Queens NY. Lisette realized she was Jewish after arriving in Miami from Cuba, when her family started to speak openly about their Jewish origins.
(to be continued)