name your roots

My 15 Grandmothers 2012-01-25

Genie Milgrom tells her own story

I was born in Havana Cuba into an upper class Roman Catholic family of Spanish origins. When I was five years old, my family left the Island and moved to Miami, leaving behind not only the Communist Revolution but also their businesses and homes. We were just one of thousands of families that came to Miami in that year. It was 1960.

I was immediately placed in the finest Catholic schools, in an area, which had not yet seen a major Cuban influx. My parents wanted the family to assimilate as soon as possible, speak impeccable English and have all the same opportunities as the American children. I had no Spanish speaking friends for many years but I was the perfect model Catholic child complete with saddle shoes, Irish kilt style uniforms, prayers in Latin, mass every morning and dutifully singing in the choir during the many funerals of nuns and priests.

I never fit in. I followed the trend, I went through the motions, I prayed the loudest but I never fit in. Inside, deep inside, I knew something was wrong.

At the age of 7 or so, I was attending a Summer Day Camp in Miami when I met my first Jewish friend. Her name was Rachel. Rachel came with her own food, was not allowed to eat from the camp food and all the other children made fun of her. I, however, was drawn to Rachel like a firefly to light. She fascinated me and I stuck to her like glue. For years, I only befriended Rachel at camp. Then, during the school year I yearned and sought places with other Jews. It was difficult given the sheltered society I was being brought up in and groomed for but there it was; a constant search for a Jewish Connection. It was inexplicable, it made no sense but there it was. I felt more at home with the occasional Jew that I met then I did inside a Church. I never saw Rachel again and she will never know the impact she had on the many turnings of my soul.

The years passed and I flowed with them. I went to a Catholic High School, was involved in a myriad of extracurricular activities and as things tend to happen, life takes over. I now had made several Jewish friends that my parents knew nothing about. I would talk on the phone with them for hours but rarely got to see them.

I was very young when it came time to go to college , having been skipped through many grades and at the young age of 16, I was accepted with scholarships to the best Catholic University in Miami. Being so young, I was not allowed to drive and lived in the dorms that housed the nuns that attended the College and was given the only other 16 year old roommate on campus. She was half Jewish. What was she even doing in that school? There are no coincidences in life.

Naturally we became fast friends. She knew everything. She had been brought up in a Jewish home and I would spend hours upon hours trying to glean even the smallest detail about the religion, about Shabbat , about anything I could. I enrolled in a theology and comparative religion semester with the Dean of the Theology Department who was a brilliant nun that later became the President of the University . Her knowledge turned me upside down. I learned more about Judaism and its philosophies at that time then I have any time since .Later I learned that she had practically gone door to door in Miami Beach to solicit funds to build the still standing Holocaust Memorial. Her influence continues to this day.

I married very young at the age of 17. My life consisted of working full time in the family business, being a full time Mom, and a part time student . At the age of 33, I picked up where I had left off and began to devour volumes of Jewish Books with diverse topics such as Halacha, the Holidays, Marriage, Shabbat, Philosophy and anything else I could get my hands on. I started visiting synagogues and going to an occasional service. I made many friends and had practically started a new life on the side but I could not share this with my ex husband. We divorced and I continued my quest. My son was 15 and my daughter was 3. For various reasons, I was unable to convert my children at the same time.

I now took the search and study in earnest. FINALLY, I was putting my soul and my body in alignment. I felt comfortable in synagogues. I felt and still feel great nostalgia or maybe a sort of déjà vu when I hear the prayers in shul bring chanted. I knew I was closer to home then I ever had been yet further then ever from the home and family I was raised in. They did not understand. My soul had stirred from a young age and all those around me had remained the same. Why was I so different? It was difficult and for various reasons, I was unable to convert my children at the same time.

I sat with the Rabbi of a small Orthodox synagogue near my home and he kindly explained that I could not be Jewish. He turned me away and away and away but finally allowed me to go to meet with the Beit Din. For several years I studied intently and finally converted. It was the moment of my greatest accomplishment yet I had practically no one to share it with. Friends do not come easy to someone in a conversion process. I could not look back and the road ahead seemed very lonely.

The path was hard . Keeping Kashrut in a home where the children craved what they had always eaten, not being able to eat in my parents’ home, having to make adjustments right and left for the children with their activities on Shabbat and the holidays. It was not easy but I was so happy and so at home in my skin that I persevered.

A couple of years later I met my husband Michael whose family was a traditionally observant one originally from Rumania and we married. He completes my circle. Michael has the patience of a Saint (no pun intended ).He has always been the rock that helps me when the going gets tough and when my past life clashes with my current life. Together, we raised my daughter in the best way that we could, given the unusual circumstances.

My maternal grandparents were from a small village on the banks of the River Duero, separating Spain and Portugal, named Fermoselle. My grandfather was born there and my grandmothers’ grandmother was from there as well. They were second cousins. For years I tried to get them to help me make a family tree but all I got was a runaround. I was never able to get the family history from them. My grandmother knew I had converted and would often tell me how dangerous it was. How very dangerous it was that I had converted. I always thought she meant it was dangerous for my soul but realized only years later that she meant it was dangerous to be Jewish.

My maternal grandmother died on a Friday morning. On that morning , I saw my Mother who told me that the family tradition was to bury the dead immediately. I was shocked. What kind of tradition was that for a solid Catholic Family? No amount of begging did any good. My grandmother was buried on Saturday at a cemetery quite a distance away and I could not go given the fact that I observe the Sabbath .My grief was overwhelming. The following day, my family came to see me at my home. I was very surprised when they all came walking in. Frankly, I thought they would not speak to me ever again. My Mom placed a small box on the table and told me that my grandmother wanted me to have it on the day of her death. Inside, was an antique Hamsa and small gold earrings with a tiny Star of David in the Center. Nothing else. No note, no commentary, just these two objects. I was overwhelmed at the significance.

In an instant, I got flashbacks of times in my life that I had seen and felt things, never putting two and two together that we could have been descendents of Marranos.

Sitting in that chair, holding that box, I remembered the shawl that had been placed over our shoulders during my first marriage, as an old family custom that is still in use today by Sephardim of placing a tallit over the shoulders of the couple. I remembered the times that my grandmother and I made huge amounts of desserts for the holidays, old recipes from the Village of Fermoselle , always parve and she would always take some of the dough , put it in aluminum foil and throw it in the oven. The times she would break eggs into a glass to check for blood before throwing it out, the way she always taught me to sweep the floor to the center of the room (An old Sephardic tradition to sweep away from the Mezuzahs).

It was a lot to take in, yet it made all the sense in the world. Clearly I understood the way my soul had searched and had yearned for something all of those years that was not logical. I started my search for my Jewish roots. My grandfather left me a lot of the legwork done. Even though he did not give it to me while alive, he had meticulously hand written a family tree that jump-started my search back to the early 1800’s. With that information in hand, internet resources and friends in Spain, blogs etc, I was able to go back perhaps two generations more and then I hit a brick wall. Not only was the wall brick, but the wall was Catholic. So far, I found nothing.

The search took me 4 years. During that time, I hired an ex-priest in Spain who was also a genealogist. I wanted the truth. I did not need someone to tell me what I wanted to hear. The man I hired wanted me to be Catholic. The match was perfect. He searched and researched the libraries, the Historical Museums and I validated the findings at each turn. I now have copies of documentation from every single grandmother going back 15 generations to 1545. I also have notarial records going even further back than that. In 15 generations no one in my family had left the village of Fermoselle. My grandfather was the first to leave. My mother, in fact, was the first to marry outside of the family. She did not marry a cousin.

My findings to date have yielded a rich tapestry of a Marrano or Judio-Converso family. This task has not been easy but I now know it is not impossible. I had to untangle the threads that my family worked so hard at, illuminating the lies and deceit they had to live with to be able to survive. I have personally witnessed how they changed their names with each subsequent official document to avoid being discovered by the Inquisition. I have traced each and every single name on my tree. I have found that each name used by the Marranos was a Jewish name. I even found one name as owning a kosher butcher prior to 1492 . Most of the names are typical names of Jews that were forced to convert. Topographical names, such as Ramos or Montaña , Flores. Names like Diez,Guerra and many others. I have located Inquisition records from the Tribunal files showing Jews of the same names accused of being Judaizantes or Jewish Observant within 5 Km of the family village. I have matched the dates to match the family names.

My family tree is typical of the Crypto Jewish ones, not only because of the vast amount of cousin intermarriages but also because of the naming of the children and the repetition of the names from one generation to the next.

I am now in the process of documenting the Jewish History of Fermoselle, which has not been done to date. I want to set the record straight. I want to be the voice that my ancestors never had. Most of all, I just want others to know that this search is possible. Given the resources available in Spain and Portugal today , it can be done.

Today, I live a rich life in Miami together with my husband. I am very active in my synagogue and in the community. I now light an extra two candles on Friday night for my 15 grandmothers. One for those that couldn’t light, and one for those that had forgotten they had to light. My Jewish family is quite numerous now, made up not only of hundreds of names on a family tree but a very close and tight knit group of friends who have become my Jewish family. To them I am grateful for always having been so supportive in my quest and for hearing my stories again and again. I am truly blessed. I have come home.

If you suspect you may be a descendent of Crypto or Converso Jews ( Marrano from Spain) you can contact Genie Milgrom at spanishancestry@aol.com for more information on how to trace your ancestry.

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