CAN ERASE 6,000 YEARS: THE STORY OF MY NEWLY DISCOVERED JEWISH HERITAGE
Reverend Eryk-Antonio Hernández, O.M.D., U.B. Founding monk of the
Uniphysite Buddhist Order
It is a phenomenon known the world over, but best recognized and publicized
in the West: someone discovers they are Jewish, after a lifetime of
not knowing. Elie Wiesel, who to my knowledge has not touched upon this
subject, would probably say we need the Maharal, Rabbi Yehuda Löwe (Judah
Leow) of Prague to make a golem for us. Somehow I donıt think even that
would suffice. Many great Jewish masters often made points about the
coming of Meshiach... the Messiah... and of the resulting reunification
of all the Jewish people. The 6th Lubavitcher Hassid Rebbe Menachem
Schneersohn, up until his death in 1993, often wrote and spoke about
the Messiah and the reuniting of all the Jewish people. It would seem
this is happening now. Many Sefardic Jews are rediscovering themselves,
and they in turn are out in force, rediscovering lost siblings.
A prominent Canadian scholar and an Ashkenazic rabbi recently finished
scouring the world for the Lost Tribes, believing they had positively
found all but one. Not long after this finding of the tribes, geneticists
found a gene marker that separates and distinguishes the Kohanim...
the Jewish priestly caste... from all other people. This was of vital
importance to modern Jewish belief: that the priestly caste, of the
Tribe of Levi, still exists, in waiting for the return of the Messiah
and the reestablishment of the Temple in Jerusalem. Of course, the Canadian
scholar had already found "ritually pure" Kohanim all over the world,
living in isolation... some in secrecy. The Kohanim genetic marker,
called the Kohen (Hebrew, "priest"; it is the singular of Kohanim) Modal
Haplotite, is a DNA chromosomal sequence marker found on the Y chromosome.
This marker was used to identify one very important "Lost Tribe", the
Bene Lemba ("Sons of Lemba", or Lemba Tribe) of Africa. In an astonishing
twist of fate, Catholic Cardinal Arinze is of this tribe... validating
his longstanding claims to be of Jewish descent. He joins ranks with
Cardinal Lustiger, Archbishop of Paris, the converted son of Polish
As the Canadian scholar has said, the tribes "may have been lost to
us... they were never lost to themselves." What a journey of self discovery.
(Incidentally, both cardinals are frontrunners in the next papal election.)
Often I wonder about the truly lost Jews... those lost to themselves.
Embarking on a journey of self discovery is fraught with all sorts of
emotions and events... it is not in the least miserable. I have read
that it is, but I canıt believe it. Many Jews, having recently discovered
their roots, become retiring and even paranoid about their newfound
identities. The Inquisition still hurts. It also became plain to me
just how wrong the Canadian is about lost Jews not being "lost to themselves".
My family was lost to itself; how many more lost Jews are out there?
In finding my true heritage, I was blessed. What I share with these
"new Jews" is everything that is positive. We feel relief, because we
finally know why we never fit in, even at home. We feel pride, excitement,
at having learned the truth about ourselves... itıs heritage and history
in a bottle, set afloat centuries ago with the hopes of someone finding
Our Sefardic Jewish heritage had to be bottled. I always knew we were
different; my family and the friends of the family all seemed to belong
to an aristocracy long vanished. My brothers, sisters and I always took
for granted that this was merely "Spanish pride". Why we fit in so well
with all kinds of Jews, why we were always so at home with the varying
Jewish customs and cultures, why we were so like them, never seemed
to really pique our curiosity. Never did we question our avoidance of
church itself on Sundays... though, like most Sefardim including the
CryptoJews, we seemed more Catholic than the Catholics. As a lady from
New Mexico described her family, we were "obsessively Catholic". Today
I know that this was all a show, an act, not a deception but a thing
of survival. If my ancestors knew they were Jews (I think some did,
but not most of them) then they knew all too well that Jews have always
been outcastes. Forming ghettos, mocked and mistreated, Sefardic Jews
knew that Jewishness itself was a thing to be shunned. It is my belief
that my ancestors, not very long ago, realized that peril still existed
for them. So I believe my ancestors were CryptoJews up until my great-grandfatherıs
generation. Not until that point in my family history, I think, did
they "become" Conversos. Survival of the fittest. It was at this time
that they emigrated from the 'Spanish' Netherlands, around Belgium,
They must have continued to live in mortal fear of being accused of
Judaizing. Judaizing... such an ugly term which means nothing more than
practicing Judaism. This was the hated verb that was used to accuse
so many Sefardim and send them to their deaths. Marrano... a truly horrid
insult, which is used even today, by some Jewish writers no less. This
is not a term that just means "Spanish Jew", or even "swine" or "pig",
as some Jewish authors erroneously believe. It is a word that means
"filthy-pig-person", and aimed at the Jews, it means "filthy Jew pig".
It is a word that must never be used as a noun, adjective, or anything
else. For example, my mother and her brother used to jokingly call the
kids puerco marrano... "pig-filthy-pig", a unique Spanish hyperbole...
whenever we did something they considered dirty but not especially offensive.
This they felt they could do lightheartedly, because somewhere in their
hearts they knew what it really meant. When matters were serious, they
carefully scolded us by calling us cochino or cochina... in this context
meaning a piglike person, or slob. Note its resemblance to the Italian
cucina, "kitchen". It is never used in conjunction with marrano. Cochino
and the diminutive cochinito has been used in Spanish since Medieval
times, to denote a suckling pig. In other words, cochino means "pork",
"pig", "suckling pig" and "slob"; puerco means "pig" and "piglike" in
general as well as "pork"; but marrano means "filthy-pig-person". Marrano
is never used in any other context by polite, decent society... because
it is an unvarnished, absolutely context-positive insult. I simply cannot
believe my ears when I hear that Marrano is now being proudly used by
Sefardim, as if it were just another version of the name Chicano. A
Chicano is a far cry from a filthy pig!
At home on Friday evenings, special things seemed to be in the air.
We never knew why; even my grandmother and mother didnıt seem to know.
We were dressed up, very clean, the shades were always drawn, and my
mother lit candles. It was exactly like New Yearıs Eve on Fridays. We
had a good meal and a festive spirit, but of course as the teen years
arrived and then passed for us, fewer and fewer of us were at home.
My mother did not mind. The tradition just seemed to die a natural death
as we kids left home. She, however, never stopped looking forward to
Friday nights... always relishing that cup of Manischewitz kosher grape
wine. For her, and for my grandmother, it was just the way it had always
been done. I recall the preparations for Friday night supper: there
was much bustling, as though disaster might rain down on the kitchen
after dark. Everything was completed very early, and the whole day was
needed. Even at this depth of ignorance, my family kept kosher as much
as possible. Meat had to be drained of blood (preferably out of doors),
washed, salted and so forth. It is a pitiable condition: the spirit
and some traditions remain, but the knowledge, the consciousness, is
gone. It is the ultimate in thievery. It is in this sense that the term
"wandering Jew" takes on special meaning, and it is in this sense that
the "Lost Tribes" takes on its most important, true meaning.
For me it took on a meaning of epic proportions. After my mother died,
may her memory be blessed, I discovered the truth about our family.
It wasnıt long after her death... perhaps a few months... as if a gift
had come from the Eternal One, via her. "Suddenly Jewish" certainly
describes me at that moment. What came to my memory after I had discovered
the truth was the scene at my motherıs deathbed, after she had passed.
Exactly as I had read about traditional Jewish vigils and deaths. I
personally covered or removed and turned over the mirrors, everyone
sat and looked miserable, certain items were placed on the deathbed.
I knew I had at least a 30 day mourning period ahead of me, during which
I could not shave at all, could not have a haircut or take a bath. I
knew I would not be able to go out for entertainment, get dressed up,
or cease to wear black. I seem to recall a tradition we once had of
giving charity in the name of the deceased. Why the Jewish connection
did not occur to me at the time was very simple: as a Buddhist priest,
I had obligations to the dead. As a son of a "devout" Catholic, and
former seminarian, I had the duty to administer emergency Last Rites.
As her son, in spite of being over-the-hill as you can get, I was torn
into pieces by grief. Somehow, in my grief I was tempted to rend my
garments. Now I know why. There were no elder female relatives left
to tend my motherıs body in the traditional way... my father was in
no condition to do anything. As Jews, well, no one was conscious of
it at that time. Not yet. That is the ugliest tragedy of all. A CryptoJewish
lady once commented that she has never called herself Jewish, because
she was not raised as a Jew. I say the Torah is clear: once a Jew, always
a Jew. The children of converted or CryptoJews are Jews, whether anyone
likes it or not. The Torah is clear. It is also clear that being a Jew
is a state of mind; as worded by one very important Jewish scholar,
being truly Jewish is more a choice than anything else.
These sentiments helped me to take heart. I sought refuge in a new,
highly moneyed Ashkenazic synagogue that called itself a "center". It
was full of old, well-off folks who had lost relatives in haShoah, the
Holocaust. When I looked at them I could see and feel their loss. They
also felt like instant kindred folk, like relatives previously unknown.
They even looked and acted like all my relatives. What I wonder to this
day is whether they saw the same in me. I had no doubt that my rabbi
was aware of my sense of pain and loss. He was keenly attuned to my
grief over the loss of my dear mother, but at the same time I found
him oddly disinterested in my Jewish heritage. He essentially ignored
me. A bad memory. The memory I cherish the most is the time I chatted
in Hebrew with him; he remarked that I "should be teaching the congregants
Hebrew". If anything reaffirmed me, made me feel whole again, it was
that remark. Nonetheless, he was unmoved by my "Jewish plight", seemed
very nervous about the whole thing, and didnıt want to encourage me.
We discussed conversion in his office one day. What hurt me the most-
and I know, he didnıt mean it - was his insistence upon the conversion
ritual in the first place. I told him I already was a Jew; I was looking
forward to fully joining the community. His reasoning was sound: a conversion
has to be seen to be believed. The bath, the mikveh, must be performed.
I then repeated, I had something of a problem with the very idea that
I had to "convert". He was telling me I was not Jewish until they said
Finally I accepted the terms, and pledged I would "convert with all
the faith and zeal that had been used to rob my ancestors of their Jewish
heritage." My exact words. It must have been at that moment that the
rabbi was really wary of me. It is Jewish custom, as it is the Buddhist,
to torture (they call it "testing") a candidate... a proselyte... three
times, prior to commencing the actual conversion process. The rabbi
promised solemnly that he would not do that to me, due to my sincerity,
spiritual background, and preexisting training in Jewish theology and
tradition. Today I wonder if that promise in itself was a sort of trap,
to see if I would get proud and arrogant. I didnıt; I was too busy feeling
happy and fulfilled. Somehow I feel that the rabbi laid the trap, was
frustrated, and became a bit resentful. Then again, as I have always
said, I harbor no ill will... just a vague, bad memory of a suspicion.
Sadly, there was nothing else to be done. The community, well established
in my hometown for over a century and a half, simply did not know how
to take me, or what to do with me. That was perhaps the worst part of
discovering who I am. I returned to my Buddhist ministry with my rabbiıs
blessing, he no doubt elated at the prospect of ridding himself of my
Perhaps that is the other sad thing: Jews are against Jews very much
these days, and no one feels it like newly self-discovered Sefardim.
The ugliest thing I notice is a Jew accusing another Jew of not being
a Jew. Almost sounds like a joke. Until I remember that this very thing
happened to me, and it was the rabbi who had said it. Since that time,
three other rabbis have said that to me. Donıt they know how that hurts,
or do they simply not care? In spite of this Semitic anti-Semitism,
innumerable gifts have been imparted to me that cannot be taken away.
Today I know that no matter what happens, I am a Jew. I know I have
a Jewish soul: it made me respond to the call back to my people. The
privilege to study the deepest Jewish teachings, to live and practice
openly as a Jew, to retain certain Jewish vows, is privilege indeed.
No, I am not "a false Jew", "of Jewish descent", "of Jewish ancestry",
or an "apostate Jew". I am a Jew. Couldnıt be simpler. On the street,
old Jewish people who do not know me somehow recognize me immediately
as kindred, and it is this recognition I most relish. All the people
who come from far and wide, who lost everything in the Holocaust, some
who even remember the pogroms... they recognize me! World War II veterans
are always easy for me to spot, because they are the first to ask me
if I am Jewish. I used to be perplexed by the question; today I immediately
respond, "Why, yes I am!" They tell me with pride that they know LOTS
of Jewish people; they can always tell. Other types of singling out
comes with the territory. I have suffered various communications accusing
me of being "a traitor to my people", "worse than Hitler", and so forth.
These messages always come from people who call themselves Jewish. Often
when I am alone thinking, I ask myself why Jews flee their community
and heritage. Why so many Jews leaving the faith, not practicing? Is
it a message about modern Orthodoxy, stringent Jewish expectations,
shattered Jewish hopes? Or is it my people stretching forth their hands,
groping and finding each other? Isnıt that what is supposed to herald
the Messianic Age? Is the conversion of a Jew to Buddhism- or some other
non-Christian religion- such a bad thing? Isnıt the Torah clear? Doesnıt
that clarity of the Torah mean anything? Once a Jew, always a Jew. How
many meanings that phrase has! So long as a Jew does not join an outright
enemy of the Jews, how can he cease being what he is? He can cease practice,
he can even be robbed of his heritage... but does that change what he
is, or whence he came? The answer is "NO". Dr. Isaac Asimov, a Russian
Jew, was once cornered by a friendly but persistent Orthodox rabbi.
Asimov said that he was an atheist, but the rabbi kept pressing him.
"Yes, yes," the rabbi insisted, "but what kind of atheist?" Asimov finally
caught on, and said, "A Jewish atheist." The rabbi was joyful. Recalling
this story, I wrote to a rabbi and said that I think even atheism is
ordained by the Eternal One. He wrote back, delighted, saying that it
was undoubtedly true. What is it in all these things that is so deep,
so meaningful? Itıs simply being Jewish. Even more, it is being Jewish
together. We must live, together as Jews. The Torah is clear. Many scholars
postulate that we all have some Jewish ancestry. Whatever the truth
may be, one thing shines forth in my view: being Jewish has brought
me closer to people, to the world, to the Eternal One. At the end of
the day, I believe thatıs all the Eternal One wants of any of us. I
am a Jew. It just feels so good to say that, to know that, to live it
as best I can, and to write it.
© Most Reverend
Eryk-Antonio Hernández, O.M.D., U.B. July 27th 2003
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