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Famous Sephardic Jew of the United States you don't know
a Jew, whether you or anyone likes it or not!"
Hernández, O.M.D.- Buddhist priest of the Chinese Tsao-tung
Chan tradition, founder of the Independent Buddhists of America,
acting minister of the ecumenical Progressive Universal Life Church, Doctor
of Oriental Medicine, anthropologist, artist, poet, musician and author.
Raised as a Catholic by his Mexican immigrant parents, Abp. Hernandez
learned early in life what it is to suffer identity complexes. Diagnosed
with Tourette Syndrome, mild autism and Relapsing Multiple Sclerosis,
Abp. Hernandez has lead a life of undaunted fighting for civil, religious
and non-religious freedom. He has been a champion of anti-discrimination
laws, and is active in gay rights campaigning. The archbishop has also
contributed much to medicine with his writings on neurological diseases.
||Most of Abp. Hernándezs background is lost in the mists
of time; he only knows his that his great-great grandparents on
his mothers side were Sephardic Jews, who emigrated to Mexico
in the early 19th century, most likely from the Spanish Netherlands,
Belgium. His fathers ancestors, who are almost totally unknown
beyond his great-grandparents, were also Sephardim, who came long
ago from the Spanish West Indies, probably late in the 18th or early
in the 19th centuries. The archbishop half-jokingly suspects that
his father, who is mostly black, "is a misplaced Ethiopian
Deeply in love with Jewish tradition from an early age, though raised
as a stricter-than-strict Catholic, Abp. Hernández began studying
the Sephardim and their history for fun. After the death of his beloved
mother in 2000, Abp. Hernandez was stunned to discover that all of his
ancestors surnames were on the "Sephardic Names rolls".
Prior to this, he had absolutely no knowledge of his Jewish ancestry.
He had, as he has often said, been studying his own people all along.
Abp. Hernández tries to comment on his Jewishness with aplomb,
but a childlike enthusiasm comes gushing through. He says, "I looked
at a website, and found a list, it was a sort of If Your Family
Has These Customs, They are Sephardic Jews list. Its at www.sephardim.org.
Well, I read that list of traditions and customs
I was floored!
It was like reading about my family. My family! And I have no idea if
anyone in our family knew or suspected the truth. But I think at least
some of them did. We of my generation didnt, I can tell you."
Later, the archbishop was deeply wounded when he e-mailed a rabbi with
a question. "My e-mail just laid out the facts about my familys
history, then I asked the rabbi, Am I a Jew?
Well, he wrote back saying, No. You werent raised Jewish and
you arent a practicing Jew. That raised my ire, and I wrote
to him and said being Jewish is a matter of choice and a matter of opinion.
Then I told him, Im a Jew, whether you or anyone likes it
Abp. Hernández, who recently converted from Buddhism to Judaism,
studied Torah and Kabbalah for a year, then left Judaic practice with
his rabbis blessing, is happy to practice Buddhism
"Where else in the world but America can I be an archbishop of an
independent American Buddhist order, call myself a Jew, be a minister
with a largely Christian ecumenical-universal church, and have congregants
of every stripe?!"
Abp. Hernández is deeply moved by what he calls "as great
a loss of Jews as the ha-Shoah [the Holocaust]." He refers to Sephardic
and Ashkenazic Jews who have no inkling of their heritages. "Like
Madeline Albright. Sure, theres the nose," he chuckles good-naturedly.
"But really, who knew?"
He is unhappy not only with this centuries-old identity loss, but also
the religious and political ramifications. "It infuriates me when
Orthodox Jews begin sticking their noses into the business of the poor
Sephardim," he exhales harshly. "This is not what happened to
me. But I see the Ashkenazization of the Sephardim everyday.
There should be no separation, other than generally, you see, geographically,
such as Western Jews and Eastern Jews."
The archbishop leans back thoughtfully. "We are ALL siblings, in
the eyes of the Eternal," he sighs. "I dont know why an
Orthodox rabbi with his head in the sand in Israel should have a say about
the Sephardic future. Or its past." He leaps to his feet with great
celerity and loudly says, "Its like the Dalai Lama trying to
tell the Japanese Zen Buddhists what to do! Too much has changed for this
He removes his ever-present skullcap briefly to scratch his head, studies
the skullcap, and smiles broadly. "A Buddhist kipah", he says
slowly and contentedly, using the Hebrew word for yarmulke.
"Its a gift!" He does not mean someone gave it to him;
he is quoting Tolkien. "No, I have a huge collection, Im like
a rabbi. Something from almost every tradition."
Abp. Hernández has written a surprisingly popular 100-page history
of the skullcap around the world. (The free book, My Kingdom for a Crown,
can be found at www.hatsUK.com.)
"Everyone had them," he chuckles. "It was a fashion statement
as well as a tribal necessity, for countless millennia." Then the
archbishop lunges toward me, firmly positioning his skullcap back on his
head for a second, then just as firmly planting it on my head. "Bless
you, and keep it," he says warmly. "Its a GIFT!!"
© Alicia H. Weber, September 2002
Recent Article by Rev. Antonio Hernandez
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