Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jewry

I was in one of my classes today, and a realization eventually bubbled in my mind, a realization that I already had but forgot.

My teacher's last name is "Hernandez," and she comes from a Mexican Catholic family. However, on the second day of class, she told us that her maternal grandmother is Jewish, which means, guess what? That's right, my Mexican Catholic teacher is a Jew, specifically, a Sephardic Jew.

A Jewish friend of mine told me yesterday that any Spanish name ending with "ez," Hernandez, Gomez, Rodriguez, etc, are actually Jewish names, that those people are Jews. The suffix "ez" was used to notate "son of," so Hernandez is "son of Herman," for example. I'm going to check out that theory. Also, in Spain today, there are about twenty surnames that are categorized as specificaly Jewish names that nobody else has.

When I was in Israel a few years ago, my sister was telling our cousins about the guy she went to prom with, David Gutierrez. When she told them his name, they immediately asked, "Oh, you went to prom with a Jewish guy?" To them, Gutierrez was a Jewish last name, a name that we don't usually associate with Jewish at all. I thought to myself, "Haha, silly Israeli's, we live in Tucson, Arizona, where there are many Mexicans, and Gutierrez is a Catholic name!" After doing a little bit of research, I realized that they could be right and that I could be wrong, which is a good thing!

As you know, many Jews left Spain during the Spanish Inquisition and settled elsewhere, many in Mexico. Before that, many of these Jews "converted" to Catholicism in order to fit into society, but ended up creating a class of people called "Marranos," (which actually means 'swine') who became known as "hidden Jews." They went to Mass and participated to a degree in Catholic life, but were suspected of being Jews. The "New Christians" were the Jews that converted openly to Catholicism. Today in Mexico, where many of those people ended up settling, there are many "Catholics" that light candles on Friday and light candleabras (menorah's) during the winter, some in a hidden fashion, in a little podium with an inlet for the candles. It is very likely that they are Jews. There are many also in Portugal.

In Africa you also have several groups, the "African version" of that. One of those groups is the "Igbo," a Nigerian tribe that believe that they are Jews (I have spoken to one). Linguistically, "J" becomes "Y," or "I," "K" can become "G," and "V" can become "B." The result, Igbo is Jkv(o), or Jacob, Ya'akov. If you were a group of Jews fearing losing your identity, but also feared persecution, it would be a smart thing to name yourself a derivative of the name "Jacob," the patriarch from who all of the tribes of Israel came from.

You'll also find Africans, like an Eritrean family that I know, whose last name resembles that of one of the twelve tribes of Jacob, or Israel. Their last name is "Menashe," which is exactly the way his name is pronounced in Hebrew. "Menashe" is "Mannasseh," one of the tribes. Her family is actually Greek Orthodox, but are they really? I have also read that the Tutsi's are of Jewish heritage-- if it's true, it kinda adds a whole new element to the ethnic conflict between them, an element of religion, but specifically, Judaism. Not much attention has been given to this, so it exists as a theory right now. You can read more about it on this website. http://www.kulanu.org/tutsi/jews-africa.html

In India you have a group of known and practicing Jews who call themselves "B'nei Menashe," "Sons of Menashe," and trace their lineage very far back.

These are just the main groups, there are also smaller and more fragmented and less known groups in other parts of the world. The common theme that they all have is their association with a name of one of the tribes of Jacob, or with Jacob himself, and a hidden sort of status in the place they live.

If their lineage is valid, it turns out that the population of Jews in the world is (much) higher than we currently think, and that their status or condition drove them underground. If we consider that the world population of Christians is about 33% and the world population of Muslims is about 23%, the fact that the (recorded) world Jewish population is .002% (two thousandths of one percent) is almost impossible! According to this statistic, and if my calculations are correct, for every 1 Jew there are about 16,500 Christians and about 11,500 Muslims. The key here is that the recorded Jewish population is .002%, which is a number that leaves out Jews that have ceased to identify themselves as Jews due to generations of assimilation, have converted to any number of religions (including Christianity or Islam) and of course, Jews that don't even know that they are Jewish. If it's possible for groups of people to have collective memory, they can also have collective amnesia, especially if that amnesia helped them to survive.

It's stressful in a way, but also exciting to see these people right in front of your eyes who are Jews just like you, but are so far removed in practice and are adhering to other religions, even if in a superficial way, and whose "Jewishness" is a faint image somewhere far in the distance of their consciousness. You want to run up to them and say, "Hey Jewish sister or brother, how are you?! Would you like to celebrate Shabbat (the Sabbath) with me?," all the while disregarding the statue of the Virgin Mary that they have on their mantle. It gives a whole new meaning to the "protective powers" of the Virgin Mary, not from evil spirits, but from marauding Catholic Spaniards. It's painful to see people so unaware of their identity, especially when that identity is such a special one as being a Jew and when they are your family.

You never know, Carlos with the big blinging cross hanging from his neck could be a Levite. In fact, you or someone you know might be living an historical charade, unaware of an entire family and communal history, and therefore individual history. Right now, wherever you are sitting, look at the person next to you who you would never in your wildest imagination think was a Jew, because they just might be.

There is a book written about this topic by a man named Dan Ross titled "Acts of Faith." Here is a blurb about the book written by Chaim Raphael.

Everyone knows the story of the pigtailed Chinese Jew who greets his Litvak visitor in total disbelief: "You Jewish? You don't look Jewish." But though this is funny when first heard, it might seem foolhardy to write a book consisting largely, as Acts of Faith does, of variations on this one theme.

There is a great documentary about this called "Quest for the Lost Tribes," which is an Arts & Entertainment production. You can read a blurb about it here.


You can order it here.