Raised as a Roman Catholic in Panama, Rabbi Yosef Garcia was 32 years old when he discovered he was Jewish.
Having grown up as an altar boy, Garcia was blown away when his great-uncle told him the family was not Catholic. Rather, the Garcias are Crypto-Jews—Jewish people who for centuries appeared to be Catholic in order to avoid persecution.
“I had no idea about anything Jewish,” Rabbi Garcia says. “I didn’t know anyone Jewish. I didn’t know anything about the Jewish history or culture.”
After those initial feelings of confusion, Garcia fully embraced his newfound faith. Eight years later, he became a rabbi, the chief religious official of a synagogue, the place of worship for Jewish people. In 2004, Garcia cofounded the Association of Crypto-Jews of the Americas, whose mission he says is to help Crypto-Jews “return to the Jewish community living a full Jewish life.”
Garcia says the greatest concentrations of Crypto-Jews in the Americas are in Brazil and Mexico, though there is a sizeable population in the U.S. states of Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, and California. The association is based in Chandler, Arizona.
Fleeing the Spanish Inquisition
Garcia says many Jewish people decided to conceal their true religious beliefs during the Spanish Inquisition of the late 1400s, when the Catholic rulers of Spain declared that all Jewish people should convert to Christianity or be expelled from the country.
“The Inquisition was designed to find those individuals who had converted to Christianity [but] who were not practicing Christianity to their level,” he says. “If not, then they would be tortured, killed, and their families would be killed as well.”
Thousands of Jews fled Spain. However, according to The Association of Crypto-Jews’ website, as many as 600,000 Jews converted to Christianity by the end of the 15th century. Some of these converted Jews secretly continued to practice Judaism—thus becoming Crypto-Jews, which means “hidden Jews.”
“What the people did is that they got very smart,” Garcia says. “They ate pork. They went to Catholic church. They had statues of the saints. They would make donations to the church. They did not circumcise their children. They never celebrated anything out in the open. They would just celebrate things behind closed doors, behind closed curtains. They got really good at hiding, but they practiced Jewish traditions.”
Hoping to escape persecution, Jews and Crypto-Jews moved to Africa, India, China, and new Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the Americas. Unfortunately, the Inquisition followed the Jews to the “New World,” which meant the transplanted Jewish people had to continue to conceal their religious beliefs.
Family members did not reveal their Jewish heritage, even to their sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters, for fear of persecution.
“You could not tell anyone that you were Jewish,” Garcia says. “And you couldn’t allow your children to see you doing strange things. There were individuals who never realized they were Jewish their entire lives growing up. They simply went to church. A lot of them were altar boys. Some of them were even priests.”
According to Garcia, some of the traditions Crypto-Jews continued to practice in secret concerned funeral customs, which differ from Catholic rituals for burying and honoring the dead.
For one, Jews attempt to bury the dead as soon as possible, while Catholics allow the body to be visited by loved ones before being placed in the ground. In addition, followers of Judaism are supposed to cover mirrors with cloth in the homes where they are grieving. Crypto-Jews honored both Jewish traditions.
Sometimes, Crypto-Jews found clever ways of following their own customs while appearing to adhere to Catholicism.
“Every family who was under extreme scrutiny would have a statue of the Virgin Mary in their house,” Garcia explains. “Now, what they would do is take the mezuzah, which is a small, square kind of box with the word of God [the Jewish prayer “Shema Yisrael”] on it, and they would carve out the bottom of the statue. And they would put this mezuzah in the feet of the statue. Every time they walked in and out of the house, they would appear to be touching and kissing the feet of the statue, but they were actually touching and kissing the mezuzah.”
Looking back on his own childhood, the rabbi recalls his grandmother lighting candles every Friday night and singing songs in a language he didn’t understand at the time.
“I realized later on,” Garcia says, “that she was actually saying a Hebrew prayer.”