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 co-founded 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, Ariz.
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.”
Crypto-Jews Outside the Americas
Anti-Semitism led to thousands of Jewish families publicly converting to different religions while continuing to practice their faith in private. Crypto-Jews of Latin America appeared to be Catholic, while Crypto-Jews in the Middle East appeared to be Muslim. Other names for Crypto-Jews are conversos, or people who have converted from one religion to another, and Marranos.
Although most Crypto-Jews are associated with Jews who fled Spain and Portugal during the 1400s and 1500s, the secret Jews first emerged during an earlier period of persecution. According to the Association of Crypto-Jews, large numbers of Jewish families began to practice their religion in secret as far back as 500, when Spain was under Visigoth rule and practicing Jews could be beheaded or burned alive.
boy who performs simple rituals associated with Christian religious services. Also called an acolyte.
having to do with the Christian denomination with the Pope as its leader.
religion based on the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
to change from one thing to another.
person who practiced their Jewish faith in secret, in order to avoid persecution.
a way of doing things that has been handed down from one generation to the next.
ceremonies, rituals, and customs that honor a dead person, before burial or cremation.
people and culture associated with Israel and the Jewish religion.
having to do with the religion or culture of people tracing their ancestry to the ancient Middle East and the spiritual leaders Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
small piece of parchment or paper inscribed with the Jewish prayer Shema Yisrael.
the Western Hemisphere, made up of the Americas and their islands.
process of discriminating against and, often, violently confronting a group of people based on their ethnicity, religion, or beliefs.
communication with a spiritual deity.
leading religious official of a Jewish synagogue.
holy person in Christian religions.
close attention or investigation.
Jewish prayer whose translation begins: "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one."
(Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, 1478-1834) organization founded to control religious practices in Spain and its colonies.
place of worship for Jewish people.
holy figure in Christian religions and mother of Jesus.