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Question of Faith

In Medellín, Jewish converts try to leave the Inquisition, and Colombia’s civil war, behind

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On a bus in Medellín, Colombia. (Amber Terranova)
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Question of Faith

Photos: In Medellín, Colombia, Jewish converts trace their heritage to the Spanish Inquisition

Click here to see a slideshow on the Jewish converts of Medellín, Colombia.

A pair of beggars position themselves on the front steps of the cathedral for the end of mass. One wears a big Star of David, the other a humble wooden crucifix. As churchgoers file out, the beggar with the cross is given a steady stream of alms, while the beggar with the Star of David is ignored or even spat upon. The priest looks at the two of them and says, “Hey, Jew, you should move to the synagogue. You’ll have better luck with your own kind.”

The beggar with the Star of David looks at the other beggar, who is eagerly counting his money, and says to him, “Hey, Moshe! Did you hear that?”

This joke is told by 31-year-old Ezrah Rodriguez Agudelo, a convert to Judaism and a member of a Sephardic community in Bello, a neighborhood on the northern end of Medellín, the capital of Colombia’s Antioquia region, which was possibly home to a number of converso, or Marrano, colonizers fleeing the Inquisition. A former evangelical Christian, Rodriguez, dark-skinned and as spindly as a sparrow, has learned to laugh at the Jewish stereotypes. Yet the joke, which he tells in Spanish, is not just about the relationship of Jews and money. It is also a Marrano joke about the benefits of pretending not to be Jewish.

I first learned about the Bello converts through a three-part report on Colombian television news, and I traveled to Medellín to see how an evangelical megachurch called the Centro de Terapia Integral Para la Familia, or the Center for Integral Family Therapy, has morphed into a Hebrew-speaking, Sephardic, Orthodox Jewish community complete with daycare, a Hebrew school, a self-managed kosher market, and claims to an ancestry that makes them more returnees than converts. What I didn’t know was how this journey would uncover, little by little, not only a hidden past, but intricate, far-reaching ties to the more recent history of Colombia’s terrible and bloody civil war.

Shlomo Cano Muriel, the Bello Sephardic community’s “chief of communications,” tells me to meet him at his metalworking shop, which is in a small warehouse just off the metro line, and he leads me upstairs to his spare office. He probes my dormant Judaism, my Ukrainian-Polish heritage, and my seven years living in Colombia. We are soon joined by Abel Villegas, a 64-year-old, freckled-faced, blue-eyed former high-school Spanish teacher, now a carpenter who helps out around the shop. When Abel lifts his baseball cap to reveal a kippah, his eyebrows lift with it. He eventually explains that he is the father of the community leader, the former evangelical pastor Juan Carlos Villegas, whose Hebrew name is Elad.

Just then, a worker comes into the office wearing safety glasses and a cap with the Star of David. Cano invites me to join them for Shabbat and to spend time with the community of 17 converted families, plus a hundred more in training, who make up a not-insignificant percentage of the estimated 7,000 Jews living in Colombia today. Whatever inquisition court his group has set up to vet solicitors, I have apparently passed.

***

Medellín is the inverse of a shining city on the hill. Tucked in the Aburrá Valley, with its boxy slums rising up the slopes on either side of skyscrapers like a pair of great, poised Hokusai waves, it is sunken, humid, vibrant green and brick brown, and perpetually in bloom. Pilgrims visit former drug lord Pablo Escobar’s grave to lay wreaths. The statue known as Our Lady of the Assassins, the patron of killers, sees a constant stream of supplicants at her chapel. The locals, known as paisas, a shortening of paisanos, or people of the same country, are well known across Colombia to be intenso in everything they do.

On a Saturday, I take the city’s spotless metro line eight stops north, up the valley floor, and walk 10 short blocks to the synagogue where the Bello converts have gathered for Shabbat. Their temple is a rented, nondescript three-story brick building, clean and well ventilated with fans and windows.

Boaz Fariñas Eisenberg, a 34-year-old Venezuelan with a sparse beard, and Moshe Gomez, 62, the honorary president of the community I’ve come to see, had met me at the Bello metro stop the night before and shown me around the former rural village that has been absorbed by the northward creep of Medellín. The square central plaza, like everywhere in Colombia, was a lively park surrounded by a Catholic church, town hall, and a barricaded national police station.

Bello is home to a working class of shop owners and low-level professionals. Gomez, for example, is a retired train engineer on the now-defunct Santa Marta line. Eliay Madrigal, another of the converts, has worked in the national tax office for more than 30 years. He wears an Israeli flag as a lapel pin.

At the segregated synagogue, I watch the converts perform the Sephardic rites: davening, binding, and pounding the teba during song. At the Shma, Madrigal leans over to whisper to me, “This is the most important part of the service,” before covering his eyes, his hand in the shape of the Hebrew letter shin.

For lunch, as the community disperses on foot, I walk with the joke-teller Rodriguez and his family to their tiny row house in a community whose construction reminds me of an Israeli settlement on the West Bank in the way it climbs the hill and looks back over the city. His young son Yoetzel naps while Rodriguez blesses the homemade bread. He talks about his father, a civil engineer, being kidnapped twice and barely making it back alive the second time. When we get back to evening services, after the Torah reading, Rodriguez stands to deliver a commentary. With all the rhetorical grace of a preacher, he speaks about why Shabbat comes to us, not the other way around.

***

Boaz Fariñas—who runs the blog and Internet radio station Yeshiva Virtual Latinoamericano, has written four self-published books of poetry and is at work on a history of the Marranos in Colombia—is the first to begin badgering me with the idea that all of the geographically isolated region of Antioquia, which is roughly the size and population of Israel, is one big crypto-Jewish state.

The argument goes like this. Antioquia was colonized by Sephardic conversos fleeing (or anticipating) the Inquisition in Iberia, which followed them to the Americas. These colonizers—excellent survivalists and frontiersmen—were highly adaptable merchant traders as well as realists in the face of political upheaval. As such, they were the early adopters of Marranism: willing (or understanding the necessity) to subsume their Judaism under a cloak of ostentatious Catholicism. They then brought their customs and tactics from Iberia or continued to perfect them in Antioquia. Having survived the bloody purges of 1391 and the decree of expulsion of 1492 by subterfuge and fervor, settling the Americas in the 16th century was not much of a challenge.

This would explain, the theory goes, why the typical dish of the region, the bandeja paisa, or paisa platter, includes a white arepa, round like the Host, unleavened like matzoh. The platter also features a long, hairy strip of deep-fried pork rind, known as chicharrón. Its prominent display on top of the other food elements in the platter, plus its loud crunching noise and strong salty smell, make plain to even casual passers-by that the diner couldn’t possibly be Jewish. The long deep-frying required to make the tough rind edible also makes pig slightly more palatable—its pig essence burnt out of it—to the crypto-Jew who has to make a show of eating it in public. And, just as a Sabbath elevator that stops on every floor is a handy cheat to avoid pushing buttons, so pig skin, through a certain literalism, might technically be considered not pig meat: hardly kosher but not utterly trayf either.

The evidence doesn’t stop at meals (though there’s also a legend that local paisas would hang a ham hock in their kitchens so that it might be thrown in to the pot of beans, known as “judías,” upon a surprise visit of an inquisitor). Antioquia’s colonial towns have biblical names like Belén, Jericó, and La Torah. Village churches, including the colonial chapel in Bello, point east and sometimes segregate the sexes. The paisa’s typical cloth poncho is striped and flecked with untied ends: crypto-tzit-tzit. Inquisition-style marranadas, the ritual public slaughtering of pigs by machete following show “trials” in which the animals were found guilty of any number of human sins, continue to be celebrated around Christmas in lower-class Medellín despite having been outlawed recently. And in Antioquia, unlike elsewhere in Colombia, statues of the Virgin Mary stand to the right of the entrance to houses, and locals would brush their hand against her on their way in and out. Break the Virgins open, the crypto-Judaists say, and you would have found a mezuzah hidden inside.

Conspiracy has a natural self-contained logic precisely because its secrecy allows for imaginative filling in of the gaps. But the stereotypes sure do add up. Paisas refer to themselves as a nation and a race, even though they have only an accent and geography to distinguish themselves from other Colombians, who are descendents of Africans, Native Americans, Roma, European, and Middle Eastern immigrants, and every mestizaje in between. Still, paisas prefer to marry within the tribe. They are reputed to be spendthrifts, excellent merchants, big debaters, tireless colonizers, and they make a formidable paramilitary. (The notorious leader of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, Carlos Castaño Gil, was rumored to have been spirited away to Israel after staging his own death.) In the 1870s, one of the 10 richest families in Medellín was the Barrientos, whose members were known for their frugality. They owned land in several settlements north of Medellín, including much of Bello, and held millions in stock that financed 17 important local companies. As part of the emerging industrialist elite of Medellín, the Barrientos helped create San Pedro cemetery where they could be separate, along with 50 other families, from the riff-raff buried in San Lorenzo. In 1910, the families that founded this cemetery asked the archbishop to consecrate the ground. He agreed, on the condition that the private owners certify the cemetery as Catholic. They refused. The tombstones are rife with Sephardic names like Sénior, Peres, and Salzedo.

A local newspaper report on the Barrientos, on the occasion of the conversion of their Art Deco family house into a downtown public library, described them as being “characterized by big, eagle noses” and “silent, shy personalities.” At the library, I asked if the immersion bath in the patio, beautifully restored to its original decorative tile, was Jewish. “No,” the librarian answered, a little perplexed. “It was just their luxurious bathtub. My grandfather has one of those at his farm.”

***

So, how Jewish were the Antioqueños? The answer depends on whether you view conversos as crypto-Jews, secretly practicing and nurturing something in the soul that is anathema to everything they do in public, or as sincere, assimilated Christian converts. This divide is at the heart of the genius behind Benzion Netanyahu’s landmark 1996 history, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain, which asks, “How Jewish were the Marranos?” Netanyahu’s 1,400-page answer challenged the long-held academic orthodoxy that the Inquisition was formed to root out and rid society of a class of crypto-Jews whose insincere conversion to Catholicism had been the result of societal pressures. On the contrary, Netanyahu explained: The conversos were in no way secret Jews, but instead real Christians, assimilated over several generations. They were not hated for their hypocrisy or conspiracy, for they had none. Instead, they were new Christians whose success in public life threatened the old order, which invented the notion of “blood purity,” originating, Netanyahu says, in racism against Jews, which was further buttressed by the Marranos’ persistent self-description as a “nation.” In other words, the Marranos—an alleged widespread crypto-Jewish movement—didn’t cause the Inquisition. Instead, the Inquisition invented the idea of the converso as a crypto-Jew. The Inquisition wasn’t set up to persecute the Jews but to create them. It was class warfare that used racism as a weapon.

In a way, the question that the Grand Inquisitors posed over and over again for centuries—are you Jewish?—was the very question that had brought me to the Bello converts. I was hardly accusing the Bello Sephardics of being crypto-Christians, but I did wonder at how pat their religious and ancestral self-justification seemed. For those who had completed their official conversion, the answer to the question “Are you Jewish?” was “yes.” But when asked if they had always been Jewish, a certain pursing of the mouth ensued. For many, like for Moshe Gomez, the answer was something like “in my heart and soul, yes,” or, as Ezrah Rodriguez put it, “it’s not something I choose.” The clues they found in DNA tests, their ancestry, the scholarship and the pseudo-science on Antioquian colonization by Marranos, the deep-fried pork rind, the mikvehs on the farms—all helped them support the notion that they had always been Jews without knowing it. When I asked Elad Villegas, the leader of the community, this same question, he answered with a rhetorical question of his own: “How can you convert water into water?”

It’s easy to see how these questions of heritage and identity shape the Sephardic converts of Antioquia. But it’s also not a stretch to bring the comparison out into the world of Colombia’s civil conflict as well. For as in any civil conflict, including the Inquisition, self-identification defines an individual’s side and can determine his chance of survival. Guerrilla, paramilitary, and government soldiers—the major players in a decades-long and brutal clash—all, to varying degrees, wear their allegiance as a uniform, for nothing in their race or blood could possibly identify them as being on one side or the other. No one is born a guerrillero. Civilians caught in the middle may make all the protestations of sympathy they want but, when faced with a paramilitary ambush or a guerrilla kidnapping, will be as helpless as a Salem witch. Elad Villegas would soon find this out for himself.

***

His hair combed back under a black kippah, Villegas sits at his desk in the synagogue office decorated with photos of Jerusalem and sundry Judaica and tells me about the past. At 15, restless and spiritually curious, he says he “fell into Christianity” and was soon proselytizing after school through the Centro de Terapia Integral para la Familia. In the early 1990s, Medellín was a ferment of outsized mafioso personalities newly shaped out of hardscrabble clay: “The time of Escobar,” as Villegas put it to me, invoking the talisman Colombians use to explain a lot of things—displacement, death, emigration, fortune, and loss—and, in this case, Villegas’ youthful disorientation. By 19, he was assistant pastor to Andres Puerta, studying animal husbandry at the University of Antioquia but focused on the church.

Villegas and Puerta were ambitious about gathering a flock into a megachurch. They were charismatic young leaders with a good Christian musical group and a Judaism-inflected tabernacle show that weekly drew hundreds of people to the 1,000-seat theater where they performed on Saturdays, a few blocks off of Bello’s town plaza. Actors wore kippahs, delivered lines in Hebrew, and blew a shofar. In 1994, some six months after Escobar was shot on a Medellín roof, the church counted 95 members. By its peak in 2002, that number was 3,000. In Bello, where dozens of other spiritual groups—including the Centro Missionero Bethesda, the Iglesia de Avivamiento Mundial Maranatha, and the Catholic Church—have meeting halls, Villegas’ theater was the mega-iglesia visitors were directed to if they asked for one.

The church’s growth propelled its young pastors beyond the valley of Aburrá. Modeling their church on U.S. evangelical organizations, they held events in the city’s soccer stadium. They traveled as invitees to megachurches elsewhere. Villegas was billed as a boy-wonder preacher: The combination of his charisma, youth, and eloquence was God’s genius manifest. On revival tours, he traveled to England, across the south of France, to Brooklyn, and to Miami’s Catedral del Pueblo on the Cuban strip of Calle Ocho. “I was passionate,” Villegas tells me, “and I understood what that did to people’s sense of hope.”

In 1998, as part of these travels, he and Puerta followed a group of 20 French evangelical Christians to Jerusalem, where in various organized activities that included visits with rabbis, Villegas says, he began to have doubts about his spiritual path as a Christian. Then, on April 28, 2002, Villegas led a group of 40 from his megachurch to be baptized at his father’s farm, near Barbosa, 25 miles north of the city. Crystalline natural pools abound in the lush surrounding hills, and the baptism took place in the river that cut through the property. Later that day, driving the dirt road out from the farm, Villegas’ car was stopped by four men brandishing shotguns. They identified themselves as the Bernardo Arrojoven Front of the National Liberation Army (or ELN, by its Spanish initials), the second-largest guerrilla group in the country. They forced Villegas out of the car and marched him to their camp.

“The general concept of a Christian pastor is of somebody who is an opportunist,” Villegas later told Christianity Today Magazine, which covers the activity of evangelical Christians across the world. The ELN claimed to have gathered intelligence on the successful pastor from within his own church and demanded a ransom of $25,000. Villegas was moved at gunpoint to improvised hiding spots during the day and fed only rice. In the underbrush, he contracted leishmaniasis, a parasitic infection. At night, he was tied up. As one of hundreds of evangelical captives—out of the more than 3,500 hostages held in Colombia that year—his plight drew the attention of hardly more than his congregation. And the guerrilla were known to have a special antipathy for missionaries, who competed on deeply rural turf for the same hearts and minds.

Villegas says his time in captivity helped him identify the three kinds of people who join the Colombian guerrilla: idealists, the disillusioned, and killers. The first are often subcomandantes, who even without grasping the ideology they’ve been recruited to defend can be fully committed to the practical implementation of its program. They are to be avoided, Villegas says; they can’t be converted. The last, the natural killers, seek in the guerrilla a social structure to accommodate their pathology. They are unpredictable, dangerous, and best left alone.

But the second kind of guerrillero—disillusioned, hopeless people, in search of anything besides the disconnected poverty they come from: “You preach to that kind of person,” Villegas says. “You tell them that they can change.” And preach he did, reading Psalms from his Bible, which was permitted to him, and mustering his charisma on the few captors whose desperation was apparent.

Meanwhile, back in Bello, his flock prayed for him. Puerta and Villegas’ father, who handled negotiations, refused to accede to phoned-in ELN demands, reportedly challenging the guerrilla to harm a “servant of God.” Then, on the 12th day of his captivity, Villegas was left by the side of the road to be picked up by congregants, who watched him weep during the four-hour journey back to Bello. According to Villegas, the rebel commander had freed him in exchange for nothing more than his Bible.

Villegas calls the experience a “porqueria”—as trashy and filthy as a pig—not a spiritual test. “But in a way,” he concedes, “it made me very famous.” Villegas became known as the kidnapped pastor who miraculously freed himself through the word of God. Back in the pulpit, Villegas preached from his experience against the decades-long civil war. He also trained his deacons in basic security and vigilance and changed the church’s approach to event publicity. Behind his fame, the church grew, as did the number of invitations to travel and testify.

Two years later, Villegas and Puerta returned to Israel for 15 days. Villegas’ spiritual doubts, which were planted on his first trip to Israel, had germinated during his hostage ordeal. This time, Villegas made plain his dissatisfaction with the answers he was hearing to his persistent questions of faith. How can God be both man and spirit at the same time? Why can’t we make heaven on earth? In Jerusalem, he and Puerta had a definitive split. They decided that when they got back to Antioquia, they would break apart the church.

Villegas now says that his spiritual crisis on that two-week trip is hard to put in words. He says he understood that his decision meant that he would be forced to start from zero, that everything he had built was about to crumble. But he had lost all conviction, except that he was supposed to be Jewish and that he should lead the congregants of his evangelical megachurch to Judaism, too.

Back in Bello, Villegas stood in front of his church of 2,600 people and declared that he had made a mistake. He had led them astray. Like a guerrilla fighter entering a “reintegration” program—or, indeed, like the opposite of a converso before the Inquisition—he explained that in Israel he had realized that Jesus wasn’t the messiah. He asked for forgiveness and sat with parishioners one by one, answering their questions as humbly as he could. Local church leaders lambasted him from the pulpit, and he was kicked out of the association of preachers. His congregants were angry and confused. Ezrah Rodriguez’s mother-in-law described her complaint of Villegas to me as, “You put Jesus in me. How can you tell me now that it was all wrong?”

Puerta left for Miami and then New York, abandoning the church in financial turmoil. (Puerta has since lost touch with Villegas, and he could not be reached for comment.) Meanwhile, talking in small groups with a number of his closest community leaders, Villegas wondered if it would be possible to lead a splinter faction toward full-fledged Judaism. Moshe Gomez, who was one of the first of Villegas’ allies, put his devotion in terms that any of Colombia’s 3.3 to 4.9 million internally displaced people would easily understand: “Where else were we supposed to go?”

***

“They were really lost.” This is how Yochana Garrandes—who is by his own admission “not really a rabbi, but a scholar in a society of biblical learning”—described his encounters with Villegas’ supporters. A big-bearded financial consultant whose business takes him across Latin America, Garrandes was 9 in 1961 when he left Cuba, where he was born. “I have pictures of the synagogue there,” he said to me by phone from his home in Miami, “but I don’t remember anything of it.” He later attended a Yeshiva in New York, where his family settled via Puerto Rico, and eventually returned to Miami in the early 1990s. In his travels, he said, his black-and-white outfit, beard, and hat would attract attention, and in Costa Rica, after doing a job at a local bank, Garrandes was chased down on the street in San José by an eager-looking university student who asked, “Are you Jewish? Will you help us?”

Garrandes agreed to meet with the student’s group that afternoon. They had tried, they said, to get in to the “upper class” synagogue on the Paseo Colón in San José but had been denied. They were clean cut, and they said they were Christians who wanted to convert to Judaism. This is how Garrandes became a kind of freelance spiritual consultant. Whenever his work bumped him into a certain kind of needy, as it did in Costa Rica and later in Guatemala, Garrandes felt that his yeshiva schooling had helped him serve a higher purpose.

Meanwhile, Villegas had gone knocking at the gates of the well-established Ashkenazi Jewish community in Medellín but found no support there. The product of a significant prewar migration from mostly Germany and Eastern Europe that settled in Barranquilla, Bogotá, and Medellín, the community grew into a highly successful industrial and financial class with private schools, clubs, exclusive synagogues, separate cemeteries, and influential officials. (Salomón Kalmanovitz Krauter, to cite just one example, ran Colombia’s national bank from 1993 to 2005.) Medellín’s establishment Jews were cautious at best in opening their ranks to a group of rag-tag former evangelical Christians from working-class Bello. A few years earlier, an unrelated assembly from Bello known as the “Group of 104” had sought to convert to Judaism in order to take advantage of aliyah as a way out of their meager social condition. But Villegas was not looking for handouts. Shlomo Cano Muriel, who headed communications and had been to Israel as a youth leader in a gang rehabilitation program, put it more bluntly: “We never took anything from them,” he said. “We never asked for handouts. It was all ourselves.”

So, in March 2006, Villegas went to Miami, where his uncle lived, and snuck himself in to some synagogues to find out, as he put it to me, “how you even do this Jewish thing.” On one visit, he tucked a voice recorder in his vest pocket to learn melodies and worried that he might be discovered for using electronics on Shabbat.

One day there, Villegas visited a Sephardic Judaica store to ask where he might find some guidance. The Venezuelan owner told him to turn around and talk to the big bearded man standing behind him. It was Juan Garrandes, who happened to be in the store. By December, Garrandes was standing in front of 400 people from the former Centro de Terapia Integral Para la Familia, explaining that the road to conversion was long and arduous. He explained that he lacked the authority to convert them, but that he would point them in the right direction. “If you do what I tell you,” he said, “you’ll be at the doors of Israel.”

Garrandes instructed Villegas to organize a group of 10 leaders to attend classes and then spread their knowledge down a tree. Over Skype, he taught weekly lessons in a rented basement in Bello, and he ordered the overly eager to remove their tefillin until they had completed their conversion. He told them to find a space oriented to the east. “To be taken seriously,” he told Villegas, “you should become Orthodox” and return to the Sephardic rites of Antioquia’s occluded past.

Garrandes then had them form a heritage committee to guide the congregants in documenting family histories, which he suspected might uncover the Marrano-inflected notes not uncommon in Antioquia. Someone took charge of prayers and books, another tallied the finances. Little by little, Villegas and the others began to learn to pronounce Hebrew so they could recite prayers. They did things by the book. They were disciplined, fruit of years of evangelical Christianity, and the demanding process filtered out the unconvinced, who dispersed. Villegas says that this period involved a lot of “unteaching,” and “desintoxicación” of Christianity, like “removing veils.” Shlomo says the hardest part was learning not to work on Saturdays.

One congregant quickly distinguished himself as an advanced Hebrew speaker—to some eyes, a miraculously gifted linguist. Another congregant with a glass eye became good at leading prayer. Of all the new demands of Judaism, the group excelled at tikkun, or correction, as they felt their way forward. Garrandes told them they had to invest in books, find a better site for a synagogue, and separate the men from the women. “And, look,” he said, “if you want to be a pilot, you’re going to need a plane.” Villegas had a Torah brought from Miami, and the group received it on the airport tarmac with a procession of 15 cars.

On one of several visits over four years, Garrandes asked, “Why do you want to be Jews? Everybody persecutes the Jews. Why would you want to be this?” The answers he heard were spiritual, not rational, but his own approach remained pragmatic. “If you do open heart surgery and the heart works,” he told me, “you are a surgeon.” He decided it was time to bring in a rabbi.

***

For the Bello converts, the rest is history. A Kabbalist rabbi, Moshe Ohana, flew in from Miami to perform a conversion ceremony. A local doctor from the neighboring Our Lady of the Rosary Hospital was instructed on the Jewish requirements for adult circumcision, which was performed in one marathon session. A number of the most devoted converts had themselves remarried under a choupa. For Moshe Gomez, his Jewish wedding was his fourth—after civilian, Catholic, and evangelical ceremonies—to the same wife, who he affectionately called “La Negra,” for her dark skin. The Israeli ambassador came to the kosher market to try Ezra’s wife’s kosher marmalade. The bootstrapping had even impressed the Ashkenazi, who normally kept to themselves in the Poblado, the richest part of Medellín, but now had come to sponsor Shlomo’s metal shop. Then came a website designed by one of the converts, television exposure, Israeli backpackers in search of a Shabbat service, a full-time rabbi hired from the local Chabad, and me.

As Shabbat came to a close, congregants moved upstairs, to where six white plastic tables had been set with paper tablecloths, purple napkins, and square bottles of Manischewitz. The windows were open, letting in some of the cooling breeze and the noise of radios and cicadas. The mountains of Antioquia had gone flat in shadow.

The view from the second floor looked straight across the street to the Kosher Market, all dark before for the lively Aguila beer and kosher burger-fest that would shortly ensue, and through the windows I could see in to the neighboring hall, where a gospel meeting was taking place, with the faithful singing in Spanish to the tune of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” clapping and raising their hands in unison. Shlomo came over to watch me looking out. “La competencia,” he said, with a wink. But I felt I was seeing the converts of Bello as they were 15 years ago, gathered by the promises of Elad Villegas and Andres Puerta. I said so to Shlomo: “Look, it’s you, 15 years ago.” And he laughed and returned to his table where his curly-haired, 2-year-old son Baruch sat in his wife’s lap, and then he joined the singing in Ladino, the language of the Sephardic.

It’s a Colombian trait to reinvent yourself, because the circumstances of the decades-long civil war—and the deep social inequity that is its cause—require it. That is the lesson of the conversos, 500 years before, the original desplazados, the original re-inventors, many of whom chose, in Benzion Netanyahu’s description of faith, “to live by it, and not to die by it.” In Bello, Antioquia, I saw those two streams converge.

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PITY – Ezrah Rodriguez Agudelo’s children would have to convert to Judaism again as they reach their adult age – unless he marries to a Jewish-born woman.

That’s how the Jewish law is practiced by the great majority of rabbis.

“Judaism is not a religion, it’s a law, religionized,” Moses Mendelsohn.

http://rehmat2.wordpress.com/2010/07/07/israel-thou-shalt-not-know-the-truth/

Fascinating article.

I love the following description…

“Medellín is the inverse of a shining city on the hill. Tucked in the Aburrá Valley, with its boxy slums rising up the slopes on either side of skyscrapers like a pair of great, poised Hokusai waves, it is sunken, humid, vibrant green and brick brown, and perpetually in bloom.”

Articles like this is why I invite Tablet into my inbox — thanks for an enlightening, fascinating, and well written piece.

Beth says:

The photo labelled “Kiddish” looks a lot more like Havdallah.

virginia says:

Evangelical Christians learn to read the full Bible and footnotes that connect the New Testament to the Hebrew scriptures.

gerald schwartz says:

FASCINATING STORY OF THE MORENOS WHO MUST BE CONVERTED TO JUDIASM IRRESPECTIVE OF THEIR BELIEFS, PRACTICES OR PROTESTATIONS

Phillip Cohen says:

This was quite a moving article by Matthew Fishbane.
My work day is over. I have appointments elsewhere but I could not leave until I finished reading about our brothers and sisters in Colombia.
Phillip Cohen

In Mexico we have a similar group who accepts they are descendants of jewish settlers who came here running away from the inquisition; Also, the foubder of one of the most important cities of Mexico (Monterrey) was Luis de Carbajal, a crypto-jew who was eventually killed by the inquisition.
Always interesting to read this kind of stories….Shalom.

Myron Sugerman says:

MATTHEW FISHBANE HAS WRITTEN AN OUTSTANDING PIECE OF JOURNALISM

I LIVED IN COLOMBIA ON AND OFF DURING THE 90’S. I WAS A;WAUS IMPRESSED WITH THE INTENSITY OF REGIONALISTIC FEELINGS, ESPECIALLY WAS THE PRIDE OF BEING A “PAISA” FROM MEDELLIN. I NOW WONDER, AFTER READING MATTHEW’S ARTICLE, IF THAT PRIDE DOESN’T HAVE SOMETHING TO DO WITH FEELING SUPERIOR. IN MY FIFTY YEARS EXPERIENCE OF LIVING AND DOING BUSINESS IN JUST ABOUT EVERY COUNTRY OF SOUTH AMERICA, INEVITABLY SOME LATIN, KNOWING I WAS JEWISH, WOULD ASSURE ME (ALSO ASSURING HIMSELF) THAT HE DESCENDED FROM JEWISH BLOOD.

THE REASON FOR THAT RACIAL PRIDE OF BEING JEWISH IS BECAUSE BEING JEWISH IS EQUIVALENT TO BEING INTELLIGENT

I ALSO HEARD FROM THE MANY THAT THE SUCCESSFUL FAMILIES OF THE MEDELLIN SOCIETY WERE THE DESECENDANTS OF CONVERSOES AND HAD TAKEN ON THE MOST CATHOLIC NAMES POSSIBLE TO AVOID INQUISITION PERSECUTION WHICH FOLLOWED FROM SPAIN TO THE NEW WORLD.

Ralbam says:

We distinguish between between authentic Jews and gentiles who practice Judaism.

Jews are a nation, a tribal entity, an historical phenomenon.

We happen to have a unique religion but it’s practice does not confer Jewish national identity..

Practicing that those rituals does not validate Jewish identity. Rabbis waving magic wands over pious goyim, performing circumcisions on adults, , immersing them in mikvahs, etc., is insufficient to admit them to the ancient stream of Jewish history.

Not these Colombians, nor the Abuyudaya of Uganda, nor the new Jews of Peru and Tijuana nor the Bnei Menashe of Burmese cultural origin are Jews. (Except for those Latinos that confirm a Marrano heritage). These people are no mmore jewish than I am an Eskimo. This fraud is sponsored largely by Rabbis (orthodox AND Conservative) who exaggerate their authority to inflate their own status.

Ralbam, what about those of us who convert to Judaism among an “authentic” Jewish community, adopt Jewish cultural norms, defend klal Israel, and convert to Judaism? Are we Jewish? You seem to be adopting a narrow racial view of what it means to be a Jew.

The Paisa are a very proud people regardless of what religion they practice. I love Medellin, Colombia!!!

rivka says:

Ralbam,

You don’t know your Jewish history (or the Torah) very well at all if you think converts are not part of it; there is nada in your comment to back up your ethnocentric views.

“Once a person sincerely converts to Judaism, they are 100% Jewish, and we are obligated to love, welcome and accept them into our people. When they recite the prayers, they refer to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs as “our fathers” and “our mothers.” At the Passover Seder they say “G-d took our fathers out of Egypt.” They are full-fledged members of the Community of Israel.

From: http://ohr.edu/ask_db/ask_main.php/205/Q1/:

“And when a convert lives amongst you in your land do not oppress him. The convert shall be like one of your citizens and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt…” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

Do you know anything about your ancestors Yitro, Tziporah, Rabbi Akiva, Okelos? Surely you can guess what they all had in common.

There will always be “jews” that do not accept
converts. Maybe it’s their own lack of spirituality or
their own insecurity, or more their huge ignorance of the Law.
Only HaShem can see our deep feelings.

But we are JEWS non the less, with their approval or not.
At least we know, we want, we learn and live by the Sefer Torah.
Who cares of all of “them”….

After 55 years, I don’t even remember when I was not considered
a “jew”. For intelligent, spiritual, religious persons, a sincere “convert” will always be one.

Ralbam says:

Thank you all for your comments. This looks like a forum that may support serious conversation, a relief from so many crude and ranting blogs.

I do indeed welcome gentiles who practice Judaism into our community. We have many such converts in our Chabad shul in San Diego. Many are sincere and committed to Jewish ritual, some just did it to facilitate marriage, and others (this being California) seem to have picked Judaism off the “religions” shelf at Whole Foods and may well shift over to Buddhism at the next full moon. Some of them, perhaps most, will be genuinely absorbed into the Jewish nation retroactively if and when their grandchildren maintain Jewish lives. If not, their encounter with the Jewish people will have been a evanescent and exotic adventure.

It is simply a matter of understanding that religious practice is but a piece of our ethnic, national, and historical puzzle and insufficient in itself to fulfill a comprehensive Jewish identity. Ancestry does count, particularly when we are dealing with dozens of generations of suffering, martyrdom, exile, and perpetual persecution. It cannot be conferred or transferred, it has to be earned. This is not a racial phenomenon, it is experiential. The experience defines the uniqueness of Jewish history. It cannot be acquired through a brocha, a mikveh, or a bris. Conversely, there are masses of naturally-born Jews who reject Jewish ritual, embrace atheism and other religions, or are actively anti Zionist yet all of them remain Jews beyond doubt or dispute. So the Jewish religion is not the determining factor.

continued next

Ralbam says:

continuing:
Of course the various rabbinates would have us believe otherwise. The Jewish world has allowed the determination of identity to default to the rabbis,whose authority is not statutory and is validated only by the will of the community. They may well have legitimate opinions and they can certainly decide who gets counted in a minyan but when they venture to places like northeast India, Uganda, and Tijuana and halachically qualify these groups as Jews, they violate their rather limited prerogatives. You can always find a rabbi for the job – when the Abuyudaya were turned away by the orthodox rabbinate some eager conservatives jumped in to do the job. When an enterprising orthodox rabbi figured out that by massaging local legend he could convert Indo-Burmese and bring them to settle West Bank outposts as his constituents he seized the opportunity. Israel, by the way was not founded to be a refuge for goyei aratzot.
I want to address our “marrano” sisters and brothers. None of the above applies to you. If your family wants to come back after centuries of suppression you have my warm abrazo. I know how difficult it is. even the modern elite marrano families, who still call themselves Jews and still practice crypto Jewish customs cannot extricate themselves from their obscene relationship with the Catholic church. The price of separation is too high and marranos have been at it too long to take it lightly. For those of you who return you have my admiration for your courage.

Mike says:

This is an interesting story. I’m no expert on the Marranos, but I find it fascinating that one of the families mention is the Barientos. My my father’s side of the family immigrated from Syria and before the last name was Anglicized, it was Barienti. Close enough to Barientos that I have little doubt the Barientos clan was Jewish. Who knows, maybe we are distant relatives.

New York’s oldest Jewish daily, Forward, published an article by Donald Snyder, under the title “For Jews, Swedish City is ‘place to move away from’, on July 7, 2010. In the article the writer says that with the increase of Muslim population (local converts and immigrants), the cases of ‘anti-Semitism’ is on the rise in Sweden and the rest of European countries.

Muslims are on record of liberating Jews in Jerusalem (638), Spain (711), Palestine (1186) and Europe (1940s). In June 2005, Israeli mole, Abraham Foxman, national director of ADL, honored Turkish Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for Turkey’s saving 100,000 European Jews.

In January 2008, Rabbi Haim Ovadia proudly declared”I am a Jew of Islam because Judaism under the rule of Crescent took a different course than that under the rule of Cross. The Jew of Islam, although decreed by the Pact of Omar as dhimmis, or second class citizens, never experienced the same level of hatred, anti-Semitism and persecution which were their daily bread in Christendom. They were not demonized as god killers and did not have to defend their religion in public disputations. They were not expelled en-mass on religious grounds from a Muslim country as they were from England, France and Catholic Spain….”

http://rehmat2.wordpress.com/2010/07/14/who-are-anti-semites-muslims-or-judeo-christians/

Everyman says:

Rehmat, not sure if you realized it, or if perhaps you got lost on the internet, but this is a Jewish website…If you know anything at all about Judaism, and after taking a look at your blog it is incredibly clear that you don’t, you would recognize how absolutely futile it is to attempt to convince us that we are indeed the enemy. I have to wonder whether you believe the depth of your religious conviction to be deeper than ours, because I can’t imagine that you would even consider converting to Judaism (not that we would EVER want that…) if some random Jew were to start posting comments of this variety on your site. Trust me, I feel the exact same way.

Also, the post above is a factual fantasy. It would behoove you to consider fact checking your propaganda because Jews are simply, and even stereotypically, not that stupid.

It’s so nice for Medellin to be generating a heated discussion on a refreshing topic.

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feinboim says:

Converts should be respected for what they were ready to go through in order to get the targeted ideal. Sometimes conversion is genuine and sometimes isn’t, we cannot judge people and critize them so superficially. People of a jewish background in Latin America there are many. Who hasn’t heard about the presence in Latin America of the “conversos” and their very active role in the foundation of cities in Latin America? Spanish family names and Sephardic are the same, there aren’t such Specific sephardic names, unless we talk about Santangel, Santana, Santa, such names were the names that in Spain conversos were forced to accept to proof devotion to the Catholic church. Many prominent descendants of “conversos” in the Antiochian-Colombian city of Medellín build their own cemetery in the 1800’s, not only because they had a sephardic background, but because they were a symbol already as founding families of Antiochia and they were the heart of the illustrious group of Antioquian intelligentzia. In the 1800’s a very strong immigration wave from Spain and specially from northern Spain: the Basque Country, brought again to America and specifically to Antioquia another wave of late-inquisition or antisemitism. Since then the Basque families have imposed over Medellín a European-Basque concept of race, where once again a rejection of the Sephardic being important in Latin America. The B’nei Anusim in the last 150 years have kept their secret with more zeal and conviction . The “anusim” still in Latin America and Specifically in Antiochia-Colombia Medellín live and prosper as well as raising their families with their principles, far is that day that they will not see outside threat to them. For now they will remain in silence and believing in their criptic-jewish faith that up to now has provided wisdom and understanding of this new world, The Americas, a land that hasn’t shown full acceptation of the universe of judaism (ioudaismus).

feinboim says:

PART 1
One thing is that there is a strong spiritual wave among many Colombians who are seeking to convert to Judaism; another thing is the posture of many descendants of CONVERSOS , who DO NOT belong to any religious organizations with no exception at all. The big majority of people descending from conversos want to continue in their silence, that is to say to continue being good citizen of the various Latin American countries, especially Colombia and deeply Antiochia, their homeland for our last 500 years. We the offspring of the CONVERSOS are not so interested in Israel, but let me tell you that we are waiting for that day when the Spanish Monarchy will apologize to us for the way they treated us 500 years ago. That is the real feeling of many descendants of CONVERSOS. We had a country of our own, that country was Sefarad (La Sefardia) Spain, we were betrayed, and we ended down here in this suffered and holy land which is South America, and we’ve seen suffering, our own and that of many of our neighbours. Political persecussiones, religious oppresion, humilliation of all of those of us who are not in the bigstream societies EUROPEAN-CATHOLICS. We want to say publicly that the big majority of descendents of MARRANOS are NOT seeking any links to any religion in this planet, or any other country other that these Latin American countries. We do not want any misunderstanding or problem with these Governments of South America, we are very sensitive to these issues, and our fears for new waves of persecussions haven’t dissapeared. So in the the name of many of my brothers belonging to the different CLANES here in South America,

feinboim says:

PART 2
We like to STATE PUBLICLY THAT THE EXTREME MAJORITY OF CONVERSOS OFFSPRING ARE NOT INTO ANY RELIGIOUS MOVEMENTS, none of us has neared the European-Jewish communities living in these contries, we have never tried to make contacts to the authorities of the state of Israel, we continue to be loyal citizens of these republics of South America, in NO possible way we want to abandone a land that has been our home for five centuries.

Bill says:

Ralbam said: “Practicing [Jewish] rituals does not validate Jewish identity. Rabbis waving magic wands over pious goyim, performing circumcisions on adults, , immersing them in mikvahs, etc., is insufficient to admit them to the ancient stream of Jewish history. … Of course the various rabbinates would have us believe otherwise.”

The Torah, too, would have you believe otherwise. And the Talmud.

Ralbam, you have an interesting (and immature) view of the issue. I’d be curious to talk with you in 20 years … if you bother going to shul regularly, that is. If you don’t, if you simply express your Jewishness by eating lox every Sunday morning and feeling smug about how your people are so damned special, then I don’t really care what you think 20 years from now. You are stuck in a bizarre and unproductive, and very, very static quasi-Jewish experience. And one that is only vaguely Jewish, at that. (Actually, the only part that is vaguely Jewish about you is eating lox on Sunday morning. Have I pegged you right? DO you go to shul??)

We are a people centered on a religion. The Jewish people are the product of that religion as much as they are the producers of that religion. We are also the product of an enormously rich history, as you point out. But it is the dynamic interplay of religion, history, and people that is special.

Which will be the arbiter of Jewishness? Practice and involvement in the People? Or merely heritage?

If the latter, then being Jewish would be gone in two generations.

Mark says:

I’m sorry to say this. But you accept these paisas into your fold at your own risk. I know them as none of you know them. I have 6 years with them. I am not Jewish. I was married to a Jew from New York and my kids are Jewish. So I feel it is my responsibility to say to you.

These paisas are a bad people. They are thieves and killers. The war in Colombia is basically a historical fight between the paisas and the others. If you look into any of the displacements there will be paisa behind the curtain. So many of the troubles in Colombian history are basically land grabs by paisas.

The reason why I do not believe that you should accept goes into the matra-lineal basis of Jewish law. The children of a Jewish mother are jews. There have been genetic analysis of paisas, as well as historical examinations of Spanish records. The experience of almost Spanish immigration into Latin America is masculine. The first generations of Spanish immigrants encountered 5000 indigents in the Aburre valley. Most rapidly died of due diseases brought from Europe for which the indigents had no immunity. Some of the women became the mates and wives of the first settlers. Spanish law gave advantage to descendants more ever increasing purity of Spanish blood, so subsequent generations refrained from further intermixing with indigents. So the daughters of prior immigrants married newer immigrants. The terrain of Antioquia is mountainous and prior to 20th century, the people lived in relative isolation. I am not sure of the exact date, but I think in the 1600s, an inquisition was founded in Cartagena on the coast. The marranos generally found Antioquia to be much safer due to the difficulty in travel and you see the references to that in the article.

I have more to say but I have reached the 2000 byte limit so I will continue in another comment

Mark says:

I could wrong in a lot of this. Maybe the marranos are the good and the others are the bad. During the La Violencia period, the battle was between Conservatives and Liberals. Wikipedia has a whole section on how it was a fight between conservative Christian elements and what was termed the Judeo-Masonic conspiracy. I have met both groups in Colombia, marranos and Masons.

But my experience in Medellin was that I encountered a people without fundamental morals. I know no one the United States that were murdered. I know 8 people in Medellin. The government lists the population in city of Medellin as 1.3 million women and 1.1 million men. That is an extraordinary difference that cannot be blamed on any thing other than murder. The rest of the country refer to the paisa women as “interesadas”. They are only interested in money and will do anything to get it. I knew an American Expat who owns a penthouse in Medellin and he caters to American male tourists. He would tell me he knew of some woman I should meet and due to nature of his business, I would ask “Is she a prepago?” (prepaid or prostitute). He would say, “Mark this whole town is a prepago”. I could go on for hours. I hate to paint a whole people with one brush. But I firmly believe these are a bad people. Look at their legacy. Cocaine and death. The men are murderers and thieves and the women are whores. I didn’t go there with this attitude. I learned after they had robbed, stolen, and manipulated. I left the city for other parts and then I learned that other Colombians felt the same way. Don’t get romantic about them as lost Jews.

feinboim says:

There are not serious people participating in this blog. This is once again a site for Eurocentrist, like everything else in this so called developped world under the guidance of the western nations. Latin America has its pride and that is to never get in contact with “foreigner” and the people from our countries that talk and are in contact with “foreigners” are unwanted and they should leave. Many people came to latin America first from Spain and we were the garbage bin of Spain, subsequently other Eurogarbage came here, from many cultures religions and languages. People who want to betray our beloved institutions are not wanted here!!!

Bill says:

I wish everyone would get off the ethnocentric bus.

Ralbam makes the argument that one cannot convert to Judaism–you’re either born Jewish or you are not. I’ve met people who are ethnically Jewish who make me shudder, including a relative of mine who is Halakhicly Jewish but is also an ignorant anti-Semite.

Mark argues that every “paisa” is, by nature, a goniff and a murderer. He concedes that those who are matrilineally Jewish just might be different. See above.

And “Feinboim” wields some kind of Latin-American ethnocentrism that demonizes every European who ever walked the earth, especially those who walked the earth of Central America.

We each carve our own destiny and determine our own values. We are each a product of our genes … and so much more. We are are more than the product of our genes, our culture, our upbringing … if we choose to be.

There is nothing mystical about being Jewish, or being a paisa, or being Latin American or being European.

As for being Jewish–see Deuteronomy 30:12-14. It is not in heaven, that you should say: ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say: ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’ But the word is very close unto you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it.

It is what you do that is important. In this life. That is the way to be Jewish.

I’m sorry to say that. But you accept these paisas into your fold at your own risk. I know them as none of you know them. I have 6 years with them. I am not Jewish. I was married to a Jew from New York and my kids are Jewish. So I feel it is my responsibility to say to you.

These paisas are a bad people. They are thieves and killers. The war in Colombia is basically a historical fight between the paisas and the others. If you look into any of the displacements there will be paisa behind the curtain. So many of the troubles in Colombian history are basically land grabs by paisas.

The reason why I do not believe that you should accept goes into the matra-lineal basis of Jewish law. The children of a Jewish mother are jews. There have been genetic analysis of paisas, as well as historical examinations of Spanish records. The experience of almost Spanish immigration into Latin America is masculine. The first generations of Spanish immigrants encountered 5000 indigents in the Aburre valley. Most rapidly died of due diseases brought from Europe for which the indigents had no immunity. Some of the women became the mates and wives of the first settlers. Spanish law gave advantage to descendants more ever increasing purity of Spanish blood, so subsequent generations refrained from further intermixing with indigents. So the daughters of prior immigrants married newer immigrants. The terrain of Antioquia is mountainous and prior to 20th century, the people lived in relative isolation. I am not sure of the exact date, but I think in the 1600s, an inquisition was founded in Cartagena on the coast. The marranos generally found Antioquia to be much safer due to the difficulty in travel and you see the references to that in the article.

I have more to say but I have reached the 2000 byte limit so I will continue in another comment

Antiokian says:

I HAVE to admit what you describe is true. I’m from Colombia and specifically from that region. You described facts that are indeniable, paisas are oppressors and have no respect for the other people in Colombia. I’m not an expert, but let me tell you that there’s some confusion here, in the area of Medellín, or more precisely in SANTA FE DE ANTIOQUIA, there were significant Marrano settlers, that’s the Jewish heritage in Antioquia, nobody knows with precision where they are now and what names they have, but we’re talking about a real minority, the most optimistic figures give maybe an 8 percent. The grat majority of paisas are descendants of the first spanish conquistadors, subsequently a very massive immigration from the basque country in Spain. Paisas (including myself) we are an aggresive culture unfortunately. But there’s one fact that I consider important, the contributions of the marranos to our culture is fundamental. Some paisa historians have been traditionally very reticent to it, I don’t know why. Best for all!!!

With the exception of someone named Bill all the comments are very poor and silly. specially one person that says “paisas are very bad people”. I want to ask you: who are you? and I know: some pale virgin priest out of the best place in the world, where everybody is white and decent. Happy new year to all!

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G’d day. This is engrossing article, chap. Gracias. However, Im experiencing strange situation with the Really Simple Syndication. Don’t know why I cannot subscribe to it. Is there anybody having equivalent rssdrawback? Cheers

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Does anyone know who I can get in touch with if i would like to spend a Shabbat in Bello? I am currently in Medellin. Thank you.

The joke at the beginning of the article appears in the 1986 Diddy Nussie “Bdihmin sit” It just reminded me of the time of my life. Recommended for those looking for some good Jewish jokes

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Question of Faith

In Medellín, Jewish converts try to leave the Inquisition, and Colombia’s civil war, behind

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