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RELIGION The Hidden Jews

Magda Hinojosa’s last name told only part of the story about her heritage.
By HARRIET P. GROSS |

THEY ARC CALLED CRYPTO. Jews, New Christians, con-versos in Spanish, anusim (“the forced ones”) in Hebrew. Now, 500 years after their ancestors were driven from Spain, they are coming out of hiding. Centuries of silence are being shattered in Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas.

In Dallas, there is Magda Hinojosa de los Reyes, associate director of Baylor University Medical Center’s Office of International Services. She long ago discovered what others are just now beginning to learn.

“I’ve always been 20 years ahead,” laughs the 45-year-old mother of three as she tells of her formal return to Judaism. “I’m simiente de Abraham (the seed of Abraham). I’m a missing link reconnected to an ancient chain.”

Bagelstein’s deli is a favorite haunt of North Dallas Jews for weekend brunch. Magda is at home there, talking over many cups of coffee. To her local co-religionists, almost all of whom descend from Eastern European forebears, she appears exotic. Some of her friends call her “the Yemenite.”

She is, however, Mexican, born in the city of Tampico, in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas, to parents who are both natives of the same state. The fourth of 10 children, Magda is also the Hinojosa genealogist. She has traced her mother’s people in that region back to 1700; her father’s have lived there since 1634. The oral history of both families locates them earlier in northern Spain.

In 1492, even as Spain’s saga of New World discovery was about to begin. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella issued an Edict of Expulsion, driving Jews and Muslims from their Catholic realm. These “infidels” and “heretics” could convert, or leave the country-also leaving behind all their worldly goods. That confiscated wealth helped to fund the voyages of Columbus; ironically, some historians argue that many of his crew members were actually secret Jews.

Magda Hinojosa’s parents are both ordained Assembly of God ministers who raised their children to know and revere both the Old Testament and the New Testament. They also followed some traditions and practices, at home and in church, that prompted young Magda to wonder.

“My mother’s father was a cattleman,” she recalls. “When he slaughtered, he sharpened his knife, then pulled up a hair on my head and cut it, to be sure the blade was so sharp the animal would feel no pain. Then he cut the jugular, and let the blood drip into the soil. And then he*d inspect the liver and lungs, to see if the meat was fit to eat.” This procedure, she learned years later, is much like the ritual slaughter of food animals followed by Jews even to this day.

“In Assemblies in Mexico, children aren’t baptized,” Magda says. “They’re dedicated in the Templo, in a ceremony similar to a synagogue naming. In Orthodox Protestant churches, men and women have segregated seating, like in Orthodox synagogues. During a wedding, there is the signing of a marriage contract, and the ceremony is held under an enramada, a canopy like the Jewish chupa. And when you’re going to marry, they ask, ’Are they los nuestros-one of us?’ But they never tell what ’us’ is.”

At home, the Hinojosas had a servicio familiar-a service of prayer and meditation-on Saturday morning, the Jewish Sabbath and most sacred time of worship. “It was in our living room, just the children and parents, the inner circle of our family unit. We read the Wisdom books-Ecclesiastes, Psalms, Song of Solomon-and also studied Prophets, which we had to memorize and recite.” And some of the children had biblical names themselves; one of Magda’s sisters is Sarah, and her brothers include Aaron, Joel and Daniel.

“I was the kid who asked too many questions,” Magda remembers. “How come we’re different? Why are there no Catholics in our family? Why don’t outsiders visit our home?’ Most people didn’t know where the traditions came from, they just did them. But some of them said ’.. .from Israel.. .ancient times. . .the book. . .’”

Magda never met a Jew in Mexico. But in 1965 the family came to Dallas, where her parents pastored an Oak Cliff church and she went off to major in sociology at Texas Woman’s University. There, in the textbook for a required course entitled “Current Social Problems,” she encountered a chapter on Jewish ethnic groups. Suddenly, “1 connected,” she says. “I just knew. And I started my spiritual search, to return to my people.”

In New York, where Magda first worked after her 1968 graduation, “I kept telling my story,” she remembers. “People were fascinated, but Eastern European Jews didn’t believe we had survived so long. Two rabbis asked me, ’Why do you want to be Jewish? Don’t you have enough problems being Mexican?’”

Magda finally found the support she needed when she returned to Texas for postgraduate work at UT Health Science Center in Houston. There, she says. Rabbi Roy Walter became her spiritual guide. “He said, ’You’re already Jewish, but go through the [conversion] procedures anyway,’” While studying for the master’s in public health that she received in 1973, Magda also studied in Rabbi Walter’s conversion classes. July of 1973 marked what she calls “my official return to Judaism.”

Returning is a common theme for the people who are Magda’s own. They are called Sephardim, for the name the Jews gave to the Iberian Peninsula (Sepharad) long before their expulsion. Sephardim are descended from Jews who went to what is now Turkey almost 600 years before the birth of Jesus, when the Babylonians captured Jerusalem and destroyed the Jewish Temple. They later returned to the Holy City, but when the Temple was destroyed for a second time in the year 70, they went back to Asia Minor, spreading outward from there. The oldest tombstone with a Hebrew inscription, dating to the first century, was found south of Barcelona and is now in Toledo’s Museo Sefardi.

“We Sephardim are Middle Eastern people who came from the Holy Land to Spain and were there until 1492,” Magda explains. “Toledo is our Jerusalem.”

Next April, Magda will join thousands of other U.S. Sephardim for the symbolic return to Toledo and a further journey on to the Jerusalem, Israel, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem.

“It will be the spiritual gathering of the century,” she says. “It is what the prophet Zechariah said: ’And they will return to Jerusalem. I will bring them back.’ ” But there is sadness, too, in Magda’s new finding of ancient faith, and in a dim corner of Bagelstein’s, amid the hubbub of happy families, she drops a quiet tear or two.

“This is the painful part,” she says. “To return to the fold requires separation. I had to separate from my family [religiously]. They gave me my base, but I’m a Jew, and they’re not. Of my entire generation, just me.” Talk of the next generation, however, restores her smile. Although divorced, Magda and her former husband, an American Jew of Eastern European stock, share custody of their daughter and two sons, and cooperate in reinforcing religious ties. “Our children bridge two Jewish cultures,” says Magda. “And they are so proud and excited about being Jewish.”

Plans for the Columbus Quincentenary, to be celebrated during 1992, have opened a window through which many Sephardim are now peeking with caution, to see if there may be Judaism in their pasts-and perhaps in their futures. Those whose families settled long ago in northern Mexico and the southwestern United States know that many “hidden Jews” chose these locations because they were at a safe remove from Mexico City, a prime site of the Spanish Inquisition in the New World. But some of the “hidden” have been separated for so many generations from their origins that they are reluctant to change, to explore, to go beyond the few traces of old tradition that remain today.

Yet the Denver-based Genealogical Society of Hispanic America has already held an initial conference on hidden Tews in search of their heritage. The American Jewish Committee, a major social action organization, is launching a national Sephardic oral history project. And in Dallas, Magda Hinojosa is co-chairing Jewish community participation in “Rediscovering Our Spanish Roots,” part of the city’s salute to the Quincentenary.

No one can guess how many more Magda Hinojosas there may be, emerging from hiding to reconnect with the faith of their ancient fathers and mothers, reclaiming a way of life long hidden even from themselves.

“We are like the stars in the sky” she says. “You can only count them when they come out.”