Genie Milgrom had come too far from her birth in Cuba and in her spiritual journey from a devout Catholic in Miami, Florida, to being Orthodox Jewish woman. She would not be turned back from the truth now that she was in the ancestral village of her ancestors going back at least 15 generations.
Genie asked every person she met in Fermoselle, Spain, to show her where the Jewish people had lived in the village. “We have never had Jews here,” one after another told her.
Genie, whose first language was Spanish, kept going on and on until finally a man asked, “What was your family called?”
She thought and suddenly an image popped into her head of a family document on which an ancestor had written these words in Spanish, “The family was called Bollicos.”
As if she had said the magic word, Jewish places in the village were suddenly opened to her.
In less than five days, I learned of three different spiritual journeys taken to find the truth about long-standing family histories. The first was Genie, whose talk was absolutely jaw dropping to me. I had never given any thought to the Inquisition and what it did to Jews from that region.
Another journey was on the PBS program, Finding Your Roots, with Harry Louis Gates Jr. During last Friday’s program, three prominent African-Americans explored their ancestors’ slavery roots – actor Samuel L. Jackson, Brown University President Ruth Simmons and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The third was also another former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, whose new book Prague Winter, tells the story of how she did not learn until she was 59 that her family heritage had been Jewish and that 20 of her relatives had died in the Holocaust.
Why is it so important for us to know our family truths so many years later? It was 500 years later in the case of Genie, who I’ve spoken with on the phone and emailed since her talk a week ago.
So far, she’s been twice to Fermoselle, which is on the border with Portugal. She’s developed relationships with researchers that are working on the hidden history of Jews in that part of Spain. Her book, My Fifteen Grandmothers, is due out in about two months. This summer to make a presentation there about the Jewish history of the village.
On her second trip, a man who had been mayor 40 years earlier, opened up to her as did the other man when she uttered the word, “Bollicos.” He took her to where a great-uncle had lived in Fermoselle.
What struck her then was seeing a hidden place where her family had once prayed secretly. They knew that during the Inquisition any observance other than Catholic was answered with torture and death. Even those who converted remained at risk for the rest of their lives, a reason so many left Spain for the New World. And sadly, the Inquisitors traveled on to the Americas as well, continuing the trials of suspected non believers.
No one in Genie’s family talked about their Jewish roots and it is possible that some did not know they had them, but Genie always felt drawn to the Jewish faith. First there was the little girl at day camp who always brought her own food. Then in college she met a nun who sensed Genie’s inquisitiveness about the Jewish faith. Eventually, Genie converted to Judaism and remains devout.
Shortly after that conversion, her beloved grandmother died on a Friday. Genie assumed she would be buried on Monday, but that is when Genie received another hint about her family’s Jewish origins. Her mother told Genie that her family’s tradition – a Jewish one in fact – was to bury relatives quickly. Her grandmother was to be buried the next day – a Saturday. Genie could not attend because as an observant Jew she could not drive or ride in a car on the Sabbath.
A grieving Genie assumed her family would never speak to her again, that she had lost all of them. But the day after the funeral, they all came to see her bring a box her grandmother said she be given to Genie after her death.
“Inside, was an antique Hamsa [an amulet shaped like a hand that is used to protect from evil] and small gold earrings with a tiny Star of David in the Center,” Genie said. “Nothing else. No note, no commentary, just these two objects. I was overwhelmed at the significance.”
Suddenly she remembered decidedly Jewish traditions, including the shawl that was placed over their shoulders during her first marriage – a Catholic ceremony. It was so reminiscent of placing a tallit (prayer shawl) over the shoulders of the couple in a Jewish wedding.
When her grandmother baked for the holidays, she always broke each egg into a glass first to check for blood – a Jewish tradition. If blood was found, that egg cannot be used. And everyone in her family always sweeps to the center of the room, again a Jewish tradition.
Most of all, Genie remembered after how worried her grandmother was about her converting to Judaism, saying it was dangerous. “I always thought she meant it was dangerous for my soul but realized only years later that she meant it was dangerous to be Jewish.”
Because of her research going back 15 generations in her family, Genie is contacted many times daily by people eager to learn more about their ancestors who were Sephardic Jews, meaning they lived in Spain and Portugal before being expelled from those countries.
“I am now in the process of documenting the Jewish History of Fermoselle, which has not been done to date. I want to set the record straight,” Genie said. “I want to be the voice that my ancestors never had. Most of all, I just want others to know that this search is possible. Given the resources available in Spain and Portugal today, it can be done.”
Genie was inspiration for me: I’m about to work with a Hungarian genealogist who is going to search for some records of my grandparents. I don’t think we’ll get to the 15th century.