Caribbean & Latin America descendants rediscover their Jewish roots

Entire communities of Latin American and Caribbean people here and abroad practice Jewish customs without knowing they may be, well, Jewish, writes Corinne Lestch for the New York Daily News.

Wendi James, a 25-year-old Lehman College student of Jamaican descent, discovered her family has Jewish roots only after she started researching her heritage for a class assignment.

James was raised to observe the sabbath and not eat pork, but never knew this was part of the Jewish faith because her mother always told her she was Christian.

“My family back in Jamaica observes sabbath and high holy days, and I thought that was strange,” said James. “That’s when I realized a whole Jewish aspect in Jamaica.”

James quickly developed a deep connection to Judaism and is now teaching herself Hebrew. She is also thinking about formally becoming a Modern Orthodox Jew, a process that can take years.

She will attend her first Passover seder tomorrow.

James is part of a growing trend of Latinos and Caribbeños who are rediscovering Judaism.

Lehman Hebrew Prof. Zelda Newman, who tutors James, says it took the avid learner a few months to master a year’s worth of language skills, which includes reading text – without vowels – from right to left.

In her seven years as a professor, “I’ve never seen this,” she said.

“All I did was recommend a textbook and she came back in the spring and said, ‘I taught myself,’ Newman added. “I was just flabbergasted.”

James won a scholarship to study Hebrew at a seven-week, intensive language program at Middlebury College in Vermont after graduation in June. There’s one condition: speaking anything but the ancient tongue can lead to expulsion.

“I’m kind of nervous, but I’m trying to pick up some vocabulary so I can go there and know more than, ‘Hi, I’m Wendi,'” she said, laughing.

Newman said she rarely encounters people like James so eager to pursue an orthodox Jewish identity.

But Rabbi Rigoberto Emmanuel Viñas, who leads Lincoln Park Jewish Center in Yonkers, said he has come in contact with thousands of people in the tristate area of Latin American and Caribbean descent who want to “revert” to Judaism.

“There’s a huge movement all over Latin America and the U.S. of people of Sephardic [Spanish and Portuguese Jews] ancestry coming home to their Jewish identity,” said Viñas, who is Cuban.

“In order to revert – I don’t think of it as conversion, I see it as reversion – it means you’re coming home.”

Viñas said there is still fear of oppression from the days of the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, when Jews fled to other countries and practiced their religion in secret.

“Many people of this background will try to talk to their relatives about it, and they will do anything to avoid the subject,” he said.

James said her mother was “not pleased” when she found out about her “new” faith.

“I was raised in a Christian household, and she doesn’t really understand why I’m doing it,” she said. “I really can’t explain it; it’s a feeling that I have. I really feel a connection towards Judaism, not just in a general sense, but in an orthodox sense.”

Viñas said he applauds James for seeking out her identity, and has a few words of advice:

“No. 1, I believe you are a Jew,” he said. “The second is, you’re not alone. There are hundreds of thousands of us.”

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