Growing up in the Catholic faith, Trudi Berglin noticed her mother had a "compulsion" to buy a new set of dishes every spring. No one knew the origin of this family tradition — not even her mother.
Only after Berglin, 70, of Fort Lauderdale, became an adult did she learn about the Jewish custom of using a special set of dishes for Passover, which falls around Easter.
She also figured out her family fled from Spain to Italy at the time of the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century. Under that royal Catholic tribunal for rooting out the unorthodox, Spanish Jews had three choices: leave, convert or die.
Some pretended to convert but went on performing Jewish rituals secretly. Even explaining why to the next generation would be risky. Over the centuries some practices survived, but none of the practitioners knew why they were doing what they did.
Those closet Jews are called conversos, or marranos, a disparaging term for someone who converts in name only to avoid persecution. Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal fled mostly to Turkey, Holland and Bulgaria. Later, they settled in Brazil, France, Italy, Mexico and Peru. Some, like Berglin's family, eventually emigrated to America.
Now people like her are asking questions that spring from a lifetime of nagging feelings about their true background. Some are even turning to DNA testing to see if they have the markers that show they are, at the most basic genetic level, Jewish.
The Rev. William Sanchez, a Catholic priest in Albuquerque, N.M., is one of them. As a child he was warned away from eating pork and bacon. As an adult he took a test for the Jewish DNA marker, and it came back positive.
Today he helps run the Sephardim- New Mexico Project. It opened in 2002 to identify Jewish Hispanics in New Mexico, a state with a high concentration of Hispanics, much like Florida. Sanchez estimates about one-third of the 210 men who have sought testing are Jewish.
"Most of the time it's to have some type of DNA or scientific way of verifying what they already know or believe," he said.
In Fort Lauderdale, Berglin became so convinced of her heritage that she converted to Judaism in 1989. Her mother's reaction: "Oh, I wondered if anybody would ever go back."
"I still get chills myself," Berglin said. "I said to her, 'Now I know why you bought all the damn dishes.' She said, 'Is that what they do?' "
Lisa J. Huriash, Sun Sentinel
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