‘The Longing’ documents crypto-Jews caught between two worlds

When Gabriela Böhm set out to create her documentary, “The Longing: The Forgotten Jews of South America,” several years ago, she hoped to profile an as-yet-undiscovered secret community of Crypto Jews — descendants of Jews forced to flee the Spanish Inquisition who continued practicing rituals covertly.

Perhaps the best known of such enclaves was found in Belmonte, Portugal in the last century: “But as I traveled, I realized that such secret communities do not exist anymore,” said Böhm, whose film will screen Nov. 13 at as part of the Los Angeles Sephardic Jewish Film Festival, which runs from Nov. 9 through Nov. 16. “What remains are remnants of a Jewish past, or traditions, among families who may or may not know their origins.”

Eventually Böhm connected with Jacques Cukierkorn, a Reform rabbi in Kansas City, Mo., whose mission has been to guide so-called Crypto Jews living in isolated communities. In 2004, he invited Böhm to accompany him to Guayaquil, Ecuador, where he was to supervise the conversion of five such individuals. The conversos included a microbiologist who learned, at 15, that her great-grandfather was Sephardic, and who traced his lineage back to Portugal in the 1850s; and a mother and daughter who traveled 36 hours from Columbia to meet the rabbi. In Columbia, Böhm learned, all babies were required to be baptized until two decades ago.

Upon traveling to Ecuador, she said, she was disturbed to discover that her interviewees were still spurned by their Catholic neighbors — and by their Jewish communities as well. Even a Guayaquil resident who had been converted through Chabad of Massachusetts was banned from attending his area synagogue. “He so badly wanted to join the community, but they wanted nothing to do with him,” said Böhm, who was herself kicked out of the same shul when she tried to interview the leader of the community. “His level of desire and disappointment, along with the others’, became the drama and focus of my film. And this time, the Jewish community was doing the rejecting, like the Catholics before them.”

“This type of story has also played out in Lima, Santa Fe and other places, where people, many with Indian or mestizo [mixed] blood, have sought to rejoin what they consider their historical faith — only to find their motives questioned and their acceptance in the established Jewish community minimal at best,” Nextbook noted of the film.

Böhm said that as the daughter of Holocaust survivors, she strongly identified with her subjects’ feelings of communal rejection. Her Hungarian father survived Nazi and Russian labor camps, only to suffer from bipolar disorder after relocating to Buenos Aires, where he was unable to learn Spanish and committed suicide in 1981. “As a Jew growing up in Argentina, I absorbed my parents’ trauma, and felt I too was embroiled in a struggle to find where I belonged,” Böhm, 44, said. “But the sense of dual identity I felt is even more dramatic in the people who live in these isolated little communities in South America.”

“The Longing” does not reveal any kind of happy ending for the profiled Crypto Jews. “Rabbi Cukierkorn is a complicated figure,” she said. “He sees himself as a kind of savior figure, and of course the people he converted do feel more connected to their Jewish roots. But they are still in limbo. The question remains: Is it right for him to convert them if there is no community in which they can congregate? It’s a question I still debate; my hope is that they will be able to create their own community.”

“The Longing: The Forgotten Jews of South America” will screen on Nov. 13.

Spectator – Sephardia Secrets

Elaine Romero experienced “a cool fusion of art and life” when she wrote the play “Secret Things.”

The play tells the story of Delia, a Latino journalist, who goes to New Mexico to investigate the origins of an anonymous package she received postmarked from there containing articles about Crypto-Jews (that is, descendants of the “Marrano” Jews of the Spanish Inquisition, who openly practiced Catholicism but conducted Jewish rituals in secret to escape persecution). In New Mexico, Delia finds herself mysteriously drawn to the world of Crypto-Jews, and reluctantly comes to terms with her own Crypto-Jewish roots.

When Romero, also a Latino, was writing the play, the same thing happened.

“I found out when researching the play that there was this piece about me,” said Romero who spoke to The Journal from Tucson, where she lives.

“An actor friend of mine whose name was also Sanchez [Romero’s mother’s maiden name, thought to be of Jewish origin] figured out we were fourth cousins. Her mother gave me a document that was 500 pages of family history, tracing us back to Spain. [In the document,] I found five family names, that I was directly descended from them, and they were persecuted for being Jewish.”

The “fusion” between Romero’s art and life did not stop there. While writing the play, Romero dreamed of a secret place called “Sephardia,” a parallel world where “Texas, New Mexico and California” all meet, and where the mystical realms of the Sephardic and Kkabbalistic traditions unfold.

In the play, which operates on a literal and metaphysical level, “Sephardia” is a place that Delia dreams of, where her questions about her estranged family are answered, and where clarity descends on her tumultuous love life.

Romero said that she wrote the play to honor the Crypto-Jews that she met. Many of these Jews have little connection to formal Judaism, because, even after all these centuries, they still carry with them the irrational fear that openly practicing Judaism will result in a death sentence.

But Romero believes that despite the persecution and the fear, Judaism stays alive within someone.

“Maybe subconsciously I did know [I was Jewish,] even if my mother didn’t say anything [about it],” she said. “On some level people know who they are, even if it is not explained to them.”

A reading of “Secret Things” by Elaine Romero will take place July 9 at 1 p.m. at the Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood, as part of the Latino Play Reading Series. $5. For more information, call (323) 461-3673 or visit

Sisters Recapture Their Heritage

Gloria Hernandez Trujillo, 51, grew up in what she thought was a traditional Catholic home in Monterey Park. Her mother sent the children to mass and catechism classes at Our Lady of Solitude church in East Los Angeles. Trujillo made her first communion at the age of 8, wearing the requisite white frilly dress. At 12, she was confirmed, like many of the Latino children in her Eastside neighborhood.

Trujillo, a tax administrator, still lives in her childhood home, but she now worships in a synagogue rather than a church. On Rosh Hashana last week, she attended Conservative services at UCLA. And on Yom Kippur, she will take a day off from work to engage in what has become a deeply significant personal ritual. In the modest house where she grew up Catholic, she will fast and pray from a siddur written in the medieval Spanish-Jewish language of Ladino. “I will think of my ancestors,” says Trujillo, whose forbears could not publicly observe Yom Kippur without fear of torture and death.

Eleven years ago, while researching her family tree, Trujillo learned that she is descended from Crypto-Jews, those forced to convert to Catholicism in 15th-century Spain and Portugal. Her forbears were among the secret Jews who fled the Inquisition to become the first settlers of the state of New Mexico. Today she is president of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies, a scholarly group that gathers and exchanges information about Crypto-Jews.

Ask Trujillo if she was surprised to learn of her Jewish roots, and she shakes her head. “It makes sense,” she says. “In church, I never felt connected or comfortable. I never felt I belonged.”

Then there were the strange family stories her mother and aunts used to exchange around the kitchen table. They reminisced about Trujillo’s grandfather, born in Taos, N.M., who set foot in a church only once in his life, on his wedding day. Thereafter, he walked his wife to church but never crossed the threshold. Instead he said his prayers alone at home, in the basement. He always wore his hat indoors.

Trujillo’s grandmother, meanwhile, cleaned house every Friday morning and used different pots and pans for different dishes. When asked why, she would reply, simply, that her mother had done the same. Whenever a relative died, family members used to invert all the mirrors in the deceased’s house.

The stories so fascinated Trujillo that she decided to research her family tree 18 years ago. With her younger sister, Mona, she began perusing microfilm copies of birth and death certificates at historical archives in Colorado and New Mexico. It was during a visit to the New Mexico state archives in Santa Fe in 1987 that she learned the truth.

As Trujillo recalls, she was rattling off some of her forbears’ surnames when a distinguished-looking scholar suddenly looked up from his work. Dr. Stanley Hordes, New Mexico’s former state historian, urgently beckoned Trujillo into an adjoining room. “He said he was researching my mother’s line,” the tax administrator says, “and that there was strong evidence my family was Jewish.”

Four hundred years ago, Hordes told Trujillo, the Inquisition targeted her family and others for the crime of “Judaizing” (secretly practicing Judaism) in the Kingdom of Neuvo Leon in northeastern Mexico. They arrested the governor and burned most of his family at the stake. The remainder of the accused fled north to settle what would become the province of New Mexico in 1598. Their descendants passed down Jewish traditions, knowingly or unknowingly, throughout the generations.

Trujillo, transfixed, eagerly took in the news. “It was one of those moments when everything falls into place,” she says.

But her relatives did not believe the story; even Mona was initially skeptical. “The first words out of my mouth were: ‘That’s impossible! Latinos are Catholic’,” Mona says. Relatives were convinced, however, when the sisters discovered menorahs at a cousin’s home in Sacramento.

Mona, who had also felt like an outsider in church, soon joined Trujillo in an avid search for books on New Mexico, the Inquisition and Sephardic Jewry. The sisters visited Toledo, Spain, to search for records of a 17th-century ancestor who was imprisoned after Inquisitors learned he was circumcised.

Trujillo and her sister also began attending a Conservative synagogue in Alhambra and Introduction to Judaism classes at the home of Rabbi William Gordon. Trujillo underwent a “rite of return” ceremony two years ago, where she received her Hebrew name, Hannah Leah. Both sisters hope to formally convert back to Judaism.

As the holiest day of the Jewish year approached last week, Mona reflected that she has found her place in the world. “I know who I am and where I come from,” she says. “And if I have children, I will raise them Jewish. Part of my heritage was kept from me, because of the events of long ago. I have reclaimed my roots.”