Coming Back to Judaism
by Sonya Loya
I was born to Catholic
parents in Alpine, Texas, in 1960, and
I was raised as a Roman Catholic in
the remote mountains of Ruidoso,
New Mexico. I never felt a connection
to Catholicism, however, and
after becoming increasingly alienated from
it I left the church formally when I was 18.
I had always been drawn to Judaism, and
in 1996 I started practicing on my own,
basing my actions on any information I could
find. I did not know how to light Shabbat
candles – or did I? I remembered lighting candles
with my maternal grandmother when
I was a child, but then I did not know that
it was a Jewish practice.
In 1999 I went to a messianic conference
in Glorietta, New Mexico. The conference
was for Christians who believe in Jesus as the
messiah but follow some Jewish practices;
I went because I thought that it had something
to do with Judaism. The many Hispanics
wearing tallitot and kippot made me
wonder if they also were checking this Jewish
thing out. The service was all in Hebrew,
and something interesting happened to me
when I heard the prayer Mi Chamochah.
The words came out of my mouth as if I
had sung them my whole life. How could this
be, I wondered. I had never heard those words
before and I did not know any Hebrew.
A woman began asking about my family –
what our last names were, what our traditions
were, and so on. Annoyed, I asked why she
was asking so many questions. She answered,
“I think you are descended from marranos.”
Marrano means pig; I knew that much but
no more. I asked her to repeat herself and she
did, so I asked if she was calling me a pig.
“Those are fighting words,” I thought. “No,
no, marrano is a historical term,” she said.
“From what you have told me, it sounds
like your family was Jewish. That’s why you
are here. That’s why you are drawn to
Judaism.” She told me about a Vatican website
that listed more than 10,000 names from
its archives, all victims of the Spanish Inquisition.
The website also included a vague letter
I looked at the website, and it spurred
my interest in genealogy. I asked my parents
for a complete list of family names, going
back to my great great grandparents, and I
found that all the names on my family’s list
appeared on the Vatican list as well.
For the first time in my life, I had some
reason for my love for Jews and Judaism.
Since 1999, when it first released the website,
the Vatican has kept adding names from
its archives. There are now more than 40,000
names from the many places around the world
where the Catholic church authorized the
In 2004 I opened Bat-Tzion Hebrew Learning
Center in Ruidoso. That center, which
closed in 2010, was a place where people like
me, born Catholic, who were leaving the church
and feeling a pull to Judaism, could transition
from Jesus to God; where they could learn
Jewish history and how to perform basic Jewish
rituals, to celebrate holidays, and to prepare
for conversion. Before it opened, I went to
my parents’ home to ask for their blessing.
It was that night that my father let me read
him a verse from Isaiah 58:6-14. That’s the
haftarah we read on Yom Kippur morning;
those were the words by which I was living.
“Is this not the fast I have chosen for you, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, bring
the outcast into your house,” I read. I knew
that it was time for me to repair a breach
in my family that had lasted for many generations.
I did not know exactly what the
verses meant, but my instinct told me it was
something I had to follow. After I read them,
my father gave me his blessing – and then
he told me that he had known since he was
6 years old that he was a Jew.
Amazed, I asked him why he was telling
me this now. After all, I’d been telling him
that I thought we were Jewish for a long time,
and he had kept silent. He shrugged his shoulders
and said “I was told that we were Catholic
now, and that we had to keep being Jewish
secret.” And he had kept it secret to that day;
he had told this truth only to my mother and
It was Dr. Stanley Hordes who helped
me understand why my father had kept his
secret for so long. Dr. Hordes, a former New
Mexico state historian, teaches history at the
state university in Albuquerque. He is one of
the founders of the Society for Crypto-
Judaism Studies and the author of To the Ends
of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews
of New Mexico.
The first Jews to come to New Mexico had
fled the Inquisition, but it followed them
to the New World; it did not end formally
until 1912, when New Mexico became a state.
All my grandparents had been born by then.
My dad was born in 1938. A few of his uncles
were in the U.S. Army during World War
II, and they helped liberate the concentration
camps. When they came home they told
my great grandmother that it still was not safe
to be a Jew.
My father’s uncles described some of the horrors
they had seen and that they had recognized
our family names in the camps. Then, to keep
the family safe, they swore my father, who
was still a boy, to secrecy about their Jewish roots.
Dr. Hordes asked me if my parents would
be willing to take a DNA test. They were.
The day I got the results from my dad’s DNA
test, Dr. Hordes gave me some information
on my last name. Loya is a town in the diocese
of Pamplona, which is in the Spanish
province of Navarre. There was a Jewish community
there that was known to have many
people who claimed to be Levites, and it
had many artists. My father’s DNA had several
markers common to Levites.
Two days later a friend who did not know
about my family research sent me The Glass
Makers, a book by Samuel Kurinsky about
Jews and this craft (or art). I am a glassmaker.
Somehow the pieces of my puzzle were coming
When I met Rabbi Stephen A. Leon of
Congregation B’nai Zion in El Paso, Texas,
my connections to the Jewish community
became even stronger, as we realized that
we had the same vision and hopes for b’nai
anousim – the descendants of forced converts.
(B’nai anousim is a much less insulting term
than marranos.) We joined forces, and I completed
my conversion and became a Conservative
Jew on Chanukah 2005.
When I planned the first anousim conference
at Bat-Tzion I never dreamed that
eight years later we would be holding the
annual conference in Israel, but we did. Rabbi
Leon fulfilled a long-held dream when he
took a group of anousim to the Kotel for Tisha
b’Av, a day that he feels should honor the victims
of the Spanish Inquisition.
During that conference, I found more
information about my family at Beth Hatefutsoth,
the diaspora museum in Tel Aviv.
During the 17th century, I learned, Meir
de Loya was a prominent rabbi in Marrakech,
Morocco; Isaac de Loya, who died in 1711,
was chief rabbi and head of the rabbinical
court in Marrakech; and during the 19th century
Judah Ben Mordekhay de Loya was a
rabbi in Marrakech as well. I also found 15
Loya families in Tel Aviv, and I learned that
there is an ancient synagogue in Tiberius
name in my family is Robles – my
maternal great grandmother was Sipriana Robles.
A few years ago I found Inquisition records
about Juan Robles, who was one of eight
glassmakers the Inquisition burned to death
in Spain in 1535. I hope that one day I will
connect all the dots in my family tree.
This year I remarried. Our wedding was
held at a Sephardic courtyard in Jerusalem’s
Old City. It gave me a sense of justice and was
very healing to my soul as we set up our chuppah
in front of the picture of Ferdinand and
Isabella that hangs on the museum wall.
We are still here, and they are not.
Sonya Loya lives in New Mexico, where she
is an artist, reflexologist, aroma therapist, educator
for Road Scholars, columnist for the Jewish
Link, and an activist for the anousim